Alien has been a victim of its success: the fantastic 1979 movie is now almost impossible to detach from the wildly popular brand it spawned. Despite the fact that the alien doesn’t appear in the first third of the film and even thereafter is rarely seen, we’re tempted as viewers to unduly focus to the sections with the alien or project the alien’s ‘lore’ (mostly established in Aliens and subsequent material) on to the film’s monster. Alien’s greatness doesn’t lie solely or even mostly in its monster, though. Much of its eeriness is due to the message which pervades the film: space is empty and humans are small.
Alien opens with a long take slowly panning across space and, from a distance, a planet (presumably the planet they land on later). The title for the film appears stroke by stroke as the camera moves and strange music becomes gradually more intense. As this fades the Nostromo comes into view floating through space. Inside, the rest of the opening is taken up with shots of the Nostromo’s instruments and its computers printing data. The only noise aside from the instruments is the hum of the Nostromo moving. By modern standards it is a glacial opening, but it establishes firmly that the crew of the Nostromo are utterly isolated. There are no passing ships in Alien, no lights except for the stars and no civilization. This remoteness is deftly handled so it is in itself creepy: undoubtedly ominous music plays as the Nostromo appears and even the very quietness when we finally view it from the inside is eerie since it appears deserted. Shots of space reoccur very frequently in Alien and cuts between the humans in conversation and the exterior of the Nostromo are a regular fixture. Even during the action of the final minutes, Ripley’s movement through the bridge is interrupted by a long shot from outside which looks dead on at the ship through its front windows. The noises of Ripley moving about are temporarily replaced with that regular hum from the ship. In Alien, then, it’s clear that the monster is not the only thing to be feared in the film: the eerie, uncaring environment is ultimately also rendered in a sinister light.
In Alien, the crew members are not explorers, adventurers or experts. With the exception of Ash they’re workers hired to make a delivery. Most conversations are about their pay, food and what they’ll do when they reach home. Critically, they’re all totally disinterested in space. Parker asks that his bonus situation be cleared up before they go to answer the distress signal. As a consequence of this disinterest, space in Alien has no wonder attached to it. At best it’s an obstacle to be traversed for a wage and at worst (as in the opening) it’s a subtly sinister emptiness which surrounds the Nostromo. There are no beautiful nebulas in Alien, no named planets or stars and no indication of where the Nostromo is except ‘away.’ The crew do not name the planet they visit nor the alien they encounter. Even in the film’s credits it is still an ‘alien’ in single inverted commas, suggesting finally that it is not a proper noun.
The scenes which take place on the alien world have been thoroughly combed by fans and filmmakers alike for pieces of lore or inspiration. They’re well known, but rarely viewed in a context other than a strange place where the alien is discovered. Ridley Scott’s recent film Prometheus was quickly linked to the Alien franchise by fans because of the resemblance between the seated figure in the crashed ship and one seen in Prometheus promotional material. As best we can, though, its valuable to view these scenes without the emphasis the since-expanded Alien universe has placed on them. Rather than diminishing the spaceship interiors, this viewing heightens the tension and the weirdness. I have mentioned that there are figures in both Alien and Prometheus ‘seated’ in the spaceship but this isn’t truly accurate in the case of Alien. It’s unclear where the seat ends and the figure begins. They seem to be one being since raised horizontal lines continue from the creature’s chest beyond the back of its arms to the ‘seat.’ Thus when the camera briefly moves close to what appears to be the creature’s head and momentarily lingers there’s a great deal of ambiguity since the audience doesn’t fully understand what they’re looking at, much less anything about it. The shots are a magnificent example of something the film at large achieves: a sense of the genuinely alien. We are not looking at simply a being from another planet but something incredibly totally strange which is first of all difficult to comprehend and secondly scary because of its weirdness.
The seated creature is, of course, enormous. It dwarfs the humans, who can put their whole hand through the hole in its rib. The rooms of the ship, too, are much larger than the humans who explore it. Even how it would be traversed by its crew is unclear since the only way to get to the chamber containing the alien eggs is a long drop. The scale of the sets here then is an excellent method of communicating the comparative smallness and fragility of humans as well as making the audience understand its alien nature. Most films with aliens are content to colour humans a new shade and adjust either human cultures or stereotypes of human cultures to create their civilization. Alien comprehensively rejects this approach. The glimpse into this ship effectively signal that we have little or nothing in common with the beings who occupied it. Its aesthetics are unrecognisable, its scale is immense and the shots within it are of course constructed to maximise our confusion about who used the ship. Lingering shots on the head of the creature, for instance, instil terror rather than wonder at the unknown.