When we look back at the sci-fi films involving aliens of the 50’s they seemed really silly. The bad special effects, the terrible costumes, and the worst acting. Few exceeded their reach, like “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and “Invasions of the Body Snatchers”. Most were simple and somewhat ridiculous plots of aliens taking over the world, one suburb at a time. The 60’s brought change from fear of space monsters to fear of man destroying the world. With tons of ‘end of the world’ scenarios which led to Godzilla and his pals, and other manners of silliness. Yet even in 1968, the same year as “Barbarella” we got “Planet of the Apes” and the most grown-up movie set in space, Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”. And because that may have been too heady for the masses, we still continued to get more damn dirty apes, Omega Men, kaiju’s battling for supremacy, and goofy space sex-comedies. Then as we all know a film in 1977 about a war in the stars changed everything. Still couple of years after “Star Wars” there was still plenty space antics on the big screen, don’t even get me started on “Moonraker”, it then took director Ridley Scott in 1979 to pull an audience into space that had never been there before. The horror fans.
“Alien” which opens not to dissimilar from “Star Wars” with the shot of a huge ship encompassing the vastness of space, to then divert into a “2001” like long slow establishing shot of the sub-like halls of the Nostromo as the crew is awakened from their hyper-sleep by MOTHER the onboard computer, again much like Hal. It’s not too long after that the film switches to a new more fascinating gear when the crew discovers an alien craft on an unknown planet that was not sending out a distress signal but a warning about the creature that eventually ‘face-hugs’ its way aboard the ship. Then you know what happens, the most terrifying dinner scene in history, the crew is picked off one by one by this scary, slimy, H.R. Giger created thing from another world. But the only reason you know that is because every subsequent movie set in space or involving a creature from space after “Alien” mimicked the same formula that was done here so flawlessly. Not even Scott himself could replicate his and Dan O’Bannon’s own genius over 30 years later with “Prometheus”.
“Alien” has the originality that has been ripped off for years, decades even, some with a great deal of success like John Carpenter’s “The Thing”. Though most films could not reach that level that expertly balanced outer space, man, alien, and horror. It did cause filmmakers in the 80’s to up their game with releases like “E.T.”, “Tron”, a few better Star Trek films, “Dune”, “The Last Starfighter”, “Enemy Mine” and the classic sequel to “Alien”, James Cameron’s “Aliens”. When you think about it, space is scary enough, but the combination of horrific monsters attacking you in space, no one could find a way to make it feel as original and scary as “Ailen”.
Even in modern time, the precedent set by Scott’s classic still remains a bar to be reached, and one that many strive for and so few achieve. Think of one that stands out that has that strong female lead, a tight, terrifying, and tense story, the type of gore that makes you squirm in your seat, spaceships, scary unique looking aliens, the faceless greedy corporation that sets everything in motion. Hard to do right? Though like I said, it’s all been done before in one fashion or another, but nothing with the impact that “Alien” had in ’79 was a lone voice in the world of sci-fi film, or if you will, in space where no one can hear you scream.
–Robert L. Castillo