From its stripped back poster design to the invention of the modern horror/sci-fi genre Alien has imbedded itself in modern cinematic history, as a film that truly took cinema into the coldest reaches of space. Combining the emergence of 1970s slasher film with 1950s B-Movies and a stark modern vision of space exploration, its impact as both a horror and science fiction film is undeniably strong.
As a horror film Alien plays with themes found in early slasher films such as 1974s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, especially towards its finale; a single young female, stripped of power, struggling against a relentless killer. However, unlike Texas Chainsaw it also plays into emerging 70s themes of female empowerment and rights, the crew has two strong female leads, and even the controlling system of the ship is named Mother. Weaver gives us a heroine who is strong and resilient in the face of fear, a woman who takes control of her own destiny against insurmountable odds, a statement of female empowerment.
Alien also pays homage to the classic science fiction B-Movies of the 50s, with clear references to the 1956 Invasion of the Bodysnatchers and 1958s IT – The Terror From Beyond Space. Alien Weaves both the emerging slasher film and the B-Movie genre to create a feeling of isolation and terror, where human life hangs in a balance of technology vs the inhospitable vacuum of space. The introduction of a species superior to humanity in this delicate environment not only acts as the equivalent of a clever and sadistic murderer, but also as a symbol of human frailty in the face of environments outside of our control.
The crew of the Nostromo feel genuine throughout, with no one character dominating proceedings; they are all flawed, driven by emotion and a need to comprehend their environment while being equally scared of losing control. Technology on the ship is human made, clunky and functional, prone to the very flaws the human crew portray. The ship acts as a microcosm of humanity, a floating life raft of everything we all hold dear, from security, to our hope in the ingenuity of humankind. The ships very structure and place in the wide and cold reaches of space feels delicate, tense and liable to fail, a feeling transplanted to its crew, who are never truly at ease in the ships operation, only relaxing when eating and drinking together, briefly forgetting the environment they sail within.
Add to this delicate mix an emergency transmission of unknown origin; a planet of strange archeological finds; and finally a species of high intelligence who understands its environment better than its human counterparts, and the result is pure cold terror.
40 years on Alien is still fresh and remarkably undated. Much of this is achieved through a filmmaking process that understood the limitations of effects, the need to build suspense and the risks of revealing too much. Alien uses its stark colour pallet and sound to create a vacuum of isolation and mystery for the viewer, mixing sounds of technology with sounds of nature and organic life to create a truly immersive landscape of the built versus the natural. Jerry Goldsmiths sublime score, plays with the feeling of isolation, journey and apprehension, a symphony of the emptiness of space. Visually Alien uses is stark colour set to further imbed a feeling of fear, with the rich deep earthly colours of the human crew set against the stark clinical white of technology and the silver of the advanced Alien. This is a film that still makes you jump, bite your finger nails and believe in the horrors of space despite its age, making Alien a true masterpiece of modern filmmaking.
A journey into the cold hostility of space that still packs a punch 40 years later, Alien is not only a groundbreaking piece of cinematic art, but also the first and finest example of horror/science fiction ever made.
Alien is playing now at the BFI Southbank with selected cinema showings across the UK in March.