Alien aesthetics

Since public discourse around video games has become a real shitshow these past few days, let’s talk about something else.

I’m currently in the process of trying to lose a bunch of the weight that I had lost a few years back but gained back in the final stressful, frustrating, depressing year of 1UP. Since it worked so well for me last time, I’m spending a lot of time on my elliptical machine. And, as ever, my PlayStation 3 continues to function very rarely as a game machine yet daily as a Blu-ray player. I’m working my way alphabetically through my Blu-ray collection (because, well, why not?); having recently watched 2001, that puts me at the Alien Anthology.

Remember, kids: “Quadrilogy” is not a real word, it’s something Fox made up because they thought you were too stupid to deal with the word tetralogy.


The original Alien has long been one of my favorite movies, and the director’s cut a few years back (unlike the draggy, suspense-destroying Aliens director’s cut) made it even better. I realize most people prefer Aliens to Alien, and that’s fine — it’s a perfect reworking of the original film’s concepts to suit its times. But it also feels more movie-like. Less authentic. Alien feels profoundly real despite its sci-fi premise and sometimes clumsy effects (the HD transfer of the Blu-ray makes it even worse when you can see things like the safety wire on Kane as he tumbles into the egg pit).

Part of what gives Alien its authenticity is Ridley Scott’s insistence on naturalistic dialogue. The dialogue is supposedly partially improvised, and lines overlap and run together and feel like real conversations by people who simultaneously like and hate each other without ever being confusing or leaving the story too ambiguous. It’s an approach I wouldn’t mind seeing more often. Sometimes it’s fun to watch a movie where everyone’s impossibly clever or poetic, like Juno or Moonrise Kingdom — they’re stylized, and that’s great. But I could do with a little more mumbling and visible neuroses, you know?

What really sells the movie, though, is how neatly it combines the aesthetics of the two biggest sci-fi films to have come before it: 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars. Alien is set almost entirely on a single spacecraft, much the way 2001 is, and in certain areas (namely the MU-TH-R computer chamber) it wears the stark, antiseptic look of 2001‘s sets. It also emulates a lot of 2001‘s almost procedural approach to treating the “science” in “science fiction” with respect, going into exacting care to depict the frailty and tension of deep-space operations like waking from cold sleep and docking a shuttlecraft.

And yet, for the most part, the film emulates the visual feel of Star Wars — the “lived-in” universe. What makes Alien interesting is that it doesn’t use this style to make Alien feel more like a convincing other world but rather a convincing version of our own world’s future. The Nostromo‘s crew are basically space truckers, highly skilled yet blue collar workmen scrabbling for a living wage as they haul a 20-million-ton combination cargo ship/refinery through the void. The Nostromo has its share of sophisticated tech (accounting for the fact that set designers in 1979 couldn’t really foresee the direction computer technology would go over the following 30 years, of course) but it also feels rugged, mechanical, basic. Hallways double as conduits for pipes, hydraulics rupture, the heat of the smelters creates condensation that drips into the storage and cargo areas.

Alien works so effectively because it goes to painstaking lengths to make everything about its far-flung future feel real, even mundane. The growing intrusion of the uncanny in the film’s second half — the fossilized alien space jockey, the light-emitting mist, and ultimately the bio-organic marauder that takes out the crew one at a time — feels all the more jarring and upsetting because it feels so out of place in the drab, rust-colored microcosm of punch-card routine that is the Nostromo. And as the crew struggles and fails to overcome the invader, you understand that they’re not hyper-competent warriors armed to the teeth but rather a bunch of blue collar astronauts using the best of their know-how to cobble together whatever devices they can find at hand into weapons. They’re just like us, facing a nightmarish creature from another world.

Ultimately, Alien slots neatly into the horror genre despite its sci-fi patina. And despite its deep-space setting, it’s one of the most convincing horror films I’ve ever seen, because it feels so real and down-to-earth. I intend to watch several current theatrical releases this weekend, and I’m sure I’ll enjoy them for what they are. But I can’t imagine I’ll enjoy any of them nearly as much as I do Alien. It’s truly one of a kind… despite being the first in a lengthy series. Now, that’s a real crime right there.

13 thoughts on “Alien aesthetics

  1. I definitely prefer Alien to Aliens, though I still can’t help but quote Bill Paxton lines when the situation presents itself. Will we be seeing Blade Runner once you make it out of the letter A?

  2. I never understood the love for Aliens, but then, I’ve never understood how people could sit through most of Cameron’s films. You really hit the nail on the head in regards to Alien, though – it’s a near perfect film, for what it is, except for that eye-rolling twist at the end involving the cat. Talk about “feeling movie-like” – there’s even a series of screenwriting books, “Save the Cat!” based on (tongue-in-cheek, presumably) that insipid sort of narrative device.

  3. I remember watching the director’s cut of Aliens, and I think they lengthened the ending when they encounter the queen. It was so long I fell asleep and I felt as if I had slept 24 hours and woke up while Ripley was still being chased by the queen.

    • The real problem with the Aliens DC is that it shows Newt’s family finding the eggs and destroys the build-up and mystery.

  4. By pointing out the overlapping, improvised dialogue I’m now forced to imagine Alien directed by Robert Altman and it’s shorting out my brainmeat.

  5. I was lucky enough to see a rerun of Alien at the cinema recently. It had been a couple of years since I had last seen it. What really stuck with me this time is how uncertain landing on the planet was. The cast portray the fear of landing on an unknown planet really well, from talking about it through to the landing scene itself.

  6. I also think Alien is the best of the “Quadrilogy” (+ Prometheus). As you mentioned, a big part of it is how the futuristic set design & the dialogue feel very natural & just normal. Other scifi movie might overemphasize either the Sci-part (“This is how the future will look like. And thus this will inform the movie”) or the Fi-part (“Look at the crazy things we can create using the scifi setting as an excuse. The movie will inform the setting”). Not that things are ever really done in such absolutes. Or that any particular style of set design is automatically better than the other, since 2001 represent the epitome of scientific scifi, and Star Wars at the other end with fantastical scifi. Both are obviously great. But Alien is still my preferred of these 3 movies.

    Or maybe I just like Metroid a lot.

  7. When I was a kid my parents had the same coffee grinder the Nostromo had. Which in hindsight is a pretty nifty looking coffee grinder.

  8. Alien is by far one of the best sci-fi movies, because, as you say Jeremy, it feels real. Aliens appeals to most of our generation because we were teens when it came out and thus all the action turned us on (not unlike 13 year olds obsessed with FPS today) Alien 3 is one of the most unfairly maligned movies. It fits so perfectly into the Alien universe established by the 1st two and is a beautiful ending to what ultimately is Ripley’s story. It is a tragic story told in 3 parts. it should have ended there.

    I would love it if you revisit all the late 70’s early 80’s sci-fi and see what made them tick. Silent Running, Blade Runner, 2001, Outland, Black Hole, Escape from NY etc. Then compare/contrast with contemporary fare (of which only Solaris holds up IMHO)

    As another project it would be great to explore Dune and see why it’s so damned near impossible to get that universe right on film.

    • Messy and often dumb, but reasonably entertaining. Curious to see what they have in mind for a sequel.

  9. I really love the fashion in Alien. Especially Ripley’s shoes(I think some others who aren’t Lambert wear them, too)! They look like really beefy Chuck Taylor’s since they have a real thick and boot-like tread on the bottom and attached eyelets.

    I saw the ‘Director’s Cut’ in 2009 and just recently saw the original cut for the first time a few weeks ago as a part of a movie chain’s Wednesday Classics Series. Although I couldn’t find many differences, I think I preferred the theatrical cut since an additional scene added back in kind of breaks up the flow a bit during the escape scene.

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