Ridley Scott’s 1979 science fiction film, Alien, is one of the great horror films of all time. It is a masterclass in setting a mood and of seemingly effortless world building. The dimly lit hallways of the Nostromo and the eerie surface of LV-426 create the perfect setting of claustrophobic terror and yet establish what would become the basis for the the world of the Alien films, such as the mysterious remains of what was initially called the “Space Jockey” and the treacherous corporation, Weyland-Yutani. Alien is scary but also manages to be a great work of science fiction.
What I want to explore is the nature of Alien’s horror, and why it is rooted firmly in the science fiction genre even if the film itself utilizes the filmmaking tropes of horror as well as any slasher film. On the face of it Alien appears to be a variation on the slasher film, as seven people are trapped in an isolated locale with an unstoppable killer: in this case the locale is an immense spaceship, and the killer is a “perfect” alien organism, the xenomorph. But if that were all it was, the horror of Alien wouldn’t linger the way it does. It wouldn’t go beyond jump scares and gore and so deeply disquiet and instill dread the way it does.
Let me suggest that the deeper horror of Alien is a merging of two disparate terrors that science fiction is uniquely suited to exploring: cosmic horror works against the utopian notions of technological progress in much of science fiction, expressing a fear born of a disquieting knowledge that human beings are insignificant and tiny in the scope of things; this is best exemplified in the work of H.P. Lovecraft, where discovery reveals a sublime, and awful (literally “full of awe”) reality. The other terror Alien evokes is body horror, a terror at the fragility of the fleshy bodies that tether us to existence, to our internal unknown; but also a terror at the increasingly porous and tenuous boundary of these bodies in a technological age, in which the flesh is potentially an other that can have power over us. Alien brings these two kinds of horror together so that one emerges naturally from the other. The cosmic terror at the unstoppable xenomorph only reinforces the biological imperative, and how immensely unsuited human beings are to space travel. Rather than seeming incongruous, the cosmic and the intimate are brought together seamlessly.
The cosmic horror of Alien is rooted in the sense the film creates in which human beings are both insignificant and helpless. The works of H.P. Lovecraft, which for my purposes are the most important works of cosmic horror, have their fingerprints all over the series, but especially the first film (and the 2012 “prequel” film Prometheus). In Lovecraft’s tales of cosmic horror, scientific discovery leads not to progress and human advancement, but rather, as the author wrote in his most famous short story, “The Call of Cthulhu,” the notion that “some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.” In cosmic horror there is no divine purpose guiding human beings, and human beings are ultimately insignificant in the grand scheme of things; furthermore, there is no hope of combating it, no Romantic last stand or hero to fight against it. As Lovecraft wrote, you either run or you will go mad.
In Alien this is primarily expressed in two sequences. The first is the sequence featuring the discovery of a vessel transmitting from the surface of LV-426 and Dallas, Lambert, and Kane’s voyage to it. It’s a sequence of terrifying beauty and awe. As terrifying as this vision of first contact is, the crashed, horseshoe shaped vessel draws both the viewer and the characters in. As Kane responds when Lambert voices her disquiet, “we must go on!” Even if it terrifies, the unknown draws us in. Fear and wonder exist on a continuum here. Eventually when the characters explore the vessel and penetrate its heart, the camera treats us to a crane shot back and up, revealing the dessicated and ancient body of the Space Jockey and how small the characters seem next to it. First contact is strange and awe-inspiring, but also terrifying. The sublime generates the awfulness that characterizes the mixing of beauty and terror.
The second sequence that neatly underlines the cosmic horror aspects of the film is when the xenomorph has already dispatched Dallas and Brett after emerging from Kane’s body during a meal (more on that in a moment), and the science officer Ash is revealed to have been an android the entire time. Ripley and Parker subdue Ash after discovering that his loyalties lie with Weyland-Yutani and that he is intent on bringing “the specimen” back even at the expense of the crew. Ripley interrogates Ash’s disembodied head, probing him for information, wherein Ash expresses his admiration for the creature. “Perfect organism,” he remarks, “Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility….A survivor, unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.” This sums up why the xenomorph is an exemplary of cosmic horror. Its very existence defies the notions of good and evil that normally categorize horror films. It reveals the fragility and tenuousness of human values: a terrifying and disquieting concept.
Yet Alien is not merely cosmic, detached and indifferent to humanity. It is also visceral and leaves one with a disturbing vision of bodily violation. This is the body horror aspect of the film. Rather, the existence and mode of the xenomorph’s life cycle is parasitic, relying on human bodies to perpetuate itself. The horror in this case literally emerges from within, unannounced and destructive. This vision of our own human bodies being the root of a sense of horror and dread can be often seen in the films of David Cronenberg, such as Videodrome (1983) or The Fly (1986). But Alien manages to tie this sense to a cosmic indifference, marking the source of that indifference as deeply intimate.
The iconic scene that exemplifies this is the dinner scene when the chestburster emerges from Kane’s body, suddenly and gruesomely. Kane, who had seemed fine a moment before, quickly becomes the source of a horror that had been gestating inside him for daring to look inside the eggs in the vessel on LV-426. It’s a shocking moment, still gory and effective, both in the performances and the special effects (the rumour is that the cast, apart from John Hurt who plays Kane, were not aware of what was going to happen in the scene; this is partly true, as they were given the basics, but not the details. For instance, Veronica Cartwright (Lambert) did not expect to be sprayed with blood). It is perhaps the singular iconic moment in the film.
However, the entire lifecycle of the xenomorph is based on the violation of human bodily integrity. Not only is it parasitic, but the facehugger implantation of a parasite inside the host can be seen as a kind of oral rape. The chestburster is a kind of nightmarish birth scenario. Finally, the predatory mature xenomorph and it’s phallic skull and penetrating secondary jaw furthers the theme of sexual violence. This is contrasted with eggs that are strangely vulvic in their opening, mixing sexual and gendered characteristics in uncanny ways. The xenomorph represents aspects of our human reproductive and sexual behaviour that are both nightmarish and taboo. In this way, the xenomorph is both radically other but also far too familiar.
Alien remains immensely watchable and still terrifying not simply because it has some good jump scares and good special effects, but rather because it taps into primal fears of the cosmic unknown and our own intimate unknowns of our own bodies. Science fiction horror has rarely emerged so naturally from a film’s narrative, thematic, and design elements. For this reason, Alien will continue to be watched for years to come, at Halloween and whenever humans feel compelled to contemplate their place in the cosmos and how utterly fragile and strange our fleshy bodies are that make that contemplation possible.
Alien (1979, UK/USA)
Directed by Ridley Scott; story by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett; screenplay by Dan O’Bannon; starring Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, John Hurt, Veronica Cartwright, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto, Harry Dean Stanton.