Ah, the 1970s, or at least the tail end of that decade. When Alien (1979) premiered, it was a mere two years after arguably the granddaddy of all cinematic franchises, Star Wars, made its debut. If you think cinema attendance is bad today, take a look at the numbers from the advent of television to 1977 when Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope came out. Suddenly, the tales of a galaxy far, far away re-energized people to the escape that is going to the movies. As for Alien, one could say that it fits within the scope of a renewed interest in space kicked off by Hollywood, and the new space shuttle program then beginning to take people to space more regularly. Along with advances in filming techniques, suddenly productions about life in the stars did not have to be relegated to the hokeyness of Buck Rogers or the Star Trek television series, although Star Trek: The Motion Picture also came to theaters in the same year as Alien. These new productions, helped by looking more real, presented space travel in a matter-of-fact manner, making the future seem tantalizingly close. Alien is perhaps the most pertinent, and frightening, example of this phenomenon.
Speaking of being matter-of-fact, Alien begins with an opening scrawl stating the Nostromo’s purpose. The Nostromo is a long-distance space freighter hauling ore from a distant part of the galaxy back to Earth. Its crew are essentially truck drivers, and the film takes pains to present the characters in this manner. It also emphasizes how vast, empty, and quiet is space. Because of the innumerable miles between where they have been and where they are going, the ship’s crew spend most of their time in hibernation chambers. By time, I mean years. In the Alien-universe, there is no such thing as light or warp speed. They cruise the stars at roughly the same pace as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) probe Voyager II. For perspective, it launched from Earth in 1977 and only recently reached interstellar space, meaning the area between stars. When the Nostromo’s crew is awakened, they believe they are close to home and, perhaps more importantly, their paychecks. However, it soon becomes apparent that they have emerged from their slumber months away from Earth (okay, so maybe a little faster than Voyager 2) with a new mission to investigate what the ship’s computer, Mother (voiced by Helen Horton), tells them is a distress signal coming from a nearby planet. After a bumpy landing, three crew members step out in spacesuits to investigate the source of the signal. What they find is an alien looking ship. Their explorations of it shows signs of life, both dead and living. The living kind is encountered by Kane (John Hurt). While taking a closer look at an egg-like growth on a lower deck, it suddenly pops open and from it springs a creature that latches onto his face. The other two bring him back, and initially the third officer, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), will not let them back aboard, citing safety and quarantine protocols. Her decision is subverted when the science officer, Ash (Ian Holm), lets the others in by opening the airlock. Ash works to carefully remove Kane’s spacesuit, but the creature maintains an apparent death grip. When they try to cut it off, they discover that it also has acid for blood, which leaks through several decks before stopping. In case the danger of this is not obvious, you do not want holes, of any size, in your spaceship. With seemingly nothing else to do, Ash monitors the situation and the rest of the crew tries to carry on with their duties. Not long after, though, the face-hugger comes off of its own accord and dies, leaving a seemingly perfectly healthy Kane. What happens next suggests otherwise. In the middle of a celebratory meal, Kane begins convulsing, and from his chest bursts a new creature. It is tiny, for the moment, but takes one look around the room before zooming away. Not wanting to take any new threat lightly, the crew splits up to find the monster that killed Kane. It rather quickly metastasizes, taking on the proportions of a slightly larger than normal sized man, albeit with deadly claws, two mouths full of sharp, snapping teeth, a long whipping tail, and an elongated head. Something very alien looking, in other words. One-by-one, it begins killing the rest of the crew until only Ripley and her cat, Jones, remain. Ripley then makes the decision to make her way to an escape shuttle and blow up the ship behind her, thinking that the only sure way of getting rid of the alien. Her plan almost succeeds, too, until she realizes that it has stowed away on the shuttle. When she does, she manages to slip into a spacesuit and eject it into space. It is a close call, but Ripley and Jones survive, going back to sleep as the shuttle drifts through space.
Alien is clearly science fiction, unless the government is truly lying to us. . . . Anyway, what emerges is a critique of corporations and their directives. When the crew first wakes up, one of the first things they talk about, as employees in breakrooms across the country are wont to do, is how underpaid they feel. This is magnified when their company’s policy states that they have to investigate the distress signal, which is actually later translated to be a warning. Who among us has not been counting down the minutes at the end of a long shift, only to be given one last seemingly pointless task before we are able to go home? Thankfully, these usually do not end with our gruesome deaths, or at least I hope that is not the case. Another way the film looks critically at corporate policy is in the name of the ship’s computer, Mother. People of certain political persuasions often look at the state in the same way the movie presents the company, as a sort of overbearing parent, more colloquially known as the “nanny state.” Mother is plugged into the company’s true intentions, and it is only after a great deal of coaxing and begging does the true picture emerge. The alien lifeform was their true mission, and they were to bring it back to Earth alive. In fulfilling this goal, the crew is expendable. Not only is Mother an impersonal representative of the company, but its perceived evil is given a literal face in the form of Ash. Do not forget that it is he who let Kane back onto the ship. From there, his actions are geared more towards ensuring the alien’s survival than his crewmates. He can act so coldly because he is an android, something the others did not know until Ash goes haywire and tries to kill Ripley. As such, Ripley’s initiation of the ship’s self-destruct is a symbolic middle finger to everything their employers had done to them.
One of the things I appreciate about Alien as a Catholic is the way Ripley cares for her cat. Though the alien seems uninterested in harming it, Ripley nonetheless goes to great lengths to protect Jones. The more cynical among us might watch this and lament her literally risking her life for an animal. Still, it works for her character because she demonstrates a concern for the animal throughout the film. We are all God’s creations, you know, and we as the ones particularly blessed with cognition have a duty to protect the defenseless. It also goes deeper than sticking your neck out for a pet. St. Francis of Assisi, my patron saint, once gave an entire sermon to a flock of birds who, instead of flying off, listened patiently to his message. At another time in his life, he released a rabbit from a trap with a warning about being more careful. Instead of scurrying away, the rodent hopped into his lap. Because of moments like these, and others, St. Francis of Assisi became the patron saint of animals, and on October 4th, his feast day, many parishes have people bring in their pets to be blessed. It initiated a care for all animals that has been a charism of the Catholic Church to this day. It is also part of the reason why I do not like to see cats, dogs, or other pets harmed in movies. So, way to go Ripley.
If you have not seen Alien before, be prepared for a slow-moving film, that is until the alien reaches its full size and now the crew must fight for their survival. Then it becomes the true horror film that it is, though not quite as gory as you might expect. There is a fair amount of swearing and some brief nudity. I am not sure why they had to show Ripley stripping down to her underwear at the end. Regardless, if you want a creepy movie set in space, I recommend this one.