[The following is an excerpt from script of my video analysis on the tension and dread in Ridley Scott’s sci-fi horror masterpiece. Be sure to watch the video above for a better understanding.]
In modern horror cinema, directors and studios feel the need to start their movies with “exciting” scenes that are either heavy on violence or filled with jump scares. However, Ridley Scott devotes the entire first act of Alien to establishing the setting and the characters. In the first 5 minutes, the camera slowly explores the entire Nostromo, showing where the action is going to take place, while also setting a tone full of dread thanks to Jerry Goldsmith’s understated musical score and to the narrow and dark corridors.
In a horror movie, if you do not care about the characters, you are not invested into the story, therefore there is barely any tension. Instead of resorting to expository dialogue and one-dimensional characters, screenwriter Dan O’Bannon creates human characters that are not stereotypes, but rather believable human beings that react in both rational and irrational ways. You understand who they are and what their role on the ship is without needing forced backstories that add nothing to the characters.
Once we have met all the characters and the tone has been set, we get on with the story, which is kept simple and straightforward: the Nostromo detects a signal coming from a planet, the crew goes to investigate, and one of the members gets an organism attached to his face. You do not know what that creature is, you do not know what is happening nor what is going to happen, so you start being as afraid as the crew members, who do everything they can to save their companion. After a while, the creature just dies and everything seems back to normal. You feel relieved, glad that whatever that thing was is now dead, and our heroes are ready to go back in stasis. But there is still an hour left into the movie, and so we get to the infamous last meal.
We believe that the worst is past, but we quickly find out that what looks like food choking is actually the unwanted birth of an alien creature. Unlike other horror movies where it is usually a vulnerable female character to get attacked, here it is a man who metaphorically suffers the same fate of thousands of rape victims. There is no way to protect yourself from this, and your fate is sealed. Seeing the chestburster come out of John Hurt is shocking, unexpected and very real-looking thanks to the excellent practical effects.
From this point onward, everyone in the ship could die at any moment, for the creature is lurking everywhere. There is also one of the better uses of a jump scare: we have all been led to believe that Captain Dallas is the main character of the movie (I mean, it’s Tom Skerritt after all), so we cannot believe that he gets taken by the creature even though he is fully armed with a flamethrower. The Xenomorph is such a great villain because he is an animal, only looking to kill everyone he finds, moved by instincts instead than rationality, seemingly invincible.
These are just some of the reasons why Alien has been such an influential movie for many generations of filmmakers: with clever editing and cinematography, characters that you care about, dread and eeriness that are constantly being built up from the beginning, smart use of violence, stellar set design, and a memorable creature that you do not see much of, Ridley Scott has created a timeless horror movie that will keep you thrilled every time you watch it.