I watched Ridley Scott’s Alien for the first time in a few years a couple of months ago. I sat there in front of my average-sized television set, viewing it on a grainy and not particularly spectacular VHS version of the film that didn’t come close to the theater experience. Despite the less-than-ideal ambiance and although I’d seen the movie several times over the years, I was still scared more by the presence of the Queen than I have been from any movie, except maybe the original take on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. So along comes a theatrical release of Scott’s masterpiece. I’m there the first chance I get. And within minutes I was reminded once again that fear doesn’t always stem from surprises.
Fear is created by the unfamiliar or the expectation of such. Scott gets you comfortable by repeating simple sounds over and over again so that they become a part of the comfortable environment. Dripping, tapping or ticking clocks are such examples of isolated sounds that often replace a musical soundtrack. And just as I’m getting comfortable in my seat, a sudden burst of a loud shrill breaks the familiarity and sends my heart flying. It’s not the murderous alien that genuinely frightens me, but rather its initial appearances in individual scenes. Yes, I know its coming since I’ve seen it before, but Scott still gets me in that comfortable lull with his set up.
But the scares wouldn’t be nearly as affective if it weren’t for other parts of the film as well. Begin with the location. The sets are for the most part confined within the walls of an in-flight mining spaceship. Upon answering a call for help, a deadly extra terrestrial gets on board and starts to terrorize the ship’s crew, knocking them off one by one. Because they’re in space, the crew has nowhere to go as any measure of human life is literally years away. So they’re trapped and left to fend for themselves against an unknown enemy in a maze of steel and wires. Alien is about industrial as you can get with the look of a film. The ship’s crew are a motley mix of scruffy workers and scientists in their overalls. And why worry about what they look like? They’re on the ship for one reason and that’s to make money. Why even attempt to look good when everyone else is far, far away?
Sigourney Weaver fits in as though she were one of the guys. She’s right in there kicking some alien butt when need be and coming up with potential solutions on how they might survive. Scott doesn’t draw attention to the fact that his main character is female. She’s human, like the other men on board and as such doesn’t need any special attention. But that in itself commands notice when you’re talking about a piece of genre where heroes are for the most part buff men with chiseled chests and matching biceps. But Weaver’s Ripley is just as tough as any of the other men and not nearly as big. There’s a point of vulnerability in the film where Ripley is wearing nothing but her underwear. You see her and she’s not your average hero. And although Scott doesn’t use Alien as a platform to make a grand political statement about the role of females in hero roles, he is making one simply by making Ripley an equal.
Even after all these years Alien is still one scary movie. Although I’ve seen it a few times, Scott can still get me to jump in all the same spots by putting me almost on edge and then throwing me overboard with a small but loud hiss or from something that leaps out of the darkness. And when its within the confines of a film where there’s a screen of some sort between you and the monster under the bed, these are frights I don’t mind coming back to over and over again, even though I can imagine Scott sitting back somewhere laughing at me snickering, “Ha, got you again.”