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What Makes Alien A Masterpiece?

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What a film. What a bizarre film. What an artistically crafted bizarre film. What a beautifully artistically crafted bizarre film we have here.

This is another one of those films that does not need an introduction. It is so well known that people will even recognise the tag-line for it: “In space no one can hear you scream.” At what particular level is Alien so successful that it has withstood the test of time? Is it the delectable set design and special effects? Is it the spot on casting? The creation of an extraordinarily terrifying monster? The undertones? The overtones? The atmospheric terror it boasts? Not one of these can really be called the epitome of the film’s success; they all work together to bring us the film we know and love today.

When the mining ship the Nostromo receives an SOS transmission, they go to investigate it and discover a mysterious planet with strange life forms. One of the crew members is attacked by the life form and brings it aboard the ship, only to cause maximum chaos because the creature, it seems, is a perfect organism.

The themes in the film are fascinating and have been done to death since its release but here they are most significant. One of the more predominant themes is the selfish and greedy nature of the human race. Even though humans have the ability to travel in space and have advanced technologically, they have not advanced behaviourally. There is a certain degree of irony to that situation which only makes it more successful, evolved in technology but not evolved in mind. Those deep-rooted, almost innate, instincts for power and wealth will always be an issue that is unlikely to be conquered and that is the bittersweet truth of the race we are a part of.

As in the majority of other horror classics, a long-lasting antagonist has been created here but, unlike the other horror classics, the Xenomorph is extremely complex in design, symbolism, and behaviour. The Xenomorph was born from the twisted imagination of H.R. Giger; it is disturbing, astonishing, and actually kind of genius, but not only is the Xenomorph a masterpiece, the eggs and face-huggers are also. Engineering one weird and wonderful creation would have sufficed here; three just makes the film that much more dazzling because of the overload of effort involved in the creations.

The symbolism behind the Xenomorph may actually be as disturbing as the creation itself. The phallic nature of its head in a Freudian sense would constitute a threatening mechanism to males because of how large it is in comparison their own. It gets even weirder though because surely that means that females, as well as feeling fear, would feel a certain degree of pleasure at seeing such a large and phallic object. Think about it — as disturbing as that may be there is truth to this on some level and even males may feel a strange attraction to it as well because the Xenomorph is an androgynous creature. Surely the creature’s gender identity is up to the individual viewer.

There are many more sexual overtones throughout the film—there is no disputing that—but other critics have particularly noted that the face-huggers and the chest burster are metaphors for male rape. This does make lots of sense because stereotypically males have a fear of penetration and that is exactly what the alien does here. It also violates another stereotypical male fear of reproduction; the one thing they will never have to experience is experienced here in the most violent and horrific way possible. Looking at the film in these terms makes it more fracked up then I thought it was to begin with, and especially since the creature exhibits feline behaviours as well.

When you notice these things you have an epiphany of sorts where you either speak out loud or think to yourself, “What the hell is going on here”? The fact that the film uses a strong female role model has led it to be compared to Halloween and even being referred to as “Halloween mixed with The Thing From Outer Space,” but do those films have the bizarre symbolism going on? I don’t think so.

What essay about Alien is complete without mentioning Jerry Goldsmith’s score in conjunction with the atmospheric tension? The fact that the score underlies the film in quite a lot of places and the fact it dares to use silence as an atmospheric tension technique is why the film’s claustrophobic setting makes it that much more frightening. This makes the tension that much more effective and it plays around with our mind because we here on Earth have not experienced outer space so it makes us feel essentially lost and brings up that fear of the unknown that we hate so much.

There is terror on practically every level you can think of here, from the strange sexual overtones to the masterful special effects and set design. Alien is a perfect blend of science fiction, horror, and psychological terror.

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About aidanphantom

  • the real bob

    Thank you for this insightful piece. “Alien” has been on my top-ten list since it was released–was that 1979? The first time I saw it was in the middle of a weekday afternoon at a poorly attended matinee. I left the theater in pain–the suspense was so terrific my abdominal muscles were sore! To this day, I call it THE PERFECT sci-fi film; yet, calling it sci-fi is limiting it. Wonderful movie, wonderful piece.

  • p2dj

    alien is a masterpiece. it is the best sci fi film i have ever seen even to this day. it has stood the test of time and still looks fantastic, from the ship to the design of the alien, the concept behind, the charracters in the movie and to the score. pure class