Why It Works: Alien

Why It Works is an ongoing column which breaks down some of the most acclaimed films in history and explores what makes them so iconic, groundbreaking, and memorable.


Low budget sci-fi movies and generic monster-in-the-house fare... the 70's and 80's were awash with both of these, resulting in a metric shit-ton of forgettable and laughably bad films. ALIEN fused these two genres, which could have easily been a disaster, but thanks to the masterful direction of Ridley Scott, Sigourney Weaver's powerful portrayal of Ellen Ripley, and the suspenseful script, score, and production design, the 1979 film would become an instant classic and launch a franchise still alive and bursting through our chests to this day. Here's why it works:


ALIEN is not a movie with heavy character development. For the first half of the film, we are not following or rooting for anyone. We're not even rooting for the team so much as just watching them do their jobs. It's a slice of life story which happens to be in space. What effect this does have for the characters, however, is to ground them and the story in reality. We don't feel like we're watching a space opera or a horror film- we just feel like we're watching the guys down at the factory on lunch break. Other horror films of the era excel at drawing us in by showing the characters in a hyper-realistic setting (THE EXORCIST and JAWS come to mind), an art that seems to have been lost in film in general around the mid to late 80's and is still only slowly creeping its way back into the mainstream in 2015.

Good times. What could possibly go wrong?

As for Ripley, for being one of the most iconic sci-fi characters in film history, she becomes the protagonist largely by process of elimination. She is just one of the gang to start. Slowly, Lambert, Parker, and Brett (and the indisposed Kane) take a backseat to Ripley, Dallas, and Ash, but it isn't until about 30 minutes before the end of the film, when Captain Dallas becomes lunch and Ash blue-screens, that we realize Ripley is the heroine of the story. By this point, though, she is no longer just one of the gang. She is the one character who has been shown to place more value in the survival of herself and her shipmates than in the interest of the corporation or the mission at hand. She even goes back for the freaking cat knowing full well it could cost her her life.

Fun Fact: Blake Snyder's screenwriting book series, "Save The Cat," is named after this very moment.


Because we don't really have anyone to root for in the first hour of the film, we don't have a clear goal or story to latch onto. Instead, we are treated to more of a mystery/suspense thriller than a sci-fi/horror film. The movie is called ALIEN, and yet we don't see the titular xenomorph in all its glory until over an hour in. The first hour keeps us hooked by feeding us little pieces of the mystery every few scenes: Why was the Nostromo's return to Earth interrupted? What is that strange ship? What's the story with that space jockey? (We'd have to wait for PROMETHEUS over 30 years later for the answer to that question.) What are those eggs? WHAT'S ON THAT GUY'S FACE?! Why was the baby from ERASERHEAD in his chest? Once Brett goes kitty hunting and meets with an unfortunate end, only then are we in full monster movie mode and we just want to see the crew, particularly Ripley (and Jonesy), survive.

Do I have something on my face?


Simply put, any movie where the hero triumphs over the villain is satisfying, but there's much more going on here. For one, Sigourney Weaver was completely unknown in 1979, while every other member of the Nostromo crew was either a big name or at least had a steady career in film and television by that point. From PSYCHO to Game of Thrones, there's something fun about playing with the expectation that the biggest name(s) in your story must be the main character and therefore can't be shower-stabbed, beheaded, facehugged, airducted, or a cold-milk-blooded robot with a magazine fetish. It should also be noted that Ripley is a woman who is not treated by the filmmakers or the characters as any differently than the men. Other than an off-the-cuff remark from Parker to Lambert ("I'd rather be eating something else"), there is no gender here. Somehow, in 2015, it's considered groundbreaking when women in film are empowered (see MAD MAX: FURY ROAD... no, seriously, go see it), when a film like ALIEN nailed it over 35 years ago by simply treating its female characters as humans rather than counterparts to the male leads. That said, I'm only talking about the treatment of the characters. If you want to go down the rabbit hole of how ALIEN is a film about male rape with more phallic and vaginal imagery than you ever expected to see in a movie about a girl and her cat in space, I'll let Cracked take it from here.



Great films are rarely just one excellent thing surrounded by a lot of average things- most could lose one or two key elements and still be quite impressive. ALIEN is a gripping suspense story, a curious mystery (complete with visual clues and a then-there-was-one elimination of characters), a terrifying horror film, an exciting science fiction story, a feminist directive, and a psychological roller coaster all at once. Even today, it's not often you see a film with this many layers, particularly not one where all the individual pieces work so strongly and seamlessly together.

And she'll never have to deal with another one of those things again...

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't mention H. R. Giger's artwork anywhere in this article. If the xenomorph had looked bland, laughable, or like a guy in a suit, there's a reasonable chance this franchise would never have made it beyond one movie. Once you see all his designs scattered throughout the film and finally that thing in all its slimy, bizarre, double-mouthed detail, though, it's almost a no-brainer to explore the origins and evolution of one of the most exciting and distinctive new creatures to come out of the twentieth century.

Thoughts? What else worked for you? What didn't? Strike back below!

If you have any movies you'd like to see put under the microscope, let us know below or send me an email at [email protected].

Source: JoBlo.com



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