As Ellen Ripley solemnly signs off as the last survivor of The Nostromo in a state of shock, the audience finally gets a chance to breathe from the anxiety built from Ridley Scott’s atmospheric masterclass of the sci-fi genre. In a world where Scott had the vastness of space at his disposal, the proxemics of the ship trapped Ripley and the remainder of the crew in isolation. The imagination of the set pieces Scott put together transforms a ship into its own world limited by the emptiness provided by galaxy, giving the crew nowhere to go. In the films final moments, Ripley traps the alien by blasting it into the void of space, utilizing the exact opposite method of isolation that trapped her and the remainder of the crew.

    With most monster movies, a crew facing that kind of isolation is a heroic crew with a combination of superpowers and very specified training, yet the Alien crew didn’t have that fortune. There within is what makes Alien stand from the pack. Each character has basic human motives for why they’re on the ship except for one, which ties into a pretty big twist later in the movie. Some of these motivations are selfish, some aren’t. They all have the same reason as to why they’ve stayed: they simply have to. There isn’t much a deviation from storytelling tropes in terms of characters being good, evil, and having shades of gray. All of this being said, they’re not characters who went to space with a grandiose purpose, rather just simply a job. This isn’t traditionally considered an exciting brand of character development, but when you peel the layers back on the totality of the picture, you peel to the heart of it. The characters are generic by design because they’re meant to be average astronauts getting paid to do a job. Between subtle performances rooted in realistic response, the lack of complexity in its characters and the fact that the ensemble is made up of zero previously-established lead actors, the audience is sucked in because there’s a sense of them being regular people in danger as if the events are unfolding in real-time, in front of you. The characters aren’t characters, but real humans, in real danger. They do their job, they eat, they take care of a cat. That’s the big adventure until the big adventure goes awry: things an average person does in the average day-to-day life.

    All of this builds to the alien, a life form in the movie known as a xenomorph. The viewer sees the alien when it removes itself from John Hurt’s body, and Ridley establishes its immediate danger with the acid. However, it has a total of four total minutes of screen time in the entire flick. That’s because you see different things throughout to build the danger, but you also don’t see it in its final form until the climax of the film. You imagine this monstrosity that it has morphed into, becoming increasingly anxious the longer it has to morph into something unimaginably terrifying. The vision for the alien, in cohesion with the costume design team, also created something that lived up to the mental expectation built into the minds of the audience, delivering something truly out of this world. With the characters having no real skill to combat an unbeatable monster, Ripley has to outsmart it and outmaneuver it. Ripley doesn’t have to destroy it, Ripley has to escape it, in doing so delivering its demise.

    The tension and anxiety, of course, is fluidly built throughout with its immersive score, sound design, pacing, and simple world building. Perhaps it’s the forced practicality thanks in part to technological limitations and a smaller budget, but Ridley does so much better transporting you into the film than he does with more recent projects. Alien did spectacle better than any other sci-fi movie before it, allowing its subtlety to be the strength of the film and the primary cause of audience uneasiness. For movies like Alien, less can be more and that’s a philosophy that seems to be going by the wayside in an era where we have the capability to do much more.

    With only a little over a week until its 45th anniversary, Alien continues to captivate audiences. The film made over $1.5M earlier this year in a limited theatrical re-release. The original can currently be found streaming on Disney+, alongside Alien 3, Alien: Resurrection, and Ridley’s Prometheus prequels. The franchises second installment, James Cameron’s 1986 feature Aliens, is streaming on MAX. The franchise returns to theaters in the middle of August with Alien: Romulus, a stand-alone feature starring Cailee Spaeny (Civil War, Priscilla). The film is set between the events of the first and second film.

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