40 years ago, Ridley Scott’s Alien was released in the US to critical acclaim and box office success. The film won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, three Saturn Awards, and a Hugo Award. So, how does it hold up four decades later?
In short: pretty well.
In 2002, Alien was deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress. It was also selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. In 2008, it was ranked as the seventh best film in the science fiction genre by the American Film Institute and the 33rd best film of all time by Empire magazine. Awards and accolades are arbitrary things, but Alien has earned its legacy and reputation.
A lot of older horror doesn’t stand the test of time. Whether that’s because we’re used to better CGI now or as an audience we’ve just become desensitised to gore, violence, and threat, it’s just not always particularly scary anymore. But Alien’s existential dread still feels fresh.
A big part of its fear-factor is its realism. The crew of the Nostromo are not on an epic adventure in deep space, they’re working. They’ve completed a job and they’re on their way home. Things are mundane and uneventful. Everything is as it seems until it’s not, and it’s this violent disruption of the quotidian that makes the events of the film seem so sinister.
Sci-fi often makes space seem full of life, but Alien makes its audience painfully aware of how large and empty the universe is. None of the characters really get to explore their surroundings; instead, we are stuck with them inside their quiet, nondescript ship. They are left without help from Earth and the corporate powers-that-be, and as the film progresses Ripley is very much on her own.
Unlike a lot of popular science fiction movies, the characters in Alien are not trying to save the world – the fate of humanity is not in their hands, they are simply trying to make it back home alive. The chilling message from ‘Mother,’ the ship’s computer system, really drives this home: “Priority one – ensure return of organism for analysis. All other considerations secondary. Crew expendable.”
It all comes back to this “organism”. Designed by H.R. Giger, the creature is truly alien in every sense of the word, unlike anything that had been seen on screen before. The threat that it posed was also different – the threat of the violation of the bodies aboard the Nostromo. The xenomorph does not just mean death for its victims, but something much more sinister. Upon the film’s release in 1979, the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) gave it an X certificate – the equivalent of a present-day 18 – for depicting “a perverse view of sexual function.” One of the examiners wrote, “The images are not always explicit but run like a dark undercurrent throughout.”
Aside from outdated special effects, something that tends to age films from the 1970s is misogyny. However, Ellen Ripley is a character who has stood the test of time. Alien was one of the first instances of a woman having a leading role in a science fiction movie – particularly a role that didn’t involve being saved. Rather, Ripley saves herself. Admittedly, she spends a little too long wandering around in her underwear after her near-death experience (we get it, Ridley, Sigourney Weaver is hot!). Aside from that, she looks like an exhausted, slightly grubby woman who’s been in space for a long time and also just escaped death, rather than a middle-aged sci-fi nerd’s fantasy.
It’s not all doom and gloom in Alien, either – there are moments of absurd dated 70s-ness that make me laugh on every re-watch. Personal highlights are the space cat and the space smoking (in that order). Why do they have a cat in space? How are they smoking in a spaceship without the whole thing blowing up? Nobody knows! And nobody cares (or, at least, I don’t).
It’s this retro-ridiculousness paired with timeless horror that makes Alien stand up 40 years later. Rather than appear dated with age, these quirky details add charm and some (albeit unintentional) relief from the stifling tension.
Alien holds up because its vision of the future is not so different from its present. It doesn’t try hard to create a futuristic landscape; the interior of the Nostromo could easily be a set from 1979 or 2019. It doesn’t romanticise space travel or the technologically advanced world of the future, and its core messages resonate now: ultimately, for those in power, profit is more important than people; we may not technically be alone in the universe, but we’re on our own right now.
Plus, space cat.