You can tell a lot about a film by its opening titles. The first minutes of Alien gives a very accurate forecast of what you’re in for: dark, spine chilling and ominous. As seemingly random lines appear on the screen, building up to reveal the title of the movie, you can also predict it’s going to be slow and precise. The star-dotted background gives you the distinct sense of the isolation and vulnerability that comes with intergalactic travel. This and the addition of the soft and eerie soundtrack get your heart rate pumping.
Alien is like watching a NASA launch, yet knowing that it’s all going to end in disaster. The pacing is so slow, and the working class characters appear so realistic, it’s unnerving. There’s a strong sense of hierarchy, with the boys vs. Ripley and the cockpit crew vs. the engineers.
Unlike a lot of horror flicks, this movie doesn’t rely on scaring its audience with fancy special effects. In fact, it almost feels as if the few special effects driven scenes were deliberately made inadequately, as if to hint at their insignificance.
What keeps you in suspense is that you cannot predict who the next victim will be and when they’re going to die. The ghostly sound effects, constant heart-beat-like pulses, hazy desolate environments and epileptic-fit-inducing strobing lights add to the immense impression of danger. The Nostromo is a flying hunk of junk, yet considering its vastness, the narrow and gloomy engine-room-like hallways are extremely claustrophobic. What’s most chilling though is that you’re not always shown everything – leaving your imagination to run wild.
The Alien itself seems like a soulless machine designed to inflict the maximum physical and emotional pain on its prey. When it takes down Lambert, its slow movements and her horrific cries for help makes you fear that this is more of a raping than a killing. The fact that it waited until Ripley was in her underwear before striking, makes you wonder if it was ‘programmed’ to hold off until she was at her most vulnerable. In contrast, Ash seems more ‘alive’, showing signs of human emotion and sexual frustration as he attempts to kill Ripley.
It took seven years before James Cameron’s sequel was released, and yet, even with a heavily increased budget and an updated arsenal of special effects technology, it didn’t even come close to matching the sheer terror of the original. Alien is an impossible movie to fault, as it seems to have been engineered to perfect precision.