Great Moments in Cinema: Alien
Part of the brilliance of director Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) is the way in which it demystifies space travel. His characters aren’t heroic astronauts or brilliant scientists or mystic space knights. Instead, they are blue-collar working stiffs who just happen to make their living on a mining ship that traverses the stars. It is a clever (if not wholly original) subversion of the standard science fiction narrative, and one that serves a very specific purpose. By making the crew of the ill-fated Nostromo regular working-class folks who are just trying to make a living, Scott allows the audience to better identify with them, and thus their struggle against the titular creature is made all the more engaging and terrifying. This sense of identification gives the film an almost primal power to horrify and unsettle the viewer, and nowhere is this more evident than the “chestburster” sequence, in which the Alien of the title is finally born in bloody and unexpected manner.
For those who have been living under a rock for the last three or four decades, Alien opens on a huge, ungainly looking vessel traveling silently through the void. After we are informed of the ship’s designation and mission, the camera cuts to a series of shots inside the ship, which is dark and apparently unmanned. Soon, however, we are introduced to the small crew, all of whom lie dormant in stasis pods. Almost immediately, the doors of the pods swing open, and Lt. Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and the other six members of the crew wake up and begin to tend to their duties. They soon discover that they are still light years away from Earth, and that they’ve been awakened by the computer to investigate an extraterrestrial distress beacon that is coming from a barren planet nearby. They descend to the planet’s surface, and discover an otherworldly vessel that has become a tomb for its unearthly pilot. Crewman Kane (John Hurt) is sent deeper into the bowels of the alien ship, where he literally stumbles across a collection of leathery egg sacs that are surrounded by a reactive mist. As he leans in to take a closer look at one of the eggs, it opens, and disgorges a spider-like creature that attaches itself to Kane’s face. He is rushed back to the ship, where Captain Dallas (Tom Skerrit) and the science officer Ash (Ian Holm) attempt to remove the parasite, only to discover that it has concentrated acid for blood. At a loss for how to help their friend, they are relieved when the learn that the creature died during the night, and is no longer attached to Kane’s face. Better yet, he seems to be suffering no ill effects, and so they decide to celebrate with a huge supper before returning to the stasis pods for the final leg of their journey. All is well, and the crew spends the meal joking and laughing with one another, until Kane is gripped by a coughing fit. The rest of the crew think he’s choking, but then his chest explodes outward, sending blood and bits of bone everywhere. That’s when the real horror begins.
One of the reasons why this sequence is so effective is precisely because of how unexpected it is. One moment, the crew of the Nostromo are sharing good food and friendly conversation, and the next they find themselves covered in their comrade’s blood and face to face with an unknowable creature from the depths of space. It is a wholly disorienting moment, and because we have spent so much time with the crew prior to this, we share their sense of shock and horror. This is what sets it apart from other so-called “jump scares.” It is shocking, yes, but it is also unsettling on a much deeper level, especially because it has interrupted the sense of normalcy that has been established up to this point. Well, as normal as life on a space-faring mining ship can be, at any rate.
Another reason why the sequence works so well is because of the sense of violation it creates. The alien designs (by renowned German artist, H. R. Gieger) are extremely and very obviously phallic, and the creature’s method of perpetuating its species is a not too subtle metaphor for rape. The facehugger attaches itself to an unwilling victim, forcefully inserts its ovipositor down his or her throat, and then implants an embryo within them. Since we prize personal autonomy, being violated physically is one of the worst horrors imaginable. In many ways, the alien is a physical embodiment of this horror, and one of the reasons why it is so terrifying is that its entire life cycle is based on violation. Other life forms are little more than living, mobile wombs to be discarded once they’ve served their purpose. Worse than that, though, is the fact that the alien cannot be reasoned with. It is an unfeeling beast that cares about nothing beyond the continuation of its own species. Perhaps more than the sense of physical violation, it is the notion that we can never truly understand this creature that frightens us most.
In addition to being a rape metaphor, the chestburster sequence also features a birth subtext, which is another fear that is hardwired into our collective unconscious. Granted, for the vast majority of people, birth is viewed as a miraculous, joyous event, but it is not without a sense of dread. With birth comes pain, as well as a sense of the unknown. Pregnancy is often difficult, and is even occasionally tied with death, either that of the baby or the mother. Alien takes these twin notions of birth and death, and links them in a totally horrifying manner. For the parasitic alien to live, the host must die. It is the ultimate violation of self, and another reason why the film is able to instill such an overpowering sense of fear in the viewer.
At its heart, Alien is little more than a haunted house movie transplanted to the bridge of a spaceship. It manages to instill in the viewer a sense of wonder, which quickly gives way to a sense of overwhelming terror. It’s not the first horror film set in space, but it is one of the most effective. This is because Ridley Scott wisely chose to ground the film with a sense of reality, and then immediately shatters it with the appearance of the alien, which plays on a number of our base fears. This is why Alien works so well, even decades after its release.