Before I saw a single frame of Alien, it had nested under my skin. First imprinted on my underage mind was an image from the movie poster, which depicted an asteroid-like egg hovering over a latticework of gnarled moon rock, hatching spooky green light. A L I E N, it said, in a futuristic DOS-like type treatment paired with a singularly chilling tagline: “In space no one can hear you scream.” This movie might make me die, I remember thinking. This is a movie I want to see. (As a grade-schooler, I had been oddly immune to the galactic adventures of Luke, Leia, Obi-Wan, and the Rebel Alliance. It was simply a gut instinct—I wasn’t interested in Good vs. Evil. Alien was a different story.)
When I was finally old enough to rent it on video, I was struck not by how gruesome Scott’s classic cosmic-horror flick is, but how empty the film seems at times of physical bodies, earthling or otherwise, and how controlled and terrifyingly tense its air of suspense becomes as a result of those carefully calculated absences. Alien is a film about space, quite literally—not only the ingenious way that Scott deploys his camera in the cramped air shafts and passageways of the doomed crew’s star flyer, where something unimaginably Other has hitched a ride and lurks predatorily, but also how the double-jawed menace accosts the travelers in the grim, lonely vacuum of the cosmos, a vastness that only intensifies the inescapable feeling of claustrophobia and entombment. Seeing this uniquely frightening creature feature on the big screen, where you can fully appreciate Scott’s innovative-for-their-time visual effects, deeply unsettling sound design, and eerie evocation of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey as post–Star Wars nightmare death trip, transforms those late-night, pillow-clutching jitters into a widescreen sensory scarefest with few rivals. Alien hasn’t faded from view in the past three decades (a director’s cut was released to theaters in 2003), nor has it lost its ability to induce a sickening dread in today’s see-Saw-prone audiences, because the fear it evokes is primal and profoundly disturbing.
Read Damon Smith’s article on Ridley Scott’s Alien,, playing on October 27 and 29 at the Museum of the Moving Image as part of the series See It Big, co-presented by Reverse Shot.