Imagine you and your officemates are trapped in a building somewhere. Perhaps it’s one of those horrid corporate retreats where consultants make people do trust falls and plant trees together. That’s bad, but you soon realize things are worse: Something awful is trapped in there too, and it’s bigger, stronger and meaner than any of you. You have no weapons, no training, and no realistic hope of rescue.
What would happen to you?
In the movies, you and your co-workers would overcome your terror, learn to work together, discover untapped reserves of strength and resilience, and survive, emerging from the experience with newly forged bonds.
In reality (if we’re not bending a term too far here) … well, you’d die.
Alien, Ridley Scott’s 1979 scarefest, is justly heralded for a lot of things: relentless and claustrophobic terror, well-chosen parcels of gore and shock, and the brilliant use of H.R. Giger’s biomechanical designs. But Alien doesn’t get nearly its due as a character movie — which is what leads us back to our doomed office.
The space tug Nostromo has a crew of seven: Captain Dallas, First Officer Kane, Warrant Officer Ripley, Navigator Lambert, Science Officer Ash, and Engineers Parker and Brett. Their job is pretty boring: pick up a lot of ore and haul it back to Earth. Most of the crew’s time is spent asleep, in a state of artificial hibernation. When they aren’t asleep, they’re either smoking or complaining about their employer.
They’re not friends – we never find out anybody’s first name – and for the most part they don’t particularly like each other. Yes, everybody respects the laconic, even-keeled Dallas, and the motor-mouthed Parker enjoys needling his assistant, Brett. But we get the feeling that Parker and Brett probably don’t have anything to do with each other when they’re not in space, and Parker’s joshing is about it in terms of warmth and affection aboard the Nostromo. Mostly the crewmates grumble about work and snipe at each other about how to do their jobs.
None of us have ever served aboard a space tug, but we all recognize the Nostromo’s crew from our own roster of co-workers past and present.
Dallas is the competent company man who keeps his head down, the co-worker in whom ambition either long ago burned out or never ignited. Parker is the barracks lawyer, full of conspiracies and grievances. Brett is dim but tolerated for being basically good-hearted. Lambert is the specialist playing career defense, prickly and panicky outside of the narrow confines of her job. Ash is the new guy nobody can figure out yet, except he seems slightly off. (They have no idea how much.) We don’t really get to know Kane before terrible things befall him.
And then there’s Ripley, the co-worker who’s just passing through. Young, smart and even pretty, she does things by the book and calls out her co-workers when they fail to do the same, with only flickers of regret that they dislike her for it. She’s Tracy Flick in a jumpsuit – the likes of Lambert and Parker will still be out there hauling ore when Ripley’s making a lot more money doing something much better, and everybody knows it.
When the unimaginable happens, these co-workers don’t pull together and overcome — they squabble and panic and die, much the way you and your officemates probably would. Scott captures this in two terrific sequences that are as rich in character as they are in chills.
The first sees Dallas pursue the alien through the air ducts, armed with a worklight and an improvised flamethrower. This could have been Alien’s action-hero setpiece, but Scott and the wonderful character actor Tom Skerritt wisely don’t play it that way: Rather than make a big speech or gird for battle, Dallas blandly assigns his underlings their duties and crawls into a vent. He’s brave and decent, taking responsibility for the safety of crew and ship, but he’s also in over his head. His last moments are spent not preparing for a confrontation, but groping for a way to get the hell out of the mess he’s crawled into.
The second scene comes immediately afterwards. With Dallas and Kane dead, Ripley is now in charge, and tries to assert her command over Parker, Lambert and Ash. It doesn’t go well: Ripley’s fragile hold on things lasts just seconds before Parker’s incessant yapping makes her blow her top. Scott keeps the camera mostly fixed on Sigourney Weaver as she comes unglued; in the DVD commentary, he admits with a chuckle that he’d told Yaphet Kotto to annoy Weaver as thoroughly as possible. Whatever the technique, it works — panic practically boils out of the screen.
It’s just as well that Ripley’s plan is never implemented, as it’s much the same as the one that killed Dallas: The surviving Nostromos will move in pairs, herd the alien toward the airlock and “blow it the fuck into space.” Ripley tries to talk tough in selling this idea to the others, but neither they nor we are convinced — she’s in over her head too. Yes, Ripley proves plucky and resourceful in the showdown with the alien, but she survives primarily because the alien has eaten so many of her co-workers that it’s content to regard her as a side of beef put up in a larder.
Alien appeared after Jaws and Close Encounters and Star Wars and so is sometimes lumped in with those summer blockbusters, but it really belongs alongside the chilly, paranoid movies that ruled the box office earlier in the 1970s. Part of that misidentification stems from the fact that when we next meet Ripley, in 1986, she’s the heroine of a very different movie — James Cameron’s blockbuster sequel Aliens.
Cameron’s movie is an unlikely masterpiece, simultaneously a meditation on motherhood and a filmmaking clinic in how to ratchet tension to unbearable levels: If your heart isn’t thudding when Ripley follows Newt’s tracker to the lowest level of the complex turned alien hive, see a doctor posthaste. Unfortunately, not much has gone right for the franchise since then. David Fincher’s Alien 3 (1992) trashes Cameron’s story in its opening minutes, an appalling act of cheapjack nihilistic vandalism; 1997’s Alien: Resurrection is stupid, gross and forgettable; and Scott’s 2012 quasi-return to the franchise, Prometheus, is very much a movie of its decade – visually dazzling, overstuffed and frequently nonsensical. (Let’s all agree that no Alien movies featuring Predators actually exist.)
But even at their worst, the Alien movies get some mileage from Giger’s creepily iconic designs and the dread that the night is full of things with teeth. And at their best, they’re propelled by the implacable Ripley, as much a survivor as the acid-blooded beasties she keeps encountering. But what’s easy to miss is that this Ripley is Ellen Ripley, the star of Cameron’s blockbuster, not the half-named Ripley of Scott’s claustrophobic haunted-house story. Cameron’s Ripley is devoted to Newt and follows the classic hero’s character arc, which is what we expect but never get in Alien. Scott’s Ripley? We never glimpse her emotional life, and her arc is that she does the best she can.