I fell in love with Aliens at age 13. I watched it maybe half a dozen times before I saw its prequel, Alien. So, despite it coming first, Alien always seemed like the little brother, the runt of the two.
The first time I saw Alien I watched a perfectly fine, passable film. Good (though very grey and blurry1), just not a patch on Aliens. But the older I get—and despite my resistance—the more my tastes in films change. Every time I watch Alien it closes the gap, leaping up a few notches towards the holy tower that Aliens resides in. My attachment to Aliens is so strong that Alien may never equal it, but it’s sure getting close.
Alien is the more mature of the two. For all of Nam allegories, Aliens can easily be enjoyed by those (like me) who enjoy guns and badasses. But Alien is quieter, more concerned with tension than action. In fact, perhaps only Ash’s attack on Ripley and the final scene can really be considered action scenes. The other, more notable moments are of suspense, a nigh unbearable waiting before a quick move and death.
There is more restraint with Alien than its predecessor. What’s surprising upon rewatch is how little Alien shows of Kane’s being attacked. The facehugger leaps, but we see nothing more until he’s brought back to the ship. Though Dallas explains the situation from the airlock, we don’t actually see evidence until Kane is laid out in the medical bay (oh, to have seen that for the first time in the cinema, unaware of how these xenomorphs operate). Compare that to the Aliens director’s cut and seeing Newt’s dad facehuggered in an early moment of the film. Aliens grabs you and shakes you and screams in your face. Alien, by contrast, gently pushes you into a corner you don’t want to be in.
It’s a masterclass in tension, and nowhere is that more obvious than in Brett’s death scene. The film uses silence and quiet so well, almost to the level of The Shining and The Exorcist. Brett tracks Jones, the cat who may be the only character to come out of the franchise is fairly good condition. The soundtrack at this point is a quick but quiet heartbeat. The clanking of chains hanging above Brett then add to the sound mix—the same chains that the alien hides among. Tension is stretched to hellish levels; I wanted to scream “Just kill him and get it over with”, though I’ve seen Alien a number of times. The scene is nigh perfect, only diminished at the end by Ripley and Parker’s half-assed jog into the room and ambivalent stare at the ceiling. The subsequent scene reveals that they saw the alien carry Brett away, you’d never be able to tell by their faces.
Some may criticise the plausibility of the scene, of Alien falling into a horror cliché of ‘letting a character inexplicably wander off on their own’. But at this point the characters don’t know what they’re dealing with, as far as they’re concerned they’re still hunting this little bugger. It killed Kane by being born, there’s nothing yet to suggest just how dangerous it will become. Also, the cat seemed to take off in the direction they had come from, as far as they were concerned it had wandered into a safe area.
Rewatching, I was surprised how little time is spent outside of the ship. I’d remembered a grand, reverent view of the planet and the alien ship, and how it contrasted with the workaday atmosphere of the Nostromo. The time spent off ship may give some beautiful shots, but it goes by quickly; the crew go from space jockey2 through floor to eggs and facehugger and we’re back in the room.
One day an alien will take advantage of you and then you’ll be dead.
1 Only years later did I realise the poor picture quality was due to recording the film from TV onto a videotape that had been used a few times (I am stupid). I’m old enough to have experienced Alien in four increasingly clear iterations, from that blurry video to a purchased VHS copy, to DVD, and now finally Blu-ray (if one good thing came from Prometheus’ release, it’s that Alien boxsets dropped in price). Alien looks very good Blu-ray.
2 When I saw the space jockey on this rewatch my first thought was that’s wayyy bigger than the one in Prometheus. Maybe this one was on the roids.