In honor of Alien's recent 37th anniversary and the upcoming [Alien: Covenant](tag:3648559), I wanted to do a post about this sci-fi and horror classic. Fortunately, there's a galaxy's worth of things to talk about when it comes to Alien, so I've reduced it down to an overview of what Alien got right and what we can take away from its' success. So, here are 4 lessons modern films can learn from Alien!
1. Pace yourself
The pacing in this film is flawless. From the first shot of the film to the last, everything felt planned, purposed, and timed perfectly.
We didn't jump straight into the action, but we didn't spend so much time getting to know the crew that we were bored by the time the alien showed up. And when it did show up, the horror value wasn't wasted on a few cheap jump scares; the tension was slowly yet methodically turned up, with each reveal of the alien more terrifying than the last. With a horror movie especially, this ability to build suspense is critical.
Here’s a quote from editor Terry Rawling on the process of editing Alien:
"I think the way we did get it right was by keeping it slow, funny enough, which is completely different from what they do today. And I think the slowness of it made the moments that you wanted people to be sort of scared...then we could go as fast as we liked because you've sucked people into a corner and then attacked them, so to speak. And I think that's how it worked."
"Skeptical me" feels like if this movie was made today, as soon as the ship landed on the planet and turned the first corner they would have been assaulted by an onslaught of fully grown aliens and an all out CGI action-fest would have started. The amount of patience and skill it takes to pace out a movie like Alien is incredible, and it totally pays off.
2. Use creative design and practical special effects
In a movie titled Alien, the alien is a pretty central character (go figure), so a lot of the success of the film rode on how it looked. A potentially amazing horror or sci-fi film can so easily become a campy b-movie if the effects aren’t done well.
Whenever the alien was onscreen I wasn’t thinking it looked fake or ridiculous; I was convinced and terrified immediately.
Side note: I was going to put a gif here of the chestburster but I'm afraid it'll be too gross. So here's a less gross, but equally terrifying alien creature:
I believed the alien was real in the same way I believed all the human characters were. They all belonged in the same universe.
The practical special effects for the alien in all it's incarnations are simply outstanding, and hold up 100% to a more modern viewing. In fact, they look better than many aliens in modern sci-fi films, which often suffer from a lack of creative or realistic design. And that's not even mentioning the incredible ship design, or all the gut-wrenching (sometimes literally) deaths in the movie.
3. Write strong characters
With movies where the special effects are so integral (Jurassic Park, LOTR, etc), the human characters can very easily become secondary to the effects. Both the sci-fi and horror genres are very susceptible to this problem.
Alien succeeds in making each character interesting, believable, and most importantly, watchable in a very short amount of time. I think I could have watched Ripley fight with the crew the entire movie and still be engaged.
I hold the science fiction genre to a higher standard than most others when it comes to character development. Maybe because I was raised on the cerebral quality of The Original Series and The Next Generation Star Trek, but also because the main point of setting your story in the future or an alternate reality is to learn more about humanity and the world we're in now.
We want to see what the world looks like from another perspective and it helps when the characters observe and adapt and learn as well. This is certainly the case with Alien. No matter how brief the role, each character has a chance to shine and interact with their environment, and we learn something from their perspective.
4. Establish your universe
If we as an audience don't buy into the premise of a movie, the stakes won't matter and consequently we won't be emotionally invested in what's happening. So in a science fiction movie, the universe you're depicting needs to have good science and good fiction, meaning the movie's world needs to be real and grounded, and what happens in it shouldn't break our suspension of disbelief.
It's easy to phone-in the sci-fi genre by slapping some flashing lights and technobabble onto your film and calling it a day.
For as long as the genre has been around, the universes can all start to look the same after a while. Alien manages to develop its own sci-fi brand, so to speak, which is quite refreshing. It's not an overly foreign or complicated world, but it is still distinct and believable.
In Alien, our world is primarily on the ship Nostromo. In the first few minutes, we learn the necessary expositional information, aka the name of the ship, it's mission, etc. Once we've entered inside, the look and feel of the ship is established. Then we're introduced to our main characters. And at a critical moment- they're waking up from stasis (suspended animation/hypersleep) and the ship is off course.
The first few frames of the film are magnificent; drawing us into the universe, placing us on the ship, and connecting us with the crew. The stage has been set and now we're ready for the action to begin.
These are all pretty basic, straight forward points, but they're worth repeating. The success or failure of Alien came down to this basic storytelling principle: if the audience doesn't buy into the world or the characters (in this case both human and alien), then they won't care about the story. Thank goodness for us the filmmakers knew what they were doing and delivered a story that still holds up, draws in, and terrifies even 37 years after it's release.