The iconic horror flick that spawned a franchise seems simple on the surface. The 8-person crew of the space mining ship Nostromo attempt to survive an alien that has evolved to be the ultimate killing machine. Of course, so many plots seem simple when boiled down to their core elements, but it’s how these stories are told that makes them engaging and help them to stand the test of time. When the layers are peeled back, Alien is nothing short of a masterpiece.
At just under two hours, it’s shorter than most current blockbusters, but it doesn’t rush the plot. The first hour takes its time establishing atmosphere and allowing the audience to get to know the crew. It’s about forming that connection with these characters and slowly building the tension as the audience waits for the inevitable and horrifying plot twist. Neither is the sole purpose of this first half, instead, both elements work hand-in-hand to set a vibe that will be turned on its head by the famous Chestburster scene – one of the finest plot twists ever put to screen.
At this midpoint of the plot, it seems like the immediate danger is over. Kane (portrayed by the ever-stellar John Hurt) has already faced death at the tentacles of the aptly-named Facehugger and finds himself in a surprisingly healthy condition, enjoying a meal with the crew. It’s in the midst of this joviality that the Chestburster does what it was named for and Kane meets his demise, covering the crew in a decent helping of blood and skittering off into the air vents. It may be one of the most famous scenes in cinematic history (being parodied in everything from ASDF Movie to Spaceballs) but at the time, and to the crew of the Nostromo, it comes as a complete surprise. As with all plot twists, this is where the major plot beats begin as the crew attempt to find and kill what will one day be known as a Xenomorph.
Of course, the entire crew, aside from Ellen Ripley, end up dead and this is the real tragedy of Alien. It’s been claimed by many that if they’d simply listened to Ripley in the first place and not allowed Kane to return aboard then they would have survived but that isn’t necessarily the case. It is ultimately revealed that the company they work for (later named Weyland-Yutani) has placed an android named Ash (portrayed with calculating menace by Ian Holm) on board the Nostromo with the express mission to collect the alien and to treat the crew as expendable. It is Ash who directly disobeys orders and brings Kane aboard but, even if he hadn’t, there’s no reason to believe that he wouldn’t have found some other way to complete his objective. It’s plausible that he could have smuggled an egg on board without the crew knowing or that he would have killed them all himself. At the end of the day, whilst the specifics of the plot may change, the outcome likely remains the same…the crew of the Nostromo die.
This seems inevitable because the odds are so stacked against them. They’re not just fighting the alien, they’re fighting the will of the Weyland-Yutani corporation, who are more of a villain than the alien ever is. It’s born to kill and knows nothing else but Weyland-Yutani is a company run by people. It’s a company so focussed on profit and winning a war that hasn’t even started that it will literally sacrifice its own employees. This fundamental truth spans the entire franchise but it’s so blatant here that it’s difficult to ignore. The specific orders are only seen on the ship’s main computer (dubbed “Mother”) meaning it comes across as emotionless as it really is. It’s so quiet when Ripley reads the words “crew expendable” that there’s nothing to focus on except her desperate sobs.
At the end of the day, it’s a working-class story. The crew are miners who smoke cigarettes and complain about company policy on board a ship that has gathered grime from a once pristine state. These aren’t highly trained professional astronauts like the fine folks at NASA (although clearly they are trained), these are common people. They walk, talk, and react as common people would. It makes them all the more relatable and helps their deaths come across as more tragic.
It’s no wonder this film birthed a franchise.