In 1979, Ridley Scott’s Alien burst forth from the chest of the silver screen. With a splattering of blood and slime, Alien still makes us scream and squirm forty years later.
On December 6th, 1979, Alien finally had its Australian premier, forcing us all to drop our Christmas shopping and sprint to the nearest cinema. It’s bizarre to imagine a Christmas box-office season featuring something as horrifying as this sci-fi thriller but that didn’t stop Australian audiences from flocking to see Ridley Scott’s subversive space adventure. Ten years since the Apollo moon landing, space had lost its allure and audiences welcomed a film that recognised the anxieties surrounding it. In fact, the world had anxiously watched the US space station, Skylab, crash into the south-east coast of Western Australia in the same year that Alien brought the Xenomorphs into our orbit.
Since then, Alien has maintained its cultural relevance. Even new iterations of the franchise have been unable to shake off the shadow cast by the original. There is just something about the original film that continues to linger in our stomachs waiting to burst forth.
But it may come as a surprise to note that the film was initially panned by many critics. The Guardian’s Derek Malcom described it as “basically just a mixture of The Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Thing from Outer Space”. While lauded for its technical merit, many critics considered the film lacking in the conceptual underpinnings that had elevated Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey or Star Wars. Its consequent relegation to B-grade monster flick not only ensured its wide box-office appeal but also served to disguise its depths.
Part of the film’s continuing endurance is that, over forty-years, these depths have offered something alluring for audiences to uncover. Many critics, fans and suddenly traumatised pre-teens have emerged from the final credits with a new take on the deeper meaning of the film. The depths of the USS Sulaco spacecraft offer endless opportunities for analysis, should you have time to pursue them as you balance on the edge of your seat. From the Freudian terror of Alien insemination, the feminist force of Ripley’s character arc, or the capitalist anxieties of the final frontier, this film is bursting with a conceptual weight that bleeds – or oozes – into the horror of the film. Of course, these overarching ideas become immediately secondary once a little phallic mouth spouts out of an oozing black Alien head, and the more primal need to scream takes over.
Ultimately, the film’s appeal rests in its ability to successively straddle a line between B-grade thrills and ideological nuance. In fact, this line comes up more and more in discussions about the current re-invigoration of contemporary horror. And in 1979, this line brought audiences in with promises of gore mixed with searing cultural commentary. Whether we’re aware of these layers or not, they still work to make us gasp and reel when that first Xenomorph bursts spectacularly forth from Kane’s chest.
Sure, no one can hear you scream in space but that shouldn’t stop you from screaming your lungs out at home when you give this classic a re-watch.
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