One of my favourite films is Alien, but only now do I appreciate how well constructed the story is. When I started working on my sci-fi/horror series Shadows, Alien was a major influence, and I’ve learnt a great deal from considering just why the story of Alien works so well.
It’s easy to relate to the setting and characters
Yes, the film’s set on a spacecraft, but the setting is also surprisingly mundane—it’s a working vessel, populated by a crew who are simply doing their job. For some of them, the job’s clearly important (the captain, Dallas, takes his role seriously). But others, like Parker and Brett, are the kind of workers who turn up because they have to. It’s easy to imagine these two sloping off somewhere for a sneaky break when nobody’s watching.
And, as with any bunch of co-workers forced together, there are tensions. Some of them get on well with others, but there’s a lot of animosity just beneath the surface. Just like any other work environment.
It’s also worth noting that the Nostromo isn’t some sleek, high-tech craft like the Enterprise, or a fast fighting vessel like the Millennium Falcon. It’s scruffy, dirty and in need of repair. It’s a floating factory—and once again, this is the kind of environment that many can relate to.
Nobody is safe
Most stories focus on a hero, and in films this role is normally played by a big-name actor. We can usually be pretty secure in guessing that this character will survive, with the lesser characters (played by actors we don’t recognise) becoming fodder for the monster.
But Alien turns this on its head. John Hurt was one of the bigger names attached to the film, and he’s the first to die. With him gone, maybe we assume Dallas will survive. After all, the film starts with him alone on the Nostromo, before the rest of the crew wake. He’s the captain, and Tom Skerritt was another fairly well-known actor at the time.
When Dallas dies, it’s a shock, and it leaves things wide-open for who will eventually survive (although as the crew dwindle further, Ripley does step up to be the hero). With with lack of certainty, tension increases.
Horror can come at any time
The alien bursting from Kane’s stomach is probably Alien’s most memorable scene, but it’s worth noting the setting. This moment of gut-wrenching (sorry!) horror comes not in a dark corner of the craft, or on an alien planet. No, it occurs while the crew share a meal. They’re eating and joking. It’s a bonding moment, something we’re all familiar with—right up to the moment Kane’s stomach starts to bulge.
And this tells us that nowhere is safe. Even if characters are together, in brightly-lit familiar rooms, they’re still in danger. We don’t need to peer into the darkness looking for monsters, because they could leap out of anywhere, at any time.
We’re in the dark with the crew
We never get to see the alien in its entirety until the very end of the film. In part this was down to film-making restraints at the time, but it makes the film so much more effective—we never quite know what’s after the crew.
Jaws pulled off a similar trick, in refusing to show the shark until the second half of the film. We see the victim through the shark’s eyes, and we see the effects of the attacks (the swimmer being dragged under, the blood soaking the water). But we don’t see the shark itself.
What we can’t see is far more scary than what’s in front of our eyes. Our imagination fills in the blanks with our own worst nightmares.
There are things we have no control over
Its worth taking a closer look at Dallas’ death.
The rest of the crew are following his progress through the ducts. They have audio communication, but the only visual is on a map, with a marker to indicate his position. And then a second marker appears, indicating the alien’s position—and it’s closing in on Dallas. They yell for him to get out, but as the alien approaches there’s nothing they can do to prevent the inevitable.
In that moment, the crew are helpless witnesses, with no control over the outcome. Just like us, watching events unfold on a screen, unable to alter events.
We’re helpless, just like the crew.
Time is running out / the false ending
As the alien takes out the crew one by one, Ripley sees only one way to destroy the creature—self-destruct the Nostromo while it’s still aboard.
This give a tense race against the clock. As alarms blare and Mother counts down to self-destruct, Ripley rushes to the shuttle while trying to save Jones the cat and avoid the alien.
But she makes it. From the shuttle, she sees the Nostromo explode—and then realises she’s not alone on the shuttle. The alien is with her.
The tension and fear jump up a notch now. There’s nowhere for Ripley to run.
It’s a wonderful ending to a beautifully constructed story.
This list isn’t exclusive, and I know there are many great moments and ideas I’ve left out. But even this limited look at Alien shows why the story is so effective at pulling us in and keeping us engaged right to the end.
None of these things are original, of course. But the creative minds behind Alien used them to great effect, giving us a film that still works, over forty years after it hit the screens.