In space, no one can hear you scream. On the Nostromo, you can hear almost everything.
Alien is a masterpiece of sound design. Every second is dominated by a dense, carefully constructed soundscape, where the natural noises in the spaceship are a critical component of managing the audience experience.
The first six minutes of the film are dialogue free, but full of ambient noise—flapping pages in a book, dormant lights igniting with a buzz. Jerry Goldsmith’s score ratchets up the tension, only to dissipate it in a wash of strings. There’s the tinkling of metal chains and smacks of water dripping, as Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) searches for Jonesy the cat; the hissing coolant and a ticking timer while the self-destruct sequence proceeds and Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) prepares to abandon ship.
Maybe I noticed the sound because I recently rewatched the movie while working. I’ve seen the movie before; I was surrounded by my fellow cube-dwellers; I was using tinny headphones and a seven-inch screen. At moments, I was still terrified, totally bound up in the suspense. It’s just that freaking scary.
Director Ridley Scott…what is there to say? Has he ever been better? Will he ever be again? Blade Runner, sure, that’s a masterpiece. But the command of genre here—not just suspense or horror or monster movie, but science fiction, period—it’s remarkable. Along with his production designer Michael Seymour and art director Roger Christian, he took the Star Wars aesthetic of a lived-in yet futuristic universe and grounded every impossible aspect in reality. (Christian actually served on the original Star Wars in a similar capacity. He later directed Battlefield Earth. That’s one hell of a career trajectory.)
The actors support that reality with their own lived-in performances. Sigourney Weaver is of course unforgettable as Ellen Ripley, but let’s not ignore the rest of the Nostromo crew—Tom Skerritt’s casual confidence, Veronica Cartwright’s quiet hysterics, Ian Holm’s creepy creepiness. Yaphet Kotto has not been served well by Hollywood since Alien, because based on this performance alone, he should be one of our great actors. Unctious and resilient, his Parker comes through in the end and provided Brad Pitt with a brilliant character quirk decades later in Ocean’s Eleven—they’re both always eating something.
Because the universe feels so tangible, the terror is amplified. H.R. Giger’s sinewy, dead-black creature designs for the titular alien seem to exist in negative space. Like Steven Spielberg a few years earlier with Bruce the shark, Scott makes clever use of his filmmakers’ bag of tricks to suggest the alien without showing him very often. Lighting design, quick cuts, handheld camera work, and that disturbing soundscape all coalesce to masterfully manipulate the audience.
But where Spielberg employed characterization and humor to distract his audience from his monster, Scott doesn’t provide the viewer any easy outs. You’re there, trapped on that ship with Ripley and Ash and the rest, experiencing every visceral moment alongside them. There’s far less distance in Alien for the viewer, no remove from which the audience can observe the action as a movie. It’s happening; it’s happening now, not in some galaxy far, far away. There is a beast breathing down your neck and she bleeds acid.