Review: cult-classic sci-fi film ‘Alien’ remains relevant 40 years later

by Ryan Zhang | 4/30/19 2:06am

Reaching its 40th anniversary this year, “Alien,” directed by Ridley Scott, is widely regarded as one of the most influential sci-fi/fantasy films of all times. The film’s symbolism, grand setting, relatable extraterrestrial horror and the metaphysical questions it raises all contribute to a complex and thrilling viewing experience. Forty years since its release, the movie’s profound message still echoes with human identity and remains relevant today. As a devout “Alien” fan, I will review “Alien,” the first movie of the namesake series, but I will also provide a brief guide on the correct sequential order in which to watch the iconic movie franchise. 

The movie’s plot is actually quite simple: the cargo spaceship “USCSS Nostromo,” while on the way back to Earth, is programmed to stop by a distant planet, where the passengers encounter an abandoned alien spaceship. After one of the crew members is infected by an alien egg, a Xenomorph — a deadly alien creature — bursts out of his chest and swiftly hides away on-board the spacecraft. After witnessing the entire crew slaughtered at the hands of the Xenomorph, the protagonist Ellen Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver, blows the spaceship up to kill the Xenomorph. She then escapes in a space shuttle with the crew’s cat, Jones.

For those who have never watched the movie, this plot may seem predictable and almost boring — “another alien-themed sci-fi movie, except it’s vintage,” you might think. But allow me to explain why this is not the case. First of all, the grandiosity of “Alien” can only be fully manifested through the whole “Alien” movie series. It is especially important to watch the two prequels to “Alien” — “Prometheus” and “Alien: Covenant” — before watching “Alien.” The prequels set up the grand setting of the full “Alien” story by revealing a secret about the origin of humans: Humans were created by an alien race, the so-called Engineers. However, humans discover that the Engineers intend to wipe out the human race using Xenomorphs for reasons unknown to humans. 

Bearing in mind the fact that the Engineers intended to destroy the human race with these dreadful Xenomorphs, our fear as the audience is intensified and elevated to an existential level. Throughout history, humans have been perplexed by this ultimate question concerning our origin, giving rise to great theories, studies and research. We have struggled with the process of finding the answer, during which we have given little thought to how we might react to what we find — something the “Alien” series reminds us that humans may not quite like. Regardless of whether the answer might be imminent or not, the fear “Alien” instills in my mind is more than relatable. Before an ultimate answer is found, all fears or hopes are simply baseless or whimsical, but when a cruel truth is at last revealed, the extent to which the existential dread can fill people’s hearts may be beyond our notion. Xenomorphs are symbols of human destruction; therefore, the thrill and fear “Alien” brings about become both visual and psychological — or even existential. 

Although Xenomorphs are as horrifying as they are depicted on-screen, they are not merely killing machines. If we take a close look at Xenomorphs’ physical features and modes of killing, the sexual implications made are more than obvious. Xenomorphs are organic creatures that thrive solely through sexual reproduction. In “Alien,” the crew member who was first infected was attacked by a Facehugger, whose mouth closely resembles the female reproductive organs, which then injected its eggs into his body. Throughout the entire “Alien” movie series, different kinds of Xenomorphs all share this characteristic — the destruction of humans is simultaneously the reproduction of themselves. The cycle of life and death is crudely presented to the audience, and it instigates our biological fear. We humans have long stood at the top of the food chain; however, Xenomorphs have toppled this human superiority. Watching an almost invincible creature exploiting human lives for the sake of their own survival allows us to recall the ancient fear of being unable to resist a superior power in the food chain.

While many acknowledge the stunning artistic style and production in “Alien,” it’s difficult to describe the movie’s complexity and its many profound messages. Regardless, I will say that if you are looking for a movie that creates multiple layers of fear and thrill, then “Alien” is perfect for you.