ALIEN 45th Anniversary

45 years after its release, ALIEN manages to scare and enthrall viewers both old and new alike.

ALIEN 45th Anniversary

There's a scene in ALIEN that still gets me every time, which is pretty darned impressive considering that I've been watching this film since I was 11. Ridley Scott's original science-fiction experiment has become a cultural icon, but it's something more than that as well: it's timeless good moviemaking.

The classic science fiction horror masterpiece has been given now life in cinemas this week as part of its 45th anniversary tour, and I was lucky enough to have time to see it at my local cinema. I went with a friend and surrogate big-brother, which is apropos to how I used to watch the film as a kid: with my dad. (I also used to watch ALIEN while wearing an old army helmet and tucked into a fortress of defensive pillows).

We piled into the cinema with a handful of other late-night moviegoers, some of whom were clearly fans who had seen the film when it first came out. My friend reminisced about his own experience seeing it for the first time, where a woman next to him got so scared that she jerked backwards in her chair so hard she almost broke her elbow.

But not everyone had seen ALIEN before.

Behind us, a group of boisterous guys in their 40s came in loaded for bear with bottles of wine and snacks. Whenever this happens at the movies, I think to myself, "oh no," because normally these kinds of people are pretty disruptive.

But, for the whole course of the film, the only sounds coming from behind me (aside from the occasional clink of a glass or crunch of buttery popcorn) were gasps, laughs, and muffled cries of terror.

It was awesome.

There's something magical about the shared experience that happens during a horror film at the cinema: it's good to be scared together in a safe environment. But I've seen modern horror films that didn't elicit even half so rapt an engagement with the story on the screen as this showing of a 45-year-old film.

Ridley Scott did manage to immerse the film within a sense of timelessness that aids its far-future setting. There are a few old computers, a few things that seem dated - but they don't detract from the experience. The special effects are all classic models, basic green screens, and tricks of the camera: nothing even close to the CGI explosions we take for granted nowadays.

The sets in ALIEN are completely enclosed, built to create a confined sense of claustrophobia. That also limits how the camera can move... and limitations create the best art. The subtlety of light and sound, defined by these confined spaces, cannot be understated. Tighter and tighter shots pull us into the tension; the rhythm of a heartbeat beneath a moment of conversation is just barely audible, but your own heart begins to drum in time.

Long stretches of relative silence and stillness create the canvas for brief explosions of sound and fury. Scott's vision is a patient one that asks the audience to agree to the immersion. Instead of dropping the audience into a CGI landscape too real to believe, this film invites the audience's collaboration in the experience: you become invested in physical space, and in the characters who inhabit it.

Everyone left the cinema feeling high. The guy behind me was jazzed about the movie (he'd just seen it for the first time). Another guy and his wife, who had gleefully taken the very front seats in the tiny theater, were ecstatic (they were clearly longtime fans). My friend and I stood around for a good fifteen minutes after the show, discussing the finer points of Scott's technique and wondering if he'll finally finish the prequel trilogy.

The horror genre rarely produces films that I like watching, but in ALIEN, there's a level of artistry that will forever engross me. It's science fiction, which is part of the puzzle, but it's also the sheer skill and effort going into every scene. It's a masterpiece not simply because it scares, but because its invitation to the suspension of disbelief is so subtle, so powerful, that you almost can't help but become invested. Even 45 years after its release, in a world dramatically changed in every way, ALIEN remains capable of capturing its audience in an intimate snare of tension that has to be seen and felt to be believed.

Hi there! I’m Odin Halvorson, a librarian, independent scholar, film fanatic, fiction author, and tech enthusiast. If you like my work and want to support me, please consider becoming a paid subscriber for as little as $2.50 a month!

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