In my last article, I talked a bit about how the success of Star Wars had a massive influence on Alien getting made. The films themselves, however, represent two distinct types of sci-fi film – a fact that is obvious even from the two films’ opening credits.
Think back to Star Wars for a moment. A more thrilling opening scene has perhaps never been seen before or since: the stylized scrawl text, the John Williams fanfare, the enormous Star Destroyer chasing the tiny Corellian corvette through space, and the harsh planet below.
Alien’s opening scene, on the other hand, can be seen as a counterpoint to Star Wars. Where Lucas’ film begins with guns literally a-blazing, Alien is quiet, dark, and cryptic. It is, quite simply, one of the best tone-setting title sequences of all time. And it’s also one of my personal favorites.
Like Star Wars, Alien opens with a shot of a planet, though unlike the bright Tatooine of Lucas’ imagination this planet is bathed in shadow. Out of the darkness of space, a symbol emerges:
Then, a few more symbols slowly come into view:
In designing Alien’s title sequence, director Ridley Scott wanted something mysterious and inaccessible, like hieroglyphics or a computer read-out. The graphics themselves were created by the same people who made the theatrical poster for the film, hence why the same font is used in both instances. For a viewer seeing the film for the first time, the lines that gradually emerge could be mistaken for an alien language or some kind of graphical over-lay. When combined with Jerry Goldsmith’s haunting musical score, the result is both confusing and chilling.
The symmetry of the symbols points to them having some kind of structured, logical meaning, but as the camera passes across the dark planet below, this meaning remains unknown to the audience.
By the time the final pieces of the letters are filled in and the word ALIEN becomes clear, nearly two minutes have elapsed. It’s an extraordinarily long time to make the audience linger in anticipation and suspense, but in Scott’s great wisdom, it prepares the viewer for a film that is predicated almost entirely upon anticipation and suspense. As will be discussed in more depth in a later article, on several occasions the film goes to great lengths to establish a mood fraught with equal parts tension and serenity before something suddenly comes into frame and the audience’s pent up apprehension is released in a moment of terror. The film’s title sequence expertly anticipates this dynamic by situating the viewer in a suspenseful atmosphere from the movie’s very first frame.
For an audience expecting a Star Wars-style space romp or a 50s-style monster movie, Alien’s title sequence is like a bucket of cold water. The message of the titles is clear: this is, first and foremost, a horror movie. And you better get ready to be scared out of your wits.