Alien is a movie that takes place on a spaceship in the future, so it must be science-fiction, right?
But wait… it’s also a movie that features a vicious monster that kills most of the characters in the film. Isn’t that more like a horror movie?
With these two questions, we’ve taken our first steps into what is one of the most commonly known and widely misunderstood areas of film studies: genre theory.
Like the auteur theory, genre theory has crossed over into common film parlance. Just about everybody knows the gist of it: that movies can be categorized into various genres according to their patterns and tropes. There are various major genres (sci-fi, horror, westerns, etc.), sub-genres (screwball comedy as a sub-genre of comedy, or melodrama as a sub-genre of drama), and obscure or international genres (like jidaigeki, a Japanese genre that literally means “period drama” and is usually used when referring to Samurai movies).
In my experience, there are two types of genre arguments: constructive ones and pointless ones.
Constructive arguments focus on things like how pre-existing genre codes influence the language of cinema and whether or not they can co-exist with theories of auteurship. This is a branch of film theory called auteur-structuralism, a cousin of semiotics.
Pointless arguments are the ones you have with your friends. They usually involve categorization for the sake of categorization and frequently revolve around issues of semantics rather than any legitimate scholarly questions. They ask questions like “is True Lies a comedy or an action movie?” or “what’s up with the black guy always dying in horror movies?”
Pointless ones are the most fun.
What follows is a pointless one.
Pointless but perhaps not completely without merit. Over the course of three articles (this one and two others to be posted over the next couple of days), I’m going to take a look at Alien from the perspective of genre: its horror elements, its sci-fi elements, and how it combines the two.
First up: horror.
Alien was made in the midst of the slasher film craze, which started in 1974 with two films, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Black Christmas, and arguably dominated the horror genre until the rise of torture porn in the early 2000s. While Ridley Scott was admittedly not a huge fan of horror movies at the time he made Alien, he considered The Texas Chain Saw Massacre to be a landmark film, and its fingerprints are all over Scott’s movie. The basic premise – a person or thing hunting down and killing a group of friends or colleagues – is the same in both films, and can also be seen in many other slasher movies of the era, most notably 1980’s Friday the 13th.
Where the great slasher movies (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Alien, Halloween) distinguish themselves from the pack of mediocre gorefests is with their interest in the pathology of a killer. In each of these films, the question of why the killer would commit such acts is given equal importance to the bloody details of the acts themselves, even if, as in Alien, it’s not addressed head-on. Alien’s xenomorph, apart from being a visually compelling villain, acts as a cipher upon which an audience can project their most primal fears. Its animalistic and human-like qualities are both hinted at in the film (and will be explored in later articles this month), and the result is a killer that is far more complex than even more famous slasher antagonists like Michael Myers.
Aside from Alien’s role in the development of the slasher sub-genre, several more general horror tropes also pop up throughout the film. Arguably the most recognizable – and the most effective – is its use of quiet and stillness to lure the audience into a feeling of eerie calm before sudden movement makes them jump out of their seats. A couple such shocks stand out as particularly excellent: the search around a dark and quiet science lab before the dead “facehugger” falls on Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), the scene when Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) takes a moment of rest and lets water cascade down his face before the alien emerges behind him, and the scene at the end of the film when an apparent metal bulkhead turns out to be the alien, who was hiding in the shuttle Ripley used to escape the ship. Going hand-in-hand with these moments of shock are several occasions when the audiences expectations are subverted; a mysterious sound turns out to be Jones the cat instead of the alien, for instance.
Two classic horror plot devices are also used to heighten tension in the film. The first is simple but effective: trapping the characters in a dangerous environment. There is a very brief moment in the middle of the film when the crisis appears to have been resolved; the “facehugger” detaches itself from Kane (John Hurt) and the crew prepares to go back into suspended animation. It’s during this brief time that the Nostromo leaves the planet and heads back out into deep space… meaning that when the “chestburster” kills Kane and scurries off to mature into the fully-grown alien, the crew no longer has anywhere to run. The second plot device used is frequently referred to by writers as “putting a clock on it,” and it’s useful not only in horror movies but in a wide variety of drama. “Putting a clock on it” simply means creating a time pressure on the characters. In Alien, this time pressure comes from the Nostromo’s self-destruct system, which Ripley intends to use to blow up the ship in order to kill the alien. Unfortunately for her, the plan is seemingly foiled when she encounters the alien on her way to the escape shuttle, meaning that she is cut off from her only way of getting off the ship and is suddenly at the mercy of the self-destruct that she herself programmed. Ripley does eventually find a way out of her sticky situation, but the time pressure created by the self-destruct significantly raises the stakes in the last half hour of the film.
And if Alien’s horror credentials weren’t already established, the last act of the film leaves no doubt. It is, as horror meta-movie Scream describes it, the classic “moment when the supposedly dead killer comes back to life for one last scare” – the alien, thought by Ripley to have been killed by the explosion of the Nostromo, turns out to still be alive and hiding in her escape shuttle. The audience, like Ripley, assumed that the crisis was over, so the sudden realization that it’s not comes as a pretty significant shock.
As the various tropes that I’ve described prove, Alien is firmly rooted in horror tradition. For audiences, the film came along at just the right time: a junction in film history when the slasher and sci-fi genres were both reaching heights of popularity and esteem that they had never before attained. Check out tomorrow’s article for a closer look at the science-fiction aspects of the film.
To see the other articles I’ve written so far in the 30 Days of Alien series, visit the link below: