So if you’ve read yesterday’s article, I think you’ll concede that Alien’s horror credentials are fairly well established.
Now about that business of it being a movie about people flying around in a spaceship in the future.
Yes, Alien is also a sci-fi movie. Tomorrow I’ll get into the details of how a film can so seamlessly mesh elements of two different genres. For today, though, let’s take a look at the film’s science-fiction elements.
As I’ve already discussed in some detail in a previous article in the “30 Days…” series, it’s important to note just how crucial Alien’s sci-fi elements were in getting the film made in the first place. After the success of Star Wars, Hollywood studios, hoping to stumble upon another mega-franchise, were willing to support just about any film that involved people in spaceships. For 20th Century Fox, the same studio that distributed the Star Wars movies, Alien represented another potentially valuable commodity. And through the four core Alien films, two Alien vs. Predator movies, and the forthcoming Prometheus, that’s exactly what it’s become.
On the most basic and superficial level, Alien features a number of the common tropes that define space-based science-fiction; it features extraterrestrial life (the alien creature itself), explores the ramifications of artificial intelligence (the Ash [Ian Holm] character), and presents a wide variety of futuristic technology (artificial gravity aboard the Nostromo, suspended animation for long-duration spaceflight, automated computer systems, and so on). Many of these same elements can be found in a wide range of sci-fi, from the Star Wars saga to the Star Trek franchise, and from Great Depression-era sci-fi like Buck Rogers to contemporary sci-fi like Battlestar Galactica. They’re the science-fiction equivalent of the border town, raucous saloon, wounded hero and callous desperado in the Western genre.
While superficial comparisons may be made between Alien and franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek, and while Fox’s support for Alien can be traced back to Star Wars, Alien’s style owes much more to another science-fiction classic: Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Released in 1968, 2001 established a new type of science-fiction realism that stood in contrast to the more fantastical style that was then in vogue. (This in spite of its truly massive themes and out-there ending.) In designing his vision of the future for the film, Kubrick chose to create a setting that seemed like a plausible extrapolation of then-existent technology and socio-economic trends. Spaceflight is depicted as being dangerous. Rather than a fictitious corporation, it is Pan Am that offers commercial spaceflights. And space itself is presented in stark terms: cold, black, and foreboding.
Alien follows in 2001’s footsteps in many regards. The film shares Kubrick vision of the starkness of space, no doubt also influenced – as much of sci-fi was – by the famous photograph taken aboard Apollo 8 of Earth hanging like a “grand oasis in the big vastness of space,” to quote astronaut Jim Lovell. The spaceship in Alien, the Nostromo, is a commercial vessel, and its odd shapes and irregular angles hint at a utilitarian design rather than a sleek one, in contrast to the shiny and stylish exploration ships in Star Trek. The interiors, and especially the lower decks, bear more of a resemblance to a contemporary refinery of some sort than the flashy and futuristic interiors of so many other sci-fi films. The planet that they visit is cold and inhospitable – a far cry from the lush, Earth-like planets found in Star Wars or Star Trek. And the landing on the planet proves troublesome, in contrast to the ease with which ships in other sci-fi franchises operate.
By adhering to many of the basic principles of space-borne sci-fi, Alien gave itself a change for major commercial success, while its grounded and naturalistic approach akin in 2001 meshes well with the film’s darker themes – after all, it wouldn’t be much of a horror movie if the characters were walking around a well-lit ship like the Enterprise. The film speaks to both our wildest aspirations and our darkest fears, which is a testament to its successful combination of two seemingly disparate genres.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Check back tomorrow for the third and final part in my examination of genre in Alien, when I’ll explore the concept of genre hybridity.
To see the other articles I’ve written so far in the 30 Days of Alien series, visit the link below: