A friend of mine recently posted on Facebook that Alien is his “favorite movie of all time”. This was coincidental, since during our lunch conversation the other day about Stanley Kubrick, someone asked me what I thought of Blade Runner, which of course wasn’t directed by Kubrick, but by Ridley Scott, who also directed Alien.

(Brief aside: Other than those two films, the only other film I’ve seen by Scott is Gladiator. While none of those films set my world on fire, I like them better than anything by Kubrick.)

I’m not a fan of horror; I don’t really like gore, or sequences calculated to make you jump out of your seat, or squirm, or worry about the worst that’s about to happen, knowing that it almost certainly is. I much prefer Alfred Hitchcockian suspense.

Still, despite not liking the genre, I do think Alien is a fine film, maybe the best horror film ever. It has a lot going for it:

  1. Setting: The universe of the spaceship Nostromo feels real, with details like the alien ship the crew discovers, and the sinister corporate masters of the ship. Those bits suggest that here’s more to the universe beyond what we actually see, and in particular the alien ship stimulates our imagination to wonder where it came from. (I understand director Ridley Scott’s upcoming film Prometheus was originally going to explore the alien from the derelict ship, but I guess it’s now turned into a different film.) Even the fact that the Nostromo is a commercial ship, not a military or other government ship, makes it feel a little more real.
  2. Characters: The characters are pretty well-drawn, and also feel real. They’re not supermen, they’re not even soldiers, and they all have opinions and agendas (and flaws). The fine cast helps here a lot, too.
  3. Story: The story is smart. Presented with the killer alien creature hiding in their ship, the crew is smart about trying to deal with the problem: They come up with plans, and execute them. Since they’re not supermen, and since the alien turns out to be even more powerful than they’d thought, their plans fail. But they don’t march to their deaths through sheer stupidity.
  4. Threat: The alien is of course one of the most memorable movie monsters ever. Beyond its appearance, it’s creepy (acid blood!), hard to find, hard to kill, and hard to survive. It certainly feels more alien than any other monster.

I appreciate craft in films, especially when it comes to plotting and world-building, and Alien excels on both points. I would have enjoyed it more if it hadn’t been a horror film (much as I was sad that the great dinosaur animations in Jurassic Park were squandered on a horror film), but few films succeed so well at what they set out to do.