With Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry sold mankind a squeaky-clean vision of the future. A vast “new frontier” stretched out into the infinite reaches of outer space, just waiting to be explored by brightly-lit starships (filled, of course, with blinking and buzzing gizmos) and the fearless adventurers at their helms–brave men and women paving the way for a better tomorrow, both for Earthlings and for their alien brethren (who usually looked remarkably human, set apart only by pointy ears or strange skin color).
A comforting dream. A sugary sweet poison.
With Alien, director Ridley Scott pours a bitter antidote down the viewer’s throat. His ship, the Nostromo, runs on noisy, greasy machinery that requires constant maintenance. The crew consists not of intrepid explorers, but of weary company employees drifting aimlessly from paycheck to paycheck. Some of the vessel’s rooms–notably the laboratories–are eerily sterile, like a doctor’s office, while many of the long, dark corridors look almost too functional, too practical, too familiar. Scott’s future is a cold, lonely, hostile place–and somewhere in its shadows lurks a terror beyond our imagination.
That is the true source of Alien’s horror–not the rarely-glimpsed, insect-like, bio-mechanical, slime-dripping, disturbingly sexual monstrosity that haunts the Nostromo’s ventilation shafts, but the oppressive emptiness of a universe in which human beings are less significant than ants on a picnic table.
“In space, no one can hear you scream."
[Originally written October 10, 2012.]