Originally pitched as "Jaws in Space", Alien is a Hitchcockian suspense film, a slasher film and a science fiction epic rolled into one beautiful package. Ridley Scott and Dan O'Bannon (who will deny this and, in fact, settled out of court with author A.E. Van Vogt) at the VERY least took inspiration from Van Vogt's Voyage of the Space Beagle and Discord in Scarlet (which is actually PART of Space Beagle but was originally a short story) in that a space station crew on its way back to Earth is stalked by an alien menace. Alien is also a more serious retelling of O'Bannon's earlier work, Dark Star.
If you HAVEN'T seen Alien, SHAME ON YOU!! Bad horror fan! No cookie for you.
You all know the story. A space refinery crew is on their way back to Earth when they get a distress call. Like idiots, they respond to a transmission of unknown origin. Because if they didn't, they would have paid seven strong actors for doing nothing and it would basically be a French art film.
During the course of their investigations, they discover a room full of what appear to be eggs. They appear to be eggs because they are, in fact eggs. The contents of one of these eggs burns its way through a spacesuit helmet to give John Hurt a face full of alien wang. No kissin', no lube, nothin' because Alien is pretty much entirely a rape metaphor.
Not even dinner first...
So, eventually, the facehugger falls off and the dude gets up and he's all chatty and happy to be alive and he feels OK and they all sit down for a wonderful meal of space glop. And then the screaming starts. Because I'm fairly sure that's what Veronica Cartwright was bred specifically to do. Scream. She does it a lot. In most movies that I've seen her in. She needs a new hobby.
Anyway, she's screaming because of this:
Are you my mommy?
Yep. Dude just gave birth to a bouncing, baby penis. With teeth. And, of course, like any sensible space crew, they let it escape. It grows up very quickly, leaving a trail of discarded skins and alien goo behind it until it stalks and rape-kills pretty much the entire crew including Tom Skerritt and his fantastic mustache with it's tiny mouth penis inside it's bigger mouth on a penis-shaped head with lots of sharp teeth.
For an extra added level of intrigue, the ship's resident android and science officer, Ash (Ian Holm), is ordered to bring back the organism at any cost and goes all schizo so they have to put him down like the filthy robot dog he is.
Mmmmm. Corn starch.
It's up to Sigourney Weaver (in her first role) and her tiny bikini underwear to save the day. And she does so with the help of a grappling hook and thruster engines. WOOHOO!!
As with An American Werewolf in London, this movie was groundbreaking. Not for special effects, although the alien design is artistically stunning and certainly a step above anything we'd ever seen before, but for Scott's decision to make Ripley a woman. Science fiction, up until that point, was very male-dominated and since 1979 was still very much in the middle of the Women's Movement, that choice, to bring the movie audience a very strong, very motivated female lead has long been praised.
Ultimately, though, what makes this amazing is the suspense. I think that many audience members forget that Alien is, first and foremost, a horror film, specifically, a slasher. It just happens to take place in a science fiction setting. Ridley deliberately made this movie a slow burn instead of a fast-paced thriller and that gives it a tension that's unmatched in a lot of modern horror films. Ripley is considered a "Final Girl", a phenomenon introduced to movie-goers by such films as Black Christmas and Halloween, but because she is older and more experienced, she gives the concept a certain richness that's hard to duplicate with a younger character. This also brings directly to mind the "rape survivor" metaphor. A mature woman who has overcome horrifying adversity.
Another thing that made Alien memorable is that it's not representative of the "clean, crisp science fiction" of the decades before. The ship was used. It was dirty. It needed work. And the characters weren't innocents tossed to the slaughter, they were real people. They were not explorers, they were blue-collar workers. Yeah, the "dirty ship" concept had been used in Star Wars the year before but Alien took it to a very gritty place and that was appreciated.
The most AWESOME thing, I think, about Alien is the thought process that was put into the Alien life cycle. Much like Leucochloridium paradoxum, the complexity of the cycle, from egg, to facehugger (which implants the embryo), to chest burster, to full grown Alien is fully realized. And Giger's design is so iconic that it's almost impossible to imitate, although plenty of people have tried.
All of this adds up to a realistic experience and one that is, and will continue to be, remembered by generations of movie-goers.
So, I know I've said this type of thing before but Alien needs to be a part of every good horror movie fan's repertoire. I watch it a couple of times a year because it's that awesome.