Alien still stands as one of the most terrifying films ever made. Ridley Scott's film attacks the unconscious, the subterranean stratum of the mind. Alien reminded me of the Wilco song "Company in my Back" that opens with the lyrics "I attack with love, pure bug beauty/curl my lips and crawl up to you." The creepy verse encapsulates Alien to perfection.
In the near future the crew of the Nostromo are awakened from hyper sleep to explore a planet hiding deadly secrets. When a crew member gets attacked by "face hugger" it's revealed they use human bodies as hosts. Grisly details aside, Alien's realistic tone also made it unique. The cast did not look like a typical Sci-Fi cast. The script's free of the goofy techno dialogue in Star Wars and Star Trek, the actors delivered their lines with a gritty self-assurance.
Alien is all about exploitation. The "Company" that owns the Nostromo sends the beleaguered crew to a planet to respond to a distress call. The life forms they discover manage to exploit the crew in every way imaginable. Many have written on the sexual nature of the attacks. Film critic John Kenneth Muir explains the sexual symbolism in his detailed analysis (also check out the insightful podcast Faculty of Horror).
Ridley Scott wisely allowed the audience to learn about the characters in the first 45 minutes, so when we lose them, we feel it.
John Hurt as "chest burster" Kane seemed like a nice guy, but we hardly get to know him. Harry Dean Stanton as working class schlub Brent brings some humanity to the movie. Tom Skerrit as the intrepid commander fails miserably and meets a particularly gruesome fate (see the DVD extras). British villain/android Ian Holm personifies the dour corporate stooge. Yaphet Kotto, another great screen presence, is the macho man Parker. Veronica Cartwright really looks terrified, a stand in for the audience. And Sigourney Weaver's Ripley emerges as the unlikely heroine, a revolutionary moment for a Sci-Fi film.
If the history of modern Sci-Fi film begins with 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars: A New Hope, Alien kicked open the door to another era, building upon those two films. John Carpenter's Dark Star, written by Alien screenwriter Dan O'Bannon, works as a goofy rough draft to the events on the Nostromo.
A multi-layered film with compelling themes, Alien still challenges and unsettles audiences.