Death of the Critic

Anatomy of a Scene - Alien

Written by: Tom Blaich


Alien has changed so much as a franchise since it was first made. It went from science fiction horror to action to crossover monster battles. But it all started with this, a few people trapped on a ship with their worst nightmare. When we talk about horror, we speak a lot to tension, that feeling of building unease that makes us worry about what is coming next. More importantly, it makes us almost beg for it to happen. Alien begins with almost an hour of it, moodily piling on the tension before taking it away all at once.

After receiving what appears to be a distress signal, the small crew of the Nostromo lands to try to help out. But this world is alien in more ways than one. They find an abandoned alien ship and a cavern full of strange eggs. We watch Kane study one of them, and we worry about him. We’ve spent time with him, more than half an hour so far building this relationship between audience and character, and we don’t want anything bad to happen to him. We can see something moving inside, shifting behind the opaque walls of the egg. We feel nervous as the top spreads open like the petals of the flower. Everything is ok for a second.

But there is a flash of movement as the creature bursts out, latching onto Kane’s face as he tries to scream for help.

Then it is over. And we are back to worrying, letting that small parasite of fear gnaw at the insides of our stomach. This is where a horror movie would normally begin. Other eggs would open and all of a sudden everyone would be in danger. Instead, they bring Kane back to the ship, and we get to see the creature latched onto his face in the bright light of the med bay, as he lays there for another twenty agonizing minutes.

We had the jump scare, but now the monster is laid bare. The movie shows us so many details in the scenes leading up to this, but they allow us to forget. The melted holed in the floor, the ragged hole in the aliens chest that something burst through.

We expect the horror at this point, we just don’t know where it will come from. Up until that moment at the lunch table, we are left to guess what might happen next. Will they attempt to operate to save him, risking his life to cut the creature off? Or will more of them invade the ship, waves of the tiny creatures attacking? It is a very human drama of choice as we wait, and our minds rush to fill the gaps.

All of a sudden, everything is ok. The crew gets a call that Kane is recovered, and for a moment, all of the tension just bleeds away. It’s cathartic to see Kane talking and joking with his crew mates, even hungry for food. He went rom being assumed as dead to being a living, breathing human again, and we have to recognize him as such.

It is what makes this scene so brutally effective. It’s the return to normalcy after worry, the roller coaster gently coasting to a stop after a dizzying climb. They let you lapse, but they don’t give you time to question it.

They all sit around the table as Kane hungrily tears into his food. He’s laughing and joking along with them and you are lulled into a false sense of security, but less than a minute later and something is not right. He starts to squirm and cough. Is he choking on his food? Is it the alien? And it takes everyone a second to react as the scene begins to shift back into horror. We go from terror to complacency before we are thrust back into terror, and the action of the crew reflect that for us.

You can see that they are shocked, that they don’t quite know what to do as the humor bleeds out of their faces. “What’s wrong? What? What?” It seems like a ridiculous question when there is someone gasping in pain and clutching at their chest. They feel helpless, almost an extension of the audience as they lower him tot the table, his arms flying and jerking around. They crowd him to hold him still as his movements knock plates and cups off of the table in a clatter. He’s surrounded by the detritus of their peaceful lunch turned horror show. One man tries to force the handle of a spoon between his teeth, presumably so he won’t swallow his own tongue.

“I’m trying.” They struggle against him, fighting his movements. There’s exertion, a desperate force as they try to work the handle between his jaws. It’s loud and frenetic, a chaos of clutter and limbs. To the side stands Lambert, trying to figure out what she can do to help, unsure and worried. Action and inaction clash as Parker tries to do anything he can to help and Lambert doesn’t know what to do, caught between fight and flight. Every personality is represented. There is a man barking orders no matter how ineffective they may be, a man is active, a man following along. They all want to help, they just don’t know what to do.

Then there is blood.

A quick spurt darkens his plain white shirt. A single scream and the room goes completely silent. Every sound and motion stops while we attempt to process what just happened. There are a few short seconds where the action recedes and we can contemplate before Kane starts gasping and groaning again. His legs kick up into the air as the crew tries to hold him down, the blood stain spreading slowly, his shirt stained with his blood as the camera cuts back and forth between his chest and the crew.

Something bursts out in a squelch of blood and viscera. We don’t know what it is at first as the shirt stretched to try to contain it, fat droplets of blood flying through the air. Then it thrusts again, breaking through with a high pitched cry. The crew backs off, blood dotting Lambert’s face, visages frozen in horror and disbelief.

“Oh God.”

“Don’t touch it, don’t touch it.” The creature, the Alien, is shockingly real, uncoiling itself from the man’s gut as it looks around, a sharp row of teeth ringing its mouth. Barker grabs a fork to try to stab it, which seems almost foolish in hindsight, but speaks to the true terror of the crew. They don’t know what is going on, but they are scared and want to defend themselves . Then only one who thinks differently is Ash. He wants the Alien, to study it and bring it home. As everyone else is panicking, he is plotting.

The movie has been preparing us for the scene for a while, both through foreshadowing and it’s masterful use of tension. As the alien scampers off and everyone stands there silently, we had already been warned. The Alien that they found had a hole blown it its chest from the inside. The floor near it had been melted by the acid of the Alien’s blood, which we saw when they tried to cut the creature off of Kane. We see Ash pushing the crew towards the Alien twice, once when he says that Ripley can’t warn them, and once when he lets the crew in with Kane against Ripley’s wishes.

The first half of the movie is a relatively slow burn. They drip feed us with tension as they build towards this one defining moment. And the reveal is so effective because of that release we get moments before, where the “facehugger” is found dead and Kane is discovered to be OK. By bringing us back to hope, the movie can quickly crush it again, dragging us into utter terror along with the crew.


Tom has been writing about media since he was a senior in high school. He likes long walks on the beach, dark liquor, and when characters reload guns in action movies.

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