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Alien's Perfect Space Coffin

Featuring a curated playlist to accompany the piece.

We hope it is as scary and pretty as the film it is based on.

Ridley Scott's Alien is a momentous strange tale that unearths true terror as a knuckled, unrefined deposit: a soul-racked fear whose innateness is so visceral you merely have to sense it, breathing down your neck, to know its bottomless depth.

Famed (sometimes maligned) for its snail creep towards violence, the film's titular obsidian incubus doesn't even rear its head until halfway through the runtime. Hell, Sigourney Weaver's iconic Ripley is a Final Girl upon a culled stage, not an action hero. Instead, the star of the show is the 'USCSS Nostromo', the lumping freighter fated to be drenched silently with blood, forty light-years from home.

The opening three minutes are dedicated, like an elegy, to its tight, empty hallways, gothic in the scale of their loneliness and their spectral sentience. The Nostromo's interior is clinically soft, the opposite to H. R. Giger's primordial cathedrals found on an unnamed planet, with their ribbed chambers that absorb all light. As the camera pans across the ship's lifeless geography, discovered waking from its LCD slumber, pages on a manual are blown by the breeze. The breeze? It must have been a mistake caused by the passing of the camera operator, perhaps explained as an omen of the impending massacre (the Nostromo is, of course, Scott's ultimate haunted house.) It strikes me, however, as if the pages were blown by the wind, whistling through cracks. The ship feels anything but air-tight, more like a galley that creaks and drips than a steel mass. The white hush of its upper decks is a lie, veiling a darkened beast that gurgles and splutters more flagrantly the deeper into its belly you descend.

It really is a belly, too. Alien is obsessed with seeing the inorganic glitch and fuse its way into the organic: the Xenomorph's titanium maw; androids bleeding mother's milk... In the Nostromo's ventilation, shafts close like sphincters and its true psychology remains a mystery, deep behind a gilded pituitary code.

Putting the bio in biomechanical most of all is its inhabitants, all too human, tragically so. Far from the space marines that populate the sequels, the crew of the Nostromo are star truckers, hauliers of dirt and stone. Good luck catching any of their dialogue as it bubbles to the ambience like another beeping button, Altman-esque and obfuscated bumble and twang. Swathed in its song are the nine-to-five complaints of barflies, accented by insults and distracted suggestions of unionisation over the top of a cigarette paper being rolled. Despite the cryogenic womb that it emerged from, this is a stubbled, sweat-stained ensemble. The clue is in their intensely analogue environment, clunking keyboards with sticky keys: Input. Output: lines of mossy code that draw rickety like wooden pegs on a string from the ether. But this isn't some cute speculation about the future from the past, limited in foresight by what is already technologically available; Alien has aged finely because it is ultimately a space-age depiction of the working class. You fix the Nostromo - that gargantuan jalopy - with a wrench and solder. You traverse its innards with a battery-powered torch. Its crew consists of mechanics and technicians waiting for their cheque, its captain is a floor manager. So who is that white upper deck for, really? Is it just a sanitised living quarter? Or is that saline smell the fumes of a cold laboratory? Are those padded walls an asylum? Is its cylindrical chambers a tomb? Like the black seraph that visits it, the Nostromo's structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.

Giger, the dusky sorcerer who conjures Cthulu onto this boat, plays in that starry kind of hostility. It is one Cronenbergian thing to have something malformed, diseased and misshapen grow in you; it's another far more cosmically terrifying thing to have something beautiful, sleek, better than you defile, hijack and utilise you. Giger's work sees the final vestiges of rationale twinkling out and leaving only a subterranean rumbling of fear. When isolated from genre his work is already haunting, but it becomes overwhelmingly so when contrasted with the humdrum aching bones of the Nostromo. The Xenomorph stands in almost religious opposition exactly because the Nostromo is so calloused.

The title card makes a promise that for a stricken half an hour is deferred. Tragedy is imminent, written in the oppressive quietude of cushioned walls. When the ship is inevitably sick and wailing in alarm over the sight of its massacred workers, it feels as if it is sinking through the final lining of space, capsizing into the gooey cosmic ichor. Enjoy the drift.


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