45 years down the road, Ridley Scott’s ALIEN (1979) remains a masterclass in visual storytelling. Its influence has been enormous, and you can find its traces in any contemporary production — film, interaction, digital learning, gaming, even literature. A wealth of material has been written on the subject. For this article, I am only focusing on those aspects of visual design relevant to contemporary production.
A short summary of the plot: when the crew of the mining spaceship Nostromo receive a signal of unknown origin, they decide to investigate. Landing on a distant planetoid, they discover the remains of an alien civilization. One of the crew members gets infected. The mother ship refuses to let him back in. But the ship’s science officer breaks quarantine and opens the door. The alien proceeds to decimate the crew. And the rest, as they say, is history; I do not wish to spoil this very tense film for you.
Already the brilliant opening credits establish the look & feel of the entire film. Gliding across the universe, past a huge dark planet, and further into darkness, the camera delves into huge mysteries. The title ALIEN slowly forms on the screen. You can see the phases of its gradual development. The letters look like Egyptian hieroglyphs. In this way, a perfect synthesis of form and content is established. Both the dark universe and the typography emanate the theme of the film. Furthermore, the half-formed letters invite you to fill in the blanks. Your mind and your heart ask questions about the origin of things.
The design is stripped down to the bare essentials. Nevertheless, they communicate a vast universe of meaning. ‘’Less is more’’ sounds like the most banal cliche in design. But ALIEN is one of those essential films that prove the cliche’s truth. To name just one example, after half a century, its futuristic design STILL looks modern. Sometimes it is more convincing than contemporary science fiction. This is because Ridley Scott keeps a firm grasp on signs and symbols. Fashions change, especially in today’s fast-paced design world. But the visual grammar remains the same across centuries. 50 years from now, people could be drinking from a shape-shifting coffee cup. However, at its core, it will remain a coffee cup.
The camera creeps through the spaceship Nostromo. There are labyrinthine corridors and intricate pipe systems. The ship is carrying egg-shaped cargo. Visual design conjures up the image of a womb. The ship is woken up by the alien stress signal. Again, the design and the story work in perfect unison: just as the story is ‘’waking up’’, so is the ship. We see how an astronaut’s helmet reflects the screen of a self-starting computer. In one fell swoop, the image fuses humanity and technology.
The computer takes the crew out of their hyper-sleep. The sleeping chamber opens its ‘’petals’’ like a flower in spring. It becomes obvious that the film is focusing on the birth of something new. We have already gotten clues that it will be an alien identity; something borne out of a fusion with technology.
The ship’s captain talks to Nostromo’s central computer, Mother. The design of the computer extends the concept of the womb. The term Mother also introduces gender into the film’s exploration of identity. ALIEN was probably the first film in cinema history to feature a successful female captain. It is something of a psychological stereotype to associate high technology with the female principle. But current developments show that ALIEN was visionary in this respect. The position of women is a major topic in today’s debates about leadership. So the mystery introduced in the opening extends to issues of gender. We see this most clearly in the famous scene of the alien’s attack in the cellar:
The attack is the reflected in a frightened cat’s eyes. The cat is symbolic of our ambiguous gender identity. By its very design, the alien creature challenges the binary nature of language. We cannot ‘’pin it down’’, as it were. The film had a visionary insight into non-binary identity. Back in the 1970s, it was shocking to suggest that gender could be fluid. Nowadays, this concept is taken for granted.
The crew gather up to discuss their defense strategy. The chief’s commander Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), who was previously shunned by the science officer, becomes very assertive. While others break down emotionally, she keeps her cool. Visual composition supports this tension between rationality and emotion. On the left side of the screen, we see the rational officer. On the right-hand side, we see Parker (Yaphet Kotto). who is famous for emotional decisions. Visual composition replicates the division of ‘’duties’’ in brain physiology. The left brain is associated with the more rational functions, while the right brain commands the irrational. Science officer Ash (Ian Holm) is the traitor. He was created by the company to supervise the capture of the alien. By placing him in between Ripley and Parker, the composition suggests that he is the center of gravity. And this is true of most stories: the villain (Nemesis) is the one who reveals the hidden truth of a story.
The truth is revealed when the crew discover the scientist is a robot. The robot is decapitated, and the scene instantly brings us back to the beginning of the film. Ash’s head is just like the astronaut helmet from the introductory scene. On the one hand, the separation of the head from the body suggests a deep split inside human nature. On the other hand, the image deepens the theme of alien identity. Ash’s body is made of organic material, and it seems to lead a life of its own, apart from his head. This blurs the boundary between humanity and A.I. The implication is that the organic, our bodies, have always been artificial, to a higher or lesser degree. We have always been part machine, part human. In today’s debates about trans-human identity, we see a reflection of ALIEN’s narrative design.
The ending of ALIEN shows the alien nature of knowledge. Realizing she has to leave Nostromo, Ripely opens up the ship’s self-destruct system. We see a myriad of indecipherable pictograms. The makers took months to research these designs. They combined ancient Egyptian languages with ultramodern science. The idea was to show the complexity of human sign systems. But the meaning of language eludes us. All the effort Ripley invested in pressing the right buttons results in failure. The central computer malfunctions, and the self-destruct system proceeds on its own. In the end, Ripley’s salvation comes from accepting the ambiguity of language. We will probably NEVER discover its secrets.