In space there's nowhere to run to

We are living in a time of social isolation. As we self-quarantine, shelter in place, work from home, social distance, or just hide we exist in a moment of fear and worry. Ennui is an enemy, nearly as dangerous as the viral enemy, that we must each battle.  The boredom, the cabin fever, can build up and push us to the edge of madness. Many of us are only a few days from a Jack Torrance situation.  Isolation can kill.

Isolation is a common theme in horror films and with good reason. The Shining (referenced above) is the definitive movie about the horrors of social isolation. In it the Torrance family is spends a winter alone, holed up in the Overlook hotel working as caretakers. The father, Jack (Jack Nicholson) slowly loses his mind (helped along by the malevolent ghosts that also inhabit the hotel) until he snaps and attempts to slaughter his wife and son.

John Carpenter’s The Thing also uses theme of isolation to create horror. Like The Shining it takes place in a frozen, snowbound place. The characters in that film work at a research outpost in Antarctica. They find themselves under attack from a shapeshifting alien that mimics people in order to replicate.  The paranoia and dread felt by the men is heightened by the fact that they are cutoff from the world.

Similar themes run through Larry Fessenden’s The Last Winter in which a group of oil workers are stuck in a remote outpost while preparing a road to bring in heavy equipment for oil and gas wells.

All of that lead up was preparing you for the film we came here to discuss: Ridley Scott’s Alien is one of the most discussed, studied, dissected, and written about movies of all time. Much has been made of the psycho-sexual aspects of the film.  From the penetrative nature of the alien attack, to the chest burster functioning a metaphor for birth down to the vaginal nature of the ship’s structure.  Every aspect of the film has been examined through a Freudian lens of some sort. I am not here to argue against those interpretations (I couldn’t argue against them because I happen to agree with them), but rather to pick at a scab that is normally left untouched.

Alien is the perfect film about the horror of social isolation.

The plot of the movie is, well if you’re here you already know but it’s this:

A group of blue collar workers on a vessel that is transporting ore respond to a distress signal. They find a derelict ship filled with some sort of alien pods. One of the crew is attacked by something that comes from one of the pods. It attaches to his face and cannot be removed. Later it falls off and dies and everything seems fine. The an alien creature rips its way out of Ash’s chest killing him. The thing hides in the ship. It grows very quickly and hunts the crew even as they are trying to hunt it. 
Lt. Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver in the role that made her a star) is the lone survivor after blasting the creature out of an airlock into space.

The film works sort of like a gothic haunted house tale where the house is a spaceship and the ghost is an alien creature that bleeds acid.  Many critics have noted its similarity also to Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None”.  

The Lovecraftian nature of the story is also often noted.

What no one ever mentions is that this is a story about isolation and loneliness.  The crew is meant to be in suspended animation. We can assume that they are put in freezers for the long trip not only to save on supplies but also to safeguard their sanity. Locked up in a confined space for years, the crew would likely, much like Jack Torrance, go ‘round the bend into insanity. This would be cabin fever in the extreme.

The distress call that pulls them from their rest sets in motion a slowly mounting horror that is exacerbated by the very fact of outer space. There is no escape from the alien because they are, like the inhabitants of Ouptpost 31, completely cut off from the outside world and any hope of escape.  In space no one can hear you scream, and there is absolutely nowhere to run to.

Alien makes much of the tension between the members of the crew and the fault lines that run between them. Harry Dean Stanton and Yaphet Kotto work below deck in the bowels of the ship and seem to be looked down upon by the crew above. They are in turn distrustful of the higher class officers.

Much tension is built in Alien through scenes of a single character,  mostly Ripley,  alone. This is a perfect film built around isolation.