Few movies have had a more recognizable and influential visual style then Alien. Alien was shot entirely in environments that were created for the film. There was no outdoor shooting or shooting in real locations. Therefore every aspect was controllable by the film makers. Alien’s visual style has had a tremendous impact on future films. Films such as Red Planet and The Matrix borrow visual motifs from the film, especially the interior design of the respective ships.
Using a mise-en-scene that creates a dreary atmosphere for the viewer is a horror movie standard that goes back to German expressionist films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or Nosferatu. Those films used a mise-en-scene that purposefully made the film feel surreal and frightening. More recently, films such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre have used claustrophobic houses to the same effect. In the essay Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film, Carol J. Clover calls this The Terrible Place. "The Terrible Place, most often a house or tunnel, in which the victims sooner or later find themselves is a venerable element of horror. [...] The house or tunnel may at first seem a safe haven, but the same walls that promise to keep the killer out quickly become, once the killer penetrates them, the walls that hold the victim in" (Clover 198). Alien takes this to a new setting, placing the "Terrible Place" on a space ship.
In many respects, the fully grown alien resembles the ship. The alien is dark is color, and irregularly shaped. It a great number of small teeth, just as most of the ship’s interior has small protrusions. controls have a great number of small switches or lights. It also has many ridges in its skin, especially in the tail that are similar to the pipes on the Nostromo.
The alien blending in with the ship.
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These similarities play into a larger picture. The most obvious reason for the design of the ship is to make the later parts of the film more dramatic by making the alien blend into the background of the ship, and making it harder to spot. Thematically, the complexities and the similarities to the alien make the Nostromo feel more organic. The ship in many ways is a mother to the crew. The onboard ship computer is even called mother. Making the ship look more complex makes it look more organic, and creates a closer link to the idea of mother.
In addition to the design of the Nostromo, the design of both the interior and exterior of the crashed alien ship known only as “The Derelict” also deserves some scrutiny. In Barbara Creed’s essay, "Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection" she writes:
Three of the crew enter the body of the unknown spaceship through a “vaginal” opening: the ship is shaped like a horseshoe, its curved sides like two long legs spread apart at then entrance. They travel along a corridor that seems to be made of a combination of inorganic and organic material- as if the inner space of the ship were alive. Compared to the atmosphere of the Nostromo, however, this ship is dark, dank, and mysterious. (Creed 48-49)
The derelict ship is reminiscent of the womb. More is written on this in the Analysis of Tropes and Metaphors section, but it is important to note from a purely visual standpoint how this setting impacts the rest of the movie. The crew enters a womb and retrieves an egg.
The Derelict Ship
Alien has one of the most reproduced visual styles in the entire history of the art. Similar designs for aliens have been used in films such as Independence Day and Species. Alien has created a standard for what a lower tech space ship should look like. Similar designs can be seen in movies like The Matrix, and Pitch Black.
One film in particular that borrows many elements of Alien is Red Planet (2000). Directed by Antony Hoffman, Red Planet is about a group of astronauts sent to Mars in the year 2057 in order to investigate a terraforming (altering a planets' environment) project on Mars that has suddenly stopped producing results. The project was a plan to turn Mars into a place livable by human, since the earth has now been polluted beyond recovery and will not be inhabitable in the near future. Red Planet is not a horror movie, but it does borrow some aspects of Alien and change them to better suit its own story.
The main threat to the characters in Alien is the alien, but they are also threatened by technology and the natural environment. The main threat to the characters in Red Planet is technology, though they are at times threatened by aliens and the Martian environment. Both Ripley and Bowman, the commander of the ship in Red Planet, are strong female characters serving on a ship of mostly men. Both ships have onboard ship’s computers with female voices and female names.
Red Planet’s story may be as serious as Alien, but its tone clearly is not. Witty one liners, and pop-rock musical cues fill the movie. While the first act of Alien is mainly focused on setting the tone of the film, the first act of Red Planet has the characters already fit into comfortable Hollywood archetypes, introduced some plot points, and set the story in motion. There is less of a need in Red Planet to have one visual motif for the entire film. The less focused tone and looser narrative of the story allow a much freer style, but it still has a strong resemblance to Alien.
The command center
Oddly shaped corridors
In both Red Planet and Alien the design of the ship reflects the threats that the characters face. In Alien, the organic and complex environment makes the movie feel more threatening by making it closer to what the alien looks like. In Red Planet, the high tech mise-en-scene reflects on AMEE, a robot that has been damaged, and is now intent on killing the crew. This gives both movies more cohesive narratives.
AMEE in Red Planet