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It’s No Mystery Why Ridley Scott’s Alien Is a Masterpiece

It’s clearly not some giant leap to say Ridley Scott’s Alien is a masterpiece. That’s simply been a factual statement since the day it opened. But as we get ready for the next Alien movie to hit theaters this summer, we decided to look back on the franchise to see if we could dive a little deeper. Find something new, or at least try. Here’s what we came up with.

These days, we consider Alien to be both one of the best sci-fi and maybe even horror movies of all time. Which, clearly, it is. But I also think it should be considered one of the greatest mysteries of all time. Mystery and intrigue are the engine that keeps things going in the film well before an alien pops out of a man’s chest and wreaks bloody havoc.

The whole film moves and is built around creating questions. Questions that are then answered with answers that provide more questions. It starts when we see the crew of the Nostromo wake up. We wonder why they are waking up, what life is like on the ship, and more. Those questions are answered when it’s revealed a mysterious message has been detected and they have been tasked to investigate. Who sent that message? Why did they send it? Once they arrive on the mysterious planet, the crew discovers a massive alien spacecraft. Clearly, this is who sent the message but what the hell is this ship? Where did it come from? Who is on it?

Mystery upon mystery. – Fox

Things get taken to a whole other level once the crew boards the ship. They encounter a giant skeleton sitting in some mix of a chair and weapon fans would later name the Engineer. Who is this creature? How long has it been there? What was it doing? How did it die? Those questions, unlike most of the rest, never get answered because quickly things take a turn when Kane (John Hurt) encounters these equally fascinating eggs, only to open one and, well, we know what happens from there.

Scott’s focus on mystery extends to the filmmaking techniques too. The film opens with his camera slowly exploring the Nostromo, almost like a person quietly sneaking around looking for something specific. That camera move is copied again after the Facehugger lets go of Kane and Ash (Ian Holm) is dissecting it. The sets themselves are also created like a maze, with multiple levels, tunnels, nooks, and crannies everywhere, each one piquing curiosity in unique ways. Characters are often viewed in shadow, the music is always moody and contemplative, everything is slow and deliberate.

Once the alien bursts out of Kane’s chest, the film certainly shifts, but still maintains its identity. The narrative mysteries are merely replaced by the structure of a typical murder mystery as the creature picks off each crew member one by one like something out of an Agatha Christie novel. Is it a traditional murder mystery structure? No, especially since we know who the killer is and what they look like. But that’s just a unique way to give it a fresh approach while also raising tension and anticipation.

And don’t forget that last little cherry on top. – Fox

Eventually, the film tees up one final, major mystery to be solved, which is how and why the Nostromo ended up with the creature in the first place. We learn the company, later revealed to be Weyland-Yutani, ordered the android Ash to find and return it, even at the expense of the lives of the crew. The revelation is painful and shocking for the remaining characters but delicious for the audience. It’s such a ruthless directive that we both hate everything about it but also simply need to know more. What does the company think this creature will do? How did they find out about it? And what do they expect to happen if the mission is a success?

Scott’s film has no interest in those answers. Instead, like so many great sci-fi films of the era, it leaves those to the imagination in favor of character and story. Which, obviously, Alien has in every single frame. That’s why it’s a masterpiece. But watching it again, thinking about the new film coming out, we couldn’t help but marvel at the specific ways Alien draws us in and hasn’t let go in over four decades.

Watch Alien now on Hulu. The new film, Alien: Romulus, opens August 16.

Want more io9 news? Check out when to expect the latest Marvel, Star Wars, and Star Trek releases, what’s next for the DC Universe on film and TV, and everything you need to know about the future of Doctor Who.

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