What propels this movie is the friction between the familiar and the unknown, the world of ordinary consciousness and the world of our dreams. And this friction is sparked when O'Bannon's characters step into the baroque, sinister sets designed by the Swiss surrealist painter H.R. Giger. When the Nostromo receives a mysterious message from an uncharted planet, it lands to investigate and, as the crew disembarks, we are introduced to Giger's spooky landscape. Here, typhoons of pebbles and broken glass hurtle across the sky, and everywhere you look, there are gray rocks shaped like bones and telephone cords. Skulking about in space suits that a 19th-century futurist might have dreamed up --chivalric armor topped by a Jules Verne bubble -- the earthlings stumble across a derelict ship that is among Giger's most splendid creations. Fleshy, vaginal doors lead into its narrow passageways, and in the center sits the phallic remains of a pilot from another world; he is surrounded by big, leathery eggs, one of which will hatch the monster. Giger's Art Nouveau-like designs are metallic and industrial, yet weirdly organic as well. They drip and ooze. The spiraling cables look like tentacles, the scaffolding like ribs, the walls like muscles and organs. Surrounded by the Dolby stereo, you feel lost in the belly of the ship, which eerie sounds echoing down distant corridors. The effect is dreamlike, subliminal. It's as if you are watching one movie while your subconscious watches another.
The monster, by the way, is a beauty. The invention of a movie monster is no mean feat -- and besides, we live in a jaded era: a husky lunk in a Halloween costume won't cut the mustard anymore. Indeed, even the buggiest, scaliest old monster - the Creature from the Black Lagoon, for instance -- never wore well on the screen. Ove you had taken a good gander or two at him, the rest of the movie lost its grip on you. Alien's makers have solved this dilemma quite handily. They put their creature through several stages of a bewilderingly complex life cycle, and so deliver four or five monsters for the price of one. When the thing is relatively young, it resembles a gluey sea-food platter: squirmy bits of oyster and mussel nestled within an angry Alaskan king crab. At that stage, it's small enough to hide in dark corners of the space ship, and, when the crew members go poking after it, we cringe in anticipation of its leaping down at them from some heating duct or computer panel. This is shuddery fun, but it isn't long before the mood turns very dark indeed. In one sudden, superbly edited scene, the monster is jettisoned from its larval stage, emerging in a hideous burst of blood and bile and taking a man's life in the process. This moment is as horrifying as anything the movies have ever offered, and I don't think many people will be prepared for its realism. No other screen monster has ever looked so organic, so viscous and alive. Gone is the usual comfort of anthropomorphism; you can't pigeonhole this creature or laugh him off. And by the end of the film, when he's grown to monumental size, the confrontations between creature and crew feel primal, fatalistic: he comes to embody fear itself.