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How does Alien create a thriller atmosphere?


If you’ve read my review of Alien (1979) then you’ll know that I praised the film for its truly sinister atmosphere. Because of this, I was genuinely interested in looking into how the film manages to create something so awesome. No doubt about it a lot will go down to the genius work of Ridley Scott. Still, there’s going to be a lot more that will make Alien what it is than a director or cast. But they’re worth looking at in more detail, right?

So really, what I want to look at is how a film can create a good environment for genuinely thrilling experiences. More than that, I want to look into where a film can go wrong. Obviously it’s more important that we look at Alien though, it’s in the title of the article.

A use of lighting

I’ve written in depth to how lighting can make or break a film. I think I have anyway. No, nevermind it was how colour can make a film. Anyways, lighting is one of the most important components of literally any film, you just may not realise it. With Alien, there are almost no scenes of bright lights or anything. Those scenes that are quite bright are often followed by a feeling of dread or eerie plot devices.

Take The Mother for example, it’s a completely white room with beeping lights everywhere. For me it set the tone of the film well, especially when Dallas is using the computer. I think it’s Dallas, the one that looks like Gerry Rafferty. Anyways that room alone always gave me the creeps. But you know, it may also be down to the year the movie was recorded, I’ll explain later.

As a whole, lighting in this film is used very well. When the tension mounts and Dallas is trying to escape the Alien and switches his light on. See the thing about this scene is that there was an obvious pay off to what the film had been building up to. It wasn’t sudden, this had been built up for the better part of an hour. We didn’t see the Alien until then. Basically it was an invisible threat until right there when we saw a brief glimpse of it.

The time frame and technology

Not the actual plot time frame, I’m referencing when the film was actually released. 1979 released a lot of great films, but that’s not the point. My point is the technology they used to create the film is, at this point, bloody old. It’s a grainy picture and to me this adds a lot to a film. Also, the films actual use of technology is interesting to me.

So if we move away from the grainy film quality to the fictions use of technology, there’s a rapid change. One scene in particular, the medibay scene where Kane is put into the x-ray, was pretty good. I don’t remember actually seeing the x-ray itself, but it was described to us by the other characters. Usually it’s preferred to see something rather than explain it to us. However at this point in the film it was a very good choice. To me it would have been a lot worse of a scene if we had actually seen the x-ray.

To make a thrilling scene there’s a level of mystery the film needs to keep. By not showing us exactly what is happening and getting the reactions of other characters, it keeps the viewer involved. It’s an important part of the film to show us the character reactions, this keeps the viewer involved. Showing us the x-ray and the Alien early into the film would have completely ruined it.

Characters and relationships

Alien can pride itself on having a genuinely engaging set of characters (Alien – 1979 – CC. 20th Century Fox)

One of the most vital parts of the film is how the characters interact with one another. Not the filler part at the start of the film, I mean the bits when the Alien is actually on the ship. As soon as Kane had an Alien fly out of his stomach, the film takes a very tense turn. What is done exceptionally well throughout this part of the film is the use of characters.

Character arcs are obviously important throughout this film, notably Ellen Ripley and her interactions with the other characters. Everyone in the group plays a different and a very important role. Dallas takes the lead as maintaining peace between the group, but when he dies there’s another certain sense of panic. Not for the characters but for the viewer. So far you’ve seen the characters work well with a clear leader, but that’s thrown under the bus rather quickly.

It’s interesting to see how characters react with the amount of problems they face. Let’s be fair, only Ripley and the cat make it out. Sorry if I spoilt it but it’s been almost forty years. Anyways, the way in which characters react with one another is made to process the tense feelings that surround the film. It’s done very well and effective enough to transfer over to the viewer.


Alien is a master class in film making and is definitely still the best horror sci-fi film available. To me I think it’s important that we understand why and how the film is tense. Slap the lights off and watch this alone at night and it’s still as scary as it was all those years ago. The reason for this is not because it’s a great cast, plot, direction and cinematic experience, but it involves you.

If it weren’t an involving film then people simply wouldn’t remember it. But considering it involves the viewer in the tense twists and turns throughout, it creates an amazing experience. But that isn’t what Alien will be best remembered for, is it? What it’ll be best remembered for is creating such an amazing thriller film, and a sequel just as good. Aliens (1986) doesn’t create as good a thriller setting, it strives for action, but there’s nothing wrong with that. We don’t talk about anything after Aliens though, apparently.