The following post will contain spoilers. Stop reading if you haven’t seen the film
I watched Alien at a very impressionable age. I couldn’t have been more than 6 or 7 years old. Of all the cinematic moments I can highlight in my 33 years on this planet, perhaps none have had quite as big an impact as my first encounter with Ridley Scott’s Alien.
I’ve returned to the 1979 film many times since then, but none of those experiences could ever hope to replicate the impact of the first time. Alien is a horror film in the style of Halloween and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, with gore, violence and a seemingly unstoppable killing machine. Like those films, Alien relies in the uncertainty of the unknown. As such, it loses some of its punch after a first viewing; after we know what this “alien” looks like and what it can do. The first time I watched the film I knew nothing about it. Alien was on television all the time in the late 1980s and early 90s and it must have felt like something I should not be watching when my parents weren’t home. Unsurprisingly, the temptation was too great to pass on.
There are many awesome moments in the original installment of the Alien franchise. There is, for instance, the first encounter with alien life form, the so-called Space Jockey, a fossil that sits inside a creepy and tremendously large exoskeletal chamber. Later on, there is the reveal of a fully grown so-called Xenomorph, the best designed monster in the history of cinema, and a testament to the unique talent of visual artist H.R. Giger. Like other great horror films, Alien also boasts a great finale that features Ripley, our kick-ass heroine played by Sigourney Weaver, finally defeating the nightmarish creature, ejecting it to outer space.
Among the many stand-out moments in Ridley Scott’s horror/ thriller classic, none have had the cultural and cinematic endurance as the so-called “chest-bursting” scene that comes early in the film. Until then, Alien was a film of mild scares and excruciating suspense. Yet, it is not until Kane, famously played by John Hurt, starts choking on food during a jovial dinner that we truly begin to grasp the machiavellian lengths to which the film was willing to go.
To the structure of the movie, the “chest-bursting” scene marks the inflexion point, the before and after, the beginning of a downward spiral. If seen for the first time, the scene defies expectations. Everything seems too easy and too merry at first. There is an invisible tension after Kane quickly recovers after being attacked by a so-called “facehugger”. Could that be it? We ask ourselves. The film is only in its first hour and yet, we wonder, what sort of side effect Kane will experience. For audiences in 1979, the moment is mostly without precedent. By then, movie-goers had seen The Night of the Living Dead, Halloween, Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Even the most devoted cinephiles would have only found clues as to the horrifying nature of what was to come.
To enhance the realism of the scene, the cast was kept in the dark. Except for John Hurt, no one else knew exactly how the “big reveal” was to be. The script was intentionally vague, and Ridley Scott, due to budget constraints, had only so many tools and time to get it right. So, as Kane coughs and then quickly begins to choke, the crew rushes to his aid. The merriment of a crew dinner in space turns into chaos and Ridley Scott’s plan begins to unfold. Still choking, Kane twists his body and throws himself on the table, screaming in agony. Then a bony crack and a first burst of blood. Crucially, Hurt stops screaming and there’s silence for a second or two, as if Scott is allowing the audience to feel the shock and absorb it. The screaming and the bony cracks soon resume. The device inserted under John Hurt’s shirt finally explodes and blood sprays everywhere. If you look carefully, you can see the honesty of the reactions and the primal shock that registered in the room. In particular, I’ve always been impressed by the work of Yaphet Kotto as Parker and Veronica Cartwright as Lambert. Both are genuinely taken by surprise but, as good actors that they are, they adjust and react in the moment. Ms. Cartwright screams and cries hysterically (then reportedly passed out when the camera stopped rolling) while Kotto recoils in fear, only to find a kitchen knife with which to try to kill the menacing creature that now sits on top of Kane’s quivering and lifeless body.
The scene is filled with important details that speak highly of the early work of Ridley Scott. Ripley, who will be the sole survivor and heroic figure, remains mostly in the background during the sequence. For about half of the film, Scott successfully conceals Ripley’s protagonic role. Our inability to identify a clear hero only heightens the suspense. Without a possible survivor we can’t know if Alien will turn out to have a happy ending. For most of the running time there is always a distinct possibility that the creature will prevail and everyone in the Nostromo (the spaceship they are confined to) will be killed.
The scene is also interesting in what it begins to tell us about Ash, the covert android with ulterior motives brilliantly played by Ian Holm. In the sequence we see him genuinely basking in the speedy recovery of Kane as they all sit to have dinner. When Kane begins to choke it is Ash who jumps first and tries to place a spoon inside of Kane’s mouth, perhaps unaware that this is much more than a seizure. Based on what we ultimately find out about Ash’s role in the Nostromo, I have always wondered if these are genuine attempts to save Kane or was his interest at this point purely scientific? Moments later, Ash stops a knife-wielding Parker from killing the newly born Xenomorph as soon as he bursts out of Kane’s chest. To the audience it is yet another clue inserted in the script that begins to reveal the truth about Ash and shine a light about the true purpose of the trip.
While many of the actors in Alien would go on to have very successful careers, if one is to google the names of John Hurt, Ian Holm and Sigourney Weaver, one is surely to find their involvement in Scott’s 1979 classic and quotes and interviews about the “chest-bursting scene”. Almost 40 years later, the scene still holds very well because of Scott’s naturalistic direction and decision-making. In leaving the cast mostly in the dark about the details of the chest-bursting, Scott was able to capture a kind of primal fear that remains thrilling to watch.
If you’d like to relive the scene, click here, but beware, unexpected blood splatter occurs 😛
If you’d like to know more about the scene, click here to access an interesting article in The Guardian written about the scene, as part of a celebration of John Hurt’s life, who passed away in 2017.