I was a few months shy of 10 years old when Alien was released -- too young to see an R-rated film, even if I had actually expressed any interest in seeing it, which I didn't. I was also a few months shy of discovering D&D, Lovecraft, and all the other creative influences that would have such a profound effect on my imagination in the years to come. Consequently, I didn't have much love for horror of any kind, let alone cosmic horror, and so 1979 came and went without my ever getting the chance to see Alien.
Indeed, it would be several years before I would see the film and, when I did, it was on video tape at a friend's house, along with a number of other teenage boys. As I recall, my friends and acquaintances spent most of the time talking with one another, paying only the most cursory attention to events in the movie. When did pay attention, it was only to the gory bits, the ones that made me wince and not quite look away, simultaneously appalled and fascinated by the violence being visited upon the Nostromo's unsuspecting crew.
For myself, it wasn't the blood and guts that drew me in; it was watching the characters grapple with what was happening to them. Much as many people tend to think that fantasy and science fiction don't belong anywhere near one another, there are probably an equal number of people who think science fiction and horror have nothing in common. Horror, for many, depends on supernatural bogeymen, inexplicable and irrational things that were all banished with the coming of the Enlightenment and adoption of Science! as the predominant paradigm of Western thought. Even back then, I never saw things that way, which is probably why Lovecraft's rationalist, materialist worldview has always struck me as the most horrific I could possibly imagine. Lovecraft's stories are, in my view, more science fiction than horror, borrowing the surface elements of Gothic literature to tell what are tales firmly rooted in 20th century science and scientific speculation.
Alien is thus a Lovecraftian film, a piece of "pure" science fiction that horrifies precisely because there's nothing supernatural in the whole movie. The alien isn't a ghost or a goblin or even a demon but a wholly natural, if rather unusual, lifeform, one that kills not out of malice or villainy but from some instinct that pays no heed to human concerns. As Ian Holm's character Ash states, the alien is "unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality." It is, in his words, "a perfect organism" whose "structural perfection is matched only by its hostility." But it is not evil in any traditional sense. Its actions aren't specifically intended to inflict pain or suffering or to corrupt others. Rather, like all of Lovecraft's creations, the alien simply has no regard for human beings, which are, at best a means to its own unfathomable ends. That was deeply chilling to me as a young person and it remains so to this day.
Having watched and re-watched the film several times in the past two weeks, I've grown more convinced that Alien is, without intending so, the best Lovecraftian movie ever made. The first part of the film, culminating in horrific death of John Hurt's character, Kane, reminds me very much of HPL's At the Mountains of Madness, which effectively builds tension as a scientific expedition to Antarctica slowly comes to realize that nearly everything they thought was true is not. Because Lovecraft's tales were set in the then-present day, they don't appear, on the surface, to be science fiction and thus too many people get hung up on the tentacles and unpronounceable names and misunderstand the point of it all. Alien, on the other hand, is set in the future and that makes it harder -- though obviously not impossible -- to misunderstand it, at least in the same way.
As a young man, I found Alien a distressingly bleak film. As an older man, I still find it bleak, but it doesn't distress me nearly as much, perhaps because I no longer have the same naivety about the likelihood of unambiguously happy endings. Neither do I possess the same faith in Science! that I had way back when, something I should have picked up from the Lovecraft I'd read but somehow didn't, so overawed was I by all the surface details of his writings. Alien lays bare the philosophical core of Lovecraft's writings and wraps it up in a visually stunning -- and disturbing -- package that's leavened ever so slightly with a humanistic edge that's generally lacking in Lovecraft himself. In that respect, Alien does run counter to HPL's thought, but I'm willing to overlook such a "flaw," perhaps because, like my younger self, I still pine for the reassurance of a happy ending, even if I better recognize that such endings often come at a great cost.