Nobody needs to be told that Ridley Scott’s Alien is a classic of science fiction, horror, and movies in general. And few moments in the film are more iconic than when a baby Xenomorph bursts out of John Hurt’s chest like a bloody geyser. The scene remains one of the most shocking and famous of all time, largely because it’s a master class in filmmaking — worth studying for how it works, and not just admiring that it does work. With Scott’s Alien: Covenant hitting theaters this weekend (along with a new chestburster scene), we decided to break down what’s so effective about the birth scene of one of cinema’s greatest monsters.
Establishing the Everyday (to Increase Horror)
Horror is often at its most effective when it violently disrupts everyday moments — a shower in Psycho or a midnight skinny dip in Jaws — because they’re ones we usually think of as moments of safety. That’s exactly what happens with the crew in Alien. We’re introduced to the scene with a wide establishing shot of the entire team in the middle of an insignificant meal shared in a brightly lit white room (the white nicely symbolizing the innocence they’re about to lose). They’re together and safe: smiling, cross talking, complaining about the food, and making crude jokes. We get a leisurely 40 seconds of that, allowing us to settle into a false sense of normalcy and security that is then violently (and irrevocably) violated. If the scene had been set in the bridge or cargo hold, it would play significantly differently, illustrating the lesson of how important setting and scenario can be to horror.
Hitchcock’s Laws of Surprise and Suspense
Alfred Hitchcock once explained the difference between suspense and surprise by imagining a bomb under a table where two people are talking. Surprise would be if the audience didn’t know the bomb was there, and there was suddenly an explosion. Suspense would be if the audience saw someone place the bomb with a 15 minute countdown under the table before the two people arrive and the filmmaker lets us see a clock in the background as the characters talk. “In the first case, we have given the public 15 seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion,” he said. “In the second, we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense.”
What’s notable about Alien is that the chestburster scene gives us both. When Kane (John Hurt) starts convulsing, those of us who are first time viewers feel suspense, because we know this isn’t some ordinary seizure, like the crew seems to believe. But because we’re not sure what’s about to happen, there’s also surprise. In effect, the scene leaves the audience dreading the explosion of Hitchcock’s bomb, but unsure what the bomb will be. Scott takes advantage of that too, often hiding Kane’s chest from us (note how it is often obscured or off frame) as the crew try to hold him down. This suspense and surprise approach is a big reason the scene works so well.
The Significance of Shot Composition
Shot composition is masterfully wielded throughout the Xenomorph’s birth to do everything from guiding our attention to reflecting the mood of the situation, as well foreshadowing events to come. In terms of mood, the claustrophobic panic of the crew is conveyed by numerous shots of the team crammed into the frame, often even moving in and out of it so much that they become disembodied. It’s a stark contrast from the opening shot of the scene, which makes the room look wide and open. As for focusing our attention, note how the camera pre-Baby Alien is often centered on Kane’s chest when it’s visible, especially as we get closer to first blood being drawn (or, more accurately: expelled). It’s shot composition that’s both functional (“Be sure to look here…”) and suspense-building (“…because something bad is about to happen”).
Then there’s the extreme close-up (the only one in the scene) of the Xenomorph jutting out of Kane’s chest, dead-center in the frame, allowing us to really see it without being able to look away. Lastly, foreshadowing is slyly used, even in the earliest moments of the scene — most notably in the very subtle, but knowing, zoom in (also the only one in the scene) on Kane, as if the camera is positioning for a closer look. It instills a sense of dread that something is about to happen — even if you’re not sure what. Note too the extreme off-center marginalization of Ash (Ian Holm) in the shots — a clever nod to his villainy revealed later.
A Character to Identify With
Enabling an audience to identify with a character is always important, but in moments of horror or awe (see: The Spielberg Face), having a character who can act as a proxy for our own reactions is especially important. In the chestburster scene, that character is Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), whose horrified reactions enable our own. She’s set up that way early on — given shots where she’s isolated and removed as a spectator (i.e. like us), and even one where her face hovers directly above Kane’s. Then we get the shot of her after the Xenomorph has emerged, her face splattered with blood and shock. Why does all this matter? Because her understandable emotions and reactions allow us to imagine ourselves in the moment, greatly increasing its impact.
The Importance of Editing
The best compliment you can pay a film’s editing is to say that every shot lasts exactly as long as it should. That’s true for this Alien scene. Every cut comes exactly at the moment it needs to, and each one serves a purpose — whether it’s adding to the story, the feel of the scene, or providing reactions to enhance the horror. There’s a wonderful rhythm in the editing, too. The earliest moments — the establishing shot, the chatter — are given a minimum of five seconds each, allowing the camaraderie to breathe and impress itself on the audience. When we see the first burst of blood, the editing speeds up to convey panic and a sense of events that can no longer be stopped.
Then, perhaps the best bit of editing: the long pause on the face of the creature, giving the audience the chance to have a perverse moment of peace and quiet after the storm and fully take in the horror. It’s that moment when all of the above elements have worked perfectly together to make the scene one of the most memorable of all time.
All images from Alien (1979) courtesy of 20th Century Fox