There’s the mundane establishing shot, and then there’s the mood-setting mastery with which we’re introduced to the gloomy workings of the interplanetary commercial towing vehicle Nostromo, one of the greatest sets ever constructed for the movies. It’s often noted that at its core, Ridley Scott’s Alien is an old-fashioned haunted house movie, and oh, what a haunted house it is, this vast, claustrophobic interior composed mainly of dimly-lit nooks and cramped cubbyholes, the whole connected by twisty, labyrinthine corridors, utterly silent save for the constant hum of the great machine’s physical plant, and completely still except for the odd vibration and occasional disturbance from the breeze of artificially circulated air. It feels like midnight, somehow, dark and foreboding, and in just a few seconds, without a word of exposition, the viewer gathers something vital that underpins everything to come: this ain’t the Starship Enterprise. In complete defiance of the sci-fi paradigms established by TV shows and cemented by Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, there’s nothing of the brightly-lit, antiseptic spaces we’ve come to expect, no immaculate, hi-tech crew stations surrounded by shiny buttons and glowing screens, no wondrous devices contrived to boggle our 20th Century minds. Instead, we’re immersed in a functional environment better suited to steam gauges and monkey wrenches. The Nostromo, plainly, is a workaday merchant vessel, the front office of an industrial complex plodding between the stars like some sort of space-faring oil refinery, grubby, worn, technologically austere, and dripping at the joints. Whoever crews this thing, they don’t get from A to B via transporter, their food doesn’t materialize out of replicators, and they probably don’t comport themselves smartly in colour-coded uniforms; we won’t be at all surprised to learn, when the shit hits the fan, that they don’t have phasers, either, and will have to make do with whatever sort of half-assed weapons they can cooper together out of ship’s stores.
And hey, speaking of crew, where are they anyway? It’s spooky, all those vacant spots where people are supposed to be, like we’ve stumbled across a latter-day Mary Celeste. As it wanders about the vessel, the camera reveals only emptiness, empty walkways, empty chairs, empty workstations, and a lonely pair of mercury birds dipping their beaks in the middle of an empty mess hall table, until some sort of message arrives, flashing across the screen of an unattended computer, witnessed only by an empty helmet. The sudden intrusion of light and sound is like an alarm clock going off. Uh-oh. Somebody just poked the sleeping machine with a stick, and we sit here, feeling a vague sort of dread, knowing something is about to happen.