Alien (1979) is a great lesson in cinema for horror kids

Yesterday I watched Alien (1979) with 13yo Moonlight, the eldest of my offspring. I’ve been musing how to review it since. The greatness of Alien is well-understood. Even Letterboxd rates it at an average of 4.3, and I seldom run across movies so uncontroversial.

On a personal level, as a writer and as a child-bearer, I think Alien is fascinating in how queer it is. Secondary character Joan Lambert is canonically mtf trans per its sequel. Ripley was written to be a man and gender-swapped. (CBR) The order in which people are killed on the Nostromo is “woke” enough to please a modern moviegoer like myself; they clear out the white men (including one android) before killing Yaphet Kotto’s character, then Lambert, and gender neutral Ripley is left as final girl along with her final cat. Horror deaths are known to be moralistic: it is inevitable that the people seen as “bad” in some way (promiscuous, drinkers, drug-users, queers, and often nonwhite people) will be killed first, and the final girl is ultimately the purest of them. Alien’s kill order alone can be seen as a political statement.

As the movies continued, the pregnancy body horror of it all is further teased out and expanded upon, but even Ridley Scott’s initial outing has undertones of pregnancy commentary. It’s queered up by implanting an unwilling man with a baby alien in this first movie. It reminds me an awful lot of my nonbinary ass exploding my second baby via emergent c-section.

These subjects have been thoroughly explored by others, and way better than I could. I don’t want to explore them again. I don’t have anything to say except that “There is a shortage of perfect movies in this world. It would be a pity to fail to recognize this one.”

Instead, I’d like to note that Alien is a perfect horror movie to share with kids as part of cinema education. I think kids inclined toward horror tastes should watch Alien.


Raising conscientious horror kids

My kids have grown up in an era where horror for kids is an entire *thing*. Mascot Horror as a subgenre (TV Tropes) has been defined, if not outright invented, in the time of my kids’ lives; much like Mommy, they enjoy a dark skew to their content, so it’s natural they would fall in with Mascot Horror.

Navigating horror for kids as a mother is interesting. I believe a lot of families either ban violent/disturbing content outright, or simply stay hands-off their kids’ media diets, because either options is easier than trying to navigate it with them. Parenting is *always* a matter of too many concerns and not enough time/energy to handle it. Media consumption is low priority compared to the numerous high demands of Life.

When my peer parents were blocking YouTube so their kids wouldn’t get tangled up in extremely dodgy Elsagate stuff (Wikipedia), we chose to let them stay online, unfiltered, unblocked. We kept our media consumption devices in the same room for many years so that we could keep an ear/eye on what they were watching, and “Pick a different video!” was a frequent call across that room. This spurred conversations about why we thought a video wasn’t appropriate. We told them how to navigate these things themselves, and one of my main urgings was simply: “If it makes you feel weird or bad, don’t watch it.”

Of course, they watched stuff when we weren’t supervising, and they ended up having to figure out how to filter things for themselves. Multiple times, they brought videos, games, and memes to me with questions, or just generally asking for feedback; knowing that they would never be in trouble created a fertile ground for us to communicate.

The result is kids who have extremely developed opinions about what they like, what is good and bad, what is safe and what isn’t. They know what to do with themselves on the internet and among media. They like horror a lot. That part has never changed.


Kids’ media is pretty nuts anyway

What kind of horror is “safe” for kids?

Critically, I must point out that plenty of non-horror for kids is upsetting as hell. Kids’ media is often much more upsetting than you’d think. Consider legendarily upsetting content like Bambi, Where the Red Fern Grows, The Brave Little Toaster, The Bridge to Terabithia. Kids’ media often goes straight for the places kids are most vulnerable, like death of parents, or separation from family. This stuff is scary already!

If anything, a movie like Alien is soft for kids. They are in no real, tangible risk of going to a planet in Zeta Reticuli, getting attacked by face-grabbers, and then hunted throughout the Nostromo by a big juicy monster.

Alien also isn’t all that scary for most of its length. Most of it is tension and build-up, deliciously so. Deaths mostly occur off-screen. The effects are great, but not too egregious.

I wouldn’t watch an especially gory movie with the kids, but they do play shooter games, and some level of tension and violence is fine. That rules out less-tense horror-comedy movies like Renfield, which loooves gore. The sexualization of Ripley is minimal in screen-time, which is also a concern with kids’ comfort levels. I can’t show them the hilarious Chopping Mall, for instance, because that’s in a much more exploitative tradition of horror. M3gan was a great horror movie for kids (to the point it’s kinda too boring for adults). We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is an amazing queer horror movie for the internet generation, but it’s incredibly slow and vibe-based, appealing more to Millennials.

Alien stands on top of all of these. It’s not too gory, but it’s a little gross (like the robot exploding into a glitchy white-blood mess). It doesn’t have sex scenes. It’s also, frankly, just a great movie.


A whole cinema culture class in a single film

I actually watched Alien with Moonlight for the first time when they were eight, maybe nine years old. It’s more a feat of attention span than enduring anything scary at that age. Considering Moonlight was neck-deep in FNAF at the time, and well inured to jump scares, they mostly walked away thinking it was fun to watch a movie with so much space ship in it. (Space ships are awesome.)

A few years later, Moonlight has seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, and loads more movies for grown-ups. They asked to watch Alien again. A young teenager is capable of thought abstraction in a way that an 8-9yo is not. I realized that Alien was kind of a perfect movie to watch in order to teach them more about cinema in general.

We had great discussions while watching Alien. It serves as a platform for lots of topics.


Alien has strong visual language. It begins slowly, with long shots of the vessel’s exterior and interior, and shots are roomy. The pacing is methodical. At first, the most dramatic things are considered with a sort of distance; medical procedures performed on the first victim are partially viewed through windows by the other crew.

Immediacy of the style increases as the emotional intensity does, too. By the time Parker and Lambert are attacked, the shots come quick and tightly framed. Ripley’s survivalist last act loses all the methodical dolly shots and steadycam, shaking more as the camera runs along with her.

Moonlight specifically noted the use of strobe light as a way to increase agitation in the viewers. Strobe is very unpleasant, but it makes you feel anxious like Ripley does, whether or not you’re paying close attention.


In context, Alien teaches about cultural call-and-response. Not only has Alien influenced countless media that came after it, there are prominent elements in conversation with major predecessors. The style of the early moments are a lot like 2001: A Space Odyssey (ten years Alien’s predecessor) and the long panning shot of the Nostromo’s underside is a lot like the first sight of a Star Destroyer in Star Wars: A New Hope (two years Alien’s predecessor).

I’d actually say one of its biggest influences is Jaws (four years Alien’s predecessor). I might even argue that Alien is best described as Jaws vs 2001.

All media is engaged in cultural call-and-response, and this is important for people to understand. It’s how you learn to tell what’s derivative versus what’s genre trope versus what’s a direct reference to add commentary to something else. You could not have Sunshine or Event Horizon without Alien, nor many other SF/horror movies. You also probably wouldn’t have Doom or Half-Life without Alien. The impact is seismic, and accentuating this element to young cinemaphiles can provide context for a whole lotta culture.


The politics of Alien are fascinating. Moonlight is the cusp of Gen Z and Alpha; their generation is not expected to do better than my generation, which is not expected to do better than our parents’ generation. A lot of this is due to runaway unregulated corporations. But this problem isn’t new. In 1979, Alien pointed a finger shamelessly at a parent corporation (Weyland-Yutani) for its unethical practices.

At some point, the movie reveals that the corporation deliberately sent the Nostromo to retrieve alien specimens and bring them back to Earth, regardless of how many crew died in the process. You can easily tie this to the unethical practices of unregulated corporations by watching a few episodes of John Oliver. It’s always been a practice for Big Money to throw lives away in pursuit of profit. (In this film, Ripley theorizes Weyland-Yutani wants the aliens for military use; it’s expanded upon elsewhere in the franchise.)

As I mentioned in the beginning of this post, the deployment of horror tropes and who the movie kills first is also extremely political. We often think of the past as being more regressive. But we’re in a time when trans people are spectacularly unsafe and often targeted directly by policies and less directly by stochastic terrorists; more than forty years ago, we had a movie casually throw in a couple of *very* gender nonconforming characters, one of which was trans. These are the kind of people society often marginalizes and feeds to the meat grinder.

The fight we’re fighting now isn’t new! For all its antique-looking retrofuturism, Alien had a lot of ideas we’re still battling with, right now.


Alien is defined more by what it doesn’t show than what it does. It remains a truism of art that the best stuff happens off-screen (off-page, in the gutter, out of frame, etc), and Alien demonstrates this element of craft perfectly.

The truth is that you don’t need great special effects to tell the story you want. Alien *does* have great special effects, but a lot of it is never really seen beyond glimpses. That’s not the point.

The focus remains on a naturalistic approach to the characters–showing them working, in their common life, with minimal backstory. We don’t really know why Ripley is so calculated and intelligent, but you feel like you know her anyway. Natural closure describes everything you have to know. This kind of subtlety is often lacking from blockbuster products in our current era, but understanding the raw power of closure opens up so much media to the viewers, and it makes for better artists, too.


Alien is a perfect movie to talk about cinema and art at large, and it’s a perfect lesson for horror kids in general. This is one of those evergreen flicks that I think should be taught to everyone for generations to come.

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