Things go well until they don’t.

That seems like such a facile thing to say, but it’s the truth, isn’t it? We can go about our day, if not fully happy then at least content. We go from here to there and live out our plans without much thought to what might happen, or what is about to happen. In these moments, there is little weighing us down…which is good because if we actually thought about everything that *could* happen, we’d probably never go outside (and some don’t).

What this brings about is a strange paradox that one cannot see coming. At any given time, we could be experiencing deep contentment – or better yet, complete joy. Seconds later – pain, anguish, terror, shock. It we knew these terrible feelings were imminent, we might steel ourselves better. We might take a deep breath and brace ourselves for the impact of what’s to come. Of course, we don’t so we can’t, and in hindsight we see the paradox.

One second we’re laughing with co-workers; the next minute someone’s sick, or dying, or having a parasite bust through their chest.

That’s what I love about this shot from ALIEN, which was why I chose it in the face of so many more iconic shots. It’s this frame that makes it feel like more than “Ten Little Indians”.

What we see here is the respite. It’s the glimmer or hope in between the shock that has passed and the real terror to come. This scene actually begins with a feeling of optimism. Just hours ago, Ripley was deeply embroiled in an argument with Dallas and Lambert about protocol. Now, the hatchet seems to have been buried, and they gather pleasantly to break bread. What they argued over is about to lead to something terrible…but they don’t know that yet. Right now they are content to eat and laugh and smoke.

There’s Dallas on the right: Captain of the ship and leader of the team. Does he look especially worried?

In this instant, nobody knows what is about to happen – because if they did, they’d be acting very differently.

Parker certainly has no clue that Kane is in trouble. He’s just said that Kane might want to eat a bit slower and is still in the throes of laughing at his own joke. His wide smile suggests nothing bad is afoot, and his body language evokes that initial reaction many of us have when someone nearby has stubbed their toe, or tripped on a crack in the sidewalk. Parker’s lean and his expression are the same thing we all do for that second in between someone falling down and beginning to bleed.

Even Kane didn’t seem very concerned with his coughing fit, so much so that he was still smiling at first. As we can see though, his smile is long gone. He and he alone knows that something is very wrong. His face has a look of slow dread, like the one person who sees the tidal wave coming in while everyone else stands with their back to the shore.

It’s what makes frightening films like ALIEN so palpable – that we never think about breaking from our routine until something violently pulls us out of it. Moreover, that something so terrible could be preceded by such jovial moments. It’s the great oxymoron of life, and if you think back on what you were doing and who you were doing it with when you were witness to something shocking (or received shocking news), you’ll remember the feeling. We’ve all been there before, we’ll all be there again.

Things go well until they don’t.


Here’s three more from ALIEN for the road…




This series of posts is inspired by the “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” series at The Film Experience. Do check out all of the awesome entires in their series so far