The camera pans slowly through space as the credits are shown. An object comes into view slowly, as a caption explains that it is a commercial towing vehicle called the Nostromo carrying 20,000,000 tons of mineral ore back to earth with a crew of 7 onboard. The camera shows the underside of the exterior of the ship, then shifts into a shaft in the interior, a long and dimly-lit hallway on the vehicle. We see various motherboards and controls on the ship, as the camera leads the viewer on a kind of tour. We hear a rustling and the flap of the page of a book, as the camera continues to pan. The control panel of the vehicle suddenly lights up, which shows its name, the Nostromo. Text flashes across the screen, which reflects on the helmet of one of the passengers aboard the vehicle. The screen goes dark once again.
As lights turn on in a different part of the Nostromo, we see a portal open into another chamber. Inside, lights turn on as glass enclosures open upward to reveal the members of the crew in sleeping pods. They rest under the white light of the room, as tranquil music plays. One of the men begins to wake up, sitting up in his pod and slowly opening his eyes. Waking up seems like a struggle, but he eventually stands, as the other members of the crew begin to wake. The scene shifts to show them sitting around a table enjoying food and coffee. A woman complains that she is cold, while a male member of the crew asks another “You still with us, Brett?” Another member of the crew—the one who we saw waking up—says he feels dead, to which the wise-cracker says, “Anyone ever tell you you look dead?” Everyone laughs as the man who “feels dead” smokes a cigarette. The wisecracker goes on to say to the group that he thinks they should discuss “the bonus situation.” The man named Brett tells them that he and the wisecracker—whose name we now learn is Parker—believe that the bonuses have never been distributed at an “equitable level.” Another man at the table retorts that they “get what they were contracted for like everybody else.” Brett retorts that everyone else makes more money, which makes some of them laugh.
A beeper of some kind is going off, and Dallas—the man who just said that the men got paid for what they were contracted for—goes to address it. The crew members joke that “Mother” is calling, and Parker quips that he has to finish his coffee, “the only thing good on this ship.” In another chamber of the Nostromo, Dallas takes a key out of the wall and places it in another hole which opens another chamber. This chamber is filled with blinking lights, all over the walls and the domed ceiling. Computer screens also line the wall. Dallas sits and types something into a keyboard, saying “Morning mode.” A screen turns on, and Dallas presses more buttons, scrolls down a menu screen and clicks on “Interface.” The screen reads, “Interface 2037 Ready for Inquiry” and below that, Dallas types, “What’s the story, Mother?”
Meanwhile, in another part of the ship, the other crew members take their seats to navigate and fly the Nostromo. One of the women looks at her screen, puzzled, and asks, “Where’s Earth?” The smoking man retorts, “You should know.” The other woman adds, “It’s not our system,” as the other crew members problem-solve. The second woman speaks into a communication device, trying to get in touch with someone who can help them. We see the exterior of the Nostromo as it continues through space and the woman keeps speaking into the communication device, calling “Antarctica Traffic Control.” The woman tells the other crew members that no one is answering her call, and the smoking man urges her to keep trying, as the atmosphere in the vehicle gets tenser. The woman who is in charge of navigating locates Earth on a map, but it is much farther away than they had imagined. “What the hell are we doing out here?” she asks, and the smoking man looks more and more concerned.
The scene shifts to a hallway on the vehicle, where Brett and Parker, who are maintenance workers on the ship, are going to examine something, all the while complaining of their lower status on the crew. They are in a lower part of the ship, a place that they never go to, and the two men bicker as they walk through the dark hallway. The scene shifts to the upstairs, where the other crew members are assembled. Brett and Parker enter, and Parker asks for a seat. One of them asks Dallas what is going on, and he tells them that they are only halfway home, as “Mother’s interrupted the course of our journey.” The other crew members look confused, and the smoking man asks Dallas why this has happened. “She’s programmed to do that should certain conditions arise; they have,” Dallas replies. Elaborating still further, Dallas tells them, “It seems she has intercepted a transmission of unknown origin. She got us up to check it out.” The women are confused and ask to hear more about the transmission, so Dallas tells them that it’s a acoustic sound that repeats at intervals of 12 seconds. The smoking man wants to know if it’s an SOS, and another crew member wants to know if it’s human, but Dallas doesn’t know.
The crew members begin to get annoyed with the news that they have been re-routed. Parker takes this opportunity to remind them all that the Nostromo is a commercial ship, not a rescue vehicle. When Parker argues that he wants a bonus, another crew member outlines the fact that there is a stipulation in all of their contracts that they have to follow these kinds of re-routings. Parker still says he wants to go home, which causes Dallas to get impatient with him, as they are reminded that if they do not follow the transmission they will penalized with no payment. Parker finally agrees, laughing to Brett about the fact that they cannot go home yet, as the scene shifts to show the exterior of the vehicle as it makes its way in the direction of the unknown transmission. We see one of the crew members, whose name we will learn is Ash, sitting in a cockpit flying the ship. Dallas also examines a screen as the vehicle makes its way towards a cluster of planets.
The vehicle separates from the refinery and approaches the planet. The Nostromo experiences turbulence as it approaches the ground of the planet, and the crew hears strange noises outside. They manage to land the Nostromo on the planet, setting down on the rocky ground below. Just as they hit the ground, however, a major explosion occurs, something like an electrocution, and as the ship malfunctions, the crew must extinguish fires and try to figure out how to get the system up and running again. When Dallas asks what happened, someone informs him they are experiencing a “hull breach,” a breaking of the surface of the ship. As the lights go in and out on the ship, the crew members struggle to set things right again. The environment outside appears hostile and stormy, as Parker and Brett set to work trying to fix the vehicle. The other crew members wait in the main cockpit, looking impatient and exasperated by the malfunction. Parker explains to Dallas over the intercom that they are going to need to do a lot of rerouting of the system in order to get the ship up and running again. Parker estimates that the repairs will take at least 25 hours, and one of the women crew members, whose name we will later learn is Ripley, announces that she’s coming down to take a look.
Up in the cockpit, Dallas looks concerned as someone informs him that most of the channels on the ship are dead. We again see the ship's exterior on the windy and hostile environment of the planet. Ash tells Dallas that Mother has predicted a sunrise in 20 minutes. Dallas, Ash, and the smoker, whose name we will eventually learn is Kane, discuss how close the transmission is, and what the atmospheric pressure of the planet is. Ash tells the crew members about the atmosphere and topography of the planet, which is dangerous and difficult to navigate. The other woman crew member, whose name we now learn is Lambert, listens in nearby, smoking a cigarette. Kane volunteers to be in the first group to go out, and Dallas tells Lambert that she too will go with the first group.
Dallas, Kane, and Lambert suit up to go outside. As a portal to the outdoors open, the three are overtaken by windy and stormy conditions. Outside, the three of them embark on their exploration of the planet, while Ash keeps an eye on them from inside the ship. Dallas, Kane, and Lambert walk into the dark, as the scene shifts to Parker and Brett approaching Ripley. “If they find what they’re looking for out there, does that mean we get full shares?” Parker asks Ripley, but she dismisses his question impatiently. When Brett threatens to stop working on the ship, Ripley matter-of-factly informs them that they are “guaranteed by law to get a share.” They cannot hear her well, so she tells them, sarcastically, “Why don’t you just fuck off,” before leaving them to their work and telling them she’ll be “on the bridge.” She leaves, walking through flumes of smoke. Brett laughs, but Parker seems frustrated with the damages to the ship.
From the start, the film orients the viewer in a futuristic space world. We see the intricate set pieces of an extensive space vehicle, the Nostromo, filled with buttons, screens, and futuristically designed technologies. These opening shots are meticulously art-directed and orient the viewer in the spacey world of the film immediately. The camera takes the viewer on a leisurely tour of the vehicle, slowly panning down hallways, showing screens, free to roam in the privacy of the nighttime. The crew members’ sleeping arrangements, small pods, are also startling to witness, so different are they from ordinary sleeping arrangements. The setting of the movie shows the viewer that we are in an unusual and futuristic world. The set pieces in the beginning thoroughly transport us into the world of space and the future.
Contrasting the setting of the film is the relatable and friendly demeanor of the crew members. While so much of the setting and its logic is foreign to the viewer, the people populating the film are unmistakably familiar. These astronauts sleep in futuristic space pods, but they still enjoy a cup of coffee and a meal together around a table, swapping jokes and talking about their paychecks. The crew is in particularly good spirits because the Nostromo is headed back to Earth. While the viewer does not know the full extent of the mission they have been on, the relief of being on the journey homeward is palpable among the crew members, who smile at one another and enjoy a relatable camaraderie that is recognizable to anyone who has worked on a team before.
This jolly tone is soon dispelled, however, when the crew realizes that they are unexpectedly off course, and unable to get in touch with the ground control on Earth. Immediately, the stakes become much higher. What had seemed like a victory lap is now a concerning malfunction of the ship that they trust to bring them home. As Dallas tells the crew, “Mother interrupted the course of our journey.” The reason? The ship has “intercepted a transmission of unknown origin,” and they are being re-routed to check it out. While the crew members are all savvy technicians employed for their expertise, they actually have very little control over the course of their journey, and are in thrall to the ship itself. The film begins with the introduction of an unexpected conflict. The narrative starts with the crew members being woken from a hypersleep in order to address the surprise transmission being picked up by the ship. Therefore, while they are all in good spirits at first, it does not take long for them to realize that their circumstances have changed.
Unusually enough, they refer to that controlling mechanism that has re-routed their journey as “Mother.” When Dallas goes to check the transmission coming in, the crew members joke that his “mother is calling.” Thus, the film sets up a familial relationship between the crew members and the technology of the ship itself. The crew members are a kind of family unit in and of themselves, having meals together, each playing a role in the success of the mission. They are the children of the ship itself, and the motherboard becomes a metonymic stand-in for their mission. While they all would much rather be traveling back to Earth, they are obligated to follow the demands of the ship, the orders of “Mother.” In Alien, “mother knows best,” even if her children are not sure what mother knows, and even if mother seems to be leading them towards danger.
The beginning of the movie sets up a division between the crew members and the engineers who have been contracted to help the ship. From the start, Parker and Brett are depicted as warmly welcome among the crew members, telling jokes and keeping the mood light. However, both of the engineers are fixated on their paycheck. While the other crew members are paid more, Parker and Brett worry that they will not get their fair share. Even when they have landed on the planet, damaging the ship and necessitating repairs, Parker and Brett question Ripley about whether they'll be paid once they arrive back on Earth. While the circumstances are far more heightened than in a realistic film, the concerns of the characters often remain banal and earthly.