Into the Air Duct (Cinematography scene from Alien)

My ode to Alien is a constant repetition, that teeters on obsession, in which I pass off as my passion. I have seen this movie so many times that I know nearly every heartbeat and set-up throughout the entire film. I have read multiple books, screenplays and comic-books along with having watched all the films in the series, both good and bad. This is my creme de la creme, the film above all others and I love showing the goods for why this movie is the best for me.

This movie was an idea written by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shussett in the late 70’s that started as a “Roger Corman B movie sci-fi horror film“, and once picked up by Fox Studios, in hopes of following in the sci-fi juggernaut of Star Wars, began evolving and at the time, a freshman director by the name of Ridley Scottcame on board, hand drawn the story boards and turned a modest budget of 4 million dollars, into a doubled budget of 8.2 million. It was shot in 1978, released in 1979 and watched by me in 1986.

Dan O’Bannon on the set of Alien in 1978

USCSS Nostromo

The mise en scene of this movie has a few different setups. The main setting is of the spacecraft Nostromo, a claustrophobic space tug traveling across space to its final destination of earth. The secondary and third settings for the film is of an alien planet and a derelict spacecraft giving off a “distress” signal in which the crew of the Nostromo have to investigate the source. During the film, it sets up a naturalistic lifestyle with each of the seven crew members seeming to already know each other and a hierarchy has been established.

Derelict and alien planet

I do not want to give away the plot of the film for others who have yet to see it. You will be spoiled when watching this specific scene I have decided to break down for its shot by shot analysis.

This is the moment in the film when Dallas (played by Tom Skerritt), the captain of the Nostromo, makes the decision to go into the air ducts in hopes of cornering the Alien into an airlock and launching it out into space. He sets up two teams (Ripley and Ash; Parker and Lambert) at different air duct openings with motion sensors as he moves through the ducts with a headset and flame-thrower.

Any statements for shots with the camera will be italicized.

0:00-0:11 – Shows the hatch to the air vent opening and Dallas announces that he is at the first junction to his crew. This is a long shot placing Dallas in front of the air duct. 

0:12-0:14 – Shows his first team, Ripley and Ash, responding to Dallas. This is a 2-shot of both Ripley and Ash.

0:15-0:19 – Dallas calls out to Parker and Lambert and Lambert responds that she is trying to get a reading (of Dallas). This has the long shot of Dallas, a 2-shot of Parker and Lambert, and a glance-object-glance of Lambert looking at the motion tracker.

0:20-0:24 – Ripley states to Dallas the airlock is open. There is an glance-object-glance shot showing the airlock door and Ripley.

0:25-0:34 – Dallas is watching a hatch close in front of him. This is a medium shot that is set up right in front of the air duct and it closes singularly on Dallas in the framing of it as it closes.

0:34-0:38 – Lambert states she has a reading on Dallas. Glance-object-glance shot in the stabilized 2-shot of Parker and Lambert.

0:39-1:29 – Dallas is slowly crawling through the air vent where he looks like he barely fits with little lighting except for the light from the flame thrower. He asks his team to open the hatch to third junction. The shot is a medium to close up shot with the camera remaining static and Dallas moves towards the camera. It also has a glance-object-glance when he is looking at the vent and asks to have it opened.

1:30-1:43 – Dallas calls to a very nervous looking Ripley and asks her to close all hatches behind him. The is a single close-up of Ripley along with an quick cut of the hatch being closed after Dallas’ order.

1:44-1:56 – Dallas walks through the ducts and as is walking away, multiple hatches are being closed behind him. This is a medium shot with him walking away to the right of the camera.

1:56 – 2:00 The tracker is being shown that has Dallas as a dot in the middle of the tracker screen and another dot has come onto the screen. Lambert says she thinks she has it, dallas responds with where, and Lambert says it (the Alien) is somewhere around the third junction. This is a glance-object-glance of Lambert and the motion tracker.

2:01-2:23 – Dallas says he is moving on and begins walking forwards again. This is a medium shot along with a quick cut to Lambert in a single shot with a worried look on her face. The shot continues on Dallas as he walks again towards the camera and after a shot from underneath him as he walks over one of the junctions.

2:24-2:46 – Dallas has turned around as Lambert says that it (the Alien) is right around there somewhere and that he has to be careful. Dallas looks down the shaft he crossed over in the previous shot and looks up. He then fires the flame-thrower down the shaft twice. He states that he has reached the third junction and is going down. This is a medium static shot of Dallas looking around and when he fires the flamethrower, it shows a quick cut of the shaft below him and that it is empty.

2:47-2:49 – Quick shots of Ripley worried and Ash straight faced. A single shot for both characters.

2:50-3:10 – Dallas moves down a ladder to the junction below him and then Parker asks whats wrong with the box. Lambert tells Dallas that he is going to have to hold his position for a minute. A medium shot of Dallas underneath and it cuts to the motion tracker screen with Dallas moving downward. Then there is a multiple object-glance-object of Lambert and parker in a 2-shot looking at the motion tracker. 

3:11-3:34 – Lambert announces she has lost the signal but it has got to be around there somewhere. Dallas asks are you sure. She reassures him it has to be around there. There are more quick cuts of Dallas, Ripley, Lambert, and a hatch opening and closing. There is an establishing close-up shot of Dallas putting his hand in some sort of clear liquid and then a medium shot glancing upward of him looking at it. Then another medium shot of Dallas looking and firing his flame-thrower to the left of him.

3:35-3:45 – Close-up shot of Ripley calling Dallas’ name. Then of Dallas looking worried and partly exhausted. There is also a quick close-up shot of Parker.

3:46-3:50 – Dallas with a lot of shadow on him except for part of his face and arms and he is asking if he is clear to get out of there. A medium shot of him at an awkward angle.

3:51-4:10 – As he asks that, the motion tracker shows movement right next to dallas on the tracking monitor. Lambert starts saying for him to move, to get out of there, thats it’s moving right towards him. Dallas looks at the ladder and moves downward. It shows the motion tracker at a close-up shot, then to a close-up of Ripley, then a medium angled shot of Dallas. It shows Dallas looking up towards the ladder and it shows a quick cut of the ladder itself. Two more close-up shots of Ripley and then of a straight faced Ash.

4:11-4:16 – Dallas moves down on the ladder and looks to his right, then to his left and is attacked by the oncoming Alien. This is a medium shot showing Dallas coming into view of the camera looking to his right, a quick close-up of Ripley, and then back to Dallas as he begins to look left, it quick cuts to a close-up of the Alien with its arms shooting outward.

4:17-4:24 – Ripley and Parker call out Dallas’ name as Lambert keeps saying no. It shows a close-up shot of Ripley, then a close-up 2-shot of Parker and Lambert, then back to Ripley leaning her head back and closing her eyes.

This is one of the most intense scenes of the film for me. It establishes the idea that anyone can die in this film and that the sounds and cuts make the dread more palpable. Playing on the idea of seeing less is more and the fact that in 4 1/2 minutes, you see the Alien for less than a second, but that moment sticks in your head.

And also for your viewing pleasure is the original trailer for Alien

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5 Responses to Into the Air Duct (Cinematography scene from Alien)

  1. gregory moss says:

    Nicely deconstructed! You really do capture the rising tension of the scene very well. ALIEN is without a doubt my favorite film of all time – a film I’ve seen more times than I care to remember. Also, the trailer has got to be one of the best (if not THE best) ever made – never surpassed. 🙂

  2. Lindsey says:

    I recently had someone tell me that they didn’t like Alien because, “It took, like, forever to even see the Alien and it was dark.”

    That’s what’s so wrong is that now, people only go to horror/thriller films to see the thing, to find out what it looks like, and that’s the only selling point. As if the characters and the set-up aren’t important at all.

    The brilliance of Alien is its sense of restraint.
    Unlike popular belief, you don’t have the see the scary thing constantly to be terrified. It’s the suspense that makes our skin crawl and our teeth chatter. By showing the Alien only at crucial moments, we are left on the edge of our seat.

    But just my two cents, don’t want to write a novel.

  3. susanna dore says:

    As an architect, I hated Alien because I am so tried of that cheap trope, the huge air duct that everything hides in. Especially hilarious in a space ship. If ancient peoples had had air ducts, that would be where lost souls went to, not hell.

    • jag8519 says:

      Sorry for such a long response, but the tired trope that you bring up is actually not tired during the time that this film was made. It was an introduction of a set of copies and reproduction of “something” in the ducts.

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