The USCSS Nostromo is a commercial towing vehicle. When the story starts, it is towing a refinery processing 20,000,000 tons of mineral ore to Earth. Essentially, it's the space age equivalent of a tractor or semi-trailer truck. Ridley Scott has even used the phrase "truckers in space" to refer to the look he was going for. As such, the Nostromo lacks the high-tech glitz and glamour of many of science fictions most famous spacecraft like the USS Enterprise or the SSV Normandy. No holodecks or lounges here; just barracks and cafeterias.
Instead, the Nostromo has a decidedly industrial feel, as though the designers were considering its mechanical purpose first and the living considerations of its workers second. We don't recall seeing a single house plant in the background—not even a succulent.
The hallways in the spacecraft are tight and cramped with barely enough room for two people to walk abreast and stand up straight. Everywhere you look in the background you'll see pipes, valves, and wiring, not-so-homey reminders that this isn't a natural environment but rather a machine-housed artificial environment that protects its crew from the cold depths of space.
When the crew lands on the planet, we sense that this spacecraft is a worker's vehicle and could breakdown at any minute. Just look at Kane's ripped and torn chair. Watching Brett and Parker make the repairs, you get the feeling this ship is only kept together by the liberal application of duct tape and chicken wire fused together with some creative uses for bubble gum.
This feeling is enforced when Ripley explains to Dallas that they still have repairs to complete, and Dallas dismisses it: "That's a bunch of horses**t. We can take off without that" (Alien). We get the feeling that these aren't the first corners to be cut in repairing the Nostromo. Sure enough, once they're off the planet, Brett and Parker still have to do speedy repairs on the twelve module circuits.
There are some exceptions. The living, eating, and (hyper)sleeping quarters are super bright with white walls everywhere. The brightness of these areas make them feel like safe zones, and there's a lived in sense about the place, with nice little touches like toy birds drinking water.
But these too have an artificial vibe about them. The walls of the hyperspace have a padded quality, as if trying a teeny bit too hard to convey the sense of protection and comfort. Infographs throughout the living quarters explain work and emergency processes, just as you'd find on a job site or an airplane, a constant reminder of the potential dangers.
Even before the alien has entered the ship, this crew is in danger simply because space travel is dangerous. And the underlying dread of the openings scenes is that the Nostromo is not up to the task of protecting them.
If we had to think the most inhospitable place for sustaining human life, we'd probably say the bathroom at a family pizzeria. If we had to think of a second place, it would be the unnamed planetoid the crew explores to discover the source of the mysterious signal.
The planetoid's atmosphere contains nitrogen, carbon dioxide crystals, and methane, for that extra touch of death. The landscape is rocky and volcanic; nothing grows there. When the sun is down, harsh winds whip about, so thick the crew can't see more than a few feet in front of them. Ash sums it up nicely when he says "It's almost primordial" (Alien).
The planetoid is essentially the antithesis of the Nostromo. Whereas the Nostromo is designed to sustain human life, the planetoid would kill anyone silly enough to wander outside without a spacesuit. Whereas the Nostromo is the result of advanced, intelligent technological development, the planetoid is the product of the natural processes of creation violently clashing through space. Whereas the Nostromo is a place the crew knows and understands, the planetoid is a mystery. Its purpose, if it has one, remains unknown even by the end of the film.
Ultimately, if the Nostromo represents technology and humanity's ingenuity or even humanity itself, then the planetoid symbolizes raw nature, violence, and the alien.
The Art of Zen and Alien Spaceships
The alien ship provides another antithesis for the Nostromo. The ship's design resembles the remains of an organism more than a machine. The walls look as though they are layered in rib bones and the wiring is encased in tubing that look like veins, while the doors look like fleshy orifices. It's as though it were once a living organism and some creatures hollowed it, encased in metal and taught it how to fly—before subsequently crashing it, of course.
As H.R. Giger said about his style: "My style of painting is a combination of art and technical stuff. I call it biomechanics—kind of a surrealist mixture of biology and technology" (source). Although Giger was talking about the alien in that quote, we think it fits here as well.
The design of the Nostromo is all tech, no bio. Everywhere you look, you see signs that humans built the towing vehicle. Televisions, buttons, infographs, switches, nobs, and blinking lights, each gives information or manipulates the environment in some way. This design subconsciously provides the crew with reassurance: natural forces cannot reach them here yet they have all the tools they need to understand/overcome anything they should encounter.
On the other hand, the derelict alien ship embraces a violent, natural design. Everywhere you look, you see reminders of the fleshy body, of death, of decay. Although it is certainly advanced technology in its own way, its design reminds us that the protective barrier between our technology and nature is, at best, pretty thin.
And the fate of that unknown alien pilot foreshadows just that.
In the second half of the film, the alien enters the ship and kills the crew one by one. During this time, we begin to see the Nostromo slowly transform around the characters.
When Brett is killed, he enters a part of the ship that we haven't seen before with water raining down from the coolant system above and chains dangling like vines. There's a definite jungle vibe. The lighting on the ship also darkens noticeably the longer the alien is present. By the time only Ripley is left, the ship is set for self-destruction. Emergency lights flash, sirens blare, and CO2 blasts out of every pipe, limiting both Ripley's vision and the viewers'.
With the alien's presence, the Nostromo takes on attributes that remind us of the planetoid. The alien has brought pure, survival-of-the-fittest, evolve-or-get-out-of-the-way nature aboard the Nostromo, and all of our technological wizardry is no good against it.
It is the ultimate beast.
Christening the Ship
The unknown planetoid isn't given a proper name until the sequel, and we like it that way. Naming something takes away its mystery and implies a power over the creature or landscape. If you can name it, in a way, you own it. The crew never achieves power over the planetoid, and it remains a mystery right through the end of the movie. Fitting.
Speaking of names: the Nostromo's namesake comes from the novel of the same name by Joseph Conrad. Conrad's novel tells the story of a wealthy capitalist who exploits poor silver mine workers in South America. Sound familiar? Yep, the ship's name is an early foreshadowing that the Company is exploiting the crew for their own benefits.