Directed by: Ridley Scott
Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Yaphet Kotto, Ian Holm, Harry Dean Stanton, Veronica Cartwright, John Hurt
1/2 (out of 4)
Warning: Some spoilers ahead
Ridley Scott’s Alien mixes monster-horror and sci-fi-hardware so effortlessly that it has influenced countless movies since – off the top of my head I can think of Creature, Contamination, Leviathan, Event Horizon – even Predator 2 couldn’t help throwing in the famous Giger-designed xenomorph. It’s a movie that hits a chord on a primal level – unlike monster flicks of old, this one traps its victims in a spaceship, ramping up the claustrophobia (with Godzilla movies, at least you could get out of Tokyo). Alien has a simple story at its center – monster versus humans, and it can’t quite break completely free of certain trappings of that scenario, but it adds on so many layers and does them so well, that in the end it doesn’t matter all that much.
It’s the future, and the mining ship Nostromo (Conrad reference) is returning to earth. The main computer – named Mother (a reference by writer Dan O’Bannon to the cult sci-fi Dark Star – another film he co-wrote with John Carpenter) – wakes up the crew from their suspended animation after it receives a strange alien transmission. Being that our groggy mining crew works for the Weyland-Yutani corporation, which requires them to check out such things, they grab a shuttle (called Narcissus – another Conrad reference) and zip on down to a nearby planet (dubbed LV-426 in the sequel) to investigate. What they find is a hostile and wondrous landscape containing an alien ship of such scope that it dwarfs them in the frame – the interior scenes of the vessel, including the fossilized remains of a giant alien pilot, are a work of art, this section of the film owing a little bit to Mario Bava’s own artistic space horror flick Planet of the Vampires (another film worth a look). After exploring the ship, Kane (John Hurt) discovers a nest of strange looking, leathery eggs under a layer of mist. One of the eggs opens, and soon after, Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) and Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt) are begging to be let back in the shuttle with an injured Kane in tow. Breaking protocol and against Lt. Ripley’s (Sigourney Weaver) orders, science officer Ash (Ian Holm) lets them inside, where Kane is revealed to be infected with a “facehugger.” The crew are unable to remove the creature, but it falls off eventually, leading to one of the most (in)famous scenes in horror history, where a supposedly-recovering Kane expels a “chestburster”, which escapes into the ship. That creature goes through another transformation, and summarily begins picking off the rest of the crew. Here is where the references to classic B-movies It! The Terror from Beyond Space, Queen of Blood, and The Thing from Another World come in. As Dan O’Bannon commented “I didn’t steal Alien from anybody. I stole it from everybody!”
20th Century Fox was gung ho on Alien only after Star Wars was a hit; however, Alien goes for sci-fi realism, not fantasy. The interior of the Nostromo is nicely realized by Ron Cobb (who also worked on Dark Star) , while the derelict spacecraft and biomechanial, eroticized features of the alien are beautifully designed by H.R. Giger. Sexual overtones are certainly present – the phallic appearance of the alien, the “rape” committed by the facehugger, and Kane’s unfortunate, chestbursting “birth.” The mother/birth theme can be also seen in the alien eggs and the sleeping pods. But what I find interesting about Alien is that it doesn’t foreshadow anything; its revelations unfold without warning. For example, when a crew member reveals his true nature as an android, it’s as crazy as seeing an alien baby pop out of somebody’s chest. There’s a real sense with Alien that in the future, all bets are off. There’s also a cynical, anti corporate, greed-kills message. Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) and Parker (Yaphet Kotto) are only concerned with their paychecks, later to find out that their employer is just as concerned about its own bottom line. Scott is telling us that humans will take their frailities into space with them – this is the anti-Star Trek. There’s the nihilstic, survivalist philosophy of cold, deep space, as Ash tells Ripley his thoughts on the alien:
Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility….I admire its purity. A survivor… unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.
Alien is not quite perfect; I think I understand the need for a future corporation to send a pet into deep space to help keep the crew sane, but I found the scenes with Jones the cat a bit distracting – his scenes took me out of the futuristic environment and into in B-movie land (I have probably seen too many slasher films). There are also sequences where the pacing was a bit too sluggish, but they seem to happen in the second half of the film, where it’s simply a waiting game for the alien to take another victim; I was more impressed with the build-up of the first half, which takes on a dream-like quality. Finally, I would like to know what the hell the alien was eating to make it grow from a small creature the size of an arm to a tall humanoid in a matter of hours – this discrepancy is never addressed.
No matter – Alien is still one of those landmark films, like Psycho and The Exorcist, and demands viewing. The characters emit believable dialogue with a natural method of delivery; the isolation of deep space is successfully communicated, as is the message that once humanity reaches the stars, we’ll still have expendable workers of a faceless corporation. As a bonus, add in Weaver’s Ripley as a successful feminist creation, even surpassing final girl Jamie Lee Curtis from Halloween a year prior; Ripley would, of course, become an icon – and James Cameron would use her to full effect in the sequel.
- Bill Gordon