I admittedly came late to the appreciation for this film. I saw the more action-packed sequel (previously covered in a “best sequel” post and covered in more detail next week) first as a kid and saw the original Ridley Scott film a couple years later. As a kid I expected to find the same high-energy sci-fi action of the second film in the franchise and instead found a slow-paced, tension-building, character-based horror movie. I should warn these reviews WILL have spoilers, so if you’ve been drifting right between all the security grids for the past 57 years you should turn back now…
Seeing this movie as an adult I came to find new appreciation for it.
Alien is the earliest film in this review series and it establishes a number of broad traits the more successful movies of both franchises would also possess: characters you care about are established effortlessly through natural dialogue, the plot starts with misdirection, even though it’s science fiction the atmosphere and world are deep and believable, and it spans multiple genres.
The first trait is perhaps the most important for Alien. When the crew of the Nostromo awaken, out of position and given directives from the company to perform the unwelcome task of exploring a distress beacon, their interactions let you know everything about them. Parker and Brett played perfectly by Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton are the tag-team tradesmen of the bunch, low-men on the ladder more concerned with getting better rates than anything. Lambert played by Veronica Cartwright is a bit nervous and put-upon. Kane portrayed by the terrific John Hurt seems tired but eager. The dry and serious Ash, the Science Officer played ominously by Ian Holm. And Captain Dallas as portrayed by Tom Skerritt is calm and smooth but definitely in charge. So diverse and effective is the cast that a first-time viewer may not be aware that Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley, a warrant officer and third in chain of command, is the star of the film. Oh and there’s also Jonesy the cat.
The final character introduced is the vessel itself, the Nostromo. Even though it is a starship for deep space travel it’s treated as mundane as an oil rig, and indeed it is simply a towing vessel for cargo or refineries. With a crew of less than 10 parts of the cavernous ship are bright white, well maintained, and unique. Other parts are rugged, rusty, worn out, and solitary. Many of the spaces appear to be abandoned but loaded with materials giving much of the ship a junk-room feel. Those parts are the bridge of the USS Storage Room.
The turning point of Alien shouldn’t be a surprise, after all the movie is 36 years old, but DEFINITELY back out now if you’ve never seen it. The film opens in a very mundane manner, characters talking work, complaining, you see cliques and relationships before being sent to examine the unknown signal the computer has picked up. While exploring the beacon the away team finds rows of eggs and Kane ends up with a fingery-spider creature (later called a “facehugger”) attached to his head. They are unable to remove it and the creature eventually falls off and dies. Kane appears to be recovering, but later over dinner he begins to seize and a little toothy beast (later known as a “chestburster”) crashes through his ribs and skitters across the table.
This scene, in 1979, was shocking, especially to those used to the fun space opera romps or heavy dramatic sci-fi that copied the 2001 formula, as Alien pretends to for the first 30 minutes.
From that point on Alien becomes half slasher film half And Then There Were None as the crew searches the ship for the little beast, which they soon find has grown into a big beast, and are picked off one or two at a time. The difference between Alien and most slasher movies is you actually care about the characters and hope they aren’t the next one to have their brains gouged from their skull by HR Geiger’s double-mouthed Xenomorph.
It even commits a number of slasher movie clichés, such as a literal, but effective, unexpected, and sensible “cat-jumping” scene where Jonesy leaps out and runs. The scene serves as excellent misdirection, a quick jump scare, and breaks the team up for a moment (people never “split up” and go off on their own out of contact from the others, they stay in teams or always in communication), setting up the real scare that followed. It also contains, what I think, is the best final girl trope in history. You can read my thoughts on that here.
The cramped pipe-filled confines and dark, drippy atmosphere make it a natural place for the alien to hide and randomly appear to grab an unfortunate crew-member and scare the audience.
Scott made the best of the technology of the time. The alien creature was a performer in a suit so he kept the xenomorph hidden in shadows, obscured by scenery, and eventually they keep track of it using motion sensors, effectively creating tension with blips on a screen much like the barrels attached to the shark in Jaws. The practical effects give the alien an eerie feel, with tension provided by music and the intensity of the cast performances.
One excellent scene has Captain Dallas creeping through the ducts looking for the alien with a flamethrower. As the intensity ramps up the Dallas declares “Get me the hell out of here” while music, blips on the screen, and supporting performances build up to an awesome climax.
The second big misdirection is Ash, whose secret agenda comes as a shock when it’s revealed. Even after the initial shock of an eyeless snake with legs tearing its way through John Hurt the Ash subplot proves the film still has enough left to surprise you again.
Even amongst an excellent ensemble cast, Sigourney Weaver comes into her own as the break out star of the movie. At first she’s simply the only character with any sense; refusing to let Kane back into the ship while he has a creepy face-monster gripping his skull. She also shows she won’t take shit from some of the dissatisfied crew and even takes full command when the situation demands it. We admire and relate to her emotions, when she screams at the ship’s computer we feel her anger, and when she discovers Ash’s secrets we share her tears of rage. Then she saves the cat. Full scores all around.
Ridley Scott’s Alien in a number of ways marks the end of the space dramas of the 60s and 70s. For me it had the same effect on space films as Appetite for Destruction had on the glitzy hair metal of the 80s, once it arrived changed the landscape and there was no going back. The plodding pace, inactivity, and shallow/obscure plots of other space films would no longer suffice. Audiences now expected shocks, plot twists, and visceral climaxes in their movies.
It truly helped found the modern sci-fi space genre, spawned numerous clones, and continues to inspire other franchises today.
Every film in this review series across both franchises owes their existence to Alien and we, as sci-fi fans owe many of our other fandoms to it.
A solid and grown-up four and a half hugged faces out of 5.