Produced by: Gordon Carroll, David Giler, Walter Hill
Written by: Dan O’Bannon (screenplay); Dan O’Bannon, Ronald Shusett (story); David Giler, Walter Hill (uncredited)
Edited by: Terry Rawlings, Peter Weatherley
Cinematography by: Derek Vanlint
Music by: Jerry Goldsmith
Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Ian Holm, Veronica Cartwright, Yaphet Kotto, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Bolaji Badejo
I’ve been wanting to write this review for quite some time, but somehow never went forward with actually doing it. Don’t really know why it’s taken this long, but I figured that using it as the finale of the 3rd Annual Halloween/Scary Movie Month was appropriate enough!
Alien is seriously one of my most favorite movies of all time. I first saw the film when I was in 9th grade, late at night, most likely on a weekend, since there was nothing else going on the next day. I had always been aware of the Alien franchise, primarily because of the close relationship that the series has had with video games, what with all the Alien vs. Predator stuff, so I was pretty familiar with the concept of what the aliens in the series did, but, being so young, I never really was exposed to any of the movies until that night. Even though it was incredibly late when I started it, finishing the film around 3AM, I remained attentive and hooked (though I admittedly felt at the time to be a fairly slow film) as I watched it on the tiny 20” TV screen that was the only screen available at that time. That I remember the first time I watched this film amidst all the myriad of films I’ve watched throughout my life is pretty telling. Only films like Jurassic Park, Batman Returns (that one tied to one of my earliest memories of going to the theatre), and Terminator 2 really hold that same sort of resonant distinction for me.
One of the distinctive features of Alien is that, despite being a sci-fi film that deals with the film’s namesake alien being, none of the characters in the film are explorers – they are blue collar workers hired to haul mined product from alien worlds back to Earth. The crew of the enormous mining vessel called Nostromo is able to traverse the vastness of space with ease thanks to the deep sleep chambers that can be assumed to place them in a form of suspended animation. The crew is awoken by the automated computer system known as “Mother,” however, when it detects a foreign signal that they are contractually obligated to investigate. Science Officer Ash, a newcomer to the crew, seems rather enthusiastic about the possibilities of studying the alien signal, but the rest of the crew doesn’t share his enthusiasm. With no such thing as the Prime Directive to hold them back and yet no personal obligation to explore strange new worlds, the Nostromo crew is far more concerned with how long the mission will take and/or what sort of bonus is coming their way for pursuing this company-mandated detour.
Naturally, what follows is not your typical case of work-related incidents, as the crew discovers an ancient alien vessel, the sole crewmember long since fossilized, and the ship’s cargo nothing but eggs – eggs that remain alive and well, carrying creatures that are able to break through helmets and impregnate their victims with something… unnatural. Something… monstrous.
I’ll spare you the long-studied gender dynamics that have been written about over and over again since the film’s 1979 release (including in my own paper linked at the beginning of this review), and instead tell you about all the things that I personally admire about the film. Admittedly, a good deal of that admiration has also been admired profusely elsewhere, but… well, not in my wording, so… you know… there.
First of all, there’s the slow burn pacing. I had previously noted that I thought the film was fairly slow as a kid, and I will maintain that the film, despite not being much longer than your average Hollywood blockbuster these days at just under 2 hours long, is a lot more methodically paced than most other action/horror blockbusters. Taking a page from the then-recent Jaws there’s no rush to get to the monster, and very little time is spent trying to understand it. It just is, and its presence is something that is always on the crew’s and our minds. Alien is a ponderous film that not only takes its time building up to the relatively few encounters with the alien beast, but also effectively and efficiently takes its time within single shots that capture both the crew and the Nostromo set – the scene where Ripley is attacked and beaten into submission, with the camera alternating between slightly dominating high angle shots and submissive low angle shots while pornographic images of women linger in the background adds on to the already disturbing imagery going on.
Then there’s the alien itself, designed by H.R. Giger from one of his paintings. It is one of the most horrific, original alien designs ever conceived. Though Star Wars featured its share of the bizarre alien beings that populated its galaxy far, far away only two years prior, none among the plethora beings from that film compare to the single monstrosity that has become known as the xenomorph, and the means through which it is born is inspired and terrifying. And while I would not dare spoil it here for any newcomers, one other threat that looms in the background almost manages to overshadow the xenomorph in terms of original design – if only it weren’t for some rather unconvincing props used in several shots.
The presence of the company Weyland-Yutani, well before it was introduced as, simply, the Weyland Corp., is felt throughout, meaning that the film not only has a subtext regarding gender roles, but also the role of working class in society and how companies are often unscrupulous when it comes to ethics and screwing over those in their employ. Already giving up large chunks of their lives to the company’s bottom line, much of that life is spent lying dormant until the company decides to wake them up again, and the crew of the Nostromo clearly does not trust that the corporation will not resort to any means necessary to get what they want while minimizing the flow of cash from their pockets, owed or not. Weyland-Yutani strikes me as a company that would have few scruples regarding the firing of those who are rising in the ranks as a means of hiring on cheaper replacement labor for the time being. While the film is called Alien and though subsequent films in the series would go on to focus more and more upon the creature itself, the justified corporate distrust and personal sacrifice for someone else’s bottom line that permeates throughout the first entry is one of the more horrific elements that surprisingly gets overlooked way too often.
The cast is fantastic, with not a weak performer among them, and their acting in the film is quite natural, and there’s a genuine chemistry between the actors, regardless of whether their characters (or even the actors playing them) actually like each other or not. Behind the scenes footage shows that the actors committed to their roles. Personal squabbles even informed by the performers’ actual feelings toward one other, with Sigourney Weaver even getting a pretty hard slap to her face from Veronica Cartwright at one moment, an incident that made it into the final film. Ridley Scott, obviously, deserves some credit for orchestrating the whole thing and maintaining the atmosphere. The iconic chestburster scene was largely improvised by the actors, who only had a rudimentary understanding of what was going to be happening, but not nearly to the gory extent that made it to the film, resulting in some genuinely disturbed looks on the actors’ faces.
Sigourney Weaver, of course, stands out among the rest as Ellen Ripley, who would go on to become the primary hero of the franchise, around whom all xenomorph-related events would coincidentally and not-so-coincidentally revolve around. The lore regarding Ripley’s originally being written with a man in mind and then being renamed when the statuesque actress auditioned has become one of the better known Hollywood success stories and legends, and while Ridley Scott has since denied that it was ever written with any one actor or gender in mind, the decision to cast a woman in a lead role that was not only in a leadership role, but also one that was, apart from her unfortunately skimpy attire in the finale, more or less a non-sexualized was pretty revolutionary at the time and would make way for future heroines like Sarah Connor in The Terminator and probably even Sandra Bullock in the more recent, realistic film Gravity, where her role could have easily been cast with a man and the film cast off as yet another ‘splosions-in-space VFX showcases.
Indeed, there’s much to praise Alien for, and yet much of it has already been explored elsewhere. But much of that praise bears repeating, as it seems as though many filmmakers have forgotten what made this film work – including those who made later films. Ridley Scott’s own uneven Prometheus included. Alien isn’t just a great film because of what it says about gender issues. It’s a thrilling and intelligent sci-fi/horror film, featuring one of the most iconic and interesting monster designs ever conceived, helmed by a master filmmaker who was still in his prime, featuring stunning set design and a cast of actors who truly understood their characters and were willing to give them their all to bring them to life. And I didn’t even touch upon the great Jerry Goldsmith score or the atmospheric sound design of the Nostromo, which is practically a living creature of its own – you can literally hear the “heartbeat” of the massive ship in several scenes. It’s such a brilliantly executed film, I’ve personally encountered people who denied its categorization as a horror film based solely on the fact that their preconceived notions about the limitations on quality for films in that genre will not allow for them to reconcile Alien’s greatness with its obvious genre. That’s right – it’s so good, it even challenges people’s belief systems and forces them to make compromises. I believe the only word for that is “transcendent.”
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 5 / 5