Few horror vehicles remain as important and seminal as Ridley Scott’s groundbreaking incarnation of the first ‘Alien’ picture. The film came together during a time when science-fiction in film had just been regaining some traction with the enormous success of ‘Star Wars’; a time where the ‘slasher’ picture unknowingly birthed its invincible genre with John Carpenter’s ‘Halloween.’
Based on a B-movie screenplay by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett during 20th Century Fox’s race to discover the next big space opera, ‘Alien’ received the greenlight despite its glaring departure from the world and joyous ambiance of that George Lucas phenomenon. The film opens similarly to ‘Star Wars’ during an unspecified future with a giant spaceship towering its way across the screen. The ship withholds twenty-million tons of mineral ore being brought back to earth when the crew’s voyage becomes interrupted by the interception of a signal from an unknown planet. The crew made up of seven engineers, led by Dallas (Tom Skerritt), is ordered by their governing company to investigate. Whether the signal is an SOS call or a warning remains unclear until they reach this planet and find a stranded alien spacecraft. Three members of the team, including Dallas, and two others (Kane, Parker) enter the craft to the discovery of a giant fossilized space pilot and a plethora of voluminous eggs. Ultimately, the curiosity of the crew members turns to terror as ‘Alien’ unleashes a deadly monster, hidden in the shadows and vents of the humans’ spaceship.
Having no prior knowledge of the film or series that it spawned works significantly to understanding the unpredictability of the advancing story, its impact upon its release in 1979, and its current status as a pioneer of the horror genre. ‘Alien’ works as a rare breed, a film that takes all the time it needs to reveal its heading and its monster. The pacing and editing are perfectly matched at building inescapable dread. The confinement of the mining ship traps the audience in its darkness. The quiet, hovering score of Jerry Goldsmith strays from forcing the audience into the mood and tension of a scene, and rather allows the unknown and unseen to become far more effective at tantalizing the nerves. The film also strays from the conventional in making its cast an ensemble without a dominating star or presence. The audience knows these people will be picked off in some order, and there are survivors, but the writers intentionally left out first names in the script to allow for male or female characters. All of them are equally endangered.
The alien creature itself remains an interesting and ambiguous design. The eggs harvested on the alien craft birth, surprisingly, not the monster itself–but a parasite that attaches itself to the face of a living host and implants an embryo through the throat and into the chest of its victim. Through the victim births the monster. What an original and horrific concept. Director Ridley Scott toys with the alien’s sexual nature: its underlying act of ultimately raping its prey to spawn its existence, and the physical design of the creature itself in shape and form. The creature is constantly changing as well. The parasite, following its host’s impregnation, leaves the victim and dies shortly after. The actual monster itself begins life in a small phallic shape, but increases in mass very quickly. The audience doesn’t see the process of this transformation, but the alien, while never fully explained, seems to have a short life-span. Each time it takes the screen, it is bigger than its last appearance. That notion adds more terror. While the audience has witnessed the creature, their uncertainty continues to linger regarding what they might witness around the next corner.
Even if the right elements are in place for a technically accomplished horror film, a usual downfall rests on its casting. Not the case here. Sigourney Weaver plays Ripley, an intelligent, by-the-book young pilot. She thinks before she acts, plays by the rules, and rarely investigates uncertainties. Tom Skerritt plays the captain of the ship as an experienced officer that knows the ropes and simply wants to get the job done to move on and return home. He cares for his crew and often dismisses standard operating procedure in conjunction with instinct. The cast rounds out with Veronica Cartwright, Yaphet Kotto, John Hurt and Harry Dean Stanton as the other officers, along with Ian Holm as Ash, a mysterious science officer somewhat reminding of Star Trek’s Spock character. This cast actually proves to be very effective, carrying both the inner-terror and inquiry required to make the audience care and believe in this nightmare.
Of course ‘Alien’ is probably best remembered among all these accolades for one rattling scene that has become legendary for its time. And without saying more for the few left uninitiated, it is still mostly a remarkable scene for the slim exception that the puppetry has not exactly held its weight in longevity for today’s audiences. The performances and surprise of the scene have made it stand the test of time.
I will add that the version I recently viewed was the 2003 re-release cut titled “Director’s Cut” with a disclaimer by Ridley Scott that this is simply an alternate cut for the wishes of his fans, and not his preferred version. His newly edited version slightly trims a handful of scenes and adds in a few others–with only one remaining all that significant and possibly controversial. I enjoyed this cut immensely for this particular cut sequence toward the film’s climax, a scene that would further continuity with James Cameron’s follow-up ‘Aliens.’
‘Alien’ has spawned three varying sequels and two dopey spin-offs. Ignoring the other works and taking Ridley Scott’s film on its own merits, it is a true cinematic classic that takes B-movie monster material and makes an involving and very realistically human film out of the science-fiction. The film has seen its share of imitators, but none have matched the intelligence and elegance of this exceptional startler.
-MJV & the Movies
Last 5 posts by Matt V
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