Written by: Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt and John Hurt
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“As most of you may know, we're not home yet. We're only halfway there. Mother's interrupted our journey for she's programed to do so unless things change. Things have changed. It seems that she has... intercepted a transmission of unknown origin. She got us up to check it out."
We often scoff when horror is sent into space as some sort of gimmick or last resort, but it’s been oft-repeated that Ridley Scott’s Alien is just an old-fashioned haunted house movie blasted off into the final frontier. This sounds reductive and simplistic, but it’s also true--one can easily imagine the Nostromo switched out for an old mansion on a hill caught up in a sweeping storm whose lightning and thunder shade and score every murder. That Alien is actually the polar opposite of that is what makes it effective; it’s set in the deep, outer reaches of space (where “no one can hear you scream”), and it’s the film’s eerie silence and desolation that stands out even three decades after its release.
Scott draws you in with this from the get-go--even the opening title is slowly overlaid as we pan through space and drink in its vast emptiness. Once we’re aboard the Nostromo, his camera winds and weaves through its empty chambers, essentially giving us a feeling of walking through the halls of a quiet house at night. Once its crew eventually awakes from their hyperstasis, the Nostromo is simply home to low-key, Robert Altman-like chatter around the breakfast table. The measured approach continues on, making us privy to the small slices of these characters lives.
You might say that a whole lot doesn’t actually happen during the first thirty minutes of Alien, but, in actuality, it represents some of most economical world-building you’ll ever see. Everything from the creaky structure of the Nostromo to the earthiness of its inhabitants makes Alien ironically grounded; this isn’t the sleek, fantasy-laden futurist vision of space, a place where exploration is reserved for privileged astronauts. Instead, this is a future where space is just the next frontier, and we’re following the exploits of glorified truckers and miners charged with the task of transporting materials across space. They bicker over pay bonuses and complain about the terrible food; they’re all working for the man (here represented by “The Company”). They’re us--the common man in a situation that seems remarkably common until it becomes uncommon upon the discovery of a distress signal on a nearby planet.
Even when this happens, it still feels like the calm before the storm, and the landing and the exploration of the barren planet is remarkably constructed like a puzzle. There’s a derelict ship with an alien life form (since dubbed the “space jockey”) that’s concealing a nest of eggs. Slowly, you can feel the noose beginning the tighten, and the first big tug comes with one of the eggs hatches to reveal an arachnid xenomorph that attaches itself to John Hurt’s face. If Alien were made today, the scene would come with a chair-jumping shriek that would coax people to spill their popcorn in their laps; here, it’s subtly handled, the first step in an ever escalating series of events. Seeds continue to be planted (somewhat literally) after this point, as the ship’s science officer, Ash (Ian Holm), breaks protocol by not quarantining the explorers, and these seeds bear a horrific fruit that sprouts in the infamous chest-bursting scene, a similarly clinical sequence that’s not played loudly; in fact, it’s the stunned, almost silent response from the rest of the crew that sells the horror of it all.
Scott’s steady, calm hand is the unsung force that guides Alien into greatness; few films are as elegantly paced and suspenseful. Its director’s bag of tricks is myriad, as Scott mixes both long and close shots to maximize tension and claustrophobia, and he arranges a series of bumps in the night in the form of fake and real scares. The Nostromo’s bowels and its air shafts provide some of the more suffocating scenes, as both the shadows and Scott’s squeezed frame conceal the xenomorph in the background, lurking just out of sight in many cases. And like any good showman, Scott doesn’t fully reveal his best trick until the climactic sequence, by which point Alien has ramped up in full-on horror mode, complete with strobe lighting and Jerry Goldsmith’s hysterics-laden score.
In some ways, Alien even resembles a slasher flick, albeit one with a refinement and grace that’s rare for that genre. Many of the scenes feel like the stalking one would see in those types of films. Unlike most of those films, Alien is filled with actual characters and an impressive cast. Sigourney Weaver is now famously remembered as the final girl left to fend off the xenomorph in her underwear, but no one around her feels expendable; in fact, she (nor anyone else) is presented as a protagonist. Instead, Alien is a wonderful ensemble that’s filled with colorful, believable personalities (as opposed to the papier-mache one-liner cannons in James Cameron’s follow-up). Tom Skerritt’s Dallas is a perfect late 70s leading man, a leader defined by intelligence rather than misplaced machismo. The ship’s two mechanics (Harry Dean Stanton and Yaphet Kotto) are feel like they should be the boneheaded muscle, but both resist this; Veronica Cartwright’s Lambert might be most remembered for her griping, but there’s a realness to this that speaks to the grounded nature of this crew. None of them are heroes, and none of them certainly signed up for this, so their plight is relatable despite its outlandishness.
Because of this, Alien also feels like a direct reflection of 70s nihilism; it truly gets back to the scary, paranoiac treatment of extraterrestrial menaces found in The Thing From Another World and Invasion of the Body Snatchers two decades before, only it infuses it with the real, visceral mean streak that defined the 70s. The xenomorph itself--not unlike the shark in Jaws or Michael Myers in Halloween--is a soulless, efficient killing machine, and its designed as such. H.R. Giger’s futurist, cyberpunk design renders it mechanical and points to the technophobia rumbling beneath the surface of Alien. The alien itself is one of the few things that’s over-designed in the film, as it’s an otherwise sleek, efficient affair whose effectiveness hinges on the invasion of this otherworldly creature
It’s not just an invasion, either--it’s a full on penetration whose attacks are almost sexual. Hurt’s Kane is practically raped and forcibly inseminated, and the xenomorph itself is an obviously phallic assailant, and there’s a notion that, even here, the everyman is met with a perverse defilement not unlike their counterparts in other 70s shockers like The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes. Alien isn’t all about the visceral, though, as both that technophobia and Big Brother-esque paranoia also erupt to tap into the era’s distrust of authority, rendering the film a scary sci-fi parable about humanity’s own inhumanity towards each other. Everything about the film is cold and distant, right down the sleek photography; there’s so little comfort to be found anyway, and, as it turns out, you can’t even trust everyone on board who isn’t a xenomorph.
Along with Jaws and Halloween, Alien represents the triumvirate of 70s blockbuster horror. All are classic, old-fashioned movies given a 70s makeover, but, deep down, they all prey on primal fears, operating on a “less is more” approach that unnerves with the unseen. There’s not a single misstep, and it’s a film that comes down to precision execution on all levels--the special effects still hold up today, with the chest-bursting scene still being every bit as horrifying now as it was when I was a little punk that thought Aliens was cool so the first one had to be just as fun. And it was--until John Hurt’s insides splattered all over the cast and the scene left me with a short-lived fear of things popping out of my chest. Not that this prevented Alien from being an instant favorite that only gets better with age; everyone should own it, and it seems like there’s about a half dozen DVD and Blu-ray releases. Nab either the DVD “quadrilogy” set or the Blu-ray; the latter is unbelievably impressive and makes Alien look like it was made yesterday. It’s one of the finest home video presentations I’ve ever seen, and there’s so many extras (including the inferior 2003 “Director’s Cut” that Scott as since disowned) that you’ll just have to take my word for it. Nobody’s home should be without Alien--it’s an institution and a horror classic that’s master-class filmmaking. Regardless of what you want to call it--a monster movie, a haunted house movie, even a slasher movie--there haven’t been many that are better than this since its release. Essential!
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