By: Garrett Collins
Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Harry Dean Stanton, Veronica Cartwright, Yaphet Kotto, Ian Holm, and John Hurt
Ridley Scott has never been a fan of science fiction movies. As he was directing commercials and the like in the early 70s, he imagined, if and when he ever directed motion pictures, science fiction, in all its cheesy glory, would end up being completely absent from his resume. Until he saw a little movie in 1977 called Star Wars. It was here that Scott realized science fiction could have more substance to it. Science fiction didn’t just have to be about people in bad suits being surrounded by bad special effects wondering aimlessly into space. Star Wars, more than anything, opened Scott’s mind to an image he had never seen before. He realized that ‘dirty’ science fiction, consisting of regular union wage making people and worn down ships that looked like they had been through hell, was something that George Lucas brought to life real well, and he hoped eventually he would get a chance to do the same. Luckily for him, 20th Century Fox, the studio that also produced Star Wars, were eager to capitalize on its success by following it up with another story based on space. And, in this one instance there appeared a script called Alien (written by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett), the light to start production immediately turned green and Scott was on his way to doing his own space story. But, is this Alien just the realization of Scott’s newly formed dream of doing a film based in space? Or, is its goal of doing something else in space added on to the saturation of movies that were coming out at the time such as Ice Pirates, therefore not as memorable? What I am about to say will probably not ever be uttered again in my movie critic career: Alien is about as close to perfect that not only a film based in space, but a film as a whole, can be. And, I dare say a vision such as this may never be realized again. Full of tension, good performances, and a creature that is still as memorable for its sexual imagery as it is for its eagerness to scare, Alien still, to this day, remains the scariest and most gripping movie to come out of not only this late 70s aesthetic. But, in the history of cinema period.
In order to back up that last comment, you need to have characters and actors we care about. And, that, Amigos, is exactly what we get with the crew of seven onboard the Nostromo; the ship this film is based around. There’s Parker (Kotto), a man who is just as concerned about his cut of the pie as he is about getting home. There’s Lambert (Cartwright), the squirrelly woman whose main job onboard this ship is never fully realized. But, it is the notion established in the beginning that this whole film may be told through her eyes that draws us to her. There’s Brett (Stanton), a playful guy who loves cracking jokes and seems to be happy no matter when they decide to get home. There’s Ash (future Bilbo Baggins Holm), whose cards are never fully shown until ¾ through the movie. There’s Kane (Hurt), a guy who while investigating a ship unfortunately becomes its first seen onscreen human ‘host.’ There’s Dallas (Skerritt), the guy who has the unfortunate task of taking charge of this motley set of individuals. Finally, there’s Ripley (Weaver). Who, when we are first introduced to her, is not really looking like she’s going to be such an integral part of the story as much as being just another crew member. All of these characters were, for the most part, very relatable, and Scott’s oft repeated admission of these being ‘truckers in space’ comes flying off the screen nicely. All of these performances are very noteworthy (even, in my opinion, the sometimes put down upon Cartwright’s) and help keep the slow burn of the movie flowing nicely, while at the same time endearing ourselves to them. It should also be noted that I got the feeling there were things in the script which pointed to Ripley and Dallas being lovers. And, these were wisely discounted for the final product.
Which brings me to the final written product that Alien turned out to be. Its even flow is established in the beginning, where after being treated to an admittedly Star Wars-ish reveal of the Nostromo, establishing shots of the lit up hallways and kitchen are shown before the seven pods are onscreen and Kane is the first one to come out. These sets are beautifully lit. And, I know I have a real habit of endlessly pointing this out in my reviews of older films. But, it must be said that all of these sets were done without the help of digital technology. While there is always a sort of charm to that bit of info, Alien takes it one step further. You believe you are onboard a ship in space. And, much like Lucas, Scott convinces us that, yes: years of these people being up in space has taken its toll, and while they are charming to each other in the beginning, once things onboard start going south and tempers start to erupt: it is due to lack of the characters’ control and not the actors lack of good catering. The world is majestically established by Scott, and while he would have grandiose success in the future, I don’t think he ever was as successful as here with Alien at wrapping peoples’ minds around what the results of characters’ motivations & lack of good instinct gets them. There are quite a few scenes that establish this. Parker and Brett uttering concerns about their ‘cuts.’ Skerritt going down into the air shaft by himself with the title character lurking within, being two of them.
Ahhhh. The title creature. The ‘alien.’ The, shall we say, slasher/villain of the film. I cannot believe that I have gone this far into the review and not mentioned it. And, while Scott has pretty much done the impossible by crafting such a solid narrative horror film in space, let’s face it: where would this eventual franchise be without the craftsmanship of H.R Geiger? Within every single one of the man’s designs, from the interior shots of the planet where the investigation that gets the story going takes place to, of course, the alien creature itself, Geiger has littered this film with not only images of dread. But, also of sadism and sexuality as well. And, while I am not going to get into all of what his designs actually mean (that would take a whole other article), I will say that it is not hard to see them when glancing at his work. And this feat, combined with the brilliant way Scott decided to go about the story, makes Alien have way more meanings than just ‘another horror/sci-fi film.’ Why is it that, after all of her friends have vanished, Ripley sheds her clothes while the alien lurks? Because, it establishes that Ripley is as vulnerable as ever. And, the alien, instead of attacking her, is intrigued. Combined with scenes such as Ash’s attempt of stopping Ripley by stuffing a porno magazine down her throat, makes for a movie experience unlike no other. This isn’t just a film about a whole other world creature stalking people. This isn’t just a film about a woman trying to make it in a man’s world (even though Weaver’s success in this role paved the way for actresses like Linda Hamilton to do the same years later). This is the ultimate film of survival. And, this is a film about discovering ones’ self. Once the alien is grown to full size, not only is Ripley vulnerable. But, its feelings have made him so as well.
Ok, maybe I am going on a bit too much about what the various meanings of Alien are instead of reviewing it as just a film. But, this is what Alien does. It horrifies. It grips you. And, with the brilliant addition of the alien having acid for blood, creates a foreboding feeling of danger. If you feel I have complimented Alien too much, then maybe I have not complimented it enough. Because, much like Scott’s film makes a viewer not even realize they are inside a horror film until a certain creature bursts through a certain individual’s chest (after, you guessed it…raping and impregnating him), I do not want to establish it as anything it is not. Alien is also a movie that, if you have never seen it, will terrify you. It will grip you to your seat. And, make you wonder…why is this film considered a classic? Because, Amigos…while we were watching the Rebellion take on the evil Empire, movie goers in the 70s tended to forget one thing: in space no one can hear you scream. And, while roaming around a nice kitchen in space is a wondrous experience, imagine being stuck in said kitchen with this creature lurking. That, my friends, is what Scott, this set of actors, and his crew truly tapped into. And that is why this film will never get tiresome in a genre that, with the exception of Star Wars, was getting more tiresome by the day. If you haven’t done so already, watch this movie. And then, tell me…did you scream?
5 out of 5