A film review by Craig J. Koban


ALIEN jjjj

30th Anniversary Retrospective Review

1979, R, 116 mins.


Tom Skerritt: Dalllas / Sigourney Weaver: Ripley / Veronica Cartwright: Lambert /  Harry Dean Stanton: Brett / Yaphet Koto: Parker / John Hurt: Kane / Ian Holm: Ash / Helen Horton: voice of Mother 


Directed by Ridley Scott / Written by Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shussett

When Ridley Scott’s ALIEN was released in 1979, science fiction films were certainly seeing a renewed period of heightened popularity.  George Lucas’ original STAR WARS, released two years earlier, marked a complete and unequivocal turnaround for the long languishing genre, which managed to give it a stronger sense of respectability and, more importantly, a larger potential for big box office returns.  STAR WARS offered up a kinder, gentler, more old-fashioned level of storytelling, principally age and audience friendly, which made the release of ALIEN all the more unique and kind of daring.  Instead of being another uplifting and euphoric adventure yarn set in the cosmos, ALIEN was a decidedly more menacing, suspenseful, and incalculably scary than what most lay viewers were probably expecting.   

Its main advertising tagline was “In space, no one can here you scream,” which still emerges as one of the more brilliant and innovative hooks in the history of the movies.  This simple phrase did not offer up a promise for the film to feel kind and welcoming; instead, it prompted feelings of haunting unease, tension, and pathos.  The film owed less to the gee-whiz innocence of past space operas like Buck Rodgers and Flash Gordon (the most noteworthy influences to Lucas’ STAR WARS saga) than it did to suspense thrillers like JAWS and to horror entries like HALLOWEEN.  The essence of ALIEN, on basic levels, is that it’s a “space film”, but labeling it as staunchly science fiction misses the point altogether.  The entire film exists as a two hour exercise in frightening audience members, in both subtle and not so subtle ways, and in terms of fostering an incredibly sense of claustrophobic anxiety and nervousness, ALIEN is a landmark entertainment.  I saw it for the first time as a deeply naïve 15-year-old – who grew up on a steady diet of STAR WARS and STAR TREK – and was ill prepared for what a deeply terrifying experience it was.  

Most modern horror films could certainly learn many things about effectively scaring audiences from watching this film.  The problem I have with all of the soulless and gratuitously barbaric slasher flicks as of late (see SAW, HOSTEL, and most of the recent horror remakes) are that they substitute mindless and excessive stomach-churning gore in place of legitimate thrills.  ALIEN is a violent film, for sure, but what people remember the most I think is its exquisite pacing, its sense of chilling atmosphere, and the agitation of not knowing what lurks beyond one scene to the next.  So many countless horror films today throw nightmarish levels of human suffering up on screen, all with the same predictive level of disgusting, putrid visceral details.  That, in my mind, is the easy, road most traveled approach.  Making people physically sick to their stomachs is simple.  Conversely, reasonably scaring people is far trickier.  

The underling premise for the film does a bravura job of quickly establishing its sense of alarming discomfort:  We have a squad of astronauts that face a life-threatening struggle on two fronts: Firstly, they have to survive, all alone, within the cramped confines of their spaceship, with the threat of the deadly vacuum of space being an omnipotent presence.  Secondly, they face the threat of imminent death in the form of a salivating, meat hungry alien creature, stowed away on the ship, that is picking off each member one by one.  Certainly, the basic storyline owes much to Howard Hawk’s THE THING and to the original HALLOWEEN, and even a bit of JAWS thrown in for good measure (ALIEN was rather effectively pitched as JAWS in space”).  The intensity and sense of the foreboding terror that ALIEN brings to the table in terms of its subject matter makes it so fiendishly creepy: if the film was simply an endurance test of sick and putrid imagery and violence, then it would have never worked in the same manner.  

The film was the initial brainchild of Dan O'Bannon, a former film student at the University of Southern California.  The basic idea of the film germinated in his mind for years, but it really began to come to the forefront when he teamed up with John Carpenter on a 1974 science fiction/comedy film, DARK STAR.  That film, which involved aliens, helped to propel O'Bannon into wanting to make a serious and adult oriented sci-fi film that included aliens that felt like a realistic and scary presence on screen.  A few years after his DARK STAR experience O’Bannon eventually teamed up with Ronald Shussett and would work on an early version of a script that would later become TOTAL RECALL.  The pair would later morph their collective ideas into a script, which they dubbed STAR BEAST, which contained the essence of what ALIEN would later become.  They shopped the idea around to several studios, including 20th Century Fox (which would later distribute STAR WARS), and they initially balked at the idea of their odd hybrid of horror and sci-fi.  Thankfully, when STAR WARS was a gigantic financial and critical success, the studio finally capitulated and agreed to greenlight ALIEN. 

The script would later be re-titled to the more agreeable ALIEN, mostly out of the pair’s liking of its stark simplicity, not to mention that the word itself could effectively be used as a noun and an adjective.  Ideas for the script came relatively easy for both of them (O’Bannon has famously stated that he didn’t "steal" ALIEN from anybody, but rather "stole it from everybody!”).  Movies like THE THING – which concerned professional men being pursued by a hostile alien creature in a tight confined area – are clearly echoed in ALIEN, as are similar moments in the watershed sci-fi film, FANTASTIC PLANET (which too had a story that involved interstellar travelers being warmed not to land on a planet that later results with the crew being killed by a mysterious creature when they do).  Beyond motion pictures, other media can be felt in ALIEN, such as those evocative and eerie images that abounded in the pages and covers of those classic EC Comics horror titles.  Many individual shots from the film feel like some of its comic panels come to disturbing life.  

Of course, to create the film’s scope, scale, and dark sense of isolation and misery, a then relatively novice filmmaker, Ridley Scott, was chosen to helm ALIEN.  Back in 1979, the British-born Scott had only made one previous film, THE DUELISTS, so ALIEN represented a major step for the aspiring filmmaker to put himself on the directorial map.  Being a skilled graphic artist, Scott created detailed storyboards for the film in pre-production which managed to impress 20th Century Fox so much that they escalated the budget of the film from $4.2 million to $8.4 (still a remarkably paltry sum, even for the standards of the time).  Looking at the storyboards (which are available on the terrific supplement section of the special edition DVD and Blu-ray) it’s clear that 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY was a major influence on the aesthetic look of the space vessel and space suits, not to mention the “used future” look of STAR WARS, where all of its settings and vehicles looked plausibly worn, tattered, and lived in, giving the film a sense of forthright verisimilitude.  Most crucially, though, Scott really wanted to emphasize horror and tension, as he once stated that ALIEN was to be the “TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE of science fiction.” 

The story for ALIEN is stark, succinctly told, and is a narrative masterpiece of immaculate pacing.  The film begins quietly and observantly, which manages to make it germinate gradually to the point were the later scares strike viewers that much more aggressively.  We are introduced to the crew of the space vessel Nostromo, which is a commercial frigate that tows cargo back to Earth.  The crew is comprised of seven people: the laid back and by-the-books captain, Dallas (Tom Skerritt); the ship’s warrant officer, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver, in what would be her most famous role); ship navigator, Lambert (Veronica Cartwright); a Spockian science officer, Ash (Ian Holm); Kane (John Hurt); and fellow mechanical staff, Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) and Parker (Yaphet Koto).  What’s so fantastic about these early moments is how much Scott shows them at their most ordinary and mundane: the film almost has a documentarian  feel for how loose and improvisational it is during these early sequences, which shows the crew doing the most routine tasks.  They bitch and moan about the monotony of their tasks, congregate together for dinners, and lament about how long it will take for them to get back home to collect their pay.  Some people find these earlier passages the least effective of the film, but, on the contrary, they are absolutely crucial for the latter payoffs in the story. The leisurely pacing of the opening sections act as an efficient counterbalance to the film’s later, more shocking, sequences. 

As is the case with so many space ships in science fiction (STAR TREK in particular), the Nostromo receives the obligatory distress call from a close by and largely uninhabited world.  Despite some protests from a few of the crew, a small band (Dallas, Kane, and Lambert) decide to head down to the planet’s hazardous surface to investigate.  It is during these sections where the film becomes so stunningly realized and innovative in terms of art direction and design.  Once on the surface they come across an immeasurably large spacecraft where the find a long-timed deceased alien pilot.  In another of the ship’s dark and dreary catacombs Kane finds what appears to be chamber of large eggs.  Without warning, a sinewy creature lunches out from the egg and attaches itself to Kane’s protective helmet, puncturing its way through until it latches on to his face.  The other two find Kane’s unconscious body and quickly return him to the vessel. 

Ash seems oddly curious with this alien creature’s design (a bit more than he actually cares for the well being of Kane).  He does, however, believe that it would be too dangerous to physically remove the creature from Kane’s face in fear of killing him.  Fortunately, the creature eventually removes itself from Kane’s face, which leaves the crewmember apparently composed and healthy.  He then decides to accompany his comrades for a bite to eat, which culminates in the most famous and sinister dinner scenes in movie history.  Just when everything appears fine, Kane begins to contort erratically contort and scream.  Within seconds a second creature bursts through his chest and comes alive, leaving Kane a messy, bloody corpse.  Soon, the small beast becomes humanoid in shape and grows to the size of a full-grown man, and it becomes a race against time to find and kill this alien before it kills all of the crew one by one. 

The hostile, slimy, salivating, and acidic alien creature is arguably the most famous monster design ever and was provided in live action form by creature maestro Carlo Rambaldi (who would later make the animatronics E.T.) and on the conceptual page by the Swiss Surrealist, H.R. Giger, whose utterly disturbing renderings of the creature designs really struck a powerful cord with Ridley Scott.  Many have spoken in great length about the slight Freudian and sexually charged symbolism of the alien itself, which certainly holds up - the beast’s head is decidedly phallic in design, not to mention its mouth and tongue, which is vaginal in shape.  Then, of course, we get that infamous moment where the smaller face-hugger creature impregnates Kane, which leads to the ghastly birth of a larger creature from the poor victim’s chest cavity.  The scene itself has passed largely into mythic cinematic territory, but it also serves as a calculating watershed moment for the entire film: at this point all of our preconceived notions of what movie aliens could be were forever shattered.  Regrettably, there have been countless other future sci-fi entries that have also attempted to create a wholly original extraterrestrial, but none cold match ALIEN's startling and fearsome ingenuity. 

The creature, of course, provides many of the film’s greatest scares (the pleasure of watching ALIEN for the very first time with another virginal viewer that has not seen it is to see the level of anxious anticipation of the horror and intrigue in their eyes: the genius of ALIEN is not knowing precisely when and where that reptilian, teeth laced monster will emerge to dispassionately and viciously exterminate the crew).  However, ALIEN’s greatest single strength lies with its tone and pacing, which heightens the overall struggles of the ship’s crew.    Of course, some of the most unforgettably terrifying moments in the film dastardly play off of our collective fears of having our bodies invaded by an entity and then later being externally threatened by a larger beast.  Yet, it is Scott’s immaculate pacing of the entire film that emerges so reticently.  

The earlier sequences – involving lingering shots of space, the exterior and interior confines of the Nostromo, and the day-to-day activities of the crew - have a patient precision to them, as do later sequences on the alien planet, which Scott lovingly portrays down to the smallest details.  The immensity and desolation of the craft, the rotting corpse of its alien captain, and the nest of alien eggs – all of this suggests a stunning world within a world.  Re-watching these early scenes reminded me of how exemplary the film’s special effects and art direction were and still are:  In an age dominated by CGI effects, the fact that Scott envisioned all of this iconic imagery using what is now considered crude and low tech methods is all the more astonishing.  ALIEN certainly deserves its proper placement on a short list of the most atmospheric films ever conceived.  Very few films can touch it in terms of conveying a sense of richness and texture to its production values.  The film, along with so many of Scott’s future efforts (like BLADE RUNNER, for instance) showcased what a supreme visualist the Brit auteur would become, and it is his sense of flair and artistic shrewdness that helped to elevate ALIEN beyond the level of a dime-a-dozen fright film that would have otherwise resulted.  

Perhaps the most lamentable casualty of ALIEN has been the undervaluing of its performances, which are all collective solid, if not awfully underrated.  All of the actors do a thankless job of fully immersing themselves in their fairly mundane roles, which allows for their paralyzing fear later in the film to breathe with so much more realism, especially in the midst of otherworldly events.  We become more absorbed in the events of the film largely because the crew of the Nostromo feels like an actual crew of misfits.  I especially like Yaphet Koto and Harry Dean Stanton with repeated viewings of the film, as they give their characters – both of whom are on the lower end of the ship’s seniority table – a level of sniveling cantankerousness.   Tom Skerritt is also quietly strong in a very perfunctory role as the ship’s captain.  Ian Holm maintains a subtle level of disdain and icy condescension towards the rest of his crew (which only helps to make his character’s surprise twist that much more shocking).  John Hurt, of course, arguably has the trickiest role in the entire film (he never manages to prematurely tip off viewers with what is to come of his character during his infamous final moments), but there is certainly not one second during that appalling dinner scene where you don’t buy his suffering and pain. 

One could not forget about Sigourney Weaver, who provides the film’s most grounded and fiercely determined performance as Ripley, who’s name has now entered the cinematic lexicon for a female character that is as tough as nails, unwavering, and resourceful enough to get her way through terrifying events without the aid of male assistance.  Her role as the action hero of sorts in ALIEN emerged as the film’s unqualified coup de grace, which helped to go against what most audience members were expecting during the film’s climatic finale.  Weaver, of course, reached legendary status in the minds of action film junkies when she returned to portray Ripley in the 1986 sequel, ALIENS, which all but cemented her status as one of the greatest action heroes of the movies – regardless of gender.  Without reservation, I would state that there have not been many films – whether action, drama, or horror – that have had heroes as intelligent, self-reliant, and ferociously hard-assed as Weaver’s Ripley.  For better or worse, this character – the first feminist action hero - is the actress’s proudest legacy, even though she allowed it to be exploited in a series of needless ALIEN sequels. 

Despite its outward appearance as the anti-STAR WARS (it certainly lacked that film’s sense of frivolous and enjoyable escapism), the somber horror and thriller elements of ALIEN proved to be a winner at the box office in 1979.  The film made $80 million, nearly ten times its budget, making it a highly lucrative gamble for 20th Century Fox.  It would be nominated for only two Oscars, Best Visual Effects and Best Art Direction, and it won in the former category (Jerry Goldsmith’s memorably sinister musical score was a curious and dubious omission, as was Scott for direction).  The film became quickly praised as a masterstroke work of the genre and, in subsequent decades, it was deemed important enough to be inducted in the National Film Registry in 2002 and was ranked as the seventh Best Science Fiction film of All-Time by the American Film Institute.  Perhaps most significantly, the film launched two auspicious careers, the first being Weaver, who has emerged as one of the most respective actresses of her generation, and for director Ridley Scott, who used his clout from ALIEN to craft a fruitful and revered career lasting over the last 30 years that has been punctuated by consistently great films.  Considering his varied resume – BLADE RUNNER, THELMA AND LOUISE, GLADIATOR, BLACK HAWK DOWN, KINGDOM OF HEAVEN, MATCHSTICK MEN, AMERICAN GANGSTER, and BODY OF LIES - there is no denying that Scott is a filmmaker that never feels impeded or intimidated by tackling any type of subject matter.  He is one of the great filmmaking chameleons of the industry. 

Even more momentous was ALIEN’s complete transformation of its genre – or crossbred genre – which helped viewers forget about the endless slew of cheap, disposable, and campy 1950’s B-grade alien monster films that preceded it.  ALIEN – both in 1979 and 30 years afterwards – is a watershed film for how it introduced horror elements into a traditional space travel narrative and infused them both with stupendous production values, a first rate directorial talent, and rigorously strong performances.   On the downside, ALIEN has led to a series of mindless and rudimentary imitators over the years (ahem, SPECIES, for example) that tried to re-capture its lightning in a bottle twice all the way through the 1980’s and into the present.  Yet, no other film, before or since, has cross-pollinated science fiction and horror as exemplary as Scott’s film did, and possibly the film’s most longstanding accolade was how much it respected audiences:  It built tension and nail-biting intrigue to help fuel the viewer’s imagination.  This is a film to watch in feverous, almost anticipatory silence all the way through.  Modern torture porn films get it all wrong - they simply disgust viewers into appalled silence.  

See the difference?

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