Retro Film Review: Alien (1979)


(SPECIAL NOTE: Capsule review of the same film is available here.)

When science fiction becomes topic of discussions among people who aren't fans or even superficial connoisseurs of the genre, they usually have very narrow definition of what science fiction film is or what it should be. Thanks to the influence of people like George Lucas, Steven Spielberg or Gene Roddenberry, science fiction is considered escapist genre about fantastic worlds almost always better than our own. However, in the late 1970s, after debilitating fuel crisis, unprecedented political turmoil, and unstoppable decline of world economy, future didn't seem bright anymore. Filmmakers suddenly began using the media of science fiction films to express their anxiety and scepticism towards things to come. Alien, second feature film by Ridley Scott, also joined the trend, this time by using big budget resources to resurrect almost forgotten sub-genre of SF horror, until then strictly in the B-movie domain.

The plot of Alien is set in a future that might look far, yet in the same time share many elements with the world of today. Interstellar flight isn't some breathtaking scientific achievement anymore and private companies use spaceships to bring precious ore to Earth. One of such ships is "Nostromo", whose seven-member crew spends most of the time hibernated. After they are awaken by ship's computer, they realise that they are still far away from Earth. "Nostromo" received a distress signal from an unknown planet and the crew, led by Captain Dallas (played by Tom Skeritt) is ordered to investigate. They land on the planet and small expedition finds huge alien derelict. Inside the derelict, second officer Kane (played by John Hurt) finds thousands of eggs, but one of them explodes and alien organism gets attached for his face. Comatose Kane is brought back to the ship, but first officer Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver) doesn't want to let him out of quarantine. Her decision is overridden by science officer Ash (played by Ian Holm) who breaks security procedure in order to study the organism.

The entire concept of Alien - concept that can explain its great success as horror film - is just another story of human beings confronted with their inherent limitations. Technology can make human life longer or easier, yet it can't remove human imperfection, brilliantly demonstrated in this film both on physical and emotional level. Space, which could create sense of wonders with its inconceivable beauty, can in the same time be the source of horrors beyond imagination, horrors that leave puny humans as helpless victims, despite all their superior technology and intelligence.

To illustrate that point, director Scott hired the talents of a Swiss artist H.R. Giger, who had created the most notorious monster in history of cinema. Like nobody else before and after him, Giger succeeded in making a creature that is completely alien from anything in human experience, yet in the same time with shapes and forms that bring back the worst fears from our collective subconscious. Whether it is its a huge head, encroaching tail, clawed hand or double set of constantly salivating mouth with sharp teeth – even the glimpses are enough to make people anxious. Scott very cleverly decided never to show the monster in full shot, leaving to the viewer to draw complete picture in his mind, most probably consumed by irrational fear.

Excellent contrast to all-powerful, invincible and unstoppable monster are imperfect humans that reluctantly become its enemy and prey. The screenwriter Dan O'Bannon, who had already explored those themes in his low-budget classic Dark Star few years earlier, created very human and believable characters to illustrate such flaws. They aren't scientists or astronauts, they are simple working men more interested in simple pay check than all the wonders of universe, more likely to use four letter words than esoteric scientific terms. Scene immediately after their awakening brilliantly illustrates their disenchantment with space technology - after spending months in hypersleep and travelling tens of light years, the first thing they do is to gather around table, smoke cigarettes and bicker about low wages. Those characters are also enhanced through superb acting by one of the strongest ensemble cast in history of cinema. Most notable is Sigourney Weaver in her debut role, who would prove that women can carry action movie in the sequel; here, in the first film, she is just very capable space officer, with strong will and more sense than anybody else, yet also consumed by terror when she must face the deadly foe. She managed to steal the top spot from nominally lead actor, Tom Skeritt, who plays Captain like a man who can establish authority without raising voice, yet in the same time burdened by indecision and lack of courage. John Hurt is also good, although he has the least of screen time. Ian Holm is wonderful as antipathetic bureaucrat that values scientific results more than human life; small hints about his character only later reveal the even more disturbing truth. Veronica Cartwright, originally cast to play Ripley, is also more than impressive in a quite different role of navigation officer Lambert; at first only bickering, her character turns into incarnation of frailty and panic. Finally, O'Bannon's script manages to create some kind of social stratification even in the such little universe like "Nostromo" - two of the characters are low paid blue-collar types that dwell in the dark and greasy lower decks. Yaphet Kotto is excellent as Parker, bickering giant that has a great heart; and, finally, Harry Dean Stanton gives another subtle performance of his quiet and dim-witted, yet very sympathetic assistant Brett.

With strong cast and good script, Alien also benefited from very good director. Ridley Scott, who was at his prime in late 1970s and early 1980s, showed great skill in creating very distinctive visual images. Alien perhaps doesn't look as spectacular as his next masterpiece, Blade Runner, but the thick atmosphere is here, with elaborate and extremely detailed production and costume design. Special effects are still impressive and very convincing, even after two decades of science fiction movies that used superior techniques. The disturbing feel of the movie is also enhanced by haunting score written by veteran film composer Jerry Goldsmith, one of his best. Scott is also good in editing, when he manages to create some of the most shocking scenes in the history of cinema. But, Alien functions wonderfully as whole, not just like a mechanical sum of all those good elements. The film has a relatively slow pace in the first half, when Scott allows us to meet and study characters and claustrophobic environment they inhabit. Then the plot thickens and second half is a frightening thrill ride. Unlike many less talented horror directors of that era, Scott doesn't put emphasis on gore (although the legendary dining scene has a plenty of it) and tries to scare the viewers by creating haunting atmosphere and implying terrible events instead.

The fear and anxiety that viewers share with the movie protagonists made Alien one of the most successful horror films, if not the best horror film of all times. Fact that it created numerous imitations and spawned three sequels so far speaks enough of its quality and importance. Yet the best recommendation for this film is the multitude of fans that watch this movie time and time again, re-experiencing same, often not so pleasant emotions, yet enjoying the rarely good work of art when they see one.

RATING: 10/10 (+++++)

(Note: The text in its original form was posted in Usenet newsgroup on October 24th 1998)


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