Yet another film that has caused more than a few people to ask me “How have you not seen that yet?”, Alien has long been regarded as both a classic science-fiction film and a classic horror film. The film brought both Sigourney Weaver and director Ridley Scott to prominence, and created one of the most iconic movie monsters — possibly the most iconic of the modern era. It’s been parodied and homaged and sequelized many, many times.
Given its pop-culture ubiquity (at least in horror film fan circuits), there’s a degree of familiarity with it even without having actually seen it. To some extent, watching it might have been even more enjoyable for me if I had been able to watch it fresh, without any preconceptions, the way people viewing it on its initial release would have been. In my defense, the film was released in May 1979, and I was only three months old at the time. Even had my parents taken me to see it, it probably wouldn’t have made an impression at that time.
To the lament of child psychologists, I’m sure.
The story builds slowly, but inexorably. The characters are introduced briefly, without much in the way of backstory or interaction before the plot arrives. We’re told the Nostromo is a commercial cargo ship, hauling ore from a mining operation back to Earth, and we see some flashes of personality from the seven person crew. Despite the brevity of the character building, a combination of a few choice lines and the adept acting from the stars give a sense of real personalities to the characters. Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton are the ship mechanics; one a loudmouth, the other laconic, both a bit lazy and concerned over their paychecks. Ian Holm is Ash, the ship’s science officer, stand-offish and just a bit off, period. Veronica Cartwright is Lambert, who seems to have a bit of nervous energy even before the plot kicks in. Sigourney Weaver, as Ellen Ripley, is the warrant officer, and a stickler for rules. Captain Dallas, played by Tom Skerritt, is more of a stickler for his authority. And then there’s Kane, played by John Hurt, who seems a little more adventurous, which proves important when the crew receives an apparent distress signal from a planet that, upon landing, appears uninhabited. (I don’t have to point out that appearances are deceiving here, do I?)
In the future, many fields undergo advances in technology, such as face lifts.
The film is considered a genre-blend between science fiction and horror, and it succeeds masterfully at both. From a science fiction standpoint, the technology shown is wonderfully low-tech for the future — rather than everything being bright and shiny and in perfect working order, the Nostromo truly looks and feels like a well-used vehicle, just a futuristic one. The crew doesn’t have fancy weapons because they never anticipated needing them. (The computer, admittedly, may seem a bit out of date today, but given the time it was made, this is not only forgivable, but completely expected.) The alien world is also designed magnificently, and is a real treat. And, of course, the aliens themselves are some of the most macabre yet believable creations to come out of science fiction cinema. H.R. Giger absolutely deserves to have his work acknowledged here, as these things are the stuff nightmares are made of. And aside from a few scenes where a model is clearly being used, the full-grown alien moves believably, thanks to being an elaborate costume over a tall actor (Bolaji Badejo). It all adds up to a solid work of science fiction.
From a horror standpoint, the film also succeeds. Seven people, isolated in a ship, with no way out and a remorseless and apparently unstoppable killer. There’s a feeling of claustrophobia to the environment, and a sense that the danger could be just outside of the characters’ vision — or the audience’s. This is heightened by some very effective lighting techniques by Ridley Scott, and a decision to keep the alien off screen for large parts of the chase, leading the audience to wonder as much as the characters just when it would turn up again.
I always feel like… somebody’s watching me…
Alien makes for a very good science-fiction movie, and a very good horror movie… and as both, it’s just a very good movie, period. My only complaint with the film, and it’s not a major one, was that I didn’t like part of the revelation about Ash, though I do like the narrative flow of his actions. It’s just the other part that felt a little bit chintzy and unnecessary to me. But even with that, Alien was still a highly entertaining film.
It’s small wonder that the film made a star out of Sigourney Weaver and made Ridley Scott a director to watch. It’s also no wonder that the franchise has been revisited multiple times since. If nothing else, I’m definitely going to be checking out Aliens some day; but Alien has set the bar pretty high.