Should I Watch..? Alien
What's the Big Deal?
Alien is a science-fiction horror film released in 1979 and was directed by Ridley Scott in only his second feature film. The film concerns the small crew of a deep space vessel encountering a vicious and deadly alien and stars Tom Skerritt, Sigourney Weaver, John Hurt, Veronica Cartwright, Yaphet Kotto, Ian Holm and Harry Dean Stanton. The film's subsequent success led to the creation of the Alien franchise (of which, this is the first film) with a number of sequels and prequels being released as well as merchandising and even cross-over movies with another movie-based character from space, the Predator (1). It was also a critical success and has become to be regarded as one of the best sci-fi films in history with the alien creature itself, designed by Swiss artist H.R. Giger, becoming one of the most recognizable villains of all time.
What's It About?
The dormant crew of the commercial spaceship Nostromo are awakened by the on-board computer while still many light-years from Earth. The ship has detected a beacon of unknown origin from a nearby planet and company policy dictates that the crew, led by Captain Dallas, must investigate. The ship sustains damage on route to landing on the planet's surface so while engineering contractors Parker and Brett repair the damage, Dallas leads a small expedition onto the planet.
Before long, they discover the long-dead remains of an alien civilisation and a mysterious egg chamber buried deep beneath. As Kane takes a closer look, something emerges and latches itself onto his face. As Dallas and navigator Lambert hurry back to the ship with the injured Kane, warrant officer Ripley initially refuses them re-entry to the ship on quarantine grounds. But science officer Ash lets them on board - a decision which could have grave consequences for all the crew...
Harry Dean Stanton
Dan O'Bannon *
Release Date (UK)
30th September, 1979
Best Visual Effects
Academy Award Nomination
Best Set Direction
What's to like?
If one were to ignore the whole mythos that has since surrounded the characters, it's still staggering to watch Alien for what it is. And there is no doubt that it is a piece of work of sublime brilliance - Scott's cinematography and vision brings to mind both the epic grandeur of 2001: A Space Odyssey (2) and the visceral horror of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (3) with blood flying though the air, chests exploding and death being dispatched at almost any given moment. Scott understands that a good horror film is also about what you can't see as much as what you can, allowing the darker corners of the screen to be illuminated by the audience's imagination. And it's not just about the Xenomorph either - the face-hugger is also a source of morbid fascination and revulsion. It gives the film a sense of being well thought-out instead of simply being a slasher film in space.
Weaver delivers an astonishingly complete performance as Ripley, proving that women in films could be something more than just damsels-in-distress or cheap titillation. But the film offers more than just a bloody who's-next-to-die mystery - Alien subverts the usual conventions of the captain being heroic and most likely to survive while the dialogue between Parker and Brett as the two engineering guys more concerned with their pay than survival help illustrate a world far broader than what appears on screen. It's also a film that isn't afraid to leave questions hanging in the air like the remains of the so-called Space Jockey or the origin of the Xenomorph species. Even with the benefit of hindsight and numerous sequels and prequels filling in the gaps of our knowledge, the tension is palpable in every scene of Alien and helps to make this far better than its simple premise might suggest.
- Badejo was working as a graphic artist when he was discovered by one of the casting directors in a pub. Being 7 feet 1 tall, Badejo was perfect to play the alien and was sent to Tai Chi and mime classes to slow his movements down properly. They also constructed a swing for him on set as he couldn't sit down in a chair once he was in the costume.
- Scott was careful to never show the alien in full, often keeping the creature obscured in darkness to dispel the notion of the part being played by a man in a suit. In total, the beast has just four minutes of screen-time and is usually shot in profile.
- The original script had a clause stating that all the characters were unisex, meaning that either male or female actors could be cast in the same role. However, neither O'Bannon or Shusett ever considered Ripley being a woman.
What's Not to Like?
Probably the most conventional character in the film is Lambert, played with enough gusto by Veronica Cartwright. Once the story begins properly, she kinda fades into the background and becomes your typical shrieking woman in horror films such as this. Somehow, I expected a bit more but then again, what else could the character be besides Weaver's ballsy heroine in order to stand out? Other than this, there isn't much else one could fault. Effects are surprisingly good given the film's age and budget while the alien creature itself looks far more menacing than a bloke in a suit. Scott's use of camera trickery and model-work is second-to-none - remember the vast, sprawling vision of LA with its flying police cars in Blade Runner (4) - and despite the odd shot that would benefit from modern input, the film is a surprisingly solid watch even today. The sets are also fantastic, feeling suitably claustrophobic and industrial.
If I were being ultra-critical then perhaps the soundtrack could benefit from an update but in truth, it's so unobtrusive that you possibly might not miss it were it removed altogether. Lastly, I also felt that the character of Ash was thrown in as a last-minute addition and didn't feel as well thought out as the others were. Nothing wrong with Holm's performance but I found myself questioning why such a character would be among such a group.
Should I Watch It?
Science fiction and horror have long been bedfellows but rarely as successfully as Alien, a film that capitalised on the success of Star Wars (5) but showing us a version of the future that was brutal, bloody and grim. Gripping and tense throughout, it has come to define sci-fi horror ever since but has rarely been bettered. It's impossible to ignore and just as impossible to forget - this is one film that really does keep you on the edge of your seat and never lets up for a minute.
Great For: slasher fans, sci-fi lovers, fans of the franchise.
Not So Great For: the squeamish, younger viewers, film-makers obsessed with shooting everything in CG.
What Else Should I Watch?
In case you feel like I'm overblowing the film somewhat by declaring it the best sci-fi horror film out there, may I present the contenders? Nonsense like Event Horizon (6) may mimic the scares in Alien but not the tension, story-telling or genuine terror. There are literally hundreds of other alien films from the 50's adaptation of The War Of The Worlds (7), the allegorical Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (8) to the jungle warfare of Predator (1) and the soft-porn silliness of Species (9) - another film utilising the strange imagination of H.R. Giger to design its titular character. Depending on what you're looking for, there are very few I can think of to match the fear this film generates.
Unless one looks to the inevitable sequels. Aliens (10) sees heavily-armed marines going into battle against hundreds of alien creatures and offers a very different take on the situation. You are still not sure of the final outcome and it still has plenty of moments to make you jump but personally, I prefer the first film's simplicity and claustrophobia. Over time, sadly, the fear gets increasingly distilled - Alien 3 (11) isn't a bad movie as such but not really comparable to the first two films while Alien: Resurrection (12) has Winona Ryder playing a space pirate, which says it all.