In space no one can hear you scream.Alien promotional poster, 1979
Alright so I’ve been on a streak of mostly stinky movies, so let’s talk about one of my favorite movies ever made. It was a movie that scared my pants off as a child, and helped mold me into the science fiction nerd I am. This was a groundbreaking film that, despite creating a nearly perfect sequel, branched off into a debauchery of a franchise (and before you ask, I am not alluding to Terminator twice in two posts). I am, of course, talking about the magnificent 1979 motion picture Alien.
The movie starts with a crew of individuals tasked with the investigation of a strange distress signal far in space. Paid by the gigantic interstellar company Weyland-Yutani, their mission is pretty straight forward. Once touched down, the crew discover a large alien spacecraft that looks crashed into the surface of the planet. When investigating, the beginning of the nightmare occurs: the crew discovers alien life in the form of eggs. After coming into grizzly contact with an alien parasite (contained in an egg), the crew must survive against a threat seemingly waiting for them on the dead planet.
Atmosphere…That’s a Space Word
Let’s dig in. This movie has some of the scariest scenery that has come out of its era of cinema. A lot of movies in this time period involved sets in warehouses or industrial places in order to make their Sci-fi plot more convincing. I guess the idea that a lot of lower budget films had, and even more successful films had, is that you can put your movie in a place that has a lot of steam or chemical barrels, or even industrial machines to look more epic. Hell, the first two Terminator movies do this for a dramatic third act (and third mention of the franchise in a row). The difference between those movies and the presentation in Alien is that, while they are all shot in industrial locations, Alien plays with lighting and sound to create a more effective atmosphere.
My favorite example of this is in the “cat and mouse” chase sequence between the alien creature and Ripley (Sigourney Weaver). In this sequence, the alien is aloof, and Ripley is trying to set explosives on the ship to destroy it. Everyone else is dead and we only get to see what Ripley sees. As she is running along, there is steam and strobe-like minimal lighting perfectly combined with cramped spaces and tight corridors. It is a claustrophobic setting, with mechanical noises crashing through the terrified sounds of the main hero. It is a successful ambiance to match the excited third act of the movie.
While Alien does the big and exciting scenes very well, it is also incredibly reserved when it needs to be. In the moments where the movie slows down, it does just that. Throughout Alien, there is a certain tense feeling that lingers with you while you watch. The alien spacecraft, the human spacecraft (the Nostromo), and the escape pod in the end all have an eerie feel. I think that the minimalist music and reliance on the environmental sounds offer some of the best sequences in any horror movie. It is the distinct difference from movies now (filling every possible second with commercial music), that gives the guttural feeling of “something BAD is about to happen”.
Characters? In a Slasher?
Each character in Alien is a gem. I think that slasher films usually have some pretty schlock characters, which is totally fine. Friday the 13th, for example, has a great selection of dumb characters that are just slaughterhouse animals. You usually have the jock, the bimbo, the smart girl, the dummy; the list goes on. What is important about these characters is that they are essentially made of a single dimension. The jock is always going to be the jock, and he’s going to try and fail to fight the threat head on. The bimbo is always going to have sex and be generally air-headed. She’ll be killed in the process of some sexual act. Each of these people are a special milestone for the monster and the audience. You start to be so annoyed with these people that the eventual kills become almost cathartic; you want to applaud the killer for their gruesome slaughter. A really good deconstruction of these character archetypes is the 2011 movie Cabin in the Woods.
Now I would totally put the original Alien in the slasher genre, along with the likes of the Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th series, but I would say this typical character construction is slightly different. The crew of the Nostromo is filled with characters that are alive and have personalities that set the archetypes aside. As the audience, you can understand the motivations of the captain and all of the crew members. Each character has just enough dialogue to show you a real personality behind the eventual meat pile that will be left behind by the monster. I have seen this movie a million times and still get really sad when each character is picked off (aside from Lambert).
It’s situations like the very beginning that proves this point. When the crew awake from their deep sleep machines, they engage in big group chat over a meal. The direction and editing were perfect in this scene because the conversation scene is just that: a conversation. The crew just talks, engaging in jokes and characterization. We can learn that Ripley is tough but a liked person aboard the ship. She jokes along with everyone and is generally accepted as a good second in command. We can also learn that Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) are close friends. They are constantly together, adding some of the comedy to the movie. There’s also Dallas (Tom Skerritt), who you can tell from the beginning is trying very hard to balance his position as a company contractor with being a captain of a crew under duress. It’s a crew full of space truckers that probably spend a lot of time together; the ship is their workplace as well as their home for a majority of the time. The only character that really gets the slasher movie treatment is Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), who unfortunately could not escape being the woman who is a blubbering mess for a majority of the film.
With characters being mentioned in an Alien movie, it would be an actual crime in the United States to not talk more about Ripley. She is one of the most bad-ass women in cinematic history. She is the main character in the sequel while this movie, I would argue, does not have a single main character. This only adds to her character as she stands out from the rest. When the alien parasite first infects her crew, there is little to no question as to whether she should go out of her way to help kill the thing. Sigourney Weaver’s acting is incredible in this film when she is doing anything. She is just as convincing when she is shooting the shit with her crew-mates as she is when she is quietly singing a lullaby while prepping to shoot the alien out of the airlock in the end. She is the ultimate argument I have when people say that there are not enough strong female leads in movies. She is an incredible lead in two hugely popular movies (she’s in the first four Alien movies, but we’ll get to that). The funniest bit of trivia about her part is that, when casting for the film, the character of Ripley was cast to be either a male or female. It was the strong performance that cleared Weaver for her career defining role.
It Uses the Vents
The alien creature (xenomorph) is something that I would say is the most unnerving threat in movie to date. It exists in multiple stages of metamorphosis, each becoming scarier than the last. What is most powerful about this monster the believability of its power within the movie. When I say this, I mean that this movie monster has capabilities that make sense within the limit of my suspension of disbelief. I can totally see this creature, limited by the confines of the ship, to be a monster that lurks in the air vents and strikes prey from hiding places.
It does have some pretty fantastical attributes like a tongue mouth and acid blood, which are a little bizarre for a realistic sci-fi horror, but it is not constantly changing its rules within the film. It is front-loaded with abilities that are powerful, but it does not suddenly have super strength as the film goes on. Monsters like Jason Voorhees just become ridiculous by the end of the movie, being able to withstand explosions and gunfire (not to mention trips to hell).
In Alien it seems like the monster is immune to dying in the end when it follows Ripley onto the escape pod, but it makes sense to me because of the movie I had watched up to this point. The monster follows Ripley everywhere she goes within the ship. She takes her sweet time to prep the explosion and leave the ship, the secretive alien in tow. During her bomb arming and retrieval of the ship’s pet cat, the alien could easily have followed her into the escape pod before it escapes. I know that it creeps through the vents and stalks, so it’s appearance out of some piping in the escape pod seems like a reasonable thing to have as the movie’s last big hurdle to the finish line. What would have not made sense would have been Ripley making it into the escape pod, seeing nothing in front of her, turning to look back, and then turning around again to see it right behind her (looking at you, Alien: Isolation). The monster has rules, and I think the most effective monsters have rules that bind them.
Final Verdict: 5 out of 5
This movie is very good. You guys know that at this point, my favorite sci-fi tends to be more boring than others. But with that in mind, believe me when I tell you that this movie is easily one of the most approachable boring movies I could ever recommend. The downtime is just as exciting as the action if you are someone that appreciates well crafted movies. Each character HAS character, and the monster is one of the most bone chilling monsters in 40 years movies. While it may help to like slasher movies, it can be appreciated from various angles. Trick your scaredy-cat significant others or friends to watch this: they will either be scared along with you, or confused as to why you didn’t want to watch the more popular second movie in the franchise…speaking of which…
Final FINAL Thoughts
It may be high time for a theme to last for a little while in these movie reviews. Because Alien is one of my favorite movies ever made, it may be high time to rewatch the rest of the series. The good, the bad, and the ugly of this series will be showcased here so maybe watch them with me and post comments about how wrong I am about the others in the section below.