In preparation for the May 19 release of Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant, CineFiles is taking a retrospective look at all of the Alien films. To begin, we look at the 1979 original, Alien. The film is largely heralded as a classic, and for good reason. Let’s get into it.
Ridley Scott’s Alien is, perhaps, the perfect horror movie. The best? Now that is up for debate. But it is inarguably effective. Taking its roots from science fiction—2001 and the then recent megahit Star Wars being clear visual inspirations—the film shirks what would now be considered overdone conventions of the genre. Still, the film clearly presents itself as a horror, the wonderfully simple tagline (“In space no one can hear you scream”) merely the first indication.
The setting is at once isolating and claustrophobic in the interior and forebodingly expansive in the exterior. The Nostromo can be both sanitary white and shadowy save for a few blinking lights. The mise-en-scene is simple but effective. You could not ask for a better place to subject a small crew of seven to terror at the hands of H.R. Giger’s finest creation.
The most fascinating aspect of the film in retrospect is the nature of the protagonist. Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) today is considered the epitome of Clover’s “final girl,” the most badass and autonomous horror survivor in history. However, you would not think that from the film’s first third.
The crew is introduced with varying personality types and interpersonal relationships. But Ripley is largely background save for a few key encounters (her altercation with Ian Holm’s Ash about the authority to not quarantine an injured Kane (John Hurt) is perhaps her proper introduction as the hero). Her emergence in the second act, based on this early concealment, is pleasantly unexpected.
The characters we get the most focus on in the early part of the film serve more of an identifying function. Tom Skerritt’s Dallas is the expected hero, the fearless leader. Even he, though, must contend for screentime with Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton, whose characters represent a disgruntled working class in a way that keys us in to Dallas’ ineptitude to truly be the leader in the face of the ship’s emergency.
Parker (Kotto) and Brett (Stanton) are, in archetype and within the narrative, minor characters. The reason they are front and center early on is two-fold: 1) their light personalities and socioeconomic identifiability draw the viewer into a science fiction world that would otherwise be alienating and 2) their later (not much later, in one case) deaths are more impactful as a result of their characterization early on. Many horror movies since have erred in this form of characterization, where minor characters are more akin to a tally mark than a functional form.
To this end, Dan O’Bannon’s script does falter slightly in the characterization of one character: Lambert (Veronica Cartwright). Her character is never fully setup, and she is relegated to a role of hysteria as a result. However, being 6/7 with character development in a horror movie is still impeccable.
This is, of course, omitting the eighth character. The most influential piece of the puzzle: the eponymous creature. Portrayed by the spindly Bolaji Badejo (in his only film role) and crafted by Gothic surrealist H.R. Giger, the alien xenomorph is the film’s lasting legacy. Of course, as seen from indirect sequels like Alien vs. Predator, the creature is only as strong as the dramatic formal elements surrounding it.
Scott’s feature is evidence of this. Some of the most tense and memorable moments occur from spontaneity that has little or nothing to do with the adult xenomorph. The chest-burster scene, iconic upon impact, unleashes a moment of pure chaos with what is more than likely the greatest squib to ever pop into a blot of crimson on the silver screen.
The scene initiates with Kane’s return to consciousness, a misdirect that fools no one (we all know from his expanded on- and off-screen recovery that he is certainly not well). However, we do not expect his turn for the worst to occur so immediately and abruptly. The reveal of Ash as a synthetic, too, is a scene bursting at the seams with spontaneity and delightful special effects.
Alien is the spark that created a legacy. The simple use of concealment and shadows create a film dripping at every turn with suspense and dread. The film is a horror classic, and it is inimitable, as one will see when looking at the film’s sequels. There are those that will argue for the superiority of Aliens, but that is an argument for another day. Alien is, in this reviewer’s opinion, Scott’s finest film.
As always, thanks for reading!
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)