Alien

(This review includes a whole lot of spoilers.)

"A perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility."

Alien is a terrifying work of art. There's something real and visceral about it. It scares you where you live.

In most horror movies, the monster is never as scary as the build-up. In Alien, it's scarier. It's wet, slimy and organic, and it invades their lives while they're at the dinner table. It evokes fears of diseases that cannot be contained, of biting and snapping insects and crustaceans, and the most primal fear of sharp teeth dripping with saliva. The facehugger gets you with the fear of smothering and choking. There's also the lovely super-acid, as well as getting trapped in an enclosed place with a monster.

Alien has often been described as "truckers in space." The Nostromo is cold, hard, shabby and realistic; the matter-of-factness of a bunch of grunts in a transport arguing about bonuses helps make the fantastic real. There isn't a lot of exposition. We don't know who these people are, where they came from, how they ended up in these jobs. We don't even know their first names. (Even the cat is referred to by a last name.) But the seven actors are so good that each of them is memorable.

It's easy to identify with Ripley early on when she tries and fails to enforce quarantine, because we all know she's right. She is so calm and professional through most of the movie that when she finally loses it, it counts. It's easy to root for her; she's tough and smart and refuses to give up. Sigourney Weaver's Ripley has become a female science fiction icon, although much like Sarah Connor (another icon), Ripley doesn't really come into her own until the second movie.

After Ripley, Dallas (Tom Skerritt) is probably the most sympathetic character. We never do find out how he died. (Except in the extended version of the movie.) Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton are great as the resentful engineering staff. John Hurt's part as the curious Kane is smallest, but he's certainly memorable. Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) is the only one of the seven who shows panic and fear early on, but she does it beautifully without going over the top or becoming unsympathetic.

Ian Holm is the standout, though. Throughout most of the movie, Ash feels human but just... slightly... off. When we discover his true nature and he goes on the offense, he is absolutely frightening. Trying to kill Ripley with a rolled up magazine down her throat is particularly shuddery, as is his final speech in that disembodied head. Note how Ash, who is nearly as terrifying as the alien, is also gruesomely organic, with artificial slime and guts. And milky blood. Love the milky blood.

So much care and talent went into the making of this movie. The sequences on the planet with the wind, the mist, and the organic lines of the enormous alien ship seem like a fantastic nightmare come to life. Every space scene is beautifully composed. For that matter, every scene in the movie is beautifully composed. The famous chestburster sequence may be the most shocking movie scene ever filmed. I can still remember how shocked I was the first time I saw it. Veronica Cartwright's reaction was genuine, too. Most of the actors weren't clued in about exactly what was coming the first time so that Ridley Scott could record their actual reactions. (What a prick.)

Although the effects hold up for a movie over thirty years old, the computer sequences don't. "Mother" should probably have been more like HAL in 2001, although the lack of a human-like voice and the cold, disembodied fatalism of her messages work with the plot. Especially since "Mother" was the only representative of the Company (other than Ash), an organization that had no problem sacrificing the lives of the Nostromo's crew for an alien that could be used as a weapon.

Some have complained that it was unrealistic for Ripley to go back for the cat. I'm a cat person. I'd do it. I've also heard complaints about Ripley taking off her clothes in the last few minutes. I understand why it's referred to as unnecessary cheesecake, and maybe it is. But I think her near nudity was intended to make her appear even more vulnerable in that final cat and mouse sequence with the alien. Which was also very well done – her careful movements as she slides into the suit, her ragged breathing, the halting way she quietly sings, "You Are My Lucky Star." I always thought that was an acknowledgement that the alien was so powerful that only luck will help Ripley prevail.

Alien runs just under two hours. The entire first hour is set-up, and every moment of that set-up is paid off in the second hour. When things start going nuts, we know the characters, we know the situation, and we know that they're completely screwed. I've seen this movie five or six times (it's not a movie you watch over and over for pleasure) and I still feel dread; the scares are so well set up that they still make me jump, even though I know they're coming.

Bits and pieces:

Alien had a killer ad campaign: "In space, no one can hear you scream." I saw a bumper sticker parody of it once: "In space, your cat can't hear the can opener."

— The alien ship and the alien itself were based on the disturbing art work of H.R. Giger. His contribution to this movie was huge. And I hope he got some serious therapy.



— The movie begins when the crew of seven wake up, and ends with Ripley and Jones going to sleep. Like I said, a waking nightmare.

— John Hurt's first line is, "I feel dead."

— It might not mean anything, but I always register the fact that all the white males die first. The last survivors are Parker, Lambert and Ripley. And the cat.

— We didn't see the cat when the crew woke up at the start of the movie. Was Jonesy running around while they were sleeping? If so, what did he eat? Jones the cat also managed to evade every member of the crew except Ripley. Smart cat; he refused to go with anyone but the star of the sequel.

— There are several shots of empty helmets just sitting on panels and counters. Eerie. And a top candidate for Most Obvious Symbolism.

— There's an extended version of the movie, and the additional footage was interesting. But in my opinion, the theatrical version is better.

Alien is a brilliant, memorable movie. It's the perfect mix of science fiction and horror. Four out of four empty helmets,

Billie
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Billie Doux loves good television and spends way too much time writing about it.

8 comments:

Jess Lynde said...

I love this movie. And it's the scariest movie that I've ever seen. I'm not usually a horror fan, but the terror in this one is so visceral it's thrilling. You're absolutely right that it still evokes an incredible level of fear and dread. My breathing tends to get shallow when I watch it, and I can actually hear my heart beating in my ears. And it still makes me jump, too.

H.R. Giger haunts my nightmares (much like the Pale Man from Pan's Labyrinth). Fantastic design work.

Mark said...

Good review. You mentioned the insect and teeth part of the alien design. I'd also throw in the bio-mechanical part of Giger's art. It is more obvious in his artwork, but it adds one part relentless cyborg (like Terminator did later), and one part a living being consumed by souless technology (like the Borg in STNG).

Patryk said...

The movie is so great i'm feeling dread just reading this review. :D

Mark Greig said...

Alien was the first movie that genuinely terrified me as a kid.

Were it not for another one of Billie's favourite movies it would surely be Ridley Scott's masterpiece. It's one of those films where all the various element of the production (cast, script, direction, sets, music, special effects and so on) came together perfectly.

And, against all the odds, the sequel is even better.

jo said...

I only watched this film for the first time about six months ago (mainly because i'm an unashamed wuss) and i have to say, it lived up to the hype. I didn't so much watch the last hour as listen with my hands over my eyes. I think knowing what was coming made it worse.

And Billie, i too am a cat person, so Riply going back for the cat made sense to me too. Having said that i still don't understand why the cat was with them in the first place.

Josie Kafka said...

In reading your review, I realized that I have never seen this movie. I've just seen at least two of the sequels. And Spaceballs.

Gus Brunetti said...

Oh, no, Josie! It's like you watched only two episodes of Buffy, and they were "Ted" and "Beer Bad"!

I only wish I had never heard about the chestbursting scene. I wanted to be shocked. Unfortunately, by the time I was old enough to understand movies, it was pretty much common knowledge. I had a girlfriend who knew nothing about the movie, and I hoped to watch it with her to be vicariously in shock, but we broke up before I had the chance :(

And though Riply only becomes RIPLEY the awesome badass in the 2nd movie, I still think Alien is the best in the series. Aliens is a very close second.

Whatever happened to very good sequels?

Diane C said...

Next to Terminator 2, The Matrix, Metropolis, Blade Runner and 2001, this remains one of my favourite science fiction films, and certainly ranks as one of the best horror films as well.

One of the things I loved about the film is the Nostromo itself – a huge towing vehicle in space, and yet the interiors are far from glamourous - far from it in fact, most of the rooms were grubby, poorly lit, and more than a little sterile and unwholesome. And not many flashy lights or huge computer screens compared to the standard SF fare of space craft.

I suppose in reality the film is nothing more than a cat and mouse thriller; no different to say Halloween, The Thing, Jaws etc. – the main protagonists are either been chased around a confined area by nut jobs or monsters, and Alien is no exception to that rule. But it does so very well!

Another jaw-dropping moment was the first glimpse of the alien space craft that had crash landed on the planet. Such a usual design, cavernous and yet not at all very technologically advanced. But it was the wonderful Space Jockey that impressed me most. Sitting in his/her pilot’s chair fossilised and looking incredibly ghoulish, but truly gigantic in size compared to our little astronauts.

And yes, Ash was the perfect cyborg – despite looking human it had a rather unapproachable aura; that he wasn’t quite a team player at all. And his demise was not only shocking but also incredibly revealing, especially with his “all other priorities rescinded” and “I can’t lie to you about your chances. But you have my sympathy” sign off.

So pleased to see a woman kick some alien arse for a change! Sigourney Weaver did a fantastic job as Ripley. She has always remained one of my inspirations ever since I was in my early teens.

The belated sequel was good, but doesn’t come close to the original in my way of thinking.