At long lost I have got around to writing a review of probably my favourite film – Ridley Scott’s Alien. Long time readers will be well aware of the enormous affection and esteem in which I hold this sci-fi horror masterpiece, and I know I’m not alone. Far from it – such is the quality of the movie that it probably has far more fans now than ever before. I obviously can’t compete with all the professional criticism out there that has dissected the film far more thoroughly, so these are just some of my own thoughts.
Part of Alien’s enduring appeal is of course the titular creature itself, which I’ll talk about later on. Firstly I want to discuss the film in its own right, because it is easy to overlook everything else in the movie that works so perfectly. The sequels and rip-offs that followed have helped to obscure the level of thought, detail and sheer artistry that constitutes this milestone in film-making.
Let’s start, as all films must do, with the script. Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett’s writing here was never going to win any awards, but then it didn’t need to. What they did do, with hindsight very cleverly, was to resurrect a successful formula from the 1950s (monsters from outer space picking off helpless humans) and mash it up with a gritty 1970s sensibility. The dialogue for the first part of the story concerns itself with the humdrum work of a ship’s crew, consisting of conversations that could be transplanted in to any other social context and still work. Gripes about pay, bitching about work-provided facilities, jokes at the expense of senior personnel – for a movie supposedly about a lethal extra-terrestrial, this is pretty soft stuff. No ‘Jaws’-like kick-off here that instantly makes clear the impending threat; instead the audience is drawn gently in to a mystery about why a deep-space mining ship’s crew on their way home has been awoken early, after having been diverted off course. The dialogue and characterization is unusually intelligent for a film of its genre. Restricting the crew to seven was a wise move; this allows each character in the script to ‘breathe’ a bit more than normal, whilst making the inevitable death scenes to come more intense and gut-wrenching. There’s also a nice line of subtle humour running through the film that is easy to overlook – it certainly adds a dimension to the characters’ relationships.
How much of the end-product was down to the writers is arguable, given that the unquestionable driving force behind the quality of the film was director Ridley Scott. Certainly the earlier drafts of the script (titled “Starbeast”), whilst structurally similar, hewed far closer to genre conventions and lacked the wit and sheen of the final piece. In another director’s hands, the same lines and actions would likely have had far less impact. All the myths that have built up around the movie’s production usually involve Scott to some extent, adding to the sense that this is less a studio product and more the vision of an auteur. There is of course the famous/infamous anecdote about John Hurt’s chestburster scene, and how the other cast members were unaware of what was going to happen (apparently this is mostly true – they knew something was going to happen, but the details were left deliberately vague).
It was Scott’s attention to detail however that paid off in spades. To its credit, very little in the film has dated, which only further confirms Scott’s status as a visionary director. So much 1970s sci-fi succumbed to prevailing fads and fashions (made worse by the 70s fashions themselves) that within a decade, they were hopelessly dated – just look at Logan’s Run, which came out three years earlier in 1976, but in terms of design is practically prehistoric. Alien on the other hand almost completely evaded these pratfalls. Beyond the inevitable computer displays, the only elements that could be easily traced to the 70s are the computer control room (lots of pretty but meaningless blinking lights) and perhaps the odd pastelly uniform, though according to another story Scott himself rejected the original outfits as being far too naff and ordered more practical and realistic ones to be made instead. Regarding the computer displays, yes they are dated, but part of me still thinks that when mankind does finally explore the outer edges of space, they will be using software and hardware that looks and works just like these computers do – they somehow seem harder and more “sciencey” than Windows or a Mac. That’s probably more to do with my age, though.
Scott’s direction is practically faultless. From the moody establishing shots of the distant sun and empty vastness of outer space, to the ominous quiet of the Nostromo’s corridors, to the bitter inhospitality of the strange planet, to the utterly alien extra-terrestrial shipwreck, to the gripping onboard battle with the monster itself, Scott builds tension like a pro, despite it being only his second outing. Like all great horror, the viewer never quite knows what’s going to happen next. Scott’s camera lingers on little details around the ship, allowing us to become familiar with its vast empty corridors and throbbing engines. And when the action does come, it’s gripping, sweaty-palmed stuff, especially when Ripley makes her last attempt at an escape from the doomed vessel.
The production design is just superb – the sets are fantastically otherworldly. The gothic gloom of the Nostromo is suitably spooky by itself, but the alien planet and its foreign shipwreck is something else altogether. Certainly prior to 1979 there was little else to match it.
And now of course we come to pay homage to the other instrumental force behind the film: H.R.Giger, the Swiss artist who designed the Alien itself. An utterly terrifying mixture of the organic and mechanic, the best description one can make is to quote Ash from the film: “Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.” The sleek, steely exterior is bad enough, but then there’s the huge head, within which are its salivating jaws – both of them. I’ve no idea what nightmare this thing came from, but I’m glad I didn’t dream it myself. Possessed of a terrifyingly deadly intelligence and intent, this demon instantly became a classic movie monster, and remains there to this day.
Finally, there’s the cast. Of course Sigourney Weaver shines in her star-making role: she invests Ripley with a guts and intelligence that just allows her to scrape through to the film’s end. Crucially though, she remains resolutely a woman (female action heroines being fairly uncommon at the time, especially in a genre that was – and arguably still is – male-dominated); this was something James Cameron’s sequel developed further seven years later. The rest of the cast are just as good though, all inhabiting their roles so well that they feel totally real from the moment they appear onscreen. I could heap praise on each individual cast member, but it’s not really necessary – if you’re read this far, you’ll know yourself how good each performance is.
I can tell this review is fast turning in to a love letter, so I’ll conclude by simply saying that Alien is undoubtedly a classic work of science-fiction horror, building a wholly credible universe in the distant future, and then terrifying the poop out of us. Thanks to the minds of two geniuses (Scott and Giger), it remains entirely convincing and relentlessly entertaining.