In the first chapter of the terrifying Alien saga, the crew of the spaceship Nostromo answers a distress signal from a desolate planet, only to discover a deadly life form that breeds within human hosts. Now the crew members must fight not only for their own survival, but for the survival of all humankind.
eyelights: the first 50 minutes. the exceptional cast. the mind-blowing set design.
eyesores: the abrupt fade outs in Goldsmith’s score.
Along with ‘Psycho II‘ and ‘Friday the 13th‘, ‘Alien’ was one of my first horror films. Oh, I know that some people like to think of ‘Alien’ as science-fiction, but I see it as horror first and foremost. Science-fiction is a sub-category anyway, much like horror or western or war films.
Where fiction is concerned, in my mind there are only a few primary categories, such as action, adventure, drama, comedy, suspense. That’s pretty much it. But there are a lot of sub-categories. It’s not endless, but there are many. What bothers me is when people mix them all up (ex: “Romance” is not a category – it’s sub-category).
Anyway, to me, ‘Alien’ is a suspense film featuring horror and science-fiction elements.
Let’s face it: from the onset, it wraps itself up in an aura of mystery: What is this ship? Who are these people? What is the origin and purpose of the beacon? What is that spacecraft doing on the planet’s surface? Who/what is the giant alien? What are all those eggs? What are the science officer’s motives? So many questions, and yet so few answers…
But ‘Alien’ also piles on the tension throughout.
After a slow start, to immerse viewers and set the tone, the ship receives a distress call from a nearby planet. That immediately suggests danger, but there is also conflict within the ranks, as some would rather continue with their mission and others want to go help out. With other contractual difficulties coming to the fore, we feel that tension build.
And then the crew have a disastrous landing on the planet’s surface, find an eerily deserted ship, and one of their away team is felled in an attack. This is followed by a harsh debate over the virtues of decontamination, as Ripley sticks to the rule book despite growing opposition – even from the ship’s captain.
Oof… so much tension…
And that’s when the milk really starts to sour!
It was amazing just how quickly the first 50 minutes zoomed by – and yet it was the least intense part of the film. It’s just that it’s set up so well, and there’s so much mystery and so many layers to peel away. The second part is when the “real” suspense begins. However, if you’ve seen ‘Alien’ many times before, it doesn’t have quite the same pull; it’s not as satisfying.
Strangely enough, the second part of the picture also doesn’t fly by as quickly as the first. And yet, when I think of ‘Alien’, what I seem to remember most is the second half – from the moment that the alien is discovered in the dining area. I can’t explain why, but the first half always seemed to be a 15 minute set-up segment in my mind. But it’s far more than that.
Anyway, I can just imagine how potent this double-whammy must be upon the first viewing. I was so young when I saw it that I can’t exactly remember the impression that it left on me – but I remember the experience quite clearly. I would sure love to show it to an ‘Alien’ virgin for the first time and see what their impression of it is. That would be awesome. But who hasn’t seen it already?
There are three stars in this picture: the set design, the creature and Sigourney Weaver.
French artist Jean Giraud, otherwise known in the comic book world as Mœbius, contributed to the look of the film and, to me, it shows. But, no matter who should take credit for it (H. R. Giger also contributed key elements), the world of ‘Alien’ is incredibly detailed, believable, and breathtaking to see. The lighting also added to this a great deal, using the right amount of shadows and bright fluorescent lighting to set the stage.
Then there’s the creature, as designed by H. R. Giger, whose claims to fame have been the cover of Emerson Lake Palmer’s album ‘Brain Salad Surgery’, and the ‘Alien’ and ‘Species’ series. The alien that he designed is a totally unique creature, unlike anything seen on screen before (and since…? Well, only in the afore-mentioned ‘Species’). While the beast is a humanoid, it also has insect-like features. It’s hard to describe, but it’s an eerie blend that’s impossible to forget.
The main problem with the alien otherwise known as the xenomorph is that it is clunky-looking, with an extremely elongated head and spinal protuberances that would be killer if it tried to put on a large wool sweater. Let’s just say that it must have been a hassle for the actor portraying it. In ‘Alien’ it looks a little shaky (even its claws appeared soft, unthreatening), and it was quite fortunate that Ridley Scott decided to keep the creature in the shadows and leave more to the imagination.
Still, the mix of H.R. Giger’s creature design and Moebius’ set designs make for a unique and exceptional blend. As far as I am concerned, pretty much every part of this film is eye candy. Obviously, having such talents on board helped, but it must be said that Ridley Scott, once an commercial director and more of a visual storyteller than an actor’s director, made the most of what was given to him – and you plain have to give him credit for that.
Of course, the movie would be a pointless, soulless shell without its phenomenal cast – all of whom I recognized, having seen them in multiple films each over the years. With the possible exception of Yaphet Kotto, who I likely had already seen in ‘Live and Let Die’, I think that I saw each of these actors for the first time in ‘Alien’. None of them are A-listers, but each one so incredibly defined their characters that you can’t help but understand them, warts and all.
But nobody drives the film more than Ellen Ripley, as played by Sigourney Weaver. Weaver is all shades of awesome in this, and it’s no wonder that this was the role that she would forever be associated with: she played the gutsy, wilful Ripley like no one else could – and I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that, before her, there wasn’t another female character with so much balls anywhere on the silver screen. It’s not only a star-making turn, but she created an unforgettable character.
What I especially love about ‘Alien’ is how Ripley first seems like a bit part, and that’s it’s only much later on that we finally realize that she’s the main character. That was a brilliant touch. In doing so, the filmmakers ensured that the suspense was complete: we never know who’s going to get snatched next, or when, and we wouldn’t necessarily wager on Weaver to make it through. It’s only in looking back that we realize that she was the only one with the fortitude to survive this encounter.
As I watched it this time, I was astonished at how different Weaver looks here in ‘Alien’. Granted, she was still a P.Y.T. then. However, I don’t believe that the changes are strictly due to age. By the time that she made ‘Ghostbusters‘, she already had a laser-sharp jawline and her nose seemed slimmer. I wonder if she went under the knife, or if it’s just an impression that I have. Either way, it’s a real shame, because I find her quite naturally lovely in ‘Alien’, and I would be hard-pressed to see too much of her.
Despite all the praise, however, there are a few things that bother me about the picture:
Firstly, why does Ripley’s hair always change length? It’s normal for it to seem short at the end, because she tied is back and it’s all matted, stuck to her neck. But, throughout the film, her curls seemed to tighten and loosen from scene to scene, as though they were alive and responding to the situation. Obviously, these are continuity errors, but I would like to know why this has happened at all – it’s not a complicated matter to ensure that your star doesn’t get a perm midway through production.
Also, while I can forgive the Nostromo’s many quarantine issues due to human frailty and error, I can’t let go of the sequence at the end where Ripley catches the xenomorph… uh… napping?
Okay, okay… let’s put this in perspective: the creature had just stalked and killed the remaining crew mere moments before – and now it was having siesta in the escape shuttle that Ripley wanted to use?
Well, what the heck was that about? Had it just had a heavy Mexican meal and felt compelled to take a midday snooze? Was it playing “hide and seek” and unfortunately fell asleep while waiting for Ripley to show up?
Seriously, it’s bad enough that it just happened to be in the shuttle, given the ginormous size of the Nostromo, but the idea that it was using the shuttle as a bunk seems moronic to say the least.
And finally, I have a major issue with the way that Jerry Goldsmith’s motion picture score was presented. The music itself is quite good – in fact, some parts of it reminded me of his ground-breaking ‘Planet of the Apes‘. The problem is that some idiot decided to abruptly fade out his cues at the end of scenes!
Imagine yourself turning the dial on an old school television from zero to ten and back. And back again. This weird change in volume is similar to what is happening here; it’s as though the music cues were too long and, instead of re-recoding them, or editing them to fit, someone just decided to drop the levels sharply. It’s jarring and the person who did that should have been fired. Totally.
Other than that, I’d say that ‘Alien’ is one heck of a movie. Not only is it a standout suspense film, but it’s a creepy horror creature feature and it’s a highly memorable entry in the science-fiction genre – enough so that people are still talking about it over thirty years later. It may not play with the same intensity for me as it once did, given how often I’ve seen it, but it’s a movie with so much to offer that it has longevity like few of its peers (or even its offspring) ever will. Needless to say, it’s a must-see.
Date of viewing: October 31, 2012