Continuing my infrequent blog feature, DT Moviehouse Reviews, in which I slog my way alphabetically through my 200+ DVD/Blu-Ray collection (you can see the list right here) and decide if each one was worth the money, here’s my take on the movie that kicked off the Aliens franchise, Alien (coincidentally just in time for the release of this movie’s supposed prequel, the much-anticipated Prometheus).
(1979) Directed by Ridley Scott, Screenplay by Dan O’Bannon, Story by Ronald Shusett
Tagline: In space, no one can hear you scream.
What it’s about:
Sometime in the far future the crew of the Nostromo, a deep space commercial towing vessel, awakens from their months long sleep to respond to a signal beacon on a nearby uncharted planet. Three of the crew members, Captain Dallas (Tom Skerrit), Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), and Kane (John Hurt) explore the source of the mechanical beacon, an alien spacecraft with a dead extra terrestrial pilot (the mysterious space jockey purported to be the basis of the new movie Prometheus) and a payload of eggs. A creature hatches from one of the eggs and attaches itself to Kane’s face, impregnating him with a savage predatory organism which gestates and then bursts from his chest, stalking the crew among the labrynthine corridors of the monolothic starship.
This is a seminal work of science fiction horror. I only saw stills and commercials of this movie as a kid in the seventies and it haunted me into young adulthood. How can a green glowing hen’s egg conjure such dread in a kid? Maybe it was the eerie music by Jerry Goldsmith in the commercials. I actually saw the sequel, James Cameron’s Aliens before I finally saw Alien, and for years I preferred it. I actually only saw Alien to enrich my ribald love of Aliens (and I read the Alan Dean Foster novelization before I even saw it). Now….well, I’m not sure. That’s a question to ask in answer in the next review, which is of that movie.
If there is such a thing as science fiction cinema verite, it’s Alien. The bizarre, unsavory subject matter is right out of an EC horror comic, but the movie works because it’s somehow entirely realistic and believable. The characters (played by an ensemble of extremely naturalistic and talented actors, all in their prime, all deserving a mention – Sigourney Weaver -in a star making debut- Harry Dean Stanton, Yaphet Koto, Veronica Cartwright and Ian Holm) mumble and engage in crosstalk, bitch about un-cinematic things like finder’s fees and payroll shares, and so look genuinely hysterical when one of their own suddenly keels over at dinner and expels a slithering toothy horror from his broken, bloody chest cavity (There’s an oft-repeated rumor that Veronica Cartwright had no idea the creature was gonna pop out – this isn’t entirely true. Obviously John Hurt is not actually laying on the table at the time of the burst, so you know there was a lot of FX set up – but the actors apparently weren’t warned about blood squibs going off and when Cartwright gets sprayed with fake blood, she apparently really did have a conniption). This is the only sci-fi movie I can think of where I’m drawn into a secure lull. Except for a few interjections of Goldsmith’s superb score (I can’t think of a good way to describe it – somehow ‘non-orchestral’), it’s actually like The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez in that I don’t remember I’m watching a movie in the first half.
The FX and set design are made to compliment the performances, not perform themselves. Everything, though insanely complex (the coolant room in which Harry Dean Stanton’s character is killed looks like some kind of mechanical alien cathedral, or a room in Harlan Ellison’s ‘Martian Pyramid’), looks entirely lived in and functional, and no set piece ever really intrudes on the action.
Brilliant acting and set design (and music) aside, the central piece of Alien is the xenomorph itself, designed by H.R. Geiger. The thing is indescribable. Part carpenter ant, part beetle, part lizard, part sexualized human skeleton. And it changes in subtle ways every time we see it. It’s horrific reproductive cycle speaks directly to the innate male discomfort with the human reproductive process itself (or at least, to mine anyway), and then perverts it to the extreme, rendering an instantly unforgettable image in the mind.
The scenes where the crew alternately hunts and flees from the growing creature in the dark bowels of this immense ship are methodical and claustrophobic, slowly building the tension to deliver maximum fright when something does happen. Perfectly directed. This may be the last hurrah of seventies cinema.
Also of note is the performance by Sigourney Weaver as of one of moviedom’s most believable action heroines, Ellen Ripley. She’s not quite the ass kicker she is in Aliens here, but by the end of the movie she’s well on the road. She’s already a bit of a ball cracker, and it’s cool that the script has the daring to make her not entirely likable. Stanton and Kotto’s affable engineers don’t much care for her, and at first audience sympathy naturally sways against her. She’s the one who wants to play by the book and keep the infected Kane off the ship, despite it coming off as inhumane. Ian Holm’s Science Officer Ash instead lets him in, but it becomes obvious that he wasn’t motivated by his humanity…in a shocking later scene in which Ripley discovers he’s endangered them all on orders from the shadowy ‘company,’ we find he doesn’t have any to speak of.
As a matter of fact, it’s at that point that sympathies really start to swing toward Ripley as a character and as the heroine of the movie. Her percieved cold bitch facade drops tearfully in the face of Ash’s uncrupulous android. I love Holm’s detached creepiness. He comes across as out of touch with everybody else, possibly due to the nature of his job, or perhaps due to some social or scholarly standing (noticeably, he’s the only Brit aboard). There’s a great aside right after the alien kills Kane where Ash refers to it as ‘Kane’s son.’
Then at last there’s the famous fakeout ending, which supposedly duped a lot of overeager-to-beat-the-parking-lot-traffic movie watchers into missing the real climax. It’s possible Alien singlehandedly created a generation of moveigoers who sit through the end credits….just to be sure.
I’ve seen both the theatrical version and the director’s cut of this movie. Scott prefers the original. I guess I do too, but it’s interesting to see Ripley’s discovery of the cocooned Dallas, and I don’t know who Veronica Cartwright pissed off, but every single scene that gives her mainly shrill and panicky character depth wound up on the cutting room floor, so it’s worth watching to see Lambert shine.
Best bit of dialogue:
This is a tough one. As I said, the dialogue is so natural it’s hard to pick out any real Hollywood lines. I guess the closest is in the scene immediately after the decapitation of the company android Ash. Parker wires up his paste and lubricant covered head on the table top, and the reanimate but harmless Ash answers a few questions about the nature of their mission and what he knows about the alien. He admits to deliberately seeking to impregnate the crew and deliver the specimen to the company, and even allows that he ‘admires it’s purity.’
He winds up the revelations with –
‘I can’t lie to you about your chances…but you have my sympathies.’
And then a ghoulishly patronizing grin spreads across his face and Parker knocks loose his power source and torches the synthetic flesh off his artificial skull.
Would I buy it again? Yes
Next up in the queue: Aliens