Alien: The eighth passenger makes all the difference.
Okay, I know I wrote a hub about both Alien and Aliens last year, and the movies probably haven't changed much in the past twelve months. Probably.
But I feel that these two movies deserve a more individual treatment. Also, my focus is more specific this time, looking at how these movies work as monster movies.
Anyway, enough justifying myself. Let's talk Alien.
In 1979, Ridley Scott came out with a movie about seven cargo haulers who pick up a hitchhiker that picks them off one by one. Then someone said, "Hey, let's set this thing in space."
And a franchise was born. (Or rather, a franchise burst out of someone's chest as the case may be.)
But first, the story
Our movie starts with a looooooong space shot as the title appears on-screen, one line at a time. Then there's an intermission for the audience to take a much needed bathroom break and the rest of the movie continues as-follows.
The commercial towing vehicle The Nostromo has a crew of seven, kept in hyper-sleep for their long haul. They are brought out of hyper-sleep when the ship picks up a transmission of unknown origin. The crew sets down on an inhospitable alien planet and find a downed alien ship with leathery eggs inside that *SURPRISE* contain aliens.
Kane (Mr. Olivander) gets a head hug from a leathery spider and is rushed back to the ship where the science officer Ash (Bilbo) breaks quarantine regulations and lets the team aboard to see what can be done for Kane.
Amazingly, things go from bad to worse until the only member of the crew left is Ripley (Dana Barrett) who zip-locks herself and web-shoots the alien out the door.
I know, I know. Spoiler alert and all. But the movie is just one year younger than me, so the statute of limitations ran out ... like ... yesterday. I could tell you how the Bible ends too, if you want. I'm sure it would be quite a revelation to you.
Dot dot dot
From a monster-movie standpoint, this movie has become the gold standard. For a good long while after this movie came out, monster movies kept basically being compared to this one, to different degrees of success. The Thing is "Alien at the Antarctic". The Abyss, Leviathan and DeepStar Six (all released in 1989) are "Alien under water". And Prometheus was "Alien in space". Though, to be fair, that one is probably an appropriate comparison.
Even Predator (which I'll be reviewing shortly) is compared (albeit favorably) with Alien. Predator, however, was able to make the format their own and spawn a totally new franchise which we'll also be discussing this month.
Alien - trailer
But what makes Alien so effective?
One easy answer is "you really don't see the alien that much." And while that is effective in increasing tension, there has to be more.
I don't see an alien much throughout all of The Emperor's New Groove, and the only time I got scared was when Yzma began to lift her skirt.
First off, I'd point out the claustrophobic atmosphere. Most of the movie happens in small rooms and tight corridors that barely accommodate two people abreast. This cramped setting enhances the "nowhere to run" sense of your brain. Getting attacked in a field is scary. Getting attacked in a box is terrifying.
Another element that helps is the giant question mark of "how do we kill this creature?" Its attack is fairly straightforward. And by that I mean it lumbers straight forward to catch you. But you can't just shoot it as would be your first inclination. Why? Because we're out in space and this thing has blood that eats through metal like *that*. (Imagine me snapping my fingers. I promise I just did it.)
Next, there's the color pallet. Most of the ship is dimly lit, but even in the med-bay where there is lots of lighting, there is almost no color. The drab atmosphere allows your brain no relief.
And I've barely even touched on the alien attacker itself.
I mentioned in my previous hub that a common approach to scaring people is to take the familiar and twist it. The creature in this movie takes that to heart. Familiar forms we see include spiders, serpents and even the form of man, all twisted into some very creepy imagery.
This largely comes down to the creature design from Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger whose works often combine human form and sexuality with more industrial elements, thus both humanizing technology and dehumanizing man. Very creepy stuff, and most of those aren't even trying to kill you.
Slow on the uptake
There's also the pacing. It's not that Alien is slow or boring. The director makes sure that there's something moving the story along at all times.
But he's in no rush to get there.
We're dealing with a universe and creature that are completely ... *ahem* ... alien to the audience. The choice is to either move to the scary stuff as fast as you can and simply make a thrill-ride, or to help the audience invest in this crew and their situation before putting them through the wringer. Scott clearly chose the latter.
And he does it very well.
In subsequent viewings, it's easy to see this movie as "the Ripley show," but the first time through, it takes a long while to come to that conclusion. Each member of the crew is fleshed out and the screen time is pretty fairly distributed. Any of them could be the hero and any of them could be a villain.
For instance, for a time, Ripley could have been intended to be the heartless second in command who insisted they obey procedure and keep Kane off of the ship in order to maintain quarantine protocol. While Ash was the compassionate science officer who brought Kane on-board out of (ironic) concern for human life over strict obedience to regulations.
Dallas might have been the hero as the compassionate and intelligent captain of the vessel.
It even takes half the movie before the real danger finally appears. (Not that the face-hugger isn't dangerous too.)
Then, when it all hits the fan, the movie shifts quite firmly in Ripley's direction and gives you someone to root for.
And that's a real must for an effective monster movie.
Where does that leave us?
Alien has been and continues to be seen as a landmark in the monster movie genre. It holds up well though there may be a few moments that one or another might feel could be improved.
But what do you think?
As a monster movie, and as a movie in general, I give this one a nearly perfect 9 / 10.
Alien is rated R for sci-fi violence and gore, language, some nudity (including centerfolds posted on the walls) and a general overall scary atmosphere.
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