Film Review - Alien (1979)
'Alien' was Director Ridley Scott's second cinema film, made in 1978 and released in 1979. Set in outer space, the movie combined sci-fi with horror in a manner which made it a truly unique and compelling film.
The movie, which defies some of the characterisation conventions of the film world, also features atmospheric lighting effects which were to become typical of much of Scott's work. 'Alien' introduced one of the great screen monsters in movie history and then allowed that monster to indulge itself with some truly great master class moments of terror. Finally, this film was advertised with one of the most memorable taglines in movie history:
'In space, no one can hear you scream'
This is my review of a great movie.
Towards the end of this review, there is information which reveals some of the characters who become victims of the Alien, and the scenes in which they encounter it. Since much of the 'fun' of a movie like this is in guessing which members of the cast survive, anyone who has never watched this film, but wishes to do so, may want to avoid these sections. Each will be prefaced by a 'Plot Spoiler' message.
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What's the Story ?
The Nostromo is a commercial space vehicle towing a vast mineral ore refinery behind it on its long journey back to Earth. The ship is not the most appealing home from home for its seven man crew, because this is no luxury transport. It's functional, but not friendly. The crew don't mind too much however, because they're just doing a job of work, and for most of the journey home they're in a state of suspended animation. And that's just as well, because they don't all seem to be the best of friends when they are awake, bickering about contracts and work duties. All will be glad to get to journey's end and all are content to stay asleep till then.
But the 'Company' which employs them has other ideas. The Nostromo's on board computer, 'Mother', has just intercepted a seemingly intelligent transmission from another world, and contractual rules state that all such transmissions must be investigated by the crew. They are woken up, and a course is reluctantly plotted to find the source of the alien communication.
Soon they are in the vicinity of a planetary system and the Nostromo detaches from its refinery and heads down to the surface of one small planetoid (moon?) Here it lands, and three of the crew - Dallas, Lambert and Kane - don space suits and set off on foot. This is a stark, dark and windy world, seemingly inhospitable, and it is the final resting place of another space ship of unknown origin, though it is most definitely not from Earth. Presumably this was the source of the alien transmission. The three crew enter to investigate. Inside the bizarre ship they come across a strange skeletal figure, a huge humanoid sat where he'd died behind some sort of control unit. And he has broken bones in his rib cage, almost as though something had exploded within him. Dallas, Lambert and Kane investigate further, and Kane happens upon a vast cavernous chamber in which he finds a large collection of egg-like structures. Kane moves in closer to examine these, and finds that 'eggs' is exactly what they are. And one of them is stimulated to hatch by Kane's presence. It breaks open and a strange embryonic creature strikes at his helmet, shattering it and attachiing itself to his face.
Kane is rendered unconscious and has to be carried back to the Nostromo. By this time Warrant Officer Ripley has decoded the transmission previously received, and it seems to be a warning signal. Now she is reluctant to allow her crewmates back on board for fear of some form of contamination by this alien embryo. But Kane needs urgent medical attention and Ripley's view is in the minority, so Science Officer Ash opens the doors at the command of Capatin Dallas. It may prove a fateful decision. Even so, after a worrysome period, and against all expectations, the face hugging embryo eventually falls off, seemingly a dead, empty husk, and Kane wakes up without any obvious ill effects from his ordeal. Indeed, he's much more concerned with the fact that he's starving and wants to eat. Relieved at this turn of events, all of the seven crew members sit down to a good humoured meal together.
But far from being over, we soon discover that their problems are only just beginning. Unbeknownst to the crew, an alien species is still on board - the embryo is still alive. And the rest of the film is taken up with a nightmare scenario. Somewhere in the dark, a creature is lurking and rapidly transforming into a brutal, carnivorous monster, and the crew have nowhere to hide. The long corridors and dark recesses of the Nostromo are about to become a very uninviting proposition for the crew ...
Main Cast & Characters
Warrant Officer Ripley
Harry Dean Stanton
Engineering Technician Brett
First Officer Kane
Science Officer Ash
Facts of the Film
DIRECTOR : Ridley Scott
WRITERS / SCREENPLAY :
- Dan O'Bannion (screenplay and story)
- Ronald Shusett (story)
YEAR OF RELEASE : 1979
RUNNING TIME : 117 minutes
GENRE : Horror, Sci Fi
VIEWING GUIDENCE : Sensations of terror, and some powerful scenes intended to shock
ACADEMY AWARDS :
- H.R Giger, Carlo Rambaldi, Brian Johnson, Nick Allder, Dennis Ayling (Best Visual Effects)
ACADEMY NOMINATIONS :
- Michael Seymour, Leslie Dilley, Roger Christian, Ian Whittaker (Best Art Direction and Set Decoration)
Key Characters and Performances
None of the cast in this movie are particularly well defined. Essentially the film isn't about them as people - it's about being stuck in a spacecraft with a killer, and the film is played for shock value and thrills rather than development of character. Indeed there were many scenes originally shot for inclusion in the movie which showed emotional interaction between the crew of the Nostromo, and several of these were subsequently dropped for the sake of focusing all attention on the battle between the ship's crew and the alien interloper.
These scenes included suggestions of quite hostile disagreements between Ripley and Lambert and Parker, and even suggestions of a possible love interest between Ripley and Captain Dallas. The exclusion of these scenes from the finished film means that little remains of the characters to discuss.
Of most interest in fact is the casting of the actors and the credits. I have given the actors the same order of billing they received in the movie. This order does not necessarily reflect the importance of the characters as the film unfolds, and in the first hour, all receive roughly equal air-time, and none is identified as the clear star of the movie. This is intentionally done to avoid giving too many clues as to the fate of the various crew members.
At the time of shooting, most of the cast had appeared in small cinema roles and numerous TV roles (Skerritt, Cartwright, Stanton and Kotto in America, and Hurt and Holm in the UK) though none were major 'A' list international stars. Least known at the time was Sigourney Weaver, though she was to become a major star on the strength of her performance here.
In 'Alien', Tom Skerritt gives quite an accomplished performance as the somewhat laid back Captain Dallas, and Sigourney Weaver is impressive as the rule-book obeying Ripley, who doesn't have much trust in Science Officer Ash, and isn't much liked by some of the other crew members. Ian Holm's role as Ash is challenging, particularly in one key scene where we learn he is not quite what he seems to be. John Hurt, as ever, gives a good performance as Kane, and Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton play the two engineers, Parker and Brett, who have 'issues' over their second-class staus in the eyes of the 'Company'. Finally there is Veronica Cartwright who gives the finest performance as Lambert. It is through Lambert's mental anguish that we appreciate the real terror of the unseen and deadly Alien.
Much of what happens on board the Nostromo seems rooted not in the future but in 1979. The crew spend their time smoking cigarettes. They have cereal and biscuits and drink mugs of coffee for breakfast. There are nodding birds on the table (the kind that slowly dip their beaks in a pot of water and then begin nodding again - very much a 20th century fad). Does this matter? Probably not. As mentioned elsewhere, this film is more about horror than science fiction, and the very ordinariness of the crew's behaviour perhaps helps us to identify with their later plight.
There is a greater problem with the on-board computers. Big, thick framed, square monitors with monochrome luminous green text and no graphics. At one stage the screen is filled with binary '0's and '1's! It seems that very little of the imagination which has gone into Alien design and art direction, has been spared for the technology.
The slow build up to the action will put off some viewers, though this critic believes that it only helps to add to the suspense. The Ridley Scott style of direction will not appeal to all, and this is addressed elsewhere on this page.
One has to suspend disbelief in movies of this kind, but one aspect of the Alien seems to defy any rational explanation. How does it get so big so quickly without consuming any food?
The iron-work and piping which is a feature of the internal framework of the Nostromo, was largely made from two cannibalised Canberra bombers.
The first time we see Dallas, Lambert and Kane set foot on the planetoid's surface, what we are actually seeing is three children in the spacesuits. Ridley Scott's own two children and the son of the cameraman were used so that the model of the space ship behind them would look bigger.
After they enter the alien spaceship, special effects include blue laser lights in the creature's egg chamber. These lasers were borrowed from the rock band 'The Who'; the band were using them to test out for a show on the sound stage next door.
The creepy movement of the Alien embryo as it develops inside the egg is ... Ridley Scott's hands in a pair of rubber gloves.
The interior of the 'face hugger' was made out of oysters and clams and a sheep's kidney.
None of the cast with the exception of John Hurt were entirely aware what would happen when the creature makes its first appearance at the dining table. Therefore, the look of shock on Veronica Cartwright's face as she is splattered with blood, is quite genuine.
A German Shepherd dog (on a leash) was used to get the cat to react in the way it did to the presence of the Alien. The dog had been hidden behind a screen and the screen was removed at the appropriate moment, provoking the cat to hiss.
There is no dialogue for nearly 5 minutes at the start of the movie, and no meaningful conversation for nearly 20 minutes at the end.
Veronica Cartwriight said that when the Alien wraps its tail around her legs in one scene, the legs we see actually belonged to Harry Dean Stanton, taken from a camera shot intended to be used elsewhere in the movie.
Bolaji Badejo, a young African design student, was chosen to play the Alien. Badejo was suitably tall enough for the role at about 7 foot. One of the actors who was also considered for the role was Peter Mayhew, best known as Chewbacca in 'Star Wars'.
It was copywriter Barbara Gips who came up with the memorable line 'In space, no one can hear you scream.'
This movie is not about characters, and little of the dialogue is memorable or insightful. None the less, it all has an authentic ring to it as the crew indulge in friendly (or less friendly) banter, and discuss the developing crisis. There are many dilemmas posed in the movie, and the first of these involves the decision by Ash to open the doors to Captain Dallas, Cartwright and the infected Kane. This was done against Ripley's advice, and at one point Ripley confronts Ash over this. Ash describes to her what he knows of the make-up of the Alien and concludes:
'It's an interesting combination of elements making him a tough little son of a bitch.'
'And you let him in.'
'I was obeying a direct order remember.'
'Ash, when Dallas and Kane are off the ship, I'm senior officer.'
'Oh yes I forgot.'
'You also forgot the Science Division's basic quarantine law.'
'No that I didn't forget.'
'Oh I see - just broke it.'
'Look, what would you have done with Kane? - You know his only chance of survival was to get him in here.'
'Unfortunately by breaking quarantine you risked everybody's life.'
Subsequent events prove Ripley right in her apprehension, but without the benefit of hindsight, I must admit I would have taken Ash's side (although we later learn his motives aren't quite as humanitarian as he suggests).
The scenes on the planetoid surface and in the derelict spaceship are all imaginatively designed, well staged and beautifully shot. The credit for that must go to the visual effects team (rewarded with an Academy Award) and the Art Direction and Set Design team (Award nominated).
The most impressive scenes on board the Nostromo - as befits a film of this kind - are the sequences where crew members encounter the Alien (usually without joyful outcomes!) The first three of these sequences are briefly described below. The fates of the characters involved is not revealed, but nonetheless, the scenes are best watched for shock value without any prior knowledge.
The only time we see all the crew together is when they are sitting down to enjoy communal meals. The first of these is breakfast, and a conventional 20th century breakfast it is too. There is nothing remarkable about it, so maybe nothing much will be expected the second time the crew eat together. But the second meal has entered into cinema legend as one of the most effective of all horror sequences in mainstream cinema.
The second and third encounters are equally well staged. In the second, Brett enters a massive room, which houses one of the Nostromo's landing struts, in search of 'Jones', the ship's cat. Brett eventually finds the cat, but the cat has seen something behind Brett's shoulder. And the cat begins to hiss. This scene is highly stylised, but above all, it's an absolute masterclass in visual and acoustic effects. Brilliant, and well worth watching for the way in which so many of the creative talents behind 'Alien' work so well together.
The third encounter is Captain Dallas himself, who meets the creature in an air shaft and this is handled in a quite different manner. Dallas, perhaps unwisely, sets off along the dark, narrow passageways of the Nostromo in an attempt to hunt down the creature, and his progress is tracked on a motion sensor. And when the Alien begins to move, it too is tracked as a green dot on the scanner. And the green dot of the Alien begins to move towards the green dot of Captain Dallas. Dallas appears unable to respond and the rest of the crew can only wait and hope, with increasing fear for their leader.
Sci Fi or Horror?
'Alien' is one of the most famous films in the history of its genre. But what is its genre? Is 'Alien' a science fiction movie or a horror film. Of course the movie is set in the future, in outer space, and it features robots and creatures from another world. But the whole style of this film owes much more to Gothic horror stories than it does to Star Wars. The atmosphere, the dark narrow corridors, a sinister hidden presence of something malevolent - this is a movie which could have been set in a haunted house, or an underground tunnel or cave, and the alien could have been a psychotic killer or a supernatural demon. 'Alien' - more so than any of its sequels - may well be classified as Sci-Fi, but it is one of the finest Horror films ever made.
The Ridley Scott Style
The Nostromo has none of the sleek lines and bright lights of a star ship of the future. This is no sophisticated Star Trek Enterprise. This is a Gothic vessel, of wrought iron pipes and the sounds of pumping engines, and hissing plumes of gas. There's even a strange and cavernous room in which dripping water pours from the roof (explained away as 'condensation'.) And the Nostromo is full of dark nooks and crannies ideal for an alien to hide within. The interior of the other space craft - the derelict vessel lying on the planetoid surface - is similarly styled and incredibly imaginative.
Director Ridley Scott is noted for this atmospheric, at times beautiful and yet rather depressing, imagery, and for the importance he places on style, perhaps at the expense of substance. Not all critics like it, but in this film it works perfectly to deliver a sense of doom and gloom.
And Scott is more than ably assisted in this by the special effects team, the set design, and art direction. H.R Giger in particular was credited for the artistic creation of the Alien, and he was also involved in the design of the planetoid and the derelict spacecraft interior. But many other talented artists, including those honoured with Academy nominations, contributed.
What's so Good About It?
Plot Spoiler (first paragraph only)
One of the striking things about 'Alien' is the way the lead character only emerges gradually during the course of the movie. One might reasonably assume that the Captain, the heroic sounding 'Dallas', played by top-billed Tom Skerritt, would be the star turn. The result of this is that 'Alien' avoids the pitfall of predictability - the curse of far too many horror films in which it is all too obvious which characters are going to die.
If the fate of the characters is disguised to some extent, so is the appearance of the Alien which Ridley Scott chose to keep very much hidden until the final frames of the movie. This works. It makes the Alien more frightening because we cannot put a form to it. It makes it less flesh and blood. How can you fight something you cannot see? (A similar technique was employed in a different way in the 1987 movie, 'Predator', which has several plot characteristics in common with 'Alien')
Direction, acting, set design and art direction have already been mentioned. And in a DVD commentary, Ridley Scott pays fulsome tribute to the music of Jerry Goldsmith. But I would suggest that the sound effects team under Jim Shields, also deserves very special mention, contributing greatly to the atmospheric appeal of many scenes. Throughout the movie, from the opening sequence when the crew wakes from their suspended animation, to the crackling communications on the mysterious planetoid, and from the marvelous echoing acoustics of Brett's 'Here kitty kitty' scene, to the mechanical creaks and bleeps, hisses and alarms of the Nostromo itself, the sound effects are a work of genius.
If You Wish to Watch ...
My Conclusions and my Recommendations
'Alien' is an intense and suspenseful film, and one of the classiest horror movies ever. It won't be to everyone's liking, because it is dark and brooding, and the build up may be too slow for some. But this is pure horror stripped bare of unnecessary plot or character development. The imaginations of Ridley Scott, and the whole design team, have created an alien setting, and a creature to inhabit that setting, which are unique in cinema history. In the opinion of this critic, 'Alien' may be the very best of all horror movies.
If You Wish to Watch ...
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