With the release of Prometheus, it seemed a good time to take a look back to the very beginning of the franchise with Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi/horror Alien.
The plot is basic: the seven-strong crew of the deep-space mining ship Nostromo make a detour to a planet to investigate a strange signal. Whilst on the planet, a member of crew is attacked by an alien being and has to be quarantined when back on the ship. However, the true horror begins when it is discovered that a deadly creature has stowed away on board the Nostromo and it becomes a fight to the death for the crew. But, in the true traditions of horror movies, not all will make it out alive…
Frankly, Alien has no right to be as good as it is. It is, in essence, a B-Movie haunted house picture set in space. But due to skilful direction by Scott, a brace of terrific performances across the board and some truly masterful strokes of design, the film transcends its commonplace beginning to become one of the most influential and highly thought of films of the 1970s and a seminal work in the study of horror.
Rewatching it recently after many years, it is a pleasant surprise that the film still stands up. It’s painfully slow in places- there’s no dialogue for the first six minutes, for example, and the scene where Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) goes after Jones the cat and meets his end is almost unbearable in places- but rather than fostering a sense of boredom, you are absolutely riveted to the screen.
The film is responsible for some of the most iconic moments in horror movies, most notably the ‘chest-burster’ scene which (even now) is shocking. Much like the fake scare at the end of Carrie, I know it’s coming but I still jump every time the alien pops out of Kane’s chest. The atmosphere of terror and confusion is only part acting; the legend persists that only Ridley Scott and John Hurt (who played Kane) knew exactly what was going to happen during the scene. This seems to be true in part; the full extent of the blood and gore seems not to have been known, so when Veronica Cartwright (who played Lambert) gets hit by a spurt of blood, her reaction is accurate and unplanned.
Because the film takes its time to introduce the true terror (the chest-burster scene is approximately forty-five minutes in), you do find yourself empathising with the characters, which means their deaths carry much more of an emotional response. Similarly, the revelation that crew member Ash (a wonderfully cold Ian Holm) has not only been fully aware of the Corporation’s plans from the get-go but is also an android carries a real impact- his final line of ‘you have my sympathies’ is chilling.
This was one of Sigourney Weaver’s first films- following a small role in Annie Hall- and, much like Anthony Perkins and Norman Bates, has become synonymous with the character of Ripley (although she seems to have escaped the curse of being associated with a single character). Ripley is ballsy and certainly holds her own but is by no means truly macho here. The more kick-ass Ripley would be seen in the further films, especially James Cameron’s 1986 sequel Aliens, but here her performance is brilliant, evincing a fragile femininity without ever truly becoming a passive horror-movie cliché ‘victim’.
Alien was nominated for two Academy Awards and rightly won Best Visual Effects. Led by Swiss artist H.R. Giger (whose designs for the main Alien creature have inspired a generation of nightmares), the effects of the film and especially the effects of the creature are just awe-inspiring even thirty-three years down the line. Scott cannily decided against too many full shots of the creature (played by Bolaji Badejo) as he didn’t want to reduce the film to ‘a man in a rubber suit’, so we get a very impressionistic view of the creature initially- the tail, the jaws (and the jaws-within-the-jaws)- making it much more terrifying. Even the confrontation between Ripley and the creature in the escape pod at the film’s final act doesn’t fully show the creature. It remains almost elusive and therefore much more frightening.
The word ‘masterpiece’ gets thrown around a little too liberally for my liking, but for me Alien is a masterpiece. A strong visual style, a committed director, a cast at the height of their powers, real tension, real flair, a damn good script… all elements combined here and has created a film that has endured and will continue to endure.