Directed by: Ridley Scott
Sigourney Weaver: Ripley
Tom Skerritt: Captain Dallas
Ian Holm: Ash
Harry Dean Stanton: Brett
John Hurt: Kane
Yaphet Kotto: Parker
Veronica Cartwright: Lambert
In 1977, movie production was turned on its head by a little movie called Star Wars. Directed by George Lucas, Star Wars changed the way we look at movies in terms of design, camera work, special effects, and story-telling. Star Wars inspired a generation of film-makers to take risks and create something special. Star Wars, however, was also the inspiration for many knock-offs, such as Saturn 3, The Black Hole, and Battle Beyond the Stars. Star Wars was often imitated but never duplicated. One up-and-coming director, Ridley Scott, decided to take the space-faring genre into a different direction. Whereas George Lucas wanted to fill his movies with a sense of adventure and wonder, Scott chose to infuse his science fiction feature with terror. In 1979, Ridley Scott released Alien, one of the most terrifying science fiction movies ever.
Alien begins as the starship Nostromo is on it’s way home to Earth towing a refinery. The crew of the Nostromo is woken up by the ship’s computer to investigate a mysterious signal that’s originating from a nearby planet. Leaving their cargo in orbit, the crew of the Nostromo, lead by Captain Dallas(Tom Skerritt)and Second Officer Kane(John Hurt), they descend to the planet below to investigate. They discover an alien ship that had crashed on the planet a very long time ago. While investigating the derelict ship, Kane is attacked by an unknown life-form and left unconscious. Arriving back on the ship with their fallen comrade, they discover the creature has acid for blood as one of it’s defense mechanisms. Later, the creature turns up dead and Kane is awake. They decide to have dinner before going back to their cryotubes. Kane begins to convulse and soon his chest explodes revealing a nasty monster that takes off. The other crew members, Ripley(Sigourney Weaver), Ash(Ian Holm), Parker(Yaphet Kotto), Brett(Harry Dean Stanton), Lambert(Veronica Cartwright), and Dallas are soon thrust into a battle for survival against a monstrous being that’s stalking them one by one.
When Alien was released in 1979, it became a world-wide phenomenon. People had lined up down the streets to see this film. It’s been reported that people had fainted because of how intense the movie was. It wasn’t just because it was gory, it was, but you had no way of knowing where the creature was or where it would jump out. Sometimes, the scariest thing is not what you see, but rather, what you DON’T see. When three of the crew are attempting to catch the alien in a net, what pops out isn’t the creature, it’s a cat. Yet, the tension leading up to that moment was very palpable and had you on the edge of your seat. I know that sounds cliche, but it is also absolutely true. When Jaws was released earlier that decade, you didn’t really see the monster very much, but you KNEW it was there. You can create a lot of tension and fear by not showing the creature very much, and this philosophy is really apparent in Alien.
The creature itself is the stuff of nightmares, not just in the way it was born, but the way it looks, its size, and its hostility. Designed by the late H.R. Giger, the creature became one of the most iconic movie monsters. Giger’s artwork was very much bio-mechanical and somewhat erotic in nature, and the influence is shown in the film’s villain. In fact, some of the themes are of a sexual nature including sexual domination and rape, as evidenced by what happened to John Hurt’s character. So, this movie scared the living hell out of women who were pregnant, and it freaked guys out too, because the whole idea of being raped was very unusual for most guys. Spoiler alert: What happens to Lambert is mostly implied because you don’t see her death on screen but you hear it, and when you see her body, she has no clothes on. Also, look at how the alien kills its prey, with a secondary mouth that penetrates their skull. There are also a few twists and turns that you don’t see coming. There is a revelation about the science officer, Ash, that comes out of left field. There are a lot of scares to be had in this movie, and while some of them are jump-scares, the rest of it is simple tension. It’s extremely effective though. Here’s an interesting anecdote: During the dinner scene when Kane dies, the rest of the cast had no idea what was going to happen, so the reaction you see on their faces is their actual reaction. They weren’t expecting Kane’s death to be so bloody and violent.
The performances by all the actors are fantastic. Tom Skerritt takes the lead as Captain Dallas, but we also have a secondary leader in John Hurt’s character. Parker and Brett, played by Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton respectively are appropriately quirky, and somewhat downtrodden because they don’t as much money as the rest of the crew. The real star of this movie, however, is Sigourney Weaver as Ripley. This is the movie that made her a star. It also proved that a woman could handle being the lead and the hero in a movie, and when Sigourney takes the reins, she becomes a tough gal who does what it takes to survive. This opened up the doors for other women in movies to take the lead. All of what’s happening on-screen is enhanced by the musical score by the legendary Jerry Goldsmith. Most of it is subdued with mostly string instruments, it becomes a little bit more bombastic when the monster shows up. The music is both haunting and beautiful.
Many critics described this film as Texas Chainsaw Massacre in Space, and it’s hard to argue with that assessment. This movie has all the elements of a slasher movie, except the villain doing the killing isn’t human at all. This is a movie where the unknown is terrifying. We don’t know what we’ll find when we reach beyond our solar system. I would certainly hope that we don’t run into a species as violent as the creature in Alien. This film is one of the most atmospheric and intense science fiction/horror films ever produced. It was a huge hit. It made enough money that Fox Studios wanted a sequel, but they wanted to take the series in a different direction, so they brought on James Cameron to helm the first sequel to Alien. I’ll review Aliens later, but it’s just as compelling a movie as the first movie was, even though it was more of an action movie. Two more sequels followed by two spin-offs, and yet none of them came even close to matching the intensity and originality of the first two Alien movies.
I’m trying to think of some downsides to this movie, but I’m honestly coming up short. Alien is one of the greatest science fiction movies ever made and created a universe that is both compelling and terrifying. Look at all the books, comics and video games made over the years. Ridley Scott himself actually returned to the universe in the movie, Prometheus. So, what we’ve got here is a movie that is drenched in tension and atmosphere. Not many movies can come close to achieving what Alien had achieved. This is the movie that put Ridley Scott on the map as a director and it’s the one he’s most famous for. Alien is also responsible for launching the career of Sigourney Weaver, who would reprise the role for three sequels. But she’s also been in many other movies including Ghostbusters, Gorillas in the Mist, Dave, and James Cameron’s Avatar. Overall, Alien gets a perfect 10/10. This is an incredibly intense movie.