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Review: Alien (1979)

Alien (1979)

Directed by: Ridley Scott

Premise: The crew of the space vessel Nostromo responds to a distress call coming from an unfamiliar planet. They discover an alien spacecraft filled with eggs. One of the crew members returns to the ship with an extraterrestrial creature latched onto his body.

What Works: In 1979 tales of space monsters were quite familiar. Throughout the drive-in era, Hollywood studios and low budget filmmakers turned out plenty of tales of human beings encountering monstrous extraterrestrials. A lot of those films were hokey and were not particularly scary. Alien is, at its core, the same kind of film as It! The Terror from Beyond Space and The Quatermass Xperiment. But as in most things, it’s the details and the execution that make all the difference. The makers of Alien were quite serious about what they were doing; they put just enough science in their science fiction to give the movie credibility. And by taking their subject seriously, the filmmakers elevated a genre long associated with shlock into a work of art. One of Alien’s most impressive qualities, and one of the reasons why it has aged as well as it has, is its production design. Prior to the mid-1970, the settings of sci-fi films tended to look clean and sterile. Following the lead of the original Star Wars, which pioneered the so-called “used future” style, the filmmakers of Alien designed the inside of the space ship Nostromo to resemble a boiler room. The space felt lived in and had a vibrant, grimy texture. Although this movie takes place in space and certainly has a foot in the science fiction genre, Alien is primarily a horror film. Its primary goal is to frighten and it does that starting with the setting. The Nostromo is essentially a haunted house in space and the cramped corridors are claustrophobic and dramatically lit with danger lurking in the shadows and around the corners. The other major part of Alien’s design is its titular creature, the xenomorph. Based on the artwork of H.R. Giger, the xenomorph is an insect-like creature that was unlike any sci-fi monster anyone had seen prior to 1979.  But despite having a marvelous looking monster, the filmmakers of Alien don’t reveal very much of it. Alien is extremely well shot and edited especially in the scenes involving the extraterrestrial monster. Much like the shark in Jaws, the xenomorph of Alien is usually shown in parts; we don’t get a look at the whole beast until the very end. The filmmaker’s judiciousness preserves the impact of the creature’s appearances. Alien is an intelligent film, in part for the thoughtfulness of its design but also its self-awareness. The film is not self-referential but the moviemakers were clearly conscious of the 1950s B-movies that their film descended from and Alien works within the space monster framework while upsetting some of its clichés. The standard authority figures like the captain and the science officer—both males—can’t lead the way to safety and it falls to one of the female crew members to do that. The movie did not insult the audience’s intelligence especially with regard to its characters. The cast of Alien feels real. The crew of the Nostromo are blue collar workers and they have an authentic rapport with one another. None of the characters are especially deep but they are all distinct from one another and the actors give their characters qualities that imbue them with personality. That’s well captured early on when the crew awakens from hypersleep and resumes their work. These opening scenes have a naturalism that grounds the science fiction premise and makes the fantastic elements much more believable and therefore frightening. The pacing of Alien is slow by today’s standards but the filmmakers draw out the tension. Scenes like the investigation of the derelict space craft and the infamous chest bursting set piece are staged brilliantly with masterful control of the pace. The narrative moves forward steadily and the filmmakers’ patience pays off as the movie gets to its climax.

What Doesn’t: When Alien was released in 1979 its production design and creature effects were unlike anything that had been seen before at the movies. In the forty years since then, the xenomorph has been ripped off in countless Alien imitators and the sequels brought the xenomorph forward and turned it into a piece of merchandise; by the mid-1990s Alien was a series of children’s toys. The creature has subsequently become overexposed and lost the mystery that it possessed in 1979. The fact that viewers new to Alien are probably familiar with the creature might make them impatient with the slow pace of the film’s first half. Alien is also emotionally distant and keeps it characters at arm’s length. It doesn’t have the populist emotional sentiment of James Cameron’s sequel but the remoteness of the original Alien suits its themes.

DVD extras: There are multiple cuts of Alien: the 1979 theatrical cut and the 2003 director’s cut. The director’s cut reinserted about four minutes of previously deleted footage while removing about five minutes of other material. In a statement accompanying the director’s cut, Ridley Scott says he was happy with the theatrical version and considers it the preferable cut; the director’s cut of Alien exists as a sort of fan service. The fortieth anniversary edition Blu-ray includes both versions of Alien as well as commentary tracks, isolated score tracks, and deleted scenes.

Bottom Line: Alien is one of a handful of sci-fi and horror movies that has defined those genres. Although it wasn’t so well reviewed at the time of its release, Alien has endured because of its craftsmanship and visceral impact and it’s now a classic piece of horror cinema.

Episode: #771 (October 20, 2019)