Tom Skerritt - Dallas
Sigourney Weaver - Ripley
Veronica Cartwright - Lambert
Harry Dean Stanton - Brett
John Hurt - Kane
Ian Holm - Ash
Yaphet Kotto - Parker
Bolaji Badejo - The Alien
Genre - Horror/Science Fiction
Running Time - 117 Minutes
If you’ve seen film revolving around space for the last forty to fifty years, they’re usually inspired by two films. If you have a science-fiction drama, it probably has aspects from Stanley Kubrick’s 1968’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. But if you have a science-fiction horror film involving monsters attacking and murdering a space crew, then it’s most likely inspired by Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic ALIEN. ALIEN has inspired sequels, prequels, spin-offs, video games and a ton of imitators that have used the template to tell their individual stories to varying success. It made Ridley Scott a top director in Hollywood. It turned Sigourney Weaver into a household name. And after forty years, it’s still a horror film that many consider near the top of the genre - yours truly included.
The crew of the Nostromo are woken up from a cryogenic sleep while traveling back to Earth. As they try to readjust being awake again, they receive a distress call from a nearby planet. While they’re initially unsure about answering the call, they eventually go to see what’s the deal. When the crew lands, they discover this humongous space ship that seems barren besides a few strange eggs spread around the planet’s surface. They soon realize that the received call was not a call for help, but a warning to stay away. Unfortunately, the investigation leads to crew member Kane (John Hurt) being attacked by an organism hugging his face and infecting him through his mouth. Even though they believe they’re in the clear after they detach the creature from Kane and he seems okay after, Kane starts falling ill and an tiny alien bursts through his stomach. It runs away before the crew can stop it, leading to a series of dangerous events as this alien grows larger and waits inside the Nostromo to prey on the rest of the crew.
Even though the film was inspired by previous science-fiction films like 1951’s THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, 1958’s IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE and 1965’s PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES, ALIEN is, without a doubt, the most influential science fiction film in movie history. It’s produced so many B-movie and cult imitators over the decades that it would take forever to list them all. Plus, so many of the moments within the film have become pop culture lexicon that it’s crazy to imagine a world without ALIEN in it. While snobs would probably list the film as just science-fiction, ALIEN is a horror film at heart - an outer space, haunted house film providing tension, suspense and a cat-and-mouse chase that is undoubtedly slasher. ALIENS may be the favorite of many due to its slick action direction and memorable characters with great one-liners, but ALIEN is the creepiest with its simple execution of easy-to-understand characters, phenomenal direction, and wonderful acting that made many of the actors bigger stars coming out of it. After four decades, the film is still that damn good.
I think one of the best things about ALIEN is how simple Dan O’Bannon's screenplay is. If you really think about it, there’s no real deep plot here. We just have a space crew who got way too curious, leading them to the danger they quickly preys upon them. The characters aren’t all that deep. We don’t know much about the Alien that attacks them. And it’s more than fine, as the film just builds and builds up tension and never lets up. The characters have been on this crew for a while it seems, as they bicker and bond like long-term co-workers or friends. They all have their roles to play, using their special traits to find a way out of this mess. And in like a haunted house movie or slashers, characters will split up to perform a task, only for them to find themselves in a perilous situation that will end up getting them killed. There are also issues of claustrophobia and paranoia amongst the crew, especially after the Alien makes its presence known and one of the crew members isn’t at all who they claim to be. We also have characters trying to save a damn cat, even though the ship is about to blow up. And by the end of the film, the story seems to imply that the Alien is some sort of phallic symbol meant to overpower the crew - especially the female members. It’s a horror film through and through… and a fun one to boot. The script never complicates the story, its characters and the situation they’re in. We know enough about these people. We know why the Alien is on the ship attacking them. All we care about is how they will get out of this danger. Sometimes that’s all you need in a movie and I wish more screenwriters would realize that less is indeed more.
ALIEN’s strength and what people mostly take away from the film is Ridley Scott’s confident and strong direction. The film is a visual masterpiece in almost every way, bringing the audience something new in each frame, each scene and in each sequence that constantly builds and builds as the shots grow closer and closer by the film’s end. The direction is impeccably mapped out and storyboarded, as everything we see means something.
Scott really uses the darkness of the ship and space itself as a main character to tell his story. Since the Alien is a black color, it can easily hide in the shadows and pop up when we least expect it. In fact, the lack of lighting in most of the film within the ship raises the tension, as it’s a pretty creepy location that feels more like underground tunnels rather than a work station. It may be the safest area in the world, but Scott wants us to believe there’s something hiding in the dark even if there isn’t. It creates an atmosphere a lot of the imitators lacked later on, really creating a vibe that something majorly bad is about to happen. It’s made worse when we don’t know when, how, or even why.
What also makes ALIEN stand out are the sleek and strangely intriguing designs of the late H.R. Giger. Groundbreaking for their time, the Swiss surrealist really captured a grittier and darker look at space within the Hollywood landscape. The Alien creature itself, was a Giger design, giving audiences a meaner and scarier alien than the generic big head and big eyed green aliens that have become iconic. It’s through Giger that the sexual context of the film takes shape, as his designs seem phallic in nature most of the time. The space jockey looks like an erect penis. The face-huggers attaches themselves through the victim’s mouths, almost performing an act of fellatio in order to infect their victims with eggs to incubate inside the human body. In a way, the Alien seems to be a sexual predator of sorts, raping its victims in order to impregnate them to build a new family of space villains. Even when the Alien reaches its adult stage, it seems to want to get rid of the men first while saving the women for last for its own personal pleasure. One of the female crew members’ last moment shows the Alien using its tail traveling up between her legs. And the Alien enjoys being a voyeur as Ripley undresses before striking. These acts make the Alien much creepier, sadistic and a lot smarter than most people would give it credit for. I can only imagine how this all would have come across if Giger didn’t have a hand in putting his vision onto film history.
Scott also takes his time building up to the horror moments in the film, making them stand out and genuinely create scares for the audience. Nothing scary really happens in the first act, slowly building tension until the face-hugger pops up and attacks Kane. It’s strictly sci-fi at that point still, until the classic moment where the baby alien pops out of Kane’s stomach before running away in a great creature effect. I still enjoy that moment where the blood splatters all over actress Veronica Cartwright, as the range of blood surprised the hell out of her to create a genuine scared reaction. From there, Scott builds tension in a different way, creating more of a slasher vibe as the protagonists must hide and survive from the Alien who plans on having its way with them. Like I mentioned earlier, the use of darkness and shadow really create a gritty atmosphere, executing wonderful moments of the Alien just coming into the light behind someone and scaring the crap out of them. That scene where the cat just watches a crew member get mauled by the Alien [which we don’t really see besides the cat’s frightened and stunned reaction] is wonderfully shot. And that great moment at the end where Ripley opens up a hole in the ship so the Alien can get sucked into space is visually impressive. It also helps when you have Jerry Goldsmith composing your movie and perfectly capturing every tone and beat within the scene. Ridley Scott would continue to make visually stunning films, especially 1982’s BLADE RUNNER and 1985’s LEGEND, but ALIEN is his masterpiece.
What completes the greatness of ALIEN is the wonderful acting by actors who would later become more famous after this. This is Sigourney Weaver’s major film debut and she does an excellent job playing Ripley. She’s tough and strong, yet vulnerable enough for us to care about her. Weaver would get to do a lot more in the sequels, but her first performance as Ripley is a great foundation to her character that would only build and change from here. The underrated Tom Skeritt, probably best known for his TV work on Picket Fences, is also great as the ship’s captain Dallas. He’s tough, commanding, and heroic. Veronica Cartwright doesn’t get to do much honestly, but she’s easy on the eyes and is great at screaming. Harry Dean Stanton, as usual, plays the comic relief as Brett. Stanton is always great and it’s no exception here. Ian Holm is stoic through most of the film, giving off a quiet and creepy vibe that pays off big time. John Hurt gets memorable moments, but I wish he was in the film more. He’s a great actor and seems underutilized here. Yaphet Kotto is another reliable actor who is solid as the smart and trough Parker. And a lot of love for Bolaji Badejo as the Alien. There are times near the end where you can tell it’s someone in a costume, but man - what a great looking costume. Badejo did a fine job bringing a soon-to-be classic horror villain to life. A pretty amazing cast for an amazing film.
THE FINAL HOWL
To call ALIEN other than a “sci-fi horror classic" would question my ability to even review films of the genre. It has inspired so many other films and other facets of pop culture, yet none have done it as well as Ridley Scott’s 1979 masterpiece. It has tension. It has atmosphere. It has incredible set design and sexual subtext via H.R. Giger. It has a great use of light and dark thanks to Scott. And the Jerry Goldsmith score and talented cast elevate what could have been a silly science fiction B-movie with a bigger budget. After 40 years, ALIEN is the epitome of what any sci-fi horror film should aspire to be. You don’t need an alien bursting through your chest to make you see that.