Released in movie theatres in the summer of 1979, with a fall release in the United Kingdom later that year, Ridley Scott’s Alien unleashed itself into the eyes and minds of cinema audiences a mere two years after the release of George Lucas’ family friendly exploits of Star Wars, an adult and gritty equivalent to all things The Force, not to mention that it had an R-rating, (X if you lived in the UK, which translates as an 18 nowadays), Alien was one of the many attempts by Hollywood in the late 70s/early 80s to cash in on the sci-fi boom that exploded in the wake of Lucas’ film. Directed by Ridley Scott, produced by Walter Hill and David Giler and written by Ronald Shusett and Dan O’Bannon, the film saw fit to deliberately not fit in with the family friendly tone of that most influential of blockbusters, as many of the copycats did, and instead chartered a course into something darker, nastier and grittier, not just in terms of content and violence, but in characterisation, story development and production design.
Amazingly, for a film that tried to do everything differently than Star Wars in terms of style and tone, Alien would, in the end, spawn an equally large franchise, albeit one with a more adult sensibility, with various portrayals in media such as video games, comic books, novels and, as of this year, an audio drama from Audible featuring the vocal talents of Rutger Hauer and Matthew Lewis, not to mention numerous sequels, spin-offs and prequels of varying quality. Hello to James Cameron’s Aliens and a good-bye to the otherwise talented Jean Pierre Jeunet with his disastrous Alien:Ressurection. Let’s try to say nothing of Aliens vs Predator:Requiem.
“In Space No One Can Hear You Scream”, cried the posters and trailers and that’s the thing to remember when going into Alien, or any movie set in space. Space is damn scary; 2001:A Space Odyssey, Interstellar, even Ridley Scott’s most recent entry, the charming and good-natured The Martian. Space is a place of wonder and the chance to tap into an imaginative sense of adventure and travel, but damn is it frightening. The best space bound movies manage to mix a sense of wonder and awe when dealing with travelling through the cosmos, but sometimes it can invoke fear of the darkness and the stars, whether it be Matthew McConaghuey falling through a black hole or Matt Damon going all “Iron Man”, or even, as it seared itself into my young imagination, Keir Dullea going through the StarGate at the end of Kubrick’s 2001. Alien, though, takes the more fearful aspects of such travels, factors in an element of a more blue-collar direction with its characters and proceeds to make space the scariest place you could go to. There is a palpable sense of isolation and claustrophobia that runs throughout, despite the movie being shot on long anamorphic lenses and set in seemingly never-ending corridors that feel like they stretch forever, and that despite the size of the Nostromo, the mining ship the movie is set on, there is genuinely no escape, no way out, and that it’s either you or the beast of the movie’s title.
For me growing up, Alien was something of a forbidden fruit of a film. I LOVED sci-fi movies as a child. Star Wars of course, as well as James Cameron’s The Abyss and Terminator 2:Judgment Day, not to mention that as a “90s child”, any movie from the late 70s and the 80s featuring a sci-fi theme, a golden era for many a Hollywood sci-fi or fantasy film, was a big yes for me, and many of them were family friendly. My mum was never happy about me watching Terminator 2, but it carried a less restrictive 15 rating, despite the four lettered words and pretty intense violence dotted throughout, Alien, however, always carried the deep, red 18 rating in the UK, meaning the film was, for all intents and purposes, ADULTS ONLY. My mum would never let me watch it, a similar fate that befell Robocop. It was so unfair! Of course she was right, in every way, and the Alien saga was something that was kept away from me, at least in terms of home video (the 90s, remember, no DVDs or streaming). If I were to watch any of these movies it would have to be on television when nobody was looking, and unfortunately the rights to the Alien movies were held by the ITV network, a network that was inclined to buy in the American television versions which meant all the swear words were replaced, for fudge sake and the nasty bits edited out. Those stupid bar stools.
Such a fate befell Robocop once it aired on British television, and yet, when I got round to seeing the Alien movies on television, and of course I would watch them even if they were in truncated versions, they were on a late night-time slot, miraculously UNCUT, albeit with commercials, with the resulting viewing being an eyeful, a ferocious experience that one never forgets the first time you see it. Of course I knew the fate that befell John Hurt. Of all things, a Rice Krispies commercial that aired during the early 90s on British television spoofed the scene in which some poor guy had rice krispies explode from his chest. The first time I ever saw that commercial I asked my mum what the hell that was all about and she told me that it was a spoof of the movie Alien, and of course that just made me want to watch the movie even more.
The wonderful thing about Alien is how it comes across as a mixture of two different movies, or even genres, without ever feeling like it’s betraying its own inner logic. There is no ferocious opening to let you know that this is “a horror movie”. In this day and age the old style 20th Century Fox logo comes as a jolt, but then the movie opens with a slow pan across LV-426, the planet that will not be named until James Cameron’s different, but equally brilliant sequel, the credits running as the word Alien is spelled slowly, in parts, at the top of the screen. It’s incredibly symbolic of the movie itself. There is no rush to the first scare, or jolt, or death. Ridley Scott means to take his time, to lull us in, like strapping us into a rollercoaster, slowly rocketing its way to the top before plunging us into an incredible, never-ending rush of terror. You won’t want to look, you’ll not want to go down that decline, but you can’t help but want to either.
The movie then segues into the corridors of the Nostromo, the setting for our space “adventure”, Scott’s camera flowing down the ship’s corridors with a slow, almost Kubrickian grace, a direct difference to the manner of the film’s climax when the camera follows Ripley (Sigourney Weaver, of course) with ferocious and dizzying speed, at which point the movie becomes more Tobe Hooper and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre than The Shining. In fact, whilst the film does rely on several jump scares throughout its two-hour runtime, it does so in a way that puts to shame the film making and styling of the recent trend for “bang-bang” scares that resides in many modern day horror movies. The scares here don’t simply rely on loud sounds intruding into the action without warning, although there is some of that. Nope, the scares here are jumps that rely not only on its sound, but also music, atmosphere and ingenious use of special effects, and that the film is coming from someone who only had one directorial credit to their name, a period drama no less, is remarkable. Ridley Scott came from a background in directing commercials and was one of the first directors of commercials to make the transition to film, something that would become more frequent in the 80s and 90s.
Like a traditional horror movie, or even a slasher film, the film is populated by a ragtag group of characters who become bait for many a creative and harrowing death scene, and that these characters are populated not by young twenty somethings playing teenagers, but a wonderful series of character actors, only helps to add a sense of gravitas to what could have been, in lesser hands, a simply solid B-Movie. The fact that it ended up launching the career of a young Sigourney Weaver, her first steps to becoming an icon of feminist action cinema, also makes it feel like a truly important film. The cast is made up of actors as diverse as Tom Skerritt, Yaphet Kotto, Harry Dean Stanton, Veronica Cartwright and Ian Holm, but instead of focusing on one major player, the movie is more of an ensemble piece, meaning anyone is fair game to be killed. Nowadays we may know that Weaver will survive to come back for sequels, but back in 1979 she was second credited, whilst first credited Tom Skerritt, effectively the star of the movie, is killed halfway through (although the 2003 director’s cut changed this a little), via one of the best jump scares in movie history, remarkably topped by another that sets in motion the film’s final set piece, cementing in stone Ripley’s status as not only the last girl standing, but paving the way for both character and actress to become icons of science fiction and horror cinema.
For all its character and story telling intelligence, there are some minor contrivances throughout that come with the territory of the horror movie. Characters separate when they really ought to stick together, Scott’s camera maybe lingers a little too much on Ripley as she strips down for the film’s space suited finale whilst Ash’s behaviour is way too odd to go unnoticed for so long, although the revelation that he is an android is probably the film’s second biggest shock and brilliantly done. Then there’s the sex. Okay, I’m selling it wrong by saying it that way, but sex is EVERYWHERE in this movie, subtle enough that it goes unnoticed when viewed in your teen years, but the older you get the more you realise that Alien is in some ways a damn filthy movie.
Whilst horror and sex have always gone hand in hand, such as the act of sexual intercourse being followed by violent murder, in Alien it’s in the production and creature design. The sterile, industrial corridors of the Nostromo gave way to the penile shaped designs of the corridors of the alien ship when it’s discovered, whilst the Facehugger’s design and eventual impregnation of Kane, played by John Hurt, leave very little to the imagination as to what the metaphor and symbolism are meant to be. Hurt’s character is effectively impregnated and his death is spawned by quite possibly the most violent birth in cinema history, a scenario concocted by Shusett and O’Bannon who both wanted something imaginative and different in order to the get the creature on to the Nostromo, effectively coming up with the idea of the creature “screwing” one of the characters. Much of the imagery was no doubt further inspired by creature designer HR Giger, who ideas and designs gave the film a visual aesthetic that marks it out as very different to other movies of the period. It takes what could truly have been “a haunted house movie…in space” and turns it into something different, with themes, ideas and images that have made the film one of the most analysed and talked about in movie history.
For a film that was 20th Century Fox’s attempt at trying to cash in on one of their biggest success stories, they would, in the end, release a film that was the complete antithesis of it and nearly every sci-fi movie prior to it. Nothing in Alien is slick like the Death Star, nor, for a film set in space and which visits a faraway planet, a trip that launches the movie’s descent into terror, is there anything a lush as Yavin IV. If anything LV-426 comes across as the darker, more gothic cousin of Tattoine. Then there’s the characters themselves. They are effectively truckers in space; they eat cereal, they smoke, they wear sneakers, they squabble and gripe about “bonuses” and pay, and nothing here is as structured or as upper class as, say, Star Trek. It may not seem like it, but back in 1979 such choices were quite provocative and just added to the different atmosphere of the film.
The film is a bringing together of much brilliance, and its power has in no way diluted in the thirty-seven years since its release; Scott’s direction, the script courtesy of Shussett and O’Bannon, Derek Vanlint’s photography, Giger’s design for the creature, Jerry Goldsmith’s evocative score which sometimes invokes tension likes discovering you have insects crawling over you and Terry Rawlings’ editing which masterfully keeps much of the creature to only small bursts of screen time meaning your imagination works throughout many of its appearances. The word masterpiece is bandied about too much sometimes, but Alien is that. It works on many levels, from being a horror film that can be enjoyed with a few beers and pizza on a Saturday night, or as a piece of work that will invite much exploration and debate. Best of all, the film has never went away. Fox has given the film numerous releases on VHS, DVD and Blu Ray, the film forever existing to scare current and future generations with ease and brilliance.
You’ll have to excuse me now, I have to go and see if my screams can be heard in the vast, deep reaches, of space.