Film review: Alien (1979)

Second in a series of old-timey film reviews inspired by a young English teacher getting caught up on good stories.

WARNING:  in addition to plot spoilers, there are some pictures included that are R rated for blood, implied violence, and suggested sexuality.  Viewer discretion is advised.

I am specifically choosing Ridley Scott’s masterpiece next because it makes for interesting contrasts and comparisons to John Carpenter’s The Thing.  Personally, I consider Scott’s film to be superior, and I am going to delve into that a bit here.

The story:  It is the middle of deepest space.  The commercial space transport ship Nostromo is hauling a large consignment of ore from a distant mining world to Earth.  The crew is in hibernation for the long trip back to Earth.  This appears to be a routine thing in the distant future that this is set in.

The crew is awakened by the ship’s computer, and as the crew awakens, the computer informs the captain (Dallas) that they have been awakened because the ship has detected a signal of unknown origin coming from a nearby moon.  The crew detaches the Nostromo from the cargo they are hauling, and lands on the moon.  Dallas is joined by two crew members (Kane and Lambert) to follow the signal from the Nostromo‘s landing site.  They don spacesuits, and walk a distance away to discover the wreckage of a spacecraft that is obviously not human.  The three crawl in through a gaping hole on the side, and soon discover the pilot strapped into a chair, but with a noticeable outward-gaping hole in its chest.  They find a nearby hole that looks like it has been melted through the floor.  Kane descends and finds an immense room filled with what he describes as eggs, covered by a mist.  He approaches one of the “eggs”.  It opens, and a creature leaps out, attaching itself to Kane’s face, incapacitating him.

Dallas and Lambert get  Kane back to the Nostromo, but the second in command, Ellen Ripley, refuses to allow them out of the airlock, citing legal regulations to protect the rest of the crew from infection.  When Dallas begins screaming at her to let them in, the ship’s science officer (Ash) lets them in anyway.

Kane has his spacesuit removed, and when they cut off  the remains of his helmet, they discover a sizeable parasite has attached itself to his face.  Attempts to physically remove the fingers result in its tail wrapping tighter around Kane’s neck, and attempts to cut through the creature result in its blood eating through three decks of the ship, being that the blood is a powerful concentrated acid.  With seemingly nothing that they can do, Ash monitors Kane, while the rest of the crew gets the Nostromo off of the planet and re-docked to their cargo.

After a time the parasite falls off of Kane and dies, and Kane revives.  The crew prepares to return to hibernation, and are eating their final meal when Kane suddenly goes into convulsions.  As the crew attempts to help them, a small creature tears through his chest and emerges.  While the crew stares in shock, the creature escapes from the dining room.

The crew splits up to find it with Ripley leading the two engineers (Parker and Brett) into the bowels of the ship.  Their motion detector picks up movement, but when they attempt to capture whatever their motion detector has found, they discover that it is the ship’s cat.  Brett lets it go, but Parker orders him to retrieve it, so that they won’t pick it up on the motion detector again.  Brett follows the cat into a large storage area, and as he attempts to pick up the cat, the now fully grown (about 8 foot tall) alien attacks and carries him up into the air shaft as Ripley and Parker rush in.

Realizing that the creature is moving throughout the ship using the air ducts, Dallas decides to take a flame thrower into the ducts, guided by the crew using the motion detector, and drive the creature into the air lock.  Dallas, nevertheless, fails, and is lost to the beast.

With Ripley now in charge of a shrinking and frightened crew, she decides to consult the computer for advice.  In discussing the problem with the computer, she discovers a secret directive from the company which owns the ship that orders the science officer to make sure that the alien life form is returned to the company at all costs, even above the lives of the crew.  Science Officer Ash discovers that Ripley has found out about his hidden agenda.  He tries to killer her, but Lambert and Parker intervene.  In the fight, Parker knocks off Ash’s head, only to reveal that he is not human … rather he is an android.  They are eventually able to restore Ash’s head to working order to get some information out of him.  He informs them that there is no way that they can kill the creature.  After disconnecting Ash permanently, Ripley decides that the only option is to use the emergency shuttle to escape after setting the ship to self-destruct.  The problem is that the shuttle only has life support for one.  Parker and Lambert are sent to collect extra supplies while Ripley prepares the shuttle.  While Ripley is preparing the ship, she hears the cat over one of the open mics, and goes off to collect the cat.  As she is getting the cat into its carrier, she hears screaming.  The creature has found Parker and Lambert.  Ripley runs to find them, but when she arrives, it is too late;  Parker and Lambert have been brutally and bloodily killed.  Ripley is now alone, and runs off to the scuttling mechanism.  The countdown is ten minutes, but she only has five to turn it off if she changes her mind.  She starts it, and runs off to the shuttle.  As she nears the shuttle, the creature appears in her way.  Cut off, she runs back to the scuttling mechanism, but is too late.  She takes nearly four minutes to get back to the shuttle, and finds the creature is gone.  She grabs the cat carrier, races aboard, and takes off, just barely getting clear of the ship as it explodes.

Relieved, she prepares to enter into hibernation.  As she is playing with the controls, a hand reaches out for her.  The creature has stowed away.  She races for a closet, and peaks out.  The creature is waiting, camouflaged among some tubes, wiring, and ductwork.  In the closet, she gets into a spacesuit, and picks up a gun that fires a cabled piton.  She emerges and straps her self to a chair.  She first causes a hot stream of steam to fire at the creature forcing it from its secure place.  As the creature approaches, she opens the outer door.  The escaping air pushes the creature out, but the creature grabs on with its hands.  As the ship’s air evacuates, the creatures steadies itself to reenter the ship.  Ripley fires the piton which pushes the creature out of the ship.  The door slams shut on the cable, and the creature crawls into the ship’s engine attempting to gain re-entry.  Ripley slams on the thruster, and the alien creature is shown being left behind as the ship accelerates away.  Ripley records a final log entry explaining that the crew is all dead, and that she hopes to be rescued soon.  She retires to the hibernaculum with the cat, and falls asleep.

Just like The Thing, Alien is a hard core bit of gothic storytelling.  The film is set in the ultimate exotic locale, with the characters completely cut off from assistance or rescue.  It is a true survival tale where the characters have to live by their wits and limited help from technology.  Based on that (oh, the antagonist is an alien creature, at least partially parasitic), the films are really quite similar.  As a matter of fact, except for some particular details and the alien cahracters, these stories aren’t all that dissimilar from a hundred other gothic tales or stories of survival in exotic locales.  Based on interviews with the writers, it is even possible that the film might not have been made except for the amazing “chestburster” scene which they knew the audience would never forget.

Alien was based on an original unpublished story entitled “Star Beast” written by Dan O’Bannon (who had written the earlier film Dark Star, John Carpetner’s second film as director).  Between O’Bannon, Scott, and the film’s producers, the story, despite some standard aspects of plot, takes some revolutionary turns that really altered film making from that point on.

First, something that wasn’t too revolutionary:  the “lived in” universe.  This was something that can actually be credited to George Lucas and Star Wars.  Until then, it was conventional to have futuristic spaceships looking extremely clean.  In Star Wars, things looked grittier, bordering at times on film noire.  Scott adopted this to Alien, giving the ship an older, used appearance.  This in fact fit in with the idea that the characters were essentially “truck drivers in space”.  This wasn’t a crew of highly disciplined quasi-military types.  They smoked, swore, their clothes were wrinkled.  The technology didn’t even look all that advanced.  While not original, it was still a relatively new take on science fiction.  The anti-Star Trek.

The most significant change was one of the last.  Up until Alien, women had two purposes in horror:  to be rescued or to be killed (usually after doing something extremely naughty).  The Ripley character was, up until late drafts of the screenplay, male.  Even up to the final draft, there was a scene where Ripley had sex with Dallas, because, you know, women are wonderful playthings.  Scott took a great risk in making the sole survivor a woman.  Certainly Ripley is smart and resourceful, but there is nothing that would indicate she even rises to the rank of “hero”.  She is not the captain, she is not an engineer, she is not the strongest or most intelligent.  She is not the most experienced.  Ultimately she saves no one but herself (and the damn cat), and is not portrayed in any classical heroic fashion.  Perhaps true to life, Ripley kind of lucked out a bit.  To contrast, there is nothing here that would indicate the coming of the ass-kicker that Ripley would become in the James Cameron sequel.

When it came to the creature itself, O’Bannon was clear that he wanted a creature unlike any that had ever been seen;  something that looked real.  Scott concurred, and began looking for an artist that could create flimdom’s most original monster.  H.R. Giger, a Swiss surrealist artist, got the commission, and designed the creature based on one of his extant designs.  The general description of the creature is “biomechanical”.  Giger’s design gave the creature something of a mechanical look (strange piping on its back, an exterior in greyscale lacking real color, a tongue that acted like an actuator), but also included unheard of biological reality (the skull of the creature incorporated an actual human skull.  The teeth were in fact real teeth).  Plenty of water and KY jelly were used to produce a realistic saliva.  The creature was absolutely beyond anything that had ever been created before.

Giger also designed the egg, the “face-hugger”, and “chestburster” stages of the alien life cycle, and consulted on the set design for the alien world.  This leads to another interesting quirk of the overall design of the film.  I’ll present some pictures and see if you can figure it out:

The use of KY Jelly here was more ironic than anything.

In keeping with what was already a staple of horror films, Scott made sure to eliminate the actual sex, but make sure there was plenty of sex around.  It didn’t take a lot of observation skills to catch that there is a lot of phallic/vulvar symbolism all over the place.  Of course when it comes to sex and horror, the two most terrifying  things are rape and pregnancy.  Alien contains a little of both.  The creature’s tongue juts out to attack and penetrate, which it does twice in the film.  When Ash attacks Ripley, he oddly tries to killer her by beating her up, and then rolling up a porn magazine and trying to ram it down her throat.  The face-hugger essentially rapes and impregnates Kane, and then Kane gives birth.

The miracle of birth (pictured)

Now, sex, I have heard, is not supposed to be nightmarish or horrifying … at least it is not supposed to be.   However, even joyous occasions like childbirth contain a great deal of anxiety and uneasiness.  Sex under the best of conditions likely has some of that too.  Scott really uses the audience’s sub-conscience to help set the mood.  Unlike The Thing that is merely a dark tale, Alien successfully creates a mood of unease from early on … even before we see the creature, there is a sense of something being wrong.  The film also plays on the fear of rape.  Rape in any circumstances is vile and horrible.  In this case, the film really targets the male fear of rape.

In addition, Scott adopted something that he had picked up from one of the greatest accidents in film history.  When young director Steven Spielberg’s mechanical sharks kept malfunctioning during the filming of Jaws, it created a situation that forced Spielberg to not reveal the shark until the very end of the film.  Despite Giger’s masterpiece of  a costume, Scott realized that it was still a guy in a rubber suit, so he chose to show only parts of the creature at any one time, and only for short shots.  What you see is horrifying, but the real terror is filled in by your mind.  Again, Scott uses human nature to create the mood and the proper emotional effect.  It is much easier to turn off and ignore an external stimulus, but an internal stimulus is much more difficult to ignore.

The film score was sort-of compsed by Jerry Goldsmith (Planet of the Apes, Patton, Star Trek: The Motion Picture).  Goldsmith included a somewhat minimalist approach that emphasized a brooding haunted house like cue with an oboe lead, and a cue for the less horrifying parts of the film that used a flute cue.  Scott apparently cut back on Goldsmith’s music, and used one of the cues from an earlier Goldsmith score, the 1962 film Freud (see notes on psychology above).  Alien‘s music does not reach the minimalism heard in The Thing, but compared to most science fiction films that use music in almost every scene, Alien‘s music is quite minimal.

So why do I list Alien, as one of film’s great a achievements?  Alien was a game changer.  It not only introduced horror elements to science fiction that had never existed before, but changed forever the range of roles that women could play in horror.  While not the first film rooted in human psychology, it was perhaps the first science fiction film to take advantage of the human psyche’s natural behavior to create anxiety and dread at this level of realism.  The art design, especially for the creature, was phenomenally successful.  It was in so many ways the first realistic film monster, with a design deeply rooted in biomechanics;  in other words, Giger and the effects team didn’t set out to create a realistic monster, they set out to create a realistic animal to play the role of the monster.  All in all, not bad for a director’s first film.

Trivia:  Both Alien and Aliens contain two incredible performances delivered by performers who had never acted professionally before or since.  Aliens is famous for young Carrie Henn playing the orphaned Newt.  In Alien, it is Bolaji Bodejo, who at 6’7″ got the job because he fit into the creature’s costume.   Born in Nigeria, Bodejo was discovered in a pub, and was sent for training as a mime and in martial arts so that he could perfect the movement of the creature.

Trivia II:  If you think this story sounds dark, the original ending was to be much, much darker.  In the original ending, Ripley escapes on the shuttle, and as she records her final log entry, the creature leaps out and decapitates her.  The creature then sits down and finishes Ripley’s log entry in her own voice, demonstrating that this is not just some mindless animal, but a cool, calculating intelligence.

Awards of Note:

* Academy Award for Best Visual Effects

* BAFTA Awards for Best Sound and Production Design

* Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation

* Saturn Awards for Best Science Fiction film, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress (Veronica Cartwright as Lambert)

* American Film Institute’s (AFI) 10 Top 10 #7 best science fiction film in history

* AFI 100 Years… 100 Thrills, #6 film

* AFI 100 Years … 100 Heroes and Villains, #14 villain

* IMDB Top 250, #41 (as of today)

* IMDB Top 50 Science Fiction, #6 (as of today)

* IMDB Top 50 Horror, #2 (as of today)

* TV Guide 50 greatest movie scene, “The Chest-burster” is ranked #41

* Rotten Tomatoes.com, certified 97% fresh

* Empire Magazine fans/critics / artists 500 Greatest Films of All Time, #33

* 2002, added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress as a “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant film” that should be preserved for future generations.

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