Alien (United States, 1979)

A movie review by James Berardinelli
Alien Poster

When Alien was first released during the summer movie season of 1979, science fiction films were all the rage. The trend had been started two years earlier with the unexpected box office success of Star Wars, and, by 1979, anything even remotely connected with space and/or aliens was guaranteed to raise some interest. Two highly anticipated efforts - the big-screen debut of Star Trek (Star Trek: The Motion Picture) and the Star Wars sequel (The Empire Strikes Back) - both of which were within a year of their opening dates, further invigorated the atmosphere. It was into this climate that Alien was unleashed upon the general public.

The film's memorable tag line, "In space, no one can hear you scream", promised a far different experience than the popcorn entertainment of Star Wars or the kinder, gentler saga of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In fact, Alien was as much horror as it was science fiction. In fact, one could make a convincing argument that there is more synergy between this picture and John Carpenter's Halloween than between Alien and any of the other umpteen sci-fi movies invading movie theaters at the time. Alien is about shocks and chills and thrills, not space battles. Where Star Wars has light sabers and blasters, Alien has intense atmosphere.

In many ways, Alien was the first of a kind. True - it wasn't the first space movie to feature a homicidal monster, nor was it the first time a group of characters were hunted down one-by-one in dark, dank spaces. However, this "haunted house in space" film was one of the first to effectively cross-pollinate these two genres. Alien became the blueprint for dozens of rip-offs and three sequels. With one exception (James Cameron's superior Aliens, which substituted all-out action for creepy horror), none has come close to what the filmmakers attained with the 1979 feature.

The director of Alien is British-born Ridley Scott, who was stepping behind the camera for only the second time (his feature debut was 1977's The Duellists). Along with 1982's Blade Runner, Alien cemented Scott as a filmmaker of great promise and ability. These days, whenever the director releases a new film, reviewers will inevitably mention Alien, Blade Runner, or both somewhere within the text of their write-up.

In addition to blending graphic horror with science fiction, Alien has another distinction - it is one of the first films to feature a female action hero. Even today, on those rare occasions when a woman takes the lead in an action/adventure movie, she is typically measured up to Sigourney Weaver's Ellen Ripley. In actuality, much of Ripley's reputation is based on events in Aliens, where she strikes back against the creatures with a vengeance. In Alien, Ripley is essentially just one of several crew members - until the end, when she's the last one standing (not counting Jones the cat). Having Ripley as the hero of Alien is an interesting twist. In 1979, viewers automatically expected that role to be filled by Tom Skerritt - not only because he had top billing, but because he is a man.

Alien is a perfect example of a director gradually elevating the level of energy and anticipation in a motion picture. The way Scott meticulously raises the sense of menace and tension is worthy of Hitchcock. Like Steven Spielberg's great thriller Jaws, this atmosphere-soaked production relies on the viewer's imagination to enhance the alien's nightmarishness. Scott carefully restricts how much we see of the creature - there's enough to provide our minds with horrifying images, but not so much that the illusion is spoiled. It's interesting to note that a scene featuring a full view of the alien was removed from the final cut (that clip is available on the laserdisc and DVD special editions of the movie, for anyone interested in seeing it).

Alien begins slowly and calmly by introducing us to the crew of the Nostromo, a commercial towing space vehicle on a return course for Earth. They number seven - the relatively laid-back captain, Dallas (Skerritt); Ripley (Weaver), the ship's warrant officer; Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), the ship's highly strung navigator; science officer Ash (Ian Holm), who seems to have ice water for blood; Kane (John Hurt), who is possessed of a gallows humor; and grunts Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) and Parker (Yaphet Kotto), who spend their time grumbling about not getting full bonuses. During the film's early scenes, there's a sense of ordinariness about the crew's activities. For them, this is drudgery - they're looking forward to getting home and collecting their money. The dangers of space are far from their minds, and, as a result, from ours. Those who believe the beginning of Alien is dull and plodding are missing the point. The somewhat lethargic pace is necessary for the rest of the movie to work as effectively as it does.

After receiving a possible distress signal from a seemingly uninhabited planet, Dallas, Kane, and Lambert head down to investigate. On the inhospitable surface, they come across what appears to be a downed space ship. Inside, they find a chamber full of egg-like objects. As Kane is examining one, it opens and a leathery creature emerges, launches itself at Kane, punches a hole through his protective helmet, and forces a proboscis down his throat. Dallas and Lambert bring the unconscious man back to the ship, where Ripley refuses them admittance, quoting quarantine regulations. Ash, however, opens a hatch to let them in. Kane is taken to the medical lab, where Ash determines that it would be too dangerous for the life form to be removed from his face. Eventually, however, it falls off on its own, apparently dead. Kane returns to consciousness and all seems to be well.

Then comes the fateful dinner, which, at the time of Alien's release, was the most talked about scene in the movie. The normal mealtime chit-chat of the crew is interrupted when Kane begins gagging and choking. Before anyone can help him, a creature bursts through his chest and scampers into the air ducts, leaving behind Kane's bloody, dead husk. The rest of the crew mounts a search through the Nostromo's dark, claustrophobic passageways, with the alien picking them off one-by-one. And, with each new victim, it grows larger and stronger.

Alien contains its fair share of genuine scares. These aren't mere "boo" moments, where something benign jumps out of the shadows accompanied by a loud noise and a musical crescendo, but legitimate shocks. The first occurs when the face-hugger leaps out of the egg and attaches itself to Kane. The second is when the alien explodes through Kane's chest. Then, during the hunt for the alien, there are numerous others. In fact, the level of suspense during the film's final 30 minutes becomes almost unbearable. What started as a seemingly low-key motion picture turns into a real white-knuckler.

Despite not featuring any big names, the cast for Alien is comprised of credible actors, including two --Ian Holm and John Hurt - who have won numerous critical plaudits and earned Oscar nominations (Holm for Chariots of Fire; Hurt for The Elephant Man and Midnight Express). Ironically, Sigourney Weaver, who would go on to be the most successful of the Alien stars, arguably gives the least impressive performance. Weaver is an uneven actress, with strengths in comedy and action, but weaknesses in drama. In Alien, she has a tendency to turn strident and over-the-top any time the script requires that Ripley becomes emotive. It is worth noting that, despite similar deficiencies in 1985's Aliens, Weaver was given a Best Actress Academy Award nomination for that movie. (She then received a second, deserved nomination for 1989's Gorillas in the Mist.)

The real stars of Alien are not the humans, however. They are the production design of Michael Seymour and the alien creature design of H.R. Giger. Seymour's work fashions the perfect playground for the creature - a maze of dark, nightmarish passages that emphasize the sense of claustrophobia and mounting tension. Giger's creation is one of unparalleled terror, and represents one of the most memorable visions ever to appear in a science fiction movie. With its metallic, reptilian body and rows of razor-sharp teeth dripping saliva, few cinematic images can equal the alien for horrific impact. Filmmakers of Alien copycat movies have worked unsuccessfully to develop something as striking as Giger's design. Not surprisingly, the ones that have been the most successful are those that have closely mimicked the Alien creature.

Alien was so successful at the box office that a sequel was almost mandatory (although it took six years for Aliens to reach the screen). The Alien series, which currently numbers four movies, went on to become 20th Century Fox's second most lucrative science fiction franchise. In its own way, Alien was as influential as Star Wars, proving that in the '70s/'80s wave of sci-fi, there was room for darker, grittier stories than the ones set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Alien may not have been totally original in its approach, but the film's widespread acceptance made it a blueprint for an entire sub-genre.

Note on the 2003 "Direcor's Cut": Many so-called "Director's Cuts" are significant re-workings of their theatrical siblings. This is not the case with Alien. The most important features of this "new" version are the digital cleaning of the print and the re-mastering of the sound. There are a few added scenes, but they are mostly insignificant and have been previously seen (at least by fans of the movie) on the laserdisc or DVD releases. The best thing about having this movie available 24 years after it first reached theaters is that it gives a new generation of film-goers a chance to experience it on the big screen. And, despite the passage of a quarter of a century, Alien has lost none of its punch. I can't think of a better way to spend a Halloween night.

Alien (United States, 1979)

Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Tom Skerritt, Sigourney Weaver, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto
Screenplay: Dan O'Bannon
Cinematography: Derek Vanlint
Music: Jerry Goldsmith
U.S. Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Run Time: 1:56
U.S. Release Date: 1979-05-25
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1