Review: Alien (Scott, 1979)
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Written by: Dan O’Bannon / Ronald Shusett
Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto
Released: 1979 / Genre: Science-fiction Horror / Country: USA / IMDB
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My introduction to Ridley Scott’s space opus came sometime after being bowled over by James Cameron’s sequel. I guess it must have been around 1990, before David Fincher released the third instalment of the Alien saga. My ignorance of Scott’s sci-fi horror had to do with the fact I wasn’t born when it was first released in 1979, and partly because my mother had withheld the video from her impressionable son’s eyes; possibly fearing permanent psychological damage. This fear didn’t last long, since my determination to witness the Alien’s first cinematic adventure far outweighed her parental guidance. Coupled with the fact Alien was one of my Mum’s favourite movies, it wasn’t long before I was another devoted fan of Alien, Ripley, and the space-horror franchise. And, for the sake of not undermining my mother, I can safely say there was no psychological damage caused at least, that’s what my shrink tells me.
My first impression of Alien was one that appears the going trend. Quite honestly, it was one of the most frightening experiences of my movie watching life. Director Ridley Scott concocts a claustrophobic, uncompromising cinematic experience that bottles up all that is good about the haunted house movie and delivers it with teeth sharp enough to cut through the screen and take your arms and legs off. From the minute the opening credit sequence starts (bringing you out of your home comforts – that include a reassuring open fire and a locked door – into the unending expanse of outer space), the hieroglyphic letters appearing slowly and methodically on screen offering no sense of hope, you’re left exposed, alone, vulnerable.
Alien was developed in the mid-1970s, the brainchild of film school graduate Dan O’Bannon. O’Bannon had worked with John Carpenter on what would become simultaneously the most successful student film and the worst professional film ever released theatrically – Dark Star. The film, a precursor to O’Bannon’s Alien, saw a group of astronauts bidding to stay alive aboard a spacecraft housing a rather nasty but ultimately timid looking alien creature. After O’Bannon left film school and saw his next project fall flat on its face, he turned to friend and producer Ronald Shusett for help. Together, they fleshed out O’Bannon’s concept and started shopping it around the various production houses in Hollywood.
Eventually the production team of Walter Hill, David Giler, and Gordon Carroll came on-board writing their own version of the script. What they brought to the screenplay, their story additions notwithstanding, was Hollywood weight. They had the big names that O’Bannon and Shusett didn’t. However, the film still couldn’t get a green light and the script was being changed and re-written almost on a daily basis.
A major stumbling block was the fact the film couldn’t get a director. No one wanted to touch it. Of course, at this early stage the film was seen as nothing more than a cheap ‘B’ movie in the mould of Carpenter’s semi-disastrous Dark Star. Science-fiction in the 1970s was all clinical white space suits, futuristic and fantastic settings, and the stuff of comic books. The audience for science-fiction didn’t exist on a large scale and no one was going to put an ‘A’ movie budget to a film that on face-value was nothing more than a cheap monster movie. Then, George Lucas released Star Wars and all changed. Science-fiction wasn’t cheap anymore, indeed, it could potentially be the most lucrative movie genre since cinema’s inception. Giler and Hill, having shopped the Alien concept with 20th Century Fox earlier in the year, got a phone call. Fox, sensing a film set in space had to be added to their release schedule in 1979, had only one movie that fitted the bill. Alien was given a budget double its original size and the film was a go-picture.
Alien tells the story of seven astronauts from the commercial towing vessel Nostromo who are awoken from hyper-sleep when their spacecraft discovers a distress signal from a nearby planet. They travel to the planet and discover a crashed alien spacecraft. Investigating the spacecraft they find a member of the spacecraft’s crew to be dead. On further investigation, they find a cargo hold full of egg-like organisms. When Kane, played by John Hurt, is attacked by a creature from one of these eggs, the crew return to their ship. The crew discover the creature has attached itself to Kane’s face, keeping him alive but in a coma. When they try to cut the creature off it bleeds acid which eats through the hull of the ship. When the creature eventually dies, Kane comes out of his coma and seems fine. With one last meal before a return to hyper-sleep however, Kane begins to convulse, his chest explodes and from within another, more sinister alien creature is birthed. The alien escapes, leaving Kane dead and the crew to find a way to capture and kill it.
The film has always fascinated me. Perhaps it’s because of my morbid, over-active imagination. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle once said “without imagination there is no horror.” It’s a sentiment I totally agree with. After all, for a horror film to work the viewer has to actively lower their guard. It’s a natural human response to defend against what is inherently frightening. That’s why, as children, horror more easily creeps into the psyche. Our ability to suspend our disbelief is a choice adults make that children do not. Horror movies are more effective to those with the ability to draw on their own imagination and allow the monster in through the door. Tom Skerritt, who plays Dallas in the film, says that Alien plays on “those fears that show up when we’re dreaming those nightmares.” It certainly does. Alien looks like a nightmare, feels like a nightmare, and sounds like a nightmare. It is at once a fascinating examination of basic human fears, a damning assessment of technological advancement, and a re-engineering of the genre. Quite simply, it is a terrifying, multi-layered horror movie that is supremely well-made.
Part of the film’s success is H.R. Giger’s concept art. He was brought into the project to design the Alien creature both in its “face-hugger” form and birthed form. He also designed the interior of the alien spacecraft and the dead “Space Jockey” found by the Nostromo’s crew. The idea of the nightmare visualised on screen is seen most clearly in Giger’s work. His artwork is driven by Freudian paranoia and looks almost like the convergence between human and machine. His visions are informed by that bridge between the real and the unreal. Indeed, when Dan O’Bannon first met Giger, the surrealist offered him a slip of tinfoil filled with Opium. O’Bannon asked Giger why he took the drug. Giger told him that it was to escape his visions. O’Bannon replied: “But that’s only your mind.” To which Giger answered, “That’s what I’m afraid of.”
This idea is extended by director Ridley Scott. Scott wasn’t first choice for the film and openly despised science-fiction. But, his work was informed in large part by a visual sensibility. He wasn’t interested in actors. Scott believed that good actors didn’t need much direction or motivation, and if he could assemble seven experienced actors for Alien, he could concentrate on the set, the art direction, and the photography. When the script had been finalised he storyboarded the entire film shot by shot, scene by scene. He saw the crew’s spaceship as old and decrepit, utilising an adage used when the film was first pitched – these guys were truckers in space.
Scott built full-size sets and made the spaceship out of old plane interiors and industrial wreckage, reassembled and painted. It lent the film a sense of familiarity. This wasn’t a futuristic craft with gleaming white walls and floating holograms. It was well-used, it had a tendency to break down, and the crew, with better things on their agenda’s had no time to clean its surfaces. In essence, it felt authentic. Scott furthered this in other parts of the film such as Ash’s autopsy on the Face-Hugger. Scott used fish guts and an Oyster to show the creature’s interior. This was at once strange and uncomfortable viewing but also familiar and decidedly authentic. What the authenticity of the film did was make our suspension of disbelief easier to digest since much of what we were seeing felt like a reality we just hadn’t directly experienced. It also made the horrors that occur more palpable since the fantastic wasn’t so much inspired by fantasy as it was informed by actuality.
The set design also lent an enormous amount of claustrophobia to the film. Not just on screen with its never-ending corridors and enclosed spaces but also in the actors’ performances. Scott built this huge, maze-like set and frequently production staff would get lost in it. The walls were manoeuvrable but once you were inside there appeared no way out. This worked well for the director as his actors were actually suffering from claustrophobia, they weren’t just acting it out. The fact Scott also made the ship look almost organic made it even more encroaching. At times, we as the audience, and by extension the characters, don’t know if we’re looking at a storage bin or the alien’s head.
It comes as no surprise that Scott alludes to one of the most authentic horror movies ever made – The Texas Chainsaw Massacre – as a major influence on him during the production. “I was going to do The Texas Chainsaw Massacre of science-fiction”, he said at the time. Scott was also influenced by George Lucas’ Star Wars and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. You can see Lucas aspects in the shots of the exterior of the ship such as the wide shots looking up at the spacecraft passing overhead. There’s also the Star Wars influence on the technology used, the complicated instrumentation and the use of computers. Kubrick’s 2001 informs Scott’s work in other ways, in large part, the seriousness rarely given to science-fiction at the time. Films set in space were usually made with a sense of humour and ham-fisted acting. Alien takes itself very seriously – there’s no screaming teen queens or self-reflexivity.
Of course, 2001′s biggest influence on Alien is the use of the all-knowing, God-like computer that controls the spacecraft. Like 2001′s HAL, Alien has Mother – the spacecraft’s on-board computer system. Mother, like HAL, is a metaphor of authoritarianism. And, in both films the human characters have, quite justly, a sense of distrust for this all-powerful entity. The computer-as-character is one that would be seen in many guises throughout the 1980s. It is the element of inhuman within science-fiction that can seen across the genre right back to Metropolis and the American movie serials of the 1930s. In essence, the inhumanness of the computer – later seen as the cyborg and robot (think Robocop and The Terminator) – tells us most about our humanness. Mother is the Company’s controller of their investment. They are the untrustworthy authority, the commercial wing of the operation that holds profit and power above human life. When the Nostromo’s crew find out their superiors back on earth sent them to the alien ship for political and military gain, they discover Mother has been holding a secret from them all along. Through Ash – a dysfunctional robot that is in cahoots with Mother – they are told preservation of the alien is top priority but they are “expendable”.
What we see is that the human characters have, for the entire movie, been fighting an ultimately losing battle against everything that is not human. The obvious villain is the alien itself, the subtle villain is the on-board computer and the robot none of the crew knew was a machine (a metaphorical example of cold war paranoia and threat of nuclear war – how advanced technology, in this case the nuclear bomb, can work against its purpose by destroying those who created it and those it was made to protect), the hidden villain is the corporate animal paying their wages. This is the sort of substance that make Alien such an interesting and frightening beast.
The performances of the film are almost secondary. That’s not a criticism. Scott hired seven actors he felt didn’t require a lot of direction because he wanted people who could give their characters depth that perhaps wasn’t there in the script. O’Bannon purposely left out character-based scenes because he wanted to stay close to the action keeping the plot flowing. Maybe most importantly, he thought he was going to direct the film and could therefore add anything he needed on-set or in the cutting room. Indeed, Sigourney Weaver – the heroine of the Alien series – gives her most timid performance of any of the films. That works well for the character because Ripley has not been affected by the monster at this point, firstly she’s young and idealistic, then she’s scared and alone. Even if her strongest performances come in James Cameron’s sequel and David Fincher’s third film, her transition in Alien from cocky, bitchy space officer to exposed victim is one of subtlety and poise.
The feminists of course would say Ripley is never a victim, at least, in her female guise. There’s a scene near the end of the film where Sigourney Weaver, having supposedly defeated the alien, takes off her clothes in preparation for hyper-sleep. This, the Freudian-inspired, feminist writers would say, is her return to womanhood. She shows off her female form and sheds the masculinity forced upon her in order to defeat the alien in the first place.
Alien and its sequels have forever been under the microscopic eye of psychoanalysis and rightly so as they lend themselves perfectly to such investigation. The alien creature itself is seen as a phallic symbol, its face-hugger alter ego having raped its human incubator. Giger’s conceptual art is flooded with sexual imagery and Scott, along with his fellow directors throughout the Alien series, embraced such gender-based undertones. For example, the robot Ash is seen to have sexual desires towards Ripley when he rolls up a porn magazine and inserts it into her mouth. The act releases his own sexual frustrations via the magazine taking the place of the body part he does not possess. The role of Ripley, which was originally a male character, becomes a symbol in itself as the hero in the film is, for the first time, a woman. It could be argued, however, Ripley, in her dirty shirt and trousers, is no more female than the male characters that surround her. Even when she strips naked at the end of the movie she has to revert back to a non-gender specific spacesuit in order to finally defeat the alien. Yet, while sexuality and gender representation can be interpreted in different ways, what such ideology did for the movie was set it apart from anything ever seen before, paving the way for a new kind of hero with very forward-thinking motivations.
The film has had a lasting effect on both audience and the industry. When it was first released it was widely praised even by critics who were not at the time fond of science-fiction. Its immediate impact was to revitalise the genre, inspiring many good and some not-so-good imitations such as the 1979 film The Alien Dead, 1980′s Contamination, an unauthorised Italian sequel aptly named Alien 2, and knock-offs Inseminoid and Xtro in the early 1980s.
Of course, it’s most notable impact on cinema was the franchise it produced. James Cameron and David Fincher made two fantastic sequels to Alien, while a fourth film was less successful. All starred Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, her character evolving across the films. Most recently, the brilliant alien character from another franchise – Predator – was brought into a new set of films entitled Alien Versus Predator. These films do not include the character of Ripley, taking place before the events of the first Alien film. The Alien Versus Predator films work in effect as a back story to the original Alien series.
The film is still as loved today as it was on first release. New audiences are continuing to find delights in Ridley Scott’s film, while old audiences never tire of repeat viewing. In retrospect, the film has been analysed and celebrated by all facets of the film industry and media, ranking highly in top movie lists including reaching seventh in the American Film Instituter’s top science-fiction movies.
Alien is a brilliantly captivating, post-modern science-fiction film that is at the same time a devastatingly frightening horror. It is the fire-starter to one of Hollywood’s most iconic movie franchises and the introduction to one of its most terrifying monsters. Scott calls it a “marathon of tension”. I like to think of it not only as one of the best movies of its type, but one of the best movies full-stop.
Review by Daniel Stephens