Alien Flashback Review: Alien
REVIEW: Flashback to the late-seventies. STAR WARS has broken box office records, and Hollywood is going back into space in a big way. Every studio in town launches their own STAR WARS knock-off, with films like THE BLACK HOLE, STAR TREK- THE MOTION PICTURE, BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS, FLASH GORDON, etc. Heck, even James Bond gets in on the action with MOONRAKER. Twentieth Century Fox, who were saved from bankruptcy by STAR WARS, launch their own space movie, but rather than another swashbuckling tale of daring-do, British advert director Ridley Scott, who's just shot a film called THE DUELLISTS, is given a script by Dan O'Bannon that modernizes creepy fifties outer space alien flicks like IT! THE TERROR FROM OUTER SPACE.
But, like STAR WARS this is no B-movie, and Scott's given an ample budget, and mostly left to his own devices. In turn, he comes up with a film that no doubt scared the shit out of people in a big way. Watching ALIEN thirty-three years later, it's amazing to think that it's so old, as it still plays out like a film that could have been made yesterday. The effects, mostly model work, and miniatures- not to mention old fashioned guys in suits, hold up remarkably well- and it doesn't seem dated at all.
But, people tend to misremember ALIEN, as if it was an action-adventure, rather than a horror film. There's actually very little carnage, with it being confined to a cast of only seven actors, none of whom were stars at the time. It's more of a chamber piece, and the violence is mostly off-screen, or only present in brief flashes.
Like STAR WARS, we get spaceships that look lived-in, and taking it even further, this is a film that boldly views the future of space exploration as a corporate scheme, with our heroes having little in common with the scientist-astronauts of 2001: A SPACE ODESSEY. Rather, they're blue-collar working men (and women) with a hard job to do that offers little pay. Once the shit hits the fan, they discover that they're even less valuable to the company than they thought, with the android Ash (Ian Holm- long before he was Bilbo) being on-board, undercover as a human, to make sure they follow the company's agenda. Their lives? Totally expendable.
Enter our heroine Ripley. Initially, just one of the seven, Ripley probably the coldest and hardest to read of the cast, until our working-class-hero captain, played by Tom Skerritt, gets taken out of commission, leaving Ripley in charge. Less heroic than she would be in the later films, here, Ripley is only trying to survive, and for the last twenty-minutes of the film, we follow Ripley as she tries desperately to escape the dreaded xenomorph Alien, and escape her ship, the Nostromo.
Running a lean two hours, ALIEN is about as perfect a horror film as we're ever likely to get. I put it up there with THE EXORCIST, and Scott does a masterful (and Hitchcockian) job building tension, in a way he's never really done since (he went another way- and that's not meant as a dig at all, as he's one of my favourite directors).
Everything about ALIEN is bang-on, from the brilliant production design (love the lived-in look of the Nostromo), to H.R Giger's terrifying design of the alien (not to mention the other striking imagery- including the space jockey which figures so prominently in PROMETHEUS). The cast of characters is particularly good, with Weaver making for a somewhat cold, unknowable, and ambiguous heroine, although that characterization would change as the films went on. Tom Skerritt, as the doomed captain, is instantly likable, and audiences in 1979 probably assumed he was the star. Nope. Poor John Hurt, makes a wonderful Kane, and the scene where he gives birth to the titular character is among the most iconic images in cinema. Ian Holm, as Ash, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, and the great Yaphet Kotto round up the seven crew-members of the Nostromo, and each makes a vivid impression.
MUSIC: The ALIEN score is by legendary composer Jerry Goldsmith, and it's more subtle than I remember. Highly melodic, but also sparse at times, apparently much of Goldsmith's score was eschewed in order to ramp up the terror. What remains is extraordinary, and perfectly suits the film.
Best death: It's tough to beat John Hurt having the baby xenomorph pop out of his chest, and this scene was no doubt traumatic to unsuspecting audiences in '79. Heck, in 2012 it's still bloody terrifying.
Most badass character other than Ripley: This one easily goes to Yaphet Kotto, as the angry, blue-collar Parker, who spends the last part of the film running around with his shirt ripped open, and brandishing a flame-thrower. I always loved Kotto in this, and his alpha-male energy perfectly contrasts with Weaver's Ripley.
Character that immediately loses their shit: Which brings me to poor Veronica Cartwright. Poor, poor Lambert. While everyone else is scared shitless, Lambert just totally goes to pieces, and doesn't do anyone a lick of good. Kotto tries to go all action-hero and save her towards the end, but no dice.
Reception: A surprise hit financially (it didn't even get a premiere) ALIEN grossed $78 million theatrically- big bucks in 1979, ranking the sixth highest-grossing film of the year at the box office. Critically, it was well-received, but it's only in later years that the film has been re-accessed as a classic. Some of the reviews were very negative, and it only picked up one solitary Oscar- for best VFX. It was better received in Scott's native Britain, where it got a slew of BAFTA nominations. It's success led not only to ALIENS (a full seven years later) but a slew of knock-offs, including movies like XTRO, the latter PREDATOR (more of an ALIENS imitation actually) and an unauthorized Italian rip-off sequel called ALIEN 2- which led to a big lawsuit. Heck, even John Carpenter's re-imagining of THE THING probably owes a lot to ALIEN (and vice-versa, ALIEN owes a lotto his own DARK STAR- also written by O'Bannon).
Being such a brilliant piece of work, ALIEN has stood to test of time so well that it got a full-on theatrical release for the 25th anniversary, and has a franchise that's still on fire- thanks to the forthcoming PROMETHEUS. This is a film I come back to every few years, and each time it scares the piss out of me.