Alien (1979) / Sci Fi-Horror
MPAA Rated: R for gore, scary moments, violence and language
Running Time: 117 min.
Cast: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto, Veronica Cartwright, John Hurt, Harry Dean Stanton
Director: Ridley Scott
Screenplay: Dan O'Bannon
Review published July 7, 2004. Revised April 21, 2013.
A benchmark science fiction film, Alien is a simple premise, but given profound and complex treatment. It's also one of the scariest horror films of its era, and though its Oscar-winning visual effects have been eclipsed many times over, it remains one of the few made in the 1970s that stands up as well today as it had in the year it was released.
The story begins on board the commercial mining vessel known as the Nostromo, where its crew, five men and two women (and one cat), are awakened prematurely while still in deep space from their cryogenic slumber en route back to Earth. The reason for their early disturbance has to do with the company's policy to investigate potential alien life forms, so when what appears to be an SOS signal is being transmitted from a small planet nearby, their overriding primary mission is changed to checking out the situation. Upon landing on the desolate planet, the scientists discover what appears to be eggs containing another form of life, one of which hatches and latches itself to one of the crew. Unable to remove the creature, it is brought back on board the Nostromo, where it grows at a rapid pace to become one of the deadliest killing machines man has ever faced.
Although much of the formula that Alien would popularize has been lifted many times in science fiction over the years, there is still a seemingly intangible quality of Ridley Scott's (Blade Runner, Gladiator) direction that keeps this one heads and shoulders above all of the imitators. Unlike other science fiction films, Alien is decidedly grimy and low-tech, showcasing not only the relative boredom of space travel, but also the terror of it's infinite isolation. Set design is definitely a strength, as the ship they are all on feels like a freighter ship, with its hulking size and cluttered denseness that provides plenty of shelter for a man-eating creature to hide out. For such a horrific suspense film, there is a quiet beauty to the build-up, taking a deliberate amount of time setting up the struggles, while the desolation of space is always apparent, even when you can't see it.
The rapport among this fine set of character actors is particularly impressive, and although all of them have relatively few lines of dialogue, you instantly recognize that these are people that have known each other intimately for a very long time. The conversations have a naturalistic flow, where typical blue-collar working stiffs talk over each other, and wink to one another as if inside jokes are common place. It is this sense of realism, not only in its dialogue, but also their reactions during the terrifying chain of events, that makes the horrific moments that much more effective.
Bleak and isolated, the terror starts immediately when you realize that these people are all alone in the middle of nowhere. No means if escape, no chance of rescue -- hence the immortal tagline, "In space, no one can hear you scream...". An unstoppable killer is on board and there seems to be no way to contain it. Jerry Goldsmith's (Total Recall, The Mummy) score is sparse, only coming into play on rare occasions, making the silence during some of the more intense scenes all the more effective in eliciting tension. H.R. Giger's techno-sexual, insecto-reptilian xenomorph designs are grotesquely horrific, yet wholly intriguing -- and the stuff of nightmares among many a viewer, and one of few that is truly as frightening in full light as we imagine it to be in shadows.
But the real star is Ridley Scott himself, a veteran director of television commercials, in only his second effort as a feature film director, and his first in the science fiction genre. Along with his next film, Blade Runner, Scott would prove to be one of the most influential science fiction visionaries of all time, though, despite his success, he would stay away from the genre he had mastered so quickly for the next 30 years.
Although ahead of its time, Alien is also horror from the old school, never letting you really get a good glimpse of the object of everyone's fears until the time is just right. By this time, we are so mortified by what it can do that true terror is achieved with certitude. With each passing year, its status as a classic becomes more secured. Absolutely essential viewing for anyone into science fiction/horror.
Note: There is a 2003 director's cut which shortens some scenes and adds some others. They are interesting, but the differences aren't significant to the overall impact of the film.
-- Preceded by a prequel, Prometheus (2012). Followed by Aliens (1986), Alien 3 (1992), Alien: Resurrection (1997), and two other prequels (of sorts), Alien vs. Predator (2004) and Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem (2007).
©2004, 2013 Vince Leo