Yaphet Kotto, Sigourney Weaver and Ian Holm in Alien.
There's 1970s DNA running all through Ridley Scott's Alien. Reportedly it was originally pitched as Jaws in space and there's some truth to that comparison. It sat in development until the success of Star Wars brought about the Sci-Fi craze of the late 1970s/early 1980s. And the crew of the starship Nostromo, where most of the action takes place, are reminiscent of semi-truck drivers, who were enjoying something of a Renaissance at the time with movies like Convoy and Smokey and the Bandit. Oddly though, despite all of that, it never feels dated and holds up remarkably well. It's just that in any other decade this would have been a completely different movie and probably not a better one.
The story is a simple one. The commercial spaceship Nostromo is hauling twenty million tons of mineral ore back to Earth. Its seven member crew is awoken from stasis by a mysterious transmission from a nearby planet. The crew goes to investigate where they find a crashed spaceship filled with egg like objects. One of the eggs opens and a crab like creature emerges, latching itself onto one of the crew, infecting him with an alien life form that emerges in dramatic fashion and begins to stalk and kill the crew once it's back on board the Nostromo.
With a budget of just $11 million--the equivalent of $33 million today--this movie looks damn good. The Nostromo is a working ship and it feels like one. Unlike the sanitary Apple store look of the Star Trek ships, this one is grimy, greasy and metallic. The model shots of it look and feel real as does the crashed Alien ship. And both ships carry a feeling of size and weight that CGI is yet unable to render. I highly recommend seeing this movie in as high of definition as you can. The only special effect in the film that really doesn't work is when the robot's head is smashed off and it speaks. The transition between prosthetic and actor is obvious and jarring. Other moments though, like the infamous bursting chest scene, hold up as well today as they did in 1979.
The cast is comprised of recognizable character actors. At the time, Tom Skerritt, who plays the ship's captain, was probably the most famous. It would be newcomer Sigourney Weaver that would go on to become a star, with this movie launching her career. In keeping with the gritty look and atmosphere, the cast is a very unglamorous lot. No attempt is made to doll up either Weaver or Cartwright, the only other female member of the crew. Weaver does strip down to her underwear at one point--as would almost become her trademark in the series--revealing a fit body, but she's no mere space babe. In fact, when casting for the part, the producers considered both men and women for the role.
For those more familiar with James Cameron's 1986 sequel, this original film can seem slow paced by comparison. They are two very different films. Cameron's movie is much more of an action one while Scott relies more on suspense and horror. This was no doubt in part because of budget and technological limitations, but the end result is atmospheric and creepy rather than adrenaline fueled.
More than 30 years past its release date Alien has proven itself to be a classic.
The iconic titular monster in Alien.
Scott, you mentioned several films from the 1970s that inspired different aspects of this movie. I get all of your comparisons but would add that to me Alien begins like a famous science fiction movie from the 1960s: The Planet of the Apes. Both movies begin with astronauts awaking from an induced space voyage slumber to explore an unknown setting. Both movies build slowly with a minimum of dialogue in the opening scenes. Both movies contain a shocking surprise moment where the enemy is revealed.
I vividly recall the impact Alien had upon its release in 1979. I remember fellow students at my junior high school talking excitedly about it. We were at the age where it was exciting to think about seeing such an adult movie. The alien exploding through John Hurt’s chest remains one of the most shockingly satisfying scenes from any horror movie.
From a technical standpoint I agree that Alien holds up remarkably well. Especially when you consider the limited budget they had to work with. There are just a few exceptions. One is the scene Scott mentioned where the edit between the mechanical robot’s head (yes they use the old-fashioned word robot rather than android or replicant) and the actor’s head is obvious. One other effect that hasn’t aged well is at the end where we finally see the entire Alien’s body. It is quite obviously a man in a suit. It doesn’t destroy the scene but it does take some suspension of disbelief to accept.
The computer room that houses Mother is also quite antiquated when you consider the advanced technology it would take to explore deep space or build a robot as sophisticated as the one here. The identity of which adds another twist to the plot.
Atmospheric and creepy are perfect adjectives to describe Alien. The sense of being stalked grows as the movie goes along. One thing I never noticed before is just how quickly this life form grows. One minute it is a tiny little critter scampering out of the room and the next thing you know Harry Dean Stanton is finding its shed skin on the floor with the fully grown alien about to attack from above. This Alien (with acid blood) has become an iconic movie monster.
First and foremost, though, Alien gave us one of the greatest movie heroines of all time. The American Film Institute placed Ellen Ripley at number 8 (the second highest woman on the list behind Silence of the Lambs’ Clarice Starling) on their compilation of the greatest heroes in movie history in 2003. I think they got it wrong. Would you bet on Clarice in a fight against Ripley?
Its' a boy?
Scott's description of the crew of the Nostromo as being, "...reminiscent of semi-truck drivers,..." is an accurate one. As a group of average looking laborers, the cast of Alien does in fact seem quite timeless. The biggest giveaway to the time of its release are the computer screens, with their glowing green letters and lines. Unlike Patrick, I was not bothered by the image of the alien at the end. We learn in Prometheus that the aliens have some human DNA in them. This one just has more than the average alien.
Speaking of Prometheus, it was a bit interesting to watch Alien after seeing it. We now know how that circular ship ends up lying as it does and who that large alien in the chair is. With Prometheus, Ridley Scott went with a better looking cast lead by Charlize Theron, and added a sexual encounter between Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green.
I have seen Aliens many times and enjoyed Ripley as a strong female hero, the likes of which is not often seen in films. She demonstrates her fortitude and determination here. Even after begging her, she refuses to let the infected Kane back onto the ship. "No. I can't do that and if you were in my position, you'd do the same." We also see what kind of leader she is. "That's the only way. We'll move in pairs. We'll go step by step and cut off every bulkhead and every vent until we have it cornered. And then we'll blow it the fuck out into space! Is that acceptable to you?"
Ridley Scott is noted for creating great atmosphere in his films. Alien is loaded with dark, wet sets and eery moments. He sets a tone and makes you feel every tense moment. Some of Scott's films drag, but not Alien. Of all the films Scott has directed, Alien is easily his most entertaining.
Photos © Copyright 20th Century Fox (1979)