Dir. Ridley Scott
Reviewer. Dan Cook
When the Space Race of the 1950's opened up the vast and endless reaches of the universe to the world, astronomers and scientists inadvertently gave horror movie directors new ammunition to frighten the bejeezus out of audiences; that being the threat of attack from extra terrestrial life. By no means was science fiction a new genre at this time but propelled by mankind's fear of the unknown living in the void right above our heads, the following two decades would be filled with dozens upon dozens of alien invasion movies of vastly varying quality telling the stories of monsters from distant galaxies coming to Earth to exterminate humanity and take a hold of our Blue planet.
Very quickly however, these cheesy and often critically derided 'B' movies would lose their dark, nihilistic edges. Extraordinary visions such as Steven Spielbergs CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND and Stanley Kubricks multi-layered 2001: A SPACE ODDYSEY would give the genre a shiny, auteur-esque sheen while George Lucas' super successful STAR WARS EPISODE I: A NEW HOPE would transform the genre from the laughing stock of Hollywood into the most financially viable. However, while popular with audiences and critics alike, these dewey eyed tales rapidly lost science fiction it's distinctive bite and raw mysterious power. Rather than scaring, the genre turned to inspiring people and it would be another 15 years or so before sci-fi would truly terrify again. When it finally did so, the result was unexpected and utterly unforgettable.
Pitched somewhere between the erudite nature of the aforementioned 2001 and the stark ferocity of Tobe Hooper's ineffaceable shocker THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, Ridley Scotts cold and bleak ALIEN is a nightmarish vision of claustrophobia and overt sexuality; a potent counteragent to the naive optimism of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS... and STAR WARS. Starring Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skeritt, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, Yaphet Kotto, John Hurt and Ian Holm, the film tells the story of the crew of the commercial vessel the Nostromo, who must try to survive when a carnivorous xenomorphic extra terrestrial makes the crafts plumbing its home. Utilizing the scare techniques that would later become synonymous with the slasher genre, Scott takes control of our eyes and ears and pins us to the back of our seats, showing us imagery that is so bizarre and so unbelievably terrifying that even 35 years later, it still remains one of the most iconic and revered horror movies ever made.
Across the board the acting is fantastic and as an ensemble, the cast work very well together indeed. In the lead role, we have the then newcomer Sigourney Weaver who is brilliant as the assertive Ellen Ripley; a career defining role which the actress would visit again and again in the three variable ALIEN sequels. Playing a woman who sticks to her guns but is also at the same time compassionate and understanding, Weaver does a wonderful job of making us believe in her character and gives us something to root for when carnage ensues; a million miles away from other science fiction dames who are simply there to be victims or pointless love interests. While Weaver is given the most screen time out of the entire cast, the other actors all do a great job of giving their characters personality and depth while Dan 'O Bannon's wonderfully meticulous screenplay gives them dimension and immense likability. A particular standout for me is the always watchable Ian Holm who is unforgettably menacing as Ash, the android whose circuitry is clearly borrowed from 2001's malevolent HAL 9000.
If there is one thing people remember about ALIEN, it is the terrifyingly insane design of the titular endoparasitoid itself. Created by the late great surrealist H.R Giger who also designed the extraordinary planetary settings, the xenomorph is the embodiment of everything we as humans fear. From its strange metamorphosis from egg to full grown adult, to its razor sharp fangs, to its acidic blood to its nightmarish silhouette, Giger's design is a triumph of unrelenting imagination and insane beauty. Echoing the biomechanical aesthetics of the artists standout works such as 'Birth Machine' and 'Necronomicon', the alien is a terrifying semblance of organic flesh and metallic, industrial roboticism. Working in close collaboration with Italian special effects wizard Carlo Rambaldi (who had designed E.T for Spielberg and the monstrous squid-like beast for Andrej Zulawski's massively underated video nasty POSSESSION), Giger created a monster that has yet to be bettered in all of cinema and as a result, both he and Rambaldi would win the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects in 1980.
Clearly penile in design, Giger's androgynous alien perfectly encapsulates mans fear of rape, birth and the violation of our bodies. From the moment that the arachnoid facehugger latches itself onto John Hurt's face and lays it's eggs in his lungs, 'Alien' becomes more than just a typical sci fi picture; it becomes something much more predatory and perverted. In the words of line producer Ivor Powell, "It (the alien) could just as easily fuck you before it killed you". In fact, many elements of the creatures design could be seen to be sexual; from it's phallic tongue to it's vagina-dentata like pharangyal metallic fangs. These overtly erotic themes would be somewhat overshadowed by action and mayhem over the course of the franchise but it is these debased ideologies that would make ALIEN one of the most studied and written about films of all time.
Sharing a kinship with Michael Myers from HALLOWEEN, Leatherface from THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and the shark from JAWS, the xenomorph is a creature that ostensibly jumps out of shadows and kills its unwary victims with lightning fast ferocity. In this sense, the film bears the resemblance of a standard haunted house picture or a traditional slasher movie. However, where ALIEN succeeds where other conventional horror movies do not is in it's razor sharp execution and methodical pacing. By masterfully utilising the silence of the endless void of space, Scott accentuates the overwhelming air of uneasiness and dread felt by every one of the characters. The low rumbling of the engines of the Nostromo and the beeping of dozens of computers provide the movie with an ominous and foreboding soundtrack that helps to ratchet up tension and put our nerves on a knife edge while the claustrophobic nature of the ship itself isolates us from any form of safety or respite.
For most of the film, we barely see the eponymous alien in full detail. Set in the shadows and camouflaged against the piping and tubing of the Nostromo, Scott hides his beast as if it were a vampire, waiting to pounce on it's unsuspecting prey. It is only when it finally strikes that the seemingly cumbersome monster betrays itself as a creature of great stealth and incalculable strength. It is this indecipherability that makes the monster so truly menacing; we can't see it but we sure as hell can imagine it.
With its blend of jump-out-of-your-seat shocks and slow building intensity, the film was an instant hit and upon it's release in May 1979, ALIEN was met with critical and commercial praise. Earning over $200m from it's $11m budget, the film would go on to be one of the most profitable of the decade and would earn Ridley Scott a reputation as the true genius of the science fiction genre; a reputation which would he would cement with the stylish 1982 cult classic BLADE RUNNER. Due to it's incredible technique and perfectly executed scare tactics, ALIEN would form the blueprint for almost every other monster movie made after it and, in turn, would become one of the most talked about films of the 20th century.
It's power to horrify is still inveterate and while it's most famous scenes have now become part of celluloid legend, there is no denying the movies’ almost supernatural ability to still scare the pants off audiences. Often imitated but never bettered, ALIEN is the ultimate cross pollination of cerebral science fiction and jump out of your seat horror.