(Ridley Scott, 1979)
(essay by Kevin)
There were a handful of films in this countdown that I dreaded getting assigned, and Ridley Scott’s Alien was one of them. Oh, not because it’s a bad movie (of course it isn’t!), but because what can someone like me say about the classic horror/sci-fi hybrid that hasn’t already been said by people much more adept than I?
I guess one place to start is how upon each subsequent viewing of Alien I’ve found something new to admire. I’ve seen the film at least 20 times, and I never tire of it (I even had the privilege of seeing it in the theater during its revival tour a few years back); mostly because it epitomizes classic filmmaking, and that’s something that never gets old. Like all of the great Hitchcock thrillers, Alien knows how to play the audience like a piano (to borrow Hitch’s line); it utilizes a slow burn mentality that uses the plot device of an alien life form evolving throughout the film to keep things fresh every time we “see” the alien (one of the brilliant things about the film is in the way Scott leaves much of the film in the dark, never tipping his hand as to how the alien may look, employing a kind of Val Lewton approach to the horror).
The pacing of the film is one of the primary factors in getting me to return to the film year after year. The pacing allows for the camera to really sweep through the ship and give us a sense of place. Yes, this is a science-fiction film, and Scott knows that (and its sets and exterior shots of the ship are great sci-fi moments), but at its heart Alien is a horror film; a thing-that-go-bump-in-dark slasher film – Halloween in space, essentially, and it’s one of the most brilliantly executed slasher films I’ve ever seen.
All of the elements are here for your basic slasher movie: dark corners, unknown killer on the loose, things jumping out of the dark to give you a good jolt, unrelenting terror, and a Final Girl. However, one element that isn’t the same is that Scott replaces the teenagers with adults, and it gives the film a more adult feel; a kind of slasher for the uninitiated (the prototype for the “dead teenager” movie, Friday the 13th, hadn’t been released yet, but you it existed without a title attached to it in films like Halloween and Black Christmas). By casting older actors (the youngest at the time being Veronica Cartwright at 29 and Sigourney Weaver at 30) like Tom Skerritt and Harry Dean Stanton, the film just feels different. I don’t know if more legitimate is the right way to say it, but it definitely took the slasher premise and made it more commercial (Scott is always good at taking genre films and making them commercial) by passing it off as a thriller (older characters in peril) instead of what it really was: a slasher movie in space.
Look, three paragraphs in and I haven’t even really said anything about the film. Again, I can’t think of much to add to the conversation in regards to Alien. It’s a brilliantly constructed horror film set in space, and it has some of the best sound effects I can remember. A lot of the film takes place in silence, or with Jerry Goldsmith’s ominous score just lurking beneath the action. I love the way Derek Vanlint’s camera pushes in on scenes at a slow clip, and how Scott keeps those scenes at the appropriately deliberate pace which allows the mise-en-scene to marinate, rather than jolting us around with schlock tactics in order to jar and scare the viewer – there truly is something more unsettling about waiting for something to happen (I still get tense when Kane looks into that pod, the calm right before the storm of a face-hugger attaching itself to its host); I love the way Dan O’Bannon’s script keeps a lot of the (pseudo)scientific wonderment about space and alien lifeforms of old science-fiction films (reminding me of Howard Hawks’ The Thing From Another Planet) before turning his script into a full-fledged slasher movie; and I especially love the performances, specifically Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, who portrays one of the best and strongest female protagonists of any film in any genre (but especially the horror genre).
But perhaps the most memorable thing about the film, and the reason it still resonates years later, is the design of the alien itself by Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger. The amazing pencil artwork of Giger was shown to Scott by O’Bannon who thought that Giger’s work – specifically his famous Necronomicon IV – was perfect for the look they wanted. Giger is fascinated with phallic symbols and dark imagery (I have a lot of his art work, and I always hid it from my parents when I lived with them, hehe) and the design for the alien was perhaps his masterpiece. He won an Academy Award for his work (his greatest phallus, if you will, as the alien does look like a giant penis…and the symbolism isn’t lost on even the most novice viewer when the baby alien bursts from the chest of Kane) It’s one of the most memorable movie monsters of all time, and it’s certainly one of the creepiest. However it’s not just the alien design that is offsetting; one of the film’s strongest assets is its theme of isolation (the tagline for the film is also one of the most memorable of the genre: “In space no one can hear you scream”), of not being able to hide or run to safety because there’s nowhere to go…you’re in an alien world. The design of this alien world, specifically of the famous “cockpit alien” when Kane and his crew first come upon the strange terrain, is even more offsetting than the design of the alien itself.
Oh, I could go on and on (I’ll save it for the comments) about how the final moments are as tense as anything I’ve seen in a horror film; about how the scene of the crew guiding Skerritt as he chases the alien through the ship’s ducts is equally as intense and never fails to put me on edge; and I could go on and on about how Ridley Scott and Dan O’Bannon took a very basic slasher premise and created something that would become a franchise – making people believe along the way that science-fiction could be something different than 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars.
I realize I probably haven’t shed any new light onto this well-known film, but I wasn’t expecting to offer any new insights. Alien is classic suspense/horror filmmaking at its purest; I can easily speak of it in the same manner I would speak of Hitchcock’s thrillers being timeless classics.
(this film appeared on Kevin’s list at #5, Troy’s at #17, Robert’s at #21, and Jamie’s at #35)