It’s an Alien kind of week – I saw Prometheus, gave it a mostly favorable review, and then proceeded to think about it for the next… 48 hours. It’s only fitting, then, that this week’s (awfully late) Deja Review be the 1979 horror/sci-fi classic itself.
Ridley Scott’s Alien is one of those films that has utterly transformed the cultural zeitgeist since its initial release, to the point where nearly every novel idea in Alien has been rehashed, spoofed, ripped off, and outplayed to the point of ridicule over the years. For those who have never seen the original, it’s going to massively decrease their enjoyment of the film. For Alien‘s successes lie not in the flash and spectacle of the thing, but specifically in the lack thereof. It’s not the sudden appearance of the xenomorph in the vent that terrifies, but rather the long and silent moments leading up to it. Hitchcock once made the analogy that a bomb going off is action; but a bomb under the table is suspense. Alien has several bombs that go off during the film, but its best moments are when the bomb rests under the table.
For the science fiction genre, Alien was a revolution, as it exchanged the sterile halls of the Enterprise for the dark and dank interior of the Nostromo. Its vision of the future was not the optimistic Roddenberry one, but a very dark and lonely one. Take, for instance, the varying crew size. The Enterprise had a seemingly endless parade of expendable red shirts, as well as a sizable cast of named characters. The Nostromo, however, is crewed by seven people – Ripley, Lambert, Brett, Ash, Kane, Parker, and Dallas. This decision not only afforded Scott the opportunity to build these characters and make the audience care about them with great economy, but it also removed a lot of the fantasy behind the idea of manning a ship in space. Rather than an expansive crew with only a directive to explore, it’s a small group of seven people in cryo-sleep until their ship nears its destination.
Scott does an excellent job with these characters. From the first scene with Parker and Brett goofing off, even without audible dialogue, it’s clear that these two are the jokers of the motley crew. Dallas is the loose, business-sense captain who casually tosses around statements of authority, as if it were a joke (“Yellow light means only me I guess!”). Lambert doesn’t say much, which is a rather persistent trend. Kane is a somewhat skittish man. Ripley is a no-nonsense second-in-command. Ash is a cold, calculating science officer. These characters are drawn impeccably even from the very first scene, as they all eat dinner after waking from cryo-sleep.
Once they set down on LV426, the film kicks into gear as Scott spins an interesting mystery. The space jockey with his chest burst through, and the massive cache of alien eggs beneath the cockpit (so to speak) are both given long, contemplative shots with little camera motion. What happened here? What is this strange ship? Why were they sent to investigate it? Unfortunately we aren’t given a lot of time to consider these things, because Kane gets attacked by a creature that we now know as a facehugger. This is the first sighting of Giger’s terrifying designs for the xenomorph, and the alien’s grotesque nature – as well as its dangerous propensity for bleeding molecular acid – are quite a departure from the typical alien of 1979.
What follows is one of the most iconic scenes in film history. The dinner scene, when Kane suddenly starts convulsing and clutching his chest, ends as an alien violently bursts through his chest. For audiences uninitiated with the creature’s nature of doing just that, it’s one of the most terrifying scenes imaginable. It’s done brilliantly too – the actors really sell the horror, and the moment of shock as they all stare down the newly birthed chestburster is not a beat too long. The alien’s ultimate skitter away is a grim punctuation that foretells doom for the crew.
The rest of the film hums along at breakneck pace, but still pausing just enough to build up the critical suspense. A scene where Brett is looking for Jones – which started as a fake jump scare, funnily enough – is littered with dangling wires and tubes mimicking the alien’s hanging tail. It’s a triumph of set design that you’re constantly jumping, thinking “oh god that’s it”. When it finally appears and we get our first full look at the creature, the suspense has paralyzed you – in space, no one can hear you scream, that’s true; but you’re beyond screaming at that point.
That the film knows when to accelerate the pace without losing the scares or becoming an action film is a sign of how well Scott knows horror. Ripley’s frantic run throughout the ship, activating the self destruct and jumping into a lifeboat with Jones, is riveting. Even though we’ve seen the alien lurking in a corner, there’s a lingering fear that it could miraculously reappear at any point. Then Ripley finally manages to escape as the ship explodes in the distance.
There’s a moment of relief, and of triumph, immediately following that. But again, Scott is in total control of the audience’s emotions, and all it takes are a few minutes of silent shots as Ripley prepares for cryo sleep to suddenly bring that dread back. There is no implication that the alien is on the lifeboat whatsoever – but the silence, and the inability of the film to end, suggest something is amiss. By the time it reappears, we knew it was going to – but it’s still terrifying.
Alien will have less of an impact on those who have seen it after being exposed to it through pop culture. But for the uninitiated, it remains one of the most gripping, horrifying films to date.
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