Alien (1979) Director: Ridley Scott
“I Can’t Lie To You About Your Chances, But…You Have My Sympathies.”
Profoundly psychological, deeply unsettling, disorienting and atmospheric: Alien is the quintessential science fiction-horror film. Unlike many modern horror films, Alien does not rely upon indulgent green screens and excessive digital effects -the true terror in this film occurs offscreen. It also avoids the cheap and lazy gotcha! jump scares that seem to pervade contemporary horror movies. In my view, Alien is a perfectly paced film, allowing just enough time for the audience to experience a sense of safety and security, only for it to quickly devolve into total terror –the feeling of being wholly isolated and vulnerable. Alien was directed by Ridley Scott and won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. It was a widely successful film that spawned a series of sequels, prequels, and spin-offs that continue to this day, however the original Alien remains the triumph of the series, though the sequel Aliens is an excellent movie. After witnessing the success of 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968 and Star Wars in 1977, 20th Century Fox was willing to pursue a science fiction film.
Building on numerous B-movie stories, the story of Alien was written by Dan O’Bannon and was pitched as “jaws in space.” The plot is as follows: A large commercial space ship called the Nostromo is returning to earth. The opening scene reveals a massive spacecraft with many lengthy, dark, and narrow hallways winding throughout. Its seven crew members are asleep in their berths in “stasis” when the ship’s computer “Mother” suddenly receives a distress call from a nearby planet. Per protocol, Mother awakens the crew. According to company policy the crew attempts to locate the call but the Nostromo receives some structural damage from the planet’s atmosphere. Down on the surface of the planet, the crew discover a massive alien spacecraft that has apparently crashed long ago. Deep within the ship they find a room with long rows of what appear to be eggs. One of the members, Kane (played by John Hurt), is knocked unconscious when a creature springs forth out of an egg. It breaks his helmet, and latches to his face but he remains alive. The rest of the crew bring Kane back aboard the Nostromo despite the objections of Warrant Officer Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver).
They attempt to remove the alien from Kane’s face until it is discovered that the alien’s blood is acidic. The alien eventually grows weak and falls off Kane’s face on its own and then promptly dies. Disturbed but eager to return to normalcy, the crew decides to continue their voyage back to earth until at dinner Kane suddenly begins convulsing uncontrollably and an alien bursts forth out of his chest, instantly killing him. The alien was gestating inside his stomach. The crew attempt to capture the new alien but it quickly escapes into the bowels of the ship and rapidly grows to full-size. It takes cover in the air ducts and begins killing the crew one by one. The four remaining crew members debate escaping in a pod but Ripley notes there are not enough supplies to sustain four crew members.
Ripley digs into Mother’s memory banks to discover that one of the remaining crew members named Ash (played by Ian Holm) has been commanded by the company to bring the alien back to earth -the crew is expendable. In other words Ash has betrayed the crew. Ripley confronts Ash who begins strangling her and in the ensuing conflict it is revealed that Ash is, in fact, an android. Ash’s head is bashed in but they later reanimate Ash to learn about the unique psychology and viciousness of the alien. Ash says the alien is a “perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility… I admire its purity, its sense of survival; unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.” He gives them a foreboding glimpse into their chances of survival so they incinerate Ash. The last two crew members are killed by the creature while Ripley, the sole survivor, initiates the ship’s self-destruct sequence and escapes in a getaway pod. Just as she is about to go into stasis she realizes the alien is on board her tiny escape pod. She cleverly dons a space suit and ejects the alien through the airlock while firing the thrusters to cast the alien into the abyss. She makes her final log entry and then enters stasis.
“This Is Ripley, Last Survivor Of The Nostromo…Signing Off.”
Alien is rife with Darwinian undertones -including a violent form of reproduction and forced impregnation which is an ever-present danger, and a new alien species which is designed solely to endure all obstacles -and to kill. Human beings have little chance of overpowering the alien. Instead they must outsmart the creature. Trapped between the vast emptiness of space, and facing a violent and frivolous death aboard their ship, where will the humans go to survive?
Alien is part of a growing trend of science fiction plots that are skeptical or perhaps even cynical about the modern scientific project. The hero, Ripley, is relatable because she wants to destroy a dangerous new creature, rather than allow a company to study its application as a potential weapon. She does not believe human scientists have the capacity to handle such a dangerous and self-destructive power. In the age-old debate between whether it is better for humans to possess knowledge regardless of consequences, Ripley is a pessimist (i.e. she is not an Enlightenment enthusiast).
Alien remains a towering masterpiece, an enduring of the highest order, one which all future science fiction and horror films should be compared or contrasted with. Alien is impressive because it is a cerebral film –it forces the audience to think and wonder about its haunting and mysterious themes.
I always liked how naturalistic the acting was in Alien, almost to the point of eccentricity, which along with the similar acting in Blade Runner gave me a very special respect for Ridley Scott. It proved even more than Star Wars how everything would change for actors and actresses of the science-fiction cinema.
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