In space, no one can hear you scream...
Of course I’m sure plenty of people were expecting me to review this once I reviewed Alien: Resurrection (and I’m sure a lot of people were hoping that Resurrection wouldn’t be the only Alien film on my list) and low and behold, here it is in the top 50. Back in 1979 it was Ridley Scott who took it upon himself to defy the Star Wars craze and bring back the old traditional haunted house genre, instead this time relocating it in space and creating the first ever haunted house in a spaceship.
The seven crew members of the space commercial towing vehicle Nostromo – Captain Dallas, Ripley, Ash, Parker, Lambert, Kane and Brett are woken from hypersleep halfway into their journey by Mother (their computer) to answer a distress beacon coming from an unknown planet. Three of the crew go onto the planet to investigate, finding a derelict spacecraft there full of a strange collection of eggs. One of the eggs hatches and a strange life form attaches itself to Kane’s face. Back on the ship, after trying to remove the creature, it seems to fall off and die but they find out way too late that Kane had an alien creature planted inside him. It bursts out through his chest, killing him instantly and escapes. The rest of the crew try to hunt the alien down, but it slowly manages to hide from them and kills them one by one.
You’ll notice that I avoided spoiling anything too much considering how widely known the film’s ending is but believe it or not, the DVD cover itself spoils pretty much most of the film. Back when it was released, the trick done by the filmmakers was that the characters were killed off in decreasing order of the fame of the actors playing them. John Hurt, Harry Dean Stanton and Veronica Cartwright were the biggest names in the film at the time, and none of them were really stars. Sigourney Weaver had only been in one film before this so the way the tension was built up was that when the actress no one had heard of was left alone against the alien, it was doubtful whether or not she would survive let alone heroically. But of course these days everyone knows who Sigourney Weaver is and that she kicks ass so of course the film couldn’t end any other way.
Now of course I have to bow down even further than I already have to do whenever I mention Sigourney Weaver’s name and heap endless praise on her for doing such an outstanding job in one of her first big screen films. It’s very interesting to watch this film now, having seen all the other ones because Ripley is not yet the action heroine she would become known as in Aliens. Here she is just an ordinary woman (well about as ordinary as you can get when you’re on a spaceship and chasing an alien) trying to survive the utter horror of what’s happening in the film. I guess it’s well known now that Ripley was originally written to be male, which is why she’s never given a first name until Aliens (it’s Ellen by the way). Lord of the Rings fans will definitely recognise a young(er) Ian Holm as Ash, the resident scientist on board. I’d say his performance is right up there with Miss Weaver’s and he does indeed play a fascinating character, which I won’t spoil. Veronica Cartwright (whom I reviewed earlier in The Birds) plays the other type of female in movies like these but she isn’t a sexist character, just a realistic interpretation of a normal woman in this situation. I also enjoyed Yapphet Koto as Parker and he was probably the only other character I would have wanted to survive. The actors playing Dallas, Kane and Brett don’t get that much screen time but they are all very strong and distinctive with their performances.
The film’s visual style is really the strongest point to it; despite taking place in a pretty spacious ship, there is an overall feeling of claustrophobia especially when the alien is loose and there’s all manner of places where it could be hiding. This is especially noticeable during the infamous ventilation duct scene with Dallas, which is one of the more tense parts of the film. The way the spacecraft is designed is pretty unique since it doesn’t look as flashy or showy as some of the sets in Star Wars, having been built mostly from bits of scrap metal and parts. There’s also a lot of large transistors and low-resolution computer monitors to give it a bit of an industrial look, as though it’s built from “retrofitted old technology” as the production designers described it. The “Space Jockey” set (the derelict spacecraft) is in a big contrast to the Nostromo, in that there’s a lot of bones and other stuff like that around. It’s been described almost as like entering a womb or something like that. I particularly like the big layer of mist over the collection of eggs. Another nice touch by the filmmakers was to have children in the space suits to make the set seem even larger and more impressive. The poor things nearly passed out due to the heat of the suits but that was eventually solved. As for the alien itself, it is of course borrowing from Jaws, Cat People and other such films in that it’s not seen properly straight away thus giving us the proper suspense and mystery. I still get a little freaked out by the alien’s teeth.
I want to get being negative out of the way so I’ll talk about the one scene I don’t like and it happens after Ripley has gotten the big reveal from Mother and has her scene with Ash. The whole thing just comes across really badly and awkward to watch. The film is brilliant but that one scene really sticks out. Maybe the way it was edited or acted, I’m not quite sure but I don’t like that scene and it’s just really badly done. Now then let’s talk about the famous chestburster scene. Even today, it manages to be impressive purely for John Hurt’s excellent performance. There’s a widely held myth that the actors didn’t know what would happen when filming that scene but that’s only half-true. They knew roughly what was going to happen but not the specifics, for example Veronica Cartwright did not expect to get sprayed with blood and entrails (which happened to be real) so her reaction is genuine. The above mentioned ventilation duct scene where Dallas is crawling through and trying to catch the alien is very suspenseful and taps into that deep-seated claustrophobia scene. What makes the scene even more chilling is Lambert’s reactions, especially when she screams for him to get out of there. The final act of the film where Ripley is trying to escape from the ship and the self-destruction scene is really one of the best acted scenes Sigourney Weaver has ever done. Even now knowing Ripley is in three sequels, you still feel that little bit of urgency that she has to get there in time. She was actually originally meant to end the film naked, emphasising the frailty of the human against the alien but the studio vetoed that, wanting to keep the film rated R. Damn you, Fox.
So there we have the film that kick started an entire franchise and it’s a franchise that has held up relatively well over time and delivered consistent films in the series. True the third film didn’t really hold up that well but the assembly cut is pretty good. If you’re curious as to watch the extended version of this one, Ridley Scott has stated that the original theatrical version is his own personal cut and that the extended one just has extra scenes put in so that the fans may get a little something extra. I’ve seen both and there is one particular scene in the extended version that is quite impressive and that’s where Ripley finds Dallas and Brett cocooned. There isn’t that big a difference between them so feel free to decide which one you prefer. Until then, this is Bobby last survivor of the Bobby-verse, signing off. Don’t forget to follow me on Twitter.