“A long way from home, a crew of regular working Joes has to fight off a deadly stowaway who seems intent on killing them all, one by one.”
The pitch sounds like a run of the mill action/thriller/horror movie; maybe entertaining enough in its way, but certainly not anything to go out of your way to see. Only in this case, it’s the bare bones outline of Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) which is well worth seeing – or seeing again. It doesn’t really matter which version you choose – the director’s cut is actually a minute shorter than the theatrical version – and both are stellar.
When Ridley Scott made Alien in 1979, he was not well-known in Hollywood but this movie, along with the undeniably brilliant Blade Runner (1982), cemented Scott’s place in science fiction. In Alien, the good guys aren’t adventurous astronauts intent on exploring the cosmos. Nope, what we’ve got here is a towing ship and a blue-collar working crew. The Nostromo (which cleverly takes its name from a Joseph Conrad novel) is heading home to Earth, carrying a massive load of ore. The Nostromo is a large ship, but part of the genius of Alien is that the ship manages to feel cramped – especially when the decision is made to fight the Alien in the air ducts. The ship is large, but space is much, much larger and the crew is far from home.
The journey is a long one and the crew begins the film is in stasis for the trip. Scott takes advantage of this to set a leisurely pace as the camera walks us through the vessel, without a single line of dialogue for the first six-plus minutes. (There’s no dialogue in the trailer, either – check it out at the bottom of this post. The lack of language increases the creep factor.) It’s a working ship – every centimeter of space is devoted to practical matters; there’s no fancy observation dome here – with a working crew, but far from being united in their mission, this squabbling crew has running arguments about profit shares, at least until survival becomes a higher priority.
Alien gave viewers two gifts – first, the ultimate expression of the “Other.” Designed by Swiss surrealist H. R. Giger (who passed away in May of 2014), the Alien is an amalgam of nightmares that cannot be reasoned with. As critics Ximena Gallardo and C. Jason Smith wrote in Alien Woman, the creature is “a nightmare vision of sex and death. It subdues and opens the male body to make it pregnant, and then explodes it in birth. In its adult form, the alien strikes its victims with a rigid phallic tongue that breaks through skin and bone. More than a phallus, however, the retractable tongue has its own set of snapping, metallic teeth that connects it to the castrating vagina dentata.” In no way should the sexual imagery of the Alien be scoffed at – screenwriter Dan O’Bannon has said that the sexual imagery throughout Alien was deliberate and specifically geared at making men uncomfortable. (It’s Kane who gets assaulted and impregnated by this killer-creature, after all.) It worked – Giger and Carlo Rambaldi were awarded the 1980 Academy Award for Visual Effects for their nightmarish design that kept up any number of kids who snuck into the movie.
Alien’s second gift was Ellen Ripley, a no-nonsense female action hero who is one of the most vital and revolutionary characters in American cinema. Far from being a helpless damsel, Ripley is portrayed as a level-headed, competent member of the crew. She plays by the rules and, if Ash had not been programmed to violate the very first of Asimov’s Laws of Robotics, a very different movie would have resulted. As both “Action Girl” and “Final Girl,” Ripley survives (along with Jonesy – another lesson from Alien would be “never take a cat into space”) and yet, Ripley still manages to nearly get killed by a deranged robot wielding a porn magazine and she later strips down to her underwear, thus giving viewers a teensy bit of cheesecake in space. Well, progress is made in small steps.
Watch Alien – and stay out of air ducts.