“In space, no one can hear you scream.” That’s got to be one of the best lines of all time. Alien (1979), like Jaws (1975), puts its heroes out in a realm that is foreign and isolated. There is no escape and survival depends on your wits and what tools you can put together. It is the essential premise that is made, in my opinion, obliquely in most science fiction since 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and possibly before. Images of space tend to communicate, to me, scale and setting rather than emotion and implication.
The mining ship Nostromo is on its way home when a beacon calls out and ship and crew have to investigate. Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt), Kane (John Hurt), and Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) take a walk to find the source of the beacon, which turns out to be a very large ship (that looks awfully familiar). Kane takes a trip down a hole and finds a large group of eggy-things. One opens up and inside is a—AHHH! It attaches to his face and they have to get Kane back to the ship. Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is about to quarantine them, but the science officer, Ash (Ian Holm), lets them through. The ship gets fixed and they head back up to space. What is this thing? Wait, what is it doing now? Oh my God, where did it go? It’s behind…! AHHH!
Here’s a classic that I’m gaining a greater appreciation for. It is very understated despite being a movie about a thing running around a spaceship trying to kill everybody. The story remains somewhat vague and incomprehensible as it goes on. They hardly know what they’re up against or how to deal with it. These are all great things because you’re still interested. So, while I’m inclined to say that pleasure delayed is pleasure denied, the opposite is so clearly true. A slow burn always leads to the biggest explosions. This is no exception. In fact, it helped to set the rule.
I wanted to see this again after seeing Prometheus (2012) and judging whether it, Prometheus, was actually a prequel or not. [See review and second thoughts, respectively.] The opening credits have the same line-by-line drawing of the title. The Engineer’s space ship is the same type and an Engineer himself makes an appearance (though they don’t know it in this film). In fact, they’re blasé response to an enormous being is, in hindsight, a bit odd. The specter of Prometheus also puts the scope of this movie into an interesting perspective.
There’s only one alien that they have to interact with because [Spoiler], so in a way, Alien is like a sidetrack to the over-all story of these alien beings. A story that I don’t believe includes Predators raising them as prey for their extreme hunting expeditions. The sequel, Aliens (1986), comes back into the story of these alien beings and is the first one that deals exclusively with these beings as an equal partner in the plot (rather than a boogieman). It’s an interesting phenomenon–hard core sci-fi that puts the myth above the violence and treats it with dramatic respect. Franchises aren’t usually big on respecting anything.
The movie holds up well over time. The only failure I’ll talk about in a second. I love the two mechanics that just bitch about everything and keep pushing to up their bonuses. They ground the movie in a realism that is quite refreshing. Unlike, say Prometheus, these people live in the world rather than come out of a comic book. They’re haircuts are normal, if shaggy, and they worry about things like bonuses and bureaucracy. So even though some of the animatronics is downright weak, I for one gave it some slack because of the strength of the characters.
Interesting how the tech of the day affects the tech of the tech of the future. In Prometheus, There are full holograms and 3d imaging of the terrain. Here, it’s text-based user interface long on code and short on clear information. I’m sure in thirty-three years, they (hopefully, “we”) are going to laugh at all the obviously tablet-inspired swiping people are/will be doing in sci-fi films these days. I think Minority Report (2002) can be applauded for getting ahead of that pitch. Still, it is a bit laughable that it times of extreme technological change, film makers don’t try to step much outside the box.
I think Ripley is the greatest female character of all time. The character is a bit different from Alien to Aliens—the former is a little icier and hard while the latter is very vulnerable but strong. She’s a real survivor, will do what she can to save everyone else, but when the casualties come in, she’ll mourn and then get back to business. She’s perfect in a way that might be boring in male action hero. But she’s also sharp and that’s enough to make any character work.
In Alien, the movie doesn’t have a clear central figure until better than half-way in. I think that says it all—and in a good way.