Written by Dan O’Bannon, story by O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett
Directed by Ridley Scott
A 20th Century Fox Picture
Starring: Sigourney Weaver (Ripley); Tom Skerritt (Dallas); John Hurt (Kane); Ian Holm (Ash); Veronica Cartwright (Lambert); Harry Dean Stanton (Brett); Yaphet Kotto (Parker); Helen Horton (the voice of Mother)
In the late 1970s, George Lucas’s Star Wars (1977) made science fiction a viable cinematic genre for the first time since the 1950s, and it was obvious that, with the help of state-of-the-art special effects, the genre had grown up. The picture thrilled audiences with its speed, energy, great characters and the depth of its imagination (and thrilled the heads of 20th Century Fox, who initially believed they had dud on their hands). The film went to make an obscene amount of money and kick started the most financially successful film franchise of all time. Not long after, Steven Spielberg released Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977), a more mature science fiction film but still a crowd-pleaser. In those days, any story that took place in space was guaranteed to get bums in seats because a fun time was expected. One can only imagine what the first audience of Alien must’ve thought they were about to see when those houselights dimmed.
Alien is one of the few films (along with the mad scientist films) on this month’s list that could be characterized as science fiction but don’t let that classification fool you; Alien is, at its heart, a horror film. Its spaceship setting simply makes it easier for the writers to explain the presence of their monster (you’d never see a creature like that at a lonely cabin in the woods). The reason this movie exists is because Dan O’Bannon wanted to create a new and nearly invincible creature, like kids drawing cool monsters in a notebook and hoping to become comic book illustrators someday. He succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.
Alien abandons Star Wars’ fun and Close Encounters’ sense of wonder to give us a more mundane atmosphere; the crew of the Nostromo travel through space simply because it is their job (and not a very interesting one, at that). Their job (transporting mined ore back to Earth) is so humdrum that the ship doesn’t even need them to actually be conscious during most of the trip; our first view of them shows them being awakened out of hypersleep and believing they are about to land on Earth (one of the few things the ship can’t do on its own). Surprisingly, they find themselves nowhere near home and called upon to investigate a possible distress signal. What they find when they make planetfall is something that should never have been allowed to evolve.
One of the great things about Alien is that once it is revealed that the crew has been deliberately placed in harm’s way to get the alien for the weapons division (with the question of their survival a moot point), you realize that they could send only a crew this complacent to the alien planet; a crew more intellectually curious would’ve asked a few questions before blindly following the orders of superiors who are billions of miles away. Contrast the attitudes of Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt) and his warrant officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver); Dallas is a company man, someone who just wants to get the job done and not ask questions. His conversation with Ripley about Ash’s desire to take the face-hugger alien back for testing is revealing: “I just run the ship; anything that has to do with the science division, Ash has the final say… Standard procedure is to do what they tell you… I just want to get the Hell out of here.” Kane, his executive officer, seems to be a throwback to the early days of space travel and discovery; he volunteers to go on the exploration (which doesn’t surprise Dallas) and places himself in danger to solve the mystery of the alien skeleton. If anything, he’s a little too intellectually curious. Ripley is the happy medium between the two; she alone decides to actually decode the so-called distress signal and discovers that it’s a warning. Consider the ease with which she discovers that the crew was sent into a trap when the same information could’ve been available to Dallas if he had simply taken the time to look for it. And of course there is the scene when Ripley refuses to allow Dallas to bring Kane back into the ship; she knows that Kane is hurt and obviously doesn’t want him to die, but she also understands the reasons behind the quarantine law: breaking it would put all their lives in danger. It’s a testament to Weaver’s performance (one that she would repeat in three more films) that she shows vulnerability at this moment; it’s obvious that she wants to follow her captain’s orders (it’s also obvious that she has more feelings for him than just respect) and that Kane’s only chance for survival is to get him to the sick bay. When Dallas orders her to let them in, she hesitates, licks her lips, and calmly refuses. The fact that Ash overrides her a moment later is of little consequence (well, actually there are huge consequences, but that’s not what I meant): in that moment, Weaver solidifies the character she will take through four films, someone who can make the tough decisions for the right reasons. If she had been in charge of the Nostromo, Ash would’ve had to have staged an unfortunate accident in order get the crew to make planetfall.
But the alien does get in, and the more we find out about it, the cooler it becomes (as long as we’re not one of the seven crewmembers stuck with it on the Nostromo). H. R. Giger’s design of the creatures (face-hugger and both stages of the main creature) is breathtaking; it’s bad enough that Kane has a fleshy creature with extended fingers groping the back of his head without including a shot of its long tail snaking around his neck (and yes, I have recognized the sexual aspects of the whole thing). As usual, Dallas isn’t curious enough to question Ash’s assertion that the creature is feeding Kane oxygen (he’s being fed something else entirely) and once the creature dies for no reason, Dallas doesn’t have the capability to imagine that Kane might be carrying something that’ll harm them all (to be fair, neither does Ripley; she accepts that they’ll all have to go into quarantine once they get back to Earth without insisting that Kane be isolated for the rest of the voyage) and this leads to the most celebrated scene in the film. As Psycho has it’s shower scene, so Alien has it’s chest-burster and, in many ways, the two sequences have some similarities: both sequences endeavor to lull the audience by presenting characters engaging in mundane activities (in Psycho, cleaning one’s body, in Alien, eating), letting us to breath a bit easier before the axe falls (but any veteran of horror knows not to trust these moments), and then there is that moment when we realize that things are about to go horribly wrong – in Psycho, it is the moment when we see the bathroom door open through the shower curtain, in Alien, it is when Kane’s face freezes and he starts to cough. In cinematic terms, Kane’s death is just as important as Marion Crane’s; the sequence unfolds in perfect cuts and perfect composition (notice how Ripley finds a perfect space to be seen by the camera) and once the alien bursts out of his chest, it’s almost funny how quickly it puts distance between itself and the crew. But the best shot of the sequence is the one of the blood-spattered crew standing in silence; unable to completely understand what the Hell just happened. The final shot of scene is a lone one of Ash, looking more quizzical than horrified; it is the moment when we should realize that he is not entirely human, concerned more for the scientific anomaly that has just escaped than for the corpse laying on the table and bleeding all over the salad.
The rest of the film feels like an outer-space version of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (1939), first Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) gets picked off by the alien and then Dallas. Dallas’s death is especially interesting because he overrides Ripley’s decision to go into the air ducts herself. By this time, Dallas has realized his failure as a captain; he is supposed to be responsible for the safety of his crew and not just a robot for an unseen company, and both Kane and Brett have died under his command. Ripley throwing her life away is a bridge too far; if one more person has to pay for his negligence, it should be him. And he gets his wish, courtesy of Ash’s shoddy tracking equipment. The only shame of Dallas’s death scene is that it exposes him as a cowardly commander; instead of charging into the valley of the shadow of death to save his crew, he loses his cool and requests a safe path out of the air ducts (“Uh… I just want to get out of here”). It’s quite obvious that Dallas is the captain of the Nostromo simply because he has followed the company’s orders (a company that has now condemned him to death at the hands of their next new product) and he hasn’t got the guts to make an independent decision that might jeopardize his job. Another way of looking at Dallas’s death is as self-sacrifice; he throws himself into the teeth of the alien because he is unable to make the decisions that will save his crew. His death paves the way for Ripley to become the captain, which she should’ve been since the beginning of the film.
Ripley’s command of the Nostromo is unfortunately short-lived. After nearly being assassinated by Ash, she learns from his robotic head (after the worst jump cut in cinematic history) that there is no way for them to kill the monster. There’s only one thing left to do: destroy the ship. At this point, Scott plays a trick on us; we’re meant to think that Ripley is next to be devoured because she goes off alone to fetch Jones, the ship’s cat (a note to all my future pets: if I’m ever stranded on a ship with a murderous alien and you run away from me… you’re toast). Instead, the last two crew members are killed and Ripley is left alone to blow up the ship. But the alien has stowed away on her escape pod (and looking a bit sickly, is it reaching the end of its lifecycle?). The final minutes of the film come down to Ripley doing something she obviously doesn’t want to do, stirring up the monster with steam so that she can coax it out into a vulnerable position where it cannot keep itself from being sucked out into space. There’s nothing that assures Ripley’s survival; to keep herself focused, she recites “You are my lucky star” over and over again until she decides to chance a look over her shoulder. What she sees, the alien’s mouth about to strike, makes her let loose with a cathartic scream before she hits the button that throws the alien into deep space. Ripley’s scream is the climax of the film; it is the release that the audience has been waiting for. The fact that she can scream in absolute terror but still win against an unbeatable life-force is what makes Alien worth watching over and over again; Weaver, O’Bannon and Scott created a character that was scared out of her mind, but who could, nevertheless, focus her better instincts together and use them to survive.
I am not a fan of Alien’s sequels, even the much lauded James Cameron action film Aliens (1986); to my eyes, these films lost the point of the original film. Alien started with seven interesting characters and pitted them against an unknown horror. The subsequent films gave us a multitude of characters that were designed to be munched on. Alien’s creature is an incredible creation (it bleeds acid – what a fantastic idea!) but it doesn’t have the shelf-life of Stoker’s vampire or Romero’s zombies. All the sequels have their moments of thrills and fright, but it is Ridley Scott’s Alien that stands as the champion of science-fiction/horror films: it gives us one unbeatable creature and one character who can actually beat it. How could any sequel possibly improve on that?