Alien (1979)

Starring Tom Skerritt, Sigourney Weaver, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto, Bolaji Badejo, Eddie Powell

Directed by Ridley Scott

Expectations: I love this shit.

I’ve never been much of a Ridley Scott fan, but goddamn if Alien isn’t a stunning, amazing piece of work. It’s undeniably one of the greatest genre films of all time, perfectly bridging the gap between science fiction, horror, and psychological thriller. There’s nothing I can say that hasn’t already been said about Alien, and even noting that everything’s already been said has been said ad infinitum. But still, I would like to share just a few of my observations during this most recent re-watch of one of my most favorite films.

When I was a kid, I watched this film several times, and its haunting, realistic, slow build-up to the reveal of the alien ship thoroughly grabbed me and refused to let go. To this day, this first hour or so of Alien is still my favorite, even though the Alien isn’t around yet. I enjoy this section for its ability to create a world, and give the characters a mystery to uncover that we can follow along with. These are just space truckers who got shafted; they are you and me thrust into the deep black of space and asked to investigate an alien ship. Ridley Scott’s camerawork is nothing short of perfect here, blending static, gorgeously composed shots with video footage from the ground team entering the ship. Just the use of video footage alone is ahead of its time and wonderfully effective, proving the point I was trying to make in my review of Chronicle about how the method of acquiring the footage is in certain cases directly proportionate to its ability to draw you in.

On top of that, Alien is a goddamn scene-by-scene textbook example of what quality set design and lighting can do for a movie. If only we still got movies with production design this incredible. But alas, while you would think that something this masterful would have won an Oscar for its design work, it did not. It was nominated, but lost to All That Jazz. I’ll admit that I haven’t seen All That Jazz, but I bet a snazzy pair of jazz hands that Alien was the better looking film. Just for kicks the other nominees in the category were: Apocalypse Now, The China Syndrome and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Haven’t China Syndrome either, but I still gotta give it to Alien. But enough about meaningless awards, the set design is absolutely incredible in Alien. Whatever the budget was for this movie a good portion of it was pumped into those sets, and goddamn does it pay off. Not only does the Nostromo feel like a genuine ship that we are visiting, the alien planet and ship also feel uniquely their own and full of life (figuratively).

Whatever they didn’t spend on sets surely went to the FX work, because, once again, goddamn do they look good. There are definite moments where the age shows through, such as matte lines and obvious “dude in suit” shots, but 99.9% of it is the stuff of legend. As my favorite section is the discovery phase, it’s only natural that my favorite FX in the film come during this period. There’s just something about those eggs that always makes me crack the biggest grin I can and say stupid shit like, “Goddamn, this movie is dope.” But that said, the xenomorph’s mouth shot during Yaphet Kotto’s death scene is so fucking gnarly and awesome. I love this movie so much that I’m reduced to just listing the awesome points without any real insight or depth.

Alien is also fairly timeless. 70s movies generally have a quality to their sound recording that always bugs me, but it is nearly nonexistent in Alien. Now that I think of it, this could be a result of endless clean-up and restoration for the Blu-Ray release as I didn’t select the original 2.0 audio for the film as I usually try to do for older films. I know, I say it bothers me but yet I consistently subject myself to it. I’m a purist and if that’s what it sounded like upon its initial release, then that’s what I want to hear! In this case, fuck it! I’ve seen it enough times as is, so I feel that at some level I’ve earned the restoration and the better quality sound.

Another thing that strikes me about Alien is its approach to characters. No one is introduced traditionally and the film does nothing (except for flash a few pertinent details about the ship on-screen at the opening) to attempt to ease you into this futuristic world. Like a great Philip K. Dick story, it just drops you in mid-stream and you’ve got to hit the ground running. This is my favorite style of science fiction writing, and it’s employed so incredibly well here. The film isn’t a true science fiction piece, as it’s not really built around any specific scientific idea, but it uses elements and the iconography of the genre superbly. But as I was trying to say before I nerded out on sci-fi, the characters slowly grow over the course of the film, but none of them are singled out as main or secondary characters. The focus is on John Hurt, Tom Skerrit and Ian Holm for most of the first half, but everyone is given time to shine. This makes the transition to Ripley as the lead character that much greater, as it happens slowly and subtly over the course of the film. This makes her status as the “final girl” in this space horror film something of a revelation.

Alien took the genre film to the next level and gave us one of the most iconic film monsters of all time. I know this isn’t the type of review you might have wanted from me, but for films I’ve seen so many times and love so dearly, it’s hard to sit down and take a truly objective stance. I’m too far into the fanboy camp on this for the review to be anything else. I love this fucking movie, and it only gets better every time I see it. If you haven’t seen it, stop fucking around and get on it!

8 comments to Alien (1979)

  • It’s very clear how much you love this one. I never saw it when growing up and only saw it first about 2 years ago (had bought it years earlier in a collectors set where there 4 movies were stored in the alien head) and was blown away by it.

    Seeing as you love this one so much I do have to ask you which one you prefer, Alien or Aliens (for me it’s Alien)

    • Alien all the way, everyday. It’s never really been a debate for me; Alien is clearly the better movie. I’ll have an Aliens review next week with actual reasons, so watch out for that one!

  • Yeah, this movie is pretty freakin’ awesome and it was such a shame that Prometheus was sort of a disappointment, but you still can’t go wrong with this classic. Just has one of those perfect atmospheres that you can only get in horror movies. Good review Will.

    • I still haven’t seen Prometheus yet. At first I was very apprehensive and dismissive of it, but the last trailer got me excited. I hope to at least enjoy it when I do get around to checking it out. But yeah, Alien’s atmosphere is phenomenal. Thanks!

  • Stephen

    Despite devolving into a fanboy rant (and why not, it deserves one), you still gave me something different to think about. I hadn’t though much about the character focus. I had noticed, without really paying attention, on my most recent watching that Ripley didn’t get a lot of attention in the first part.

    I always think of this as a series, and whenever I watch it, it is always immediately preceding another rewatch of Aliens to go with it. So I always think of her as the central character. But when this first cam out it must have been really weird trying to figure out who the movie was about. It’s another layer of depth that I hadn’t noticed before, so you still managed to increase my appreciation of a film I already loved.

    • The other actors had all been in a lot of stuff before this, but Alien was Weaver’s first major role. So naturally audiences wouldn’t have gravitated towards her and expected her to survive. It’s brilliantly done too. Glad I could provide something extra beyond a lot of gushing.

  • Yes, yes, a thousand times yes! My BluRay Anthology edition arrived from Amazon during the week and I had a chance the other night to flick through some of the films to check for picture quality etc. Alien frightened the hell out of me when i was younger, and even today still does stand the test of time. Great write-up, Will.

    For the record, I’m still a fanboy of Cameron’s sequel over Ridley’s starter, but they’re separated by only the barest of margins….

    • Awesome! I got the blu-ray anthology myself a few weeks ago. It’s a great set. I much prefer this to any of the sequels, and I have a feeling my Aliens review will not be received quite so well as this one!

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