January 11, 2016
You probably didn't need that synopsis: Alien is one of the most famous and widely seen science fiction movies ever made. Directed by Ridley Scott and released in 1979 it has spawned three sequels, two movie crossovers with Predator and a prequel - with a second prequel due in 2017. It is a brilliant film, taking a fairly simple storyline and upping its quality through strong performances, great dialogue and characterisation, and unparalleled production design. The design of the titular alien alone, by Swiss artist H.R. Giger, is enough to grant Alien legendary status. The truth is that the rest of the film is just as good.
One of the striking things about Alien is that, for all of its prestige and reputation, it actually tells a very old-fashioned horror story. It's effectively a haunted house, with some shadowy killer murdering a group of people one by one, except instead of a house there's a massive spaceship and instead of a murderer there's a voracious black insectoid thing with acid for blood and propensity for punching one of its mouths through people's brains. Once you think for a moment about how simple and stereotypical the general premise of the film is, the actual genius of the film becomes apparent. It doesn't matter that it's a simple and obvious story because the character and detail that has been draped over the framework is so richly achieved.
The film begins with an ensemble cast of characters. The spaceship Nostromo is captained by a man named Dallas (Tom Skerritt), who seems to be the closest thing to a protagonist in the opening scenes. His crew includes an executive officer named Kane (John Hurt), the science officer Ash (Ian Holm), a flight officer named Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), the navigator Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), and two engineering technicians named Brett and Parker (Harry Dean Stanton and Yaphet Kotto respectively). All of them die but one, and one of the great achievements of the film is that we cannot easily predict in what order they are killed by the alien. Certainly partway through the film throws in a pretty game-changing surprise by killing off Dallas ahead of half his crew. The de facto protagonist vanishes, and the second half of the film suddenly directs the audience's attention - and affections - towards Ripley.
Ripley is a stunning character. In what is likely the side-effect of scripting the character as male but casting them as female, she lacks the usual sorts of emotional clichés that a female character in a horror movie usually receives. She doesn't unnecessarily panic, she doesn't cry easily, and she doesn't hesitate to make tough decisions when pressing against a wall. Lambert, by contrast, does all of those things - and it's probably not a coincidence that she was written as a woman from the outset. Sigourney Weaver is excellent as Ripley, working in a genre rife with caricatures and two-dimensional characters and delivering a realistic and fully-rounded human being.
Alien is often described as a ground-breaking science fiction film, but that's a claim that probably needs a little unpacking. Many people point to its blend of horror movie and science fiction, although of course that had been done many times beforehand. Still others point towards its production design, which depicts a fairly run-down and lived-in future society. That, of course, is not original to Alien either; Star Wars pretty much achieved the same thing in Mos Eisley and the Millennium Falcon two years earlier. What I think is the real achievement of Alien is that it depicts, pretty much for the first time, a future for the working class. The crew of the Nostromo have bills to pay. Brett and Parker spend much of the first forty-five minutes bitching and moaning about how much money they are going to receive for doing their jobs. By contrast Star Wars features a wide range from farmboys and cowboys to space princesses, but few characters in between. Star Wars may have presented a lived-in universe, but it took Alien to present characters able to live within it.
Of course there is also the alien itself. To some extent a monster movie rises or falls on the back of its monster: if it looks unconvincing or silly there whole film will collapse around it. Alien benefits from one of the best ever conceived for film. It's humanoid, but also has weird skeletal structure, a long ridged tail, an enormous curved head and strange elongated growths sticking out of its back. Like much of Giger's original artwork it is oddly sexualised and threatening at the same time. The design really has two strong advantages. Firstly it has an immediately recognisable silhouette. It had helped to make it an iconic design immediately recognisable by movie-goers. Secondly, it looks particularly inhuman. At the right angle, and sitting still, it becomes indistinguishable from the Nostromo's various pipes and workings. In earlier scenes it moves and is shot in such a fashion that it's actually quite difficult to discern its shape at all. This all combines to make it a particularly terrifying movie monster.
Alien is one of those films so familiar to audiences, and so widely and unconditionally liked, that it is easy to forget exactly how and why it is as effective a film as it is. It's a tremendous science fiction film and a wonderfully effective work of horror at the same time. It's no surprise it launched such a long and popular film franchise: it's one of the best films of its kind ever made.