‘Alien’ (1979) Review

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“The perfect organism.”

The penultimate installment of Sailor Monsoon’s excellent 100 Greatest Movie Villains of All Time list got me in a xenomorph mood this week. The sequels, prequels and expanded universe stuff can be pretty great in spots, but as far as I’m concerned the original Alien is the one that falls most clearly into the horror genre. I think it might be the first film that made me afraid of what we might find out there, in the vast dark.

My history with Alien doesn’t actually start with the film itself, but rather with the novelization by Alan Dean Foster. When I was a kid I was in the Boy Scouts and once a year we went on something called a ‘Jamboree.’ In general these were wretched affairs memorable only for the number of days it rained and how horrific the latrine was. It rained so often when we went that even today if it’s a miserable, cold and rainy day I’ll say to my wife, “somewhere there are Boy Scouts camping in this.”

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Anyway, this one particular Jamboree was more of a week-long event at a lodge or camping resort somewhere in the wilds of Maine. Miraculously it didn’t rain the entire time and even when it did our tents were on elevated platforms instead of the usual water-filled depressions at the bottom of a hill. I learned how to fletch an arrow, I remember, and how to shoot a bow, use a compass and that a grease-covered watermelon is no prize, no matter what the Eagle Scouts say.

At night I read Alien.

I distinctly remember the opening paragraphs about seven dreamers and how they weren’t professional dreamers. It was a cool science fiction story opening about cryo-sleep and the personalities of a spaceship crew. I read a lot of science fiction back then and that’s what I was hoping for – a good old space opera tale like something by Asimov or Heinlein. And then I got to the final sentence in that opening chapter: “Seven dreamers. In search of a nightmare.”

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It’s a short book – my yellowing Book Club edition clocks in at 185 pages – and I think I read it four or five times that week. I lay awake at night a lot of times after I put it away, wondering what it would be like to be stuck on the Nostromo, trying to get away from the alien creature – running through maze-like corridors in the dark, in the cold, in space – knowing there WAS no escape. It was a haunted house with no way out, because the outside would kill you just as surely as what was inside.

I loved it, of course. I wasn’t able to see the film itself until many years later, but I wasn’t disappointed, though the movie on the screen was very different than the one in my head. In the time since the film has stealthily infiltrated my memories and replaced those characters and those moments that I imagined with the images that Ridley Scott created. Except that one line. Dreamers in search of a nightmare. That’s still the first thing I think of when I think of Alien.

The Medium
I’ve owned Alien several times over the years. For this viewing I watched the 20th Century Fox blu-ray release from 2011 that contains the Theatrical version as well as the 2003 Director’s Cut. I ended up watching the Director’s Cut, as is usual. I always intend to watch the original, but the siren song of extra footage is strong. The blu-ray is gorgeous and in the past my wife has exclaimed about how it looks – despite some very out-of-date tech – like a film that could have come out this recently.

There was a 4k release earlier in 2019 with a new scan. I’m sure it’s worth it if you’ve got the setup.

The Movie
There’s just not much new I can say about Alien. It’s been analyzed, studied, reviewed and re-reviewed by hundreds if not thousands of people with way more qualifications for doing so than I posses. Of course that’s never stopped me before… but I won’t go over the plot. You’ve seen it – and if you haven’t, go out and find a copy and watch it right now! If you actually need a synopsis here’s the bare bones – the crew of the space-freighter Nostromo answer a distress call and end up bringing an alien life form on board. It escapes and begins to hunt them down, one by one. It sounds almost boring when written out like that, doesn’t it?

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The thing that always gets me about Alien right away is the same thing that got me about the novelization. It should be a straight-up sci-fi story – commercial space vehicle Nostromo towing a refinery ship through the back lanes of space. But it’s just so damn creepy. The way the entire ship is full of shadows. The way the camera creeps through empty corridors and rooms. It’s like the ship is abandoned – or haunted. This even extends to the awakening of the crew, which – despite the suddenly bright lighting – is also a little like vampires rising from their coffins.

Vampires in desperate need of coffee.

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Whenever you watch a film multiple times it’s inevitable that you find yourself focusing on different aspects. This time around I was struck by how realistic and natural the characters and their dialogue are. Dan O’bannon’s script has something to do with this, of course, but you can’t script things like Dallas’ reaction to Kane noting that the signal location is within “walking distance.” Or Lambert’s exasperated response to Ripley’s “that’s not our system.” They all seem like real people, which, of course, helps ground a story that’s essentially “find space monster, run from space monster.”

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I was worried – having seen Prometheus  – that my reaction to the alien ship would be changed somehow, that it would be substantially less eerie and mysterious. No worries – Prometheus didn’t inform my viewing this time around at all. (That may be because I haven’t re-watched Prometheus since it came out and the details are blurry. I still have not seen Alien: Covenant.) The ship is still enigmatic and dangerous looking. I always wondered – what kind of mind would create the aesthetics that inform its shape? What kind of reasoning makes those lines and those halls? The answer was always going to be disappointing, so I prefer to still wonder – and worry.

I still think this version of the eggs and this version of the facehugger are the best, the scariest. Although I love the book and knew what was coming the first time I saw this scene I know I yelled out loud.

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As I was watching the scene in the medical bay after Kane is brought in, just before they attempt to cut it off and the acid eats through the floor, I was reminded of my wife’s opinion that the entire Alien franchise really depends on people ignoring what Ripley says. Every movie she’s in could have ended – if not happily, then at least with a lot less loss of life – if everyone simply did exactly what Ripley says, when she says it. I can’t argue with that. Now I want a t-shirt with Sigourney Weaver’s face on it and the legend “WWRD?”

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The formula of the bulk of the movie – stick a group of people in an enclosed space with a monster and watch what happens as they’re whittled down – has been done a billion times, of course, but rarely so well. From the chestburster scene (watch the faces of the actors when Kane’s chest pops, those are real reactions, as they hadn’t been told what exactly was going to happen), through Dallas in the vents to Ripley’s frenzied run to try and stop the self-destruct. That’s a master class in how to build tension and deliver on scares.

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Each time I watch this movie some scene ends up standing out – it’s usually different each time, though Kane’s descent into the egg field shows up often. This time around it was Ripley’s confrontation with Ash. Though I never got to see the scene unspoiled, I imagine it must have been quite a freakout. For my wife that’s the most terrifying sequence – the person you thought was one of you, on the same side, turns out to be just as much of a monster as what you’re fighting, if not worse. And despite the lack of blood it’s also one of the most violent segments of the film. (I noted for the first time that, hilariously, Ash is drinking milk in the scene when Ripley confronts him about letting Kane on board.)

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The bulk of the extended footage involves Ripley finding the remaining crew, cocooned up in alien goop as food source/reproduction material. This sequence IS in the book – though it’s no more than four or five paragraphs – but I can no longer remember if I missed it when I first saw the film. It’s such an essential part of the Alien mythology now that I can’t imagine the film without it.

The final sequence still bugs my wife a bit “who the hell would wear those bottoms in space?” she always says. It’s true, but that sequence as a whole is just brilliant and even knowing how it ends gets me on the edge of my seat. (And off it when that hand comes out.)

The Bottom Line
Alien is a classic and a fantastic film, no matter how many times you see it. Consistently in my top five favorite movies of all time and one – to answer a question posed by Billy Dhalgren a week or so ago – that comes damn close to being perfect. Not much I can add about it, though now that I say that, how about analyzing Ash as a representative of the Company in the era of Citizen’s United? Corporations are people, after all – or androids, as the case may be. At least you don’t see the aliens screwing each other over for a percentage. 😀

Author: Bob Cram

Would like to be mysterious but is instead, at best, slightly ambiguous.