Monday, May 1, 2017

Review: Alien (1979)

Alien (1979)

Rated R

Score: 5 out of 5

The Alien series had it backwards. While usually, going to space is a sign that a horror franchise has jumped the shark, Alien started out in space, and only started sucking once it arrived on Earth. Watching the first film again for Alien Day, April 26 (if you've seen the sequel, the bluntly-titled Aliens, you may have some idea as to the significance of that date), I find that, looking back on it almost forty years after it revolutionized sci-fi horror, virtually everything about it still works. Here and there, there were a handful of points that had me rolling my eyes, but so much of it fires on all cylinders that the very few things I didn't like seemed tiny in comparison. Between an excellent cast, airtight suspense, and a monster design that remains awe-inspiring even after so many films have ripped it off, Alien is a remarkable film that holds up beautifully, it and Aliens being two of the best films of their type ever made.

Once you get past the sci-fi trappings, you'll find that Alien is basically a body-count slasher movie along the lines of Halloween, only in spaaaaaace!!! The crew of the Nostromo, an interstellar freighter returning to Earth, are awakened from stasis halfway through their trip to respond to a distress call on a moon they're passing by. They find no human life, only a crashed spaceship that is extraterrestrial in origin, and a slew of eggs containing alien creatures -- one of which gives the ship's executive officer Kane (John Hurt) a face full of alien wing-wong. As the crew hastily returns to their ship, it turns out that whatever latched onto Kane implanted something within him, as becomes readily apparent when that something, an alien monster with double-jaws, acid blood, a tough exoskeleton, and a taste for anything it can fit in its mouth, bursts out of Kane's chest and starts hiding in the bowels of the Nostromo, growing rapidly in size and picking off the other members of the crew from the shadows. The ship's captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt), warrant officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), navigator Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), science officer Ash (Ian Holm), and engineers Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) all fight to find and defeat the alien, while wondering if it was an accident that they stumbled upon the distress beacon in the first place.

Perhaps the most obvious influence this film has had, beyond just its monster, is its decidedly blue-collar astronauts. The Nostromo is a long way from the USS Enterprise, or even from the Millennium Falcon; they're out there to get paid bringing valuable cargo home. The halls of the ship look like those of a warehouse rather than a penthouse, and the living quarters are built for practicality, not luxury. I can see an actual starship looking a lot like the Nostromo on the inside, albeit with somewhat more illumination (though that's more a function of the Rule of Scary). The crew are mostly glorified truck drivers rather than scientists or soldiers, their uniforms are basically overalls, and they complain about how their detour to respond to the distress call threatens the bonus they'd receive for getting home on time; they're only answering it at all because they risk getting fired if they don't. The Weyland-Yutani Corporation that employs the protagonists exists only in the background material, but their utter disregard for the lives of their workers becomes a major plot point. It was the sort of sci-fi movie that could only have been made during the Malaise Era of the 1970s, and not just in terms of the technology and the brown-on-brown aesthetic on display. Even more than Star Wars with its scrappy rebels, Alien is built around a very de-glamorized depiction of space travel that's not unlike planet Earth, one where people are trying to get on with their lives and have to put up with a lot of bullshit to do so. Modern space-set sci-fi works as diverse as Firefly, the rebooted Battlestar Galactica, and The Expanse all owe something to the path that the Alien movies laid down.

The vision of director Ridley Scott was critical to bringing this vision to life on screen. He makes the most of his budget to turn the Nostromo into a tight, claustrophobic environment where the alien could be hiding in any dark corner or air vent, with the alien itself used sparingly but highly effectively. We don't even see the fully-grown xenomorph until over an hour into the film, but its presence is felt well before then, and when we are formally introduced to it, its famous design by H. R. Giger, with its lack of eyes, its pitch-black outer shell, its smooth, oblong head, its long tail, and its unholy amount of teeth, makes for one of the most immediately scary monsters ever put to film. The alien means business, and the mere hint of its presence is enough to chill the room. The gore is used very sparingly, but the kills are still brutal as the alien plunges its inner jaw into the head or chest of its victim. This thing is a natural born predator of humans, and that's without even getting into all the sexual imagery and rape symbolism that Giger and writer Dan O'Bannon crammed into how it operates, from its method of reproduction to its phallic appearance to its penetrating inner jaw. And yet, for long stretches, it hides. It waits. The remaining crew members, and the audience, wonder when it's going to come out of hiding, all while Ripley's damn cat drives them crazy. You learn to dread every place where the alien could possibly be hiding, even when it seems like the characters are safe.

The human characters are just as good. With a small cast of only seven people (and one alien), every one of them gets his or her time to shine. Sigourney Weaver, of course, made her career here as Ripley, and while she's not the ass-kicking xenomorph slayer of the second film, she still proves to be a crafty survivor all the way to the finish. She looks genuinely terrified as the cast is whittled down around her, but her prevailing in the end, despite every obstacle thrown in her way, came down to a lot more than just blind luck. Ian Holm's morally dubious Ash brings some additional tension to the affair as the characters are given reason to question his motives, while the rest of the guys are great as scrappy Joes making the best of a bad situation. Finally, there's Veronica Cartwright's Lambert, who was just the worst, but in the best possible way. Shrill and panicky, Lambert is the antithesis of the hardy and capable Ripley. Cartwright does an incredible job playing a character who is quite probably pissing herself in terror at the alien and the situation she's in, working almost too well as an avatar for the audience given the problems that her fear causes for the rest of the crew.

The Bottom Line

I may still ever-so-slightly prefer its sequel, but Alien is still a brutal masterclass in slow-building tension, twisted creature design, and pure fear and isolation, drawing on sexual imagery and a very '70s vision of the future to do so. It's a movie that can hardly be described, only experienced.

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