By Scott Pusateri (Bremerton, Washington, USA)
Alien is one of those movies that cements itself into popular culture and spreads like a wildfire, forever leaving an imprint on it. Everyone knows the Alien, whether they’ve seen the movies or not. To give this movie anything other than an overwhelmingly positive review would be a form of blasphemy, as it goes without saying that the movie is a masterpiece. The level of notoriety this has and inspiration it has created is unmatched by anything in its class. Other films, art, books, television, all taking something from it. Be it an homage, parody, or entire stories inspired by it are seen everywhere.
Even another extraterrestrial icon, The Predator, lends some of its creativity to it. It is hard to see this movie through all of the fame it’s created, to put it mildly, but does the movie hold up, after you look past the icon it is, past its fame, past its legendary status and see it as just another movie? The answer is yes, and then some. I will look to share my thoughts on what makes it so good and why I believe it still hold up to even the best we have today.
The plot for a movie with such complex filmmaking and themes is actually rather simple, a group of people (Dallas, Ripley, Lambert, Ash, Kane, Parker, Brett and the cat Jonesy) are woken up early from some form of cryogenic sleep on their vessel the Nostromo to investigate a fallen ship as per the instructions of the people that hired the crew. On the planet one of the crew is infected with a parasite which births a monstrous creature that proceeds to pick off the crew one by one to do god knows what with them. Today that may not seem too groundbreaking, however at the time the idea of being stuck in space, isolated from anyone or anything, trapped with an alien creature was something unseen, and was enough to put people in seats to go watch.
For an analysis it’s hard to even know where to begin, because the movie does everything right.
The cinematography is stunning, excellent and beautiful shots accompanied and elevated by masterful matte paintings and set design, it build atmosphere tremendously, especially through its chilling yet somber soundtrack. The sets in particular give a very lived in feeling, adding to your immersion because you feel like the ship is real and that they’ve been working on it for long periods of time. The acting is of course top tier, especially from many actors with not much film experience. There is no awkward dialogue, they all know one another, they all have been working with one another, it all fits together perfectly. Each character is well fleshed out, the dialogue and character actions perfectly inform us of what kind of person each one is.
Ripley is stern, by the book, Lambert is overly emotional, Brett and Parker are close friends, they are more joking and loose than the others, which is to be expected as they are simply the ship’s mechanics and spend long periods alone, likely from a lower tier of workers, Parker being the louder, more cocky one while Brett is more to himself and relaxed, Dallas is not the best leader, he is very caring and brave but ultimately it’s these things that bring his downfall, Ash is reserved, more heavily focused on his science than interacting with others, Kane is curious, willing to risk himself for the sake of knowledge.
Jonesy is a cat and therefore we need no character development to care about him. The alien itself is perhaps the best part of the movie, which is really saying something when everything else is so excellent. The creature demands attention whenever any of its variants is on screen. From the mystery that is the facehugger and its egg, to the shock and terror of it birthing from a man’s chest, to the full grown beast, it really knows how to capture the audience. The Alien, designed by the fantastically creative late H.R Giger looks the part, everything about it made to look otherworldly, it’s menacing, terrifying, but also on a level, quite beautiful. This movie is also, strangely enough, the only one of the series that actually focuses mystery on the creature’s life cycle. It leaves the audience wondering, what does it do, what will it become? What is it capable of?
This mystery keeps you interested for majority of the movie, providing plenty of intrigue leading up to the moment it begins hunting down the crew. The Alien is also kept in the dark, giving us only small glimpses of it, making it seem much more terrifying as it adds even more mystery and factors of the unknown. Its first appearance in full form is done masterfully, it drops from the chains, and slowly rises up behind Brett, we only witness the head and part of its face, the tension and build up giving us a sense of just how nightmarish this creature is. Although the suit and the creatures design are very, very well done Ridley Scott decided it best to keep it hidden, to add to its effect, something the movie is heavily praised for.
Unique to this film that separates it from being just another B-movie is the absence of seeing the kills, and using what we do see the an effective manner, working with the running theme of the unknown we only truly witness two deaths, Kane’s via chestburster, and Brett as the Alien bites him and drags him away. The movie also does a great Job in making one wonder just who is going to survive, nowadays even if you have not seen the movie you are well aware that it is Ripley who makes it to the end, but the movie never directly implies that until the final act. One is lead to believe that Dallas is the main character, he’s the Captain, we spend personal time with him, and he fits the bill of what to look for in a protagonist. However he finds himself to be one of its first victims.
Considering how well written each character is, not only do you not want them to die, and even though you know they will, you don’t know in what order, or how. The fact that we see it’s lifecycle playout and start understand it at the same time the characters do help make the Alien feel more real and the movie more immersive, most monster movies don’t take time to develop the monster, typically we are given no explanation, or a very simple one usually something along the lines of toxic waste mutating thing into bigger thing and wants to kill people or the Alien creature just appears and causes havoc. But the Alien is more realistic, it has an evolution, one that feels real as it is based off of many existing creatures, but given a twist.
It has natural defenses, acid blood, protecting the facehugger’s host, punishing those who try harming it, and it being the reason the crew cannot simply shoot or kill it in a conventional way, for fear it will eat through the hull. It has animalistic drive, its only purpose to secure its species. The Alien is not the green humanoid many were used to, now it was something out of this world, it truly felt Alien. And once it disappears fear overtakes the audience as well as the crew, nobody knows what it will do, you cannot guess the actions of something you’ve never seen before, of an animal that acts like nothing you have witnessed. Now the horror comes from its mystery, it is clearly capable of dispatching the crew, but how? What tactics will it use? How smart is it? What does it do to its victims? The movie gives you enough to be amazed and horrified and leaves much for you to imagine, it’s the perfect balance of the two.
Oh, what I would give to be there in 1979, the see the film in theaters without the knowledge of it and movies we have now, it must have been something to see. But I can only see it through the eyes of the modern day, although perhaps not as impactful as it must have been then, the movie still holds up entirely. Every shot, performance, effect, prop, nothing feels dated. Perhaps one shot of the Alien outside of Ripley’s escape pod is rather cheesy, but it doesn’t take away from the scene or the film as a whole. It is still held in high regard as not only one of the best horror, but one of the best science fiction in cinema history, cited often as being of the same caliber as something like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, and perhaps seen as even more influential on filmmakers and cinema fans alike.