Review: Alien (1979)



Ridley Scott
Dan O’Bannon, Ronald Shusett
117 min.
Tom Skerritt, Sigourney Weaver, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto
MPAA Rating
R for sci-fi violence/gore and language

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It’s hard to believe with the modern glut of look-alike horror films and bland twists on current trends that there was a time when the medium was revolutionary and generated some of the most acclaimed films in history. Alien marks one of the last successful adaptations of the genre, this time blended with science fiction to come out of that golden age of the genre.

As the Hays Production Code governing decency at the movies was dismantled, genres that had become stale and uninspired were given a chance to breathe free. Throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s, science fiction and horror each saw the birth of new eras in creativity. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey showed us how easy it was to make make an art film out of the sci-fi genre; while films like Psycho, Peeping Tom, Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist were doing the same for horror. With the rating system firmly in place, horror split itself and the slasher gener was born. Halloween and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre had proven there was wide audience for gorey entertainment built around a single, weapon-wielding maniac. What set them apart from the likes of Psycho was the bloodshed.

Although horror wouldn’t find much redefinition in the following years with A Nightmare on Elm Street being the last for nearly a decade, one last film made a stamp on the genre before the ’70s passed into history. Alien was a film like no other. While there are some frightening elements in the likes of 2001: A Spacey Odyssey, the film was as much about the possibilities for our future as it was our dangers. Alien, on the other hand, took the successful horror films of recent years and melded them together to create an enduring classic of the medium that would proven an influence on countless filmmakers over the subsequent three decades.

Part of the film’s success can be attributed to a talented cast of actors, whose names weren’t well known at the box office, that worked hard to evoke palpable emotion and fear without allowing their reactions to seem rote and generic. Heading the all-talent cast was Sigourney Weaver, an actress who brought humanity to the role of Ellen Ripley and would become one of the most iconic, butt-kicking females in cinema history. Like Jamie Lee Curtis who got a career boost from her terrific turn in Halloween, Weaver has since become an Oscar-nominated actress, easily depended upon to bring quiet strength to any role she creates. In part, her Alien role seems to influence each of these new turns. It’s also hard to believe that she was able to springboard into an acclaimed acting career when most people starring in the genre today struggle to find a way out.

Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton and Yaphet Kotto are all superb in their roles as the hunted crew of a small, deep-space traveling spaceship; but apart from Weaver, the film’s success is thanks to Ian Holm as the ship’s physician and John Hurt as one of the first victims. Both had proven their talent prior to appearing in Alien, but their characters are so credible that they both impart millions of fans with fond memories of the film. Hurt has the added benefit of having one of the most memorable death scenes ever on screen.

None of this would have been possible were it not for relative neophyte director Ridley Scott. In only his second feature-length film, Scott created a tight, controlled vision of a dark and ominous future where being alone in the universe might not seem like such a bad thing after all. He uses his camera to create a claustrophic and gripping environment where the characters and the audience can feel a sense of dread, confusion and terror as a mysterious alien creature slowly rips its way through the confined interiors of the ship. He also generates a sense of awe and enthusiasm in early scenes adequately displaying how human nature, with all its curiosity, can find fascination in the most simple and unusul situations. It’s a vision of the future that is gritty and frightening while intriguing at the same time. It’s a style he would put to use in another of the screen’s foremost sci-fi films, Blade Runner a few years later. His work with Alien is a watershed film that easily explains why he becames such a well known and respected director as his career progressed.

While the plot of Alien may seem rather tame by comparison to today’s most bloody endeavors, the constricted fear is what made the film so original. There aren’t many films in either the horror or sci-fi genres that are so well constructed or so terrifying to watch as Alien and I regret that I wasn’t able to join the throngs of fans much earlier, but at least I’ve found it now. It’s never too late to admire the simple, perfect tagline: “in space, no one can hear you scream.”
Review Written
June 5, 2012

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