Year of Release: 1979
Date Viewed: September 24th, 2010
MPAA Rating: R
"In space, no one can hear you scream." Arguably one of the greatest movie taglines in history. After finally seeing the film for the first time last Friday, it's easy for me to see why this is grouped with Star Wars and Jaws as some of the most memorable films from the 1970s.
The movie begins with an impressive director's tour of the Nostromo spaceship, a mining cargo vehicle on its way back to Earth after a long voyage. The crew of seven human passengers awaken from hypersleep to investigate an SOS signal from an uninhabited planet. During a foot trek around the landing area, the crew discover another spaceship that appears to have been abandoned.
A deeper journey into the structure reveals an enormous colony of offspring eggs, none of which are familiar to human knowledge. One of the investigators gets too close to the curious matter and pays the price. A slimy living organism breaks out of an egg and attaches itself to the investigator's face, immobilizing him.
The crew retreats back to the ship and brings their fallen comrade aboard. After a failed attempt to remove the creature from his face, the problem seems to have fixed itself when the victim eventually wakes up without any evident damage or any memory of what had happened.
But all hopes for a return to normalcy are soon shattered. During a dinner time meal, the victim experiences a sharp pain coming from within his organs. It gradually gets worse until the unthinkable occurs. A small extraterrestrial being emerges from the victim's stomach and escapes into the maze-like corridors of the Nostromo. The crew divide themselves up in an attempt to execute the runaway creature, but the alien becomes full grown and is now a hostile menace with the capability of compromising the mission and the passenger's lives. Then the movie becomes a cat-and-mouse game between alien and humans with only one team having the chance to survive.
Director Ridley Scott does not rush any of the plot to compromise for slow attention spans. The first six minutes of the film actually has no dialogue at all. Using numerous dolly shots, Scott enjoys thoroughly exploring the details of the spaceship world which looks more like a prison than a home. The camera usually stays at the same height level as its human characters so that nearly everything can be experienced from their perspective. The long shots of the ship's interior remind me of the experience of reading a novel. Establish the environment first and explore the characters later. Once both tasks are accomplished, the body of the story is at its strongest. I also had to wonder if Sam Raimi drew any inspiration here for his trademark 360 degree spin shot that he used for the Evil Dead trilogy.
All seven characters behave differently yet are not fully revealed in their personalities. It's the perfect amount for what the movie wants to achieve. We can be familiar with them just enough to care for them but not enough for us to predict them. It's one of the most difficult things to learn for a storyteller but magnificent when executed as perfectly as it is here.
The fun part about Alien is that the title character is rarely seen on screen. In most cases, it would make for a very boring thriller. But here the tension is allowed to build to its maximum level. The "less is more" philosophy is followed unconditionally in this film. This idea can be supported by the quiet subtle music score by Jerry Goldsmith. Most of the time it sounds like the same motif played on repeat. Maybe it is. It blends in so well that it's often unnoticeable. After spending as much time as these characters do in space, everything can appear to be the same.
Alien's most memorable scenes are delightfully over the top. It's not wrong to laugh while feeling scared at the same time. It's incredible how effective these shock scenes still are after existing for over thirty years.
On the other hand, there are some moments that didn't sit well with me. The acting is a bit stiff at times. Some plot twists are too B-movie for the film's quality. And whose bright idea was it to bring a cat onboard the ship? Was its presence really necessary for anything? I think the poor animal would have much preferred to stay in its litter box back home on Earth than get frantically carried around by an astronaut in peril.
I would also like to know how and why they convinced Sigourney Weaver to strip down to her underwear for no apparent reason near the end of the movie. Did Ridley Scott have to follow some sort of studio quota that demanded at least one half naked woman in their horror movie? I cannot fathom any other reason for its random placement.
Fortunately, all the things that need to make sense do so convincingly. Not bad for a movie about an alien living inside a human being. If there is any hope for a future classic alien film to rise above the others, it needs to follow this movie's guidelines. Stay plausible within your own universe and don't be afraid to have a little fun.