1979’s Alien and 2012’s Prometheus. Whether the two are directly connected or not makes no difference. With the release of this year’s quasi-prequel Prometheus, it is almost a sure bet that many people will find themselves giving a return viewing to Ridley Scott’s sci-fi horror masterpiece, Alien. And with that, I’ve decided to build the Prometheus hype a bit by giving you all my review of Alien.
There were a lot of science fiction films before Alien, and there have been a lot of science fiction films since, but very few have achieved the level of acclaim that director Ridley Scott’s 1979 film has. And even more rare than that is the effortlessness with which Scott intertwines science fiction and horror to create a story that is at once both highly unlikely and seemingly plausible.
Many science fiction films do a terrible job of walking that line between reality and fantasy, but Alien is one that stays on the tightrope from start to finish.
The film stars Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, a member of a deep space mining crew that awakens from hypersleep to investigate a signal from a nearby planet. But while the crew thinks the message to be an SOS, it is actually a warning from a derelict alien spacecraft. Some of the crew of the spaceship Nostromo, Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt), Navigator Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), and Executive Officer Kane (John Hurt), decide to investigate the spacecraft, while the rest of the crew stays back to repair damage to the ship from landing on the alien planetoid.
Their search turns up a vast population of alien eggs, from which one creature jumps out and latches itself onto Kane’s face. Dallas and Lambert bring Kane back to the Nostromo and, when the ship’s doctor tries to remove it, they discover that the alien’s blood is some sort of highly corrosive acid, an eerie defense mechanism, and so they are unable to remove it. The creature eventually unlatches from Kane’s face and dies, seemingly ending this horror of a trip that they are on.
Or so we are led to think. But that’s just where the film begins to pick up steam and turn from creepy sci-fi into full on horror.
What Ridley Scott does so well is tell a story. The plot of Alien is pretty simplistic; of course, the world that Scott creates his its various complexities and rules, as with any sci-fi film, but within this complex universe is a story told so effortlessly that the viewer begins to think, “Woah, this could really happen.”
It is here that I should mention that, for a film from the 1970s, the effects still hold up surprisingly well. Many people are weary of visiting films from so long ago because they are used to the effects-driven work of the 2000s, where CGI is king and computers seemingly rule the industry. But Alien, while looking a bit dated, still has some pretty convincing effects.
The creature jumping out of the egg. The overall look of each of the alien forms. The architectural details of the Nostromo and the alien ship are truly immaculate. The enture universe is so well put together that this alien world seems as though it could exist. And really, for all the viewer knows, maybe it does.
Sure, you can compare it to films today and say, wow, that looks a little off. And maybe, in the slightest of ways, it does. But the film did manage to win an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, and considering that it was all done in the pre-computer era, I have to say that after not seeing this for a long time, I was highly impressed.
Now, back to the movie itself.
Director Ridley Scott paces the movie to perfection. Where most sci-fi and horror films are quick to get to the story or reveal the monster, Scott takes his time, stringing us along on his journey as though we are on the Nostromo. The film is often quiet through its first half, filled with semi-mundane events: the ship detecting a signal, descending to an extraterrestrial surface, two crew members concerning themselves only with picking up their shares. But then they begin to put the pieces together.
There is a large alien ship. The signal appears to be a warning. The ship is filled with huge, glowing eggs. And then — BAM — an alien attacks.
But shortly after, once the creature detaches itself from Kane’s face, we think it’s over. The Nostromo can return to normalcy. But here, Scott is just getting started.
It’s his buildup to the whole thing that works so well. Too many movies focus on cutting to the chase, and when it comes to horror, all that does is create a film high on gore and low on suspense. As Scott is making these ever so slow reveals, we begin to get drawn into the story. We find ourselves connecting and identifying with Ripley, with the engineers Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) or Parker (Yaphet Kotto), with Lambert or Dallas or Kane or the science officer, Ash (Ian Holm).
That’s what a good horror film does. Where most films now are mindless and skip straight to the action, Alien is smart, logical, ever-evolving. Only after Scott has fully frightened the crap out of us does he bring the alien back into the picture.
And that’s why Alien works. Its story weaves tightly through a well-struck balance of dialogue, action, and effects, with each of those facets acting as cogs in an extremely well oiled machine.
Now, here’s to hoping that Scott hasn’t become a conformist to the masses when it comes to the sci-fi/horror genre. Here’s hoping that, with Prometheus, his eagerly anticipated return to the genre and semi-prequel to Alien, he goes for slowly built suspense rather than full on alien attack; intelligent story rather than mindless drivel; and story driven effects rather than over-the-top CGI madness. And if he manages to do those things, he will receive a warm “welcome back” rather than a cold “nice try.”
Alien is currently available in stores and online on DVD and Blu-ray. Prometheus hits theaters June 8.