Alien (1979) – Directed by Ridley Scott – Starring Sigourney Weaver, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm, and Yaphet Kotto.
Ridley Scott’s atmospheric masterpiece ALIEN is one of the most influential American films ever made.
For all of Scott’s varies success with films like Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise, and Gladiator, it’s ALIEN that endures most strongly in the work of other film makers. Sci-fi films and slasher films are still aping Scott’s style because it relies on a minimal narrative and a dark atmosphere. That means you can do it on the (relative) cheap.
It’s a well deserved aping, however, because ALIEN is a brilliant movie about a group of working class men and women being terrorized on their ship by an alien menace that they willingly brought aboard and then spend the film trying to eliminate.
Beginning slow and quiet, ALIEN builds as it goes, becoming faster, louder, and more intense with seemingly every new sequence. I think it’s improper to call ALIEN a rollercoaster ride because it’s much less a series of action sequences linked by quieter, character and plot driven sequences than it is a rock rolling downhill, gathering steam as it gathers distance. There are a few instances where we get the action-release-action structure, but like a typical slasher film, once people start getting murdered there’s not much time for quiet reflection.
I see ALIEN as a three act play in which both the alien (designed by the legendary H.R. Giger) and Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) grow in prominence, headed for the inevitable collision of their respective arcs.
In Act I, neither the alien nor Ripley play much of a role. In this first part of the film we see the crew of the Nostromo woken out of their slumber by the ship’s computer. They slowly awaken (and Scott lets his camera linger) and immediately drag themselves to the kitchen for food and smokes. It’s only once they return to duty that they realize they’ve been woken up too early. The Nostromo has intercepted a signal and the crew is required to follow up on it.
The crew is a smart assemblage of quality actors given only a few things to do, and they all do it well. Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt) is a concerned, thoughtful man who’s willing to give his crew some rope to act on their own but doesn’t shy away from making decisions or verbally smacking them back in line. Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) and the ship’s engineers, constantly complaining about their pay. After they’re reminded that they’ll get paid exactly what their contract says they’ll get paid, Parker throws it back in Dallas’ face when he asks them to do something above and beyond. Kane (John Hurt) is a curious, determined explorer and Lambert (Veronica Cartright) is his antithesis; he wants to keep investigating the distress call and she wants to go back to the ship. Ash (Ian Holm) is the science officer with plenty of secrets, and Ripley is the most well-rounded character, willing to make the tough decision, fight for herself, and still not hiding that she is occasionally scared out of her mind.
We basically learn everything we need to know about them during that eat and smoke table session, which is one of my absolute favorite sci-fi scenes of all time. I don’t love it for its science or even for its particular cleverness. I love it because it comes after a whole set of long, slow, quiet establishing shots that tell us the Nostromo is empty. I love it because it’s so full of life. But mostly I love it because it’s dirty. Blade Runner often gets cited for its dystopian aesthetic, but I prefer the functional, working class future depicted in ALIEN. We don’t see space travel as being glamorous. We don’t see a table full of heroes or moralists or philosophers.
We see working men and women who are paid to do a crummy job at a huge distance from Earth. My dissertation is on 19th century whaling narratives, and the world of the Nostromo resonates in the same way: dirty, dangerous, decidedly unromantic. This is a hard life for hard people.
They’re really not even friends. There’s pairs of friends, of course. Parker and Brett are pals, though it’s more like Brett is the tag-a-long sidekick/Yes Man than an actual pal. There’s a small vibe of a relationship between Dallas and Lambert in the way she pleads with him. But other than that, you get the feeling that these people share the same space but beyond the Nostromo they are not part of each others’ lives.
In order to investigate the intercepted signal, they head to a planet, where they find a massive, abandoned ship. Inside the ship, they find a large dead being sitting in a chair. (And it appears Scott’s upcoming film, Prometheus, will tell a bit of this story of the ship.) The ship’s interior is pure H.R. Giger awesomeness. The settings look both familiar and alien and equally cool and menacing.
Kane finds some big eggs and then a facehugger alien forces itself through Kane’s helmet and attaches itself to his face. They haul him back to the ship where Ripley refuses to let them inside because she’s following quarantine protocol. (Scott doesn’t show any of this rescue and return, negating a potential action sequence which could throw his atmosphere for a loop before it’s even firmly established.) Dallas orders her to let them in, but she refuses. Ash ignores her, however, and lets them in.
Both the alien and Ripley, then, make a show of force that’s ultimately brushed aside by the crew. Kane doesn’t realize the threat the alien poses to his people, while Ash and Kane don’t recognize Ripley’s authority.
This gets us to Act II, when the facehugger pulls off Kane only to have a second alien come bursting out of his chest. It’s still small at this point but obviously it freaks everyone out and they decide to go hunting for it. Both the alien and Ripley begin to take a larger role in the film as they begin to assert the power they do have, and this means it’s time for the killing to start. The crew goes hunting, but it’s Brett and Dallas that end up getting taken out. Lambert wants to cut and run, but Ripley reminds her that the escape shuttle won’t hold four people, so the killing option is still their best bet. Once they take out Ash, and the alien then takes out Lambert and Parker, Ripley is left as the Last Woman Standing.
The most interesting character in this middle portion of the film is Ash, the scientist who has a secret mission to bring the alien back alive. It turns out Ash is a robot whose loyalty lies with the company, not with his fellow crew mates. (The crew has been deemed expendable by the company.) He’s impressed by the resiliency and efficiency of the alien, which horrifies Ripley. Ash describes the alien as “a survivor, unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.” Ash is, of course, also describing himself. As a robot, his actions are simply evidence that he’s fulfilling his programming, meaning he has no conscience, no remorse, no morality. In this sense, he sees the alien as a natural version of himself. For her part, Ripley’s investigation and realization of what Ash is doing, and then her physical confrontation with him firmly asserts her position in the film. It doesn’t even matter that Ripley needs help to defeat Ash because she’s clearly the force that will drive the rest of the film.
Enter Act III, which is the alien vs. Ripley showdown. This is the loudest and most intense act in the film. Ripley decides it’s time to take Lambert’s advice now that only her and the cat are alive, so she starts the self destruct sequence. She tries to stop it when the alien has blocked her path to the shuttle, but she can’t get it stopped so she has to get to the shuttle. When she returns, the alien has left the cat unharmed, allowing Ripley to jump in the shuttle and get the heck out of Dodge. As the shuttle flees, the Nostromo blows up, and then (as you might have guessed) it turns out the alien is inside the shuttle, allowing one final confrontation that Ripley wins by opening the exterior door and letting the alien get sucked into space.
ALIEN doesn’t muck around with too many clever plot twists and narrative turns. Ash being a robot who’s also willing to see the crew killed to get the alien home is it, and they come right on top of each other. Instead, Scott focuses on the dark, moody atmosphere. If you want to note that it’s a male crewman who gets raped and impregnated and the female crewman who ultimately defeats the alien you can do it, and get a lot of mileage out of it, but I am more impressed with having male and female characters who exhibit a wide range of roles and attitudes. These sorts of plots can feel formulaic, but ALIEN never suffers from this because it puts the emphasis on Act I, on the mystery and the tone.
Blade Runner is a more literary film, but I think ALIEN is every bit as brilliant.
ALIEN / PREDATOR Review Index
ALIEN: A Survivor, Unclouded by Conscience, Remorse, or Delusions of Morality
ALIENS: My Mommy Said There Were No Monsters. No Real Ones. But There Are.
ALIEN 3: A Bunch of Lifers Who Found God at the Ass-End of Space
ALIEN RESURRECTION: Must Be a Chick Thing
ALIEN VS. PREDATOR: I Think This is a Manhood Ritual
ALIEN VS. PREDATOR: REQUIEM: Small Town America Kills Two Franchises at Once