Spring of 1979.
A new, post-Star Wars, R-rated science fiction movie was in theatrical release, and it is to my great regret that, as then-12 year old kid, I didn’t see it in those days. Don’t get me wrong; I really really wanted to see it.
I eagerly read every article about Ridley Scott’s scary new space monster opus in Starlog magazine (Starlog was the internet before the internet), and I’d read (and re-read) the large paperback “photo-novel” at our local mall’s bookstore, even though I couldn’t quite afford the large softback’s cover price (photo-novels were home video in the pre-home video age…printed screencaps of a film/TV show with dialogue in captions). I had asked my parents about going to see it, but it was too hard a sell, and my parents said no (despite the fact that we regularly saw R-rated movies all of the time…I guess this one was just a chest-burster too far).
I would eventually see it on TV, heavily censored, a few years later, and later on a rented laserdisc (unedited) after that. Even in a cropped, pan-and-scan picture format on a 25″ cathode ray TV (no widescreens yet) I totally got why the film so captured the hearts and imaginations of both horror and sci-fi fans alike. It was heavily atmospheric, and the seven characters had a natural, layered, gritty reality that so many of the better 1970s films seem to capture almost effortlessly (“French Connection” “The Exorcist” “Godfather” and “JAWS” to name a few examples; the really don’t make ’em like that anymore).
The long injustice of my not-seeing ALIEN theatrically was finally rectified in 2003 when my wife and I took in a screening in October of that year. It was intense. I’d already seen each of the sequels in cinema (some of them more than once), but now I finally had the chance to see the original. Thank goodness it was still a 35mm film print, too (all-digital multiplexes were still a few years away then). You could see all of the textural grain in Ridley Scott’s carefully crafted images. The sound was a nicely enveloping 5.1 digital mix as well. It was glorious!
****SPACE JOCKEY-SIZED SPOILERS!****
B-movie wrapped in A-movie dressing.
Ridley Scott’s heavily textured direction, Ron Cobb’s functional-looking production design and the late Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger’s magnificent creature all served to elevate what was, in many ways, a simple ‘monster-loose-on-a-spaceship’ B-movie story that I’d seen dozens of times as a kid on afternoon television (“Queen Of Blood,” “It! The Terror From Beyond Space” and at least a couple of “Outer Limits” episodes).
ALIEN, like Star Wars two years before, had taken Saturday afternoon matinee fare and elevated it into Oscar-contending, A-list picture territory. Writers Dan O’Bannon (“Dark Star” “Return Of The Living Dead”) and Ronald Shusett (“Total Recall”) partnered to create a presumably low-budget little exploitation movie called “Star Beast”. What they ultimately ended up with was something far greater than the sum of its parts.
The crew of the commercial towing vehicle Nostromo are a small but interesting mix; laid-back Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt), First Officer Kane (the late John Hurt), Warrant Officer Ripley (a almost-shockingly young Sigourney Weaver), Science Officer Ash (Ian Holm), Navigator Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), Engineer Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and his sidekick Brett (the late Harry Dean Stanton).
They aren’t some team of stalwart Starfleet officers on a brave mission of exploration; they’re essentially space truckers, towing a payload of 20 million tons of mineral ore back to Earth. They reluctantly check out an alien distress (warning) signal from a remote planetoid near Zeta Recticuli only because inaction on their parts would risk forfeiture of their pay. The blue-collar astronaut is truly born in this film.
Leaving its bulky payload in orbit, the considerably smaller (but still huge) ‘space truck’ sustains quite a bit of damage attempting to land on the rocky, “primordial” planetoid LV-246 (as identified in the sequel ALIENS; aka “Acheron”). Parker and Brett inflate their repair estimates as a party of three (Dallas, Kane and Lambert) investigate the source of the transmission, which is revealed to be a giant horseshoe-shaped derelict craft.
Cavernous on the inside, the alien vessel is found to house a large nursery of leathery alien ‘eggs’ inside of a laser-shrouded mist. As Kane steps in to get a closer look at an opening egg, a spidery ‘face-hugger’ bursts out from inside, burns through his helmet and latches onto his face.
Violating quarantine law, science officer Ash allows the infected Kane and the rest of the party back into the ship. In the ship’s infirmary, Ash and Capt. Dallas try to take the parasite off of Kane’s face, only to discover that the thing bleeds acid, thus preventing any means of forcible extraction. Since Kane is still breathing (and thus alive), they leave it on him for the time being.
Ripley, who was left in charge after Kane and Dallas left the ship earlier, confronts Ash about his violating the quarantine law. Ash reiterates that he was “only following orders” from Capt. Dallas. With repairs to the Nostromo are nearly complete, the facehugger parasite mysteriously disappears from a comatose Kane’s face. A tense search around the infirmary finds the parasite dead. Kane later awakens, and seems perfectly fine. The Nostromo docks with its cargo and resumes its course to Earth.
Later, during a final dinner before going back into cryogenic suspension (the “old freezerinos”) for their long voyage home, Kane seems to choke on his food. Violently spasming, he is laid onto the dinner table as a grotesque, metal-fanged, serpentine creature explodes from his chest in one of the most shocking moments in 20th century cinema.
This is right up there with Linda Blair’s head turning completely around in “The Exorcist.” As blood from Kane’s burst chest literally soaks the actors, their reactions (especially that of actress Veronica Cartwright’s Lambert) feel completely real. There’s a reason the chest-burster scene is such an iconic moment in horror cinema.
After Kane’s dead body is jettisoned, the crew begin a deck-by-deck search for their unwelcome guest. Two parties are set up, and we follow the B-team of Ripley, Parker and Brett as they use an improvised motion tracker to hunt for the ‘star beast.’ They find the ship’s cat mascot, Jones, and Brett fails to bag him. Parker points out to the dimwitted Brett that leaving Jones free would risk their tracking the animal yet again. So, in the worst horror movie tradition, Brett goes off to find Jonesy… alone. Needless to say, it doesn’t end well. He finds Jones…and the creature.
Parker is shaken by the loss of his friend Brett. He tells his regathered shipmates that the once serpentine creature is now “like a man, it’s big.” Realizing that they’re dealing with something less predicable and far more dangerous, Dallas devises a plan to go into the ship’s airshafts (the only way such a large creature has moved through the ship undetected) and use flame throwers to drive the alien into an airlock. Dallas, unable to order anyone else on such a dangerous mission, volunteers himself. Armed with a flame thrower, he positions himself as bait to lure the creature. Using the ship’s internal sensors to key off of the same ‘micro-changes in air density’ as the portable trackers, Dallas realizes (too late) that the creature has outwitted them. He is its next victim.
Ripley, now in command, gathers the remaining crew of Ash, Parker and a deeply distraught Lambert for a plan of action. With no helpful information from science officer Ash, of whom Ripley is increasingly distrustful, Ripley decides to proceed with Dallas’ plan. Ash’s seeming reluctance on devising a plan to kill the creature infuriates Ripley, who goes to the ship’s master computer (“Mother”) to get more information. With command clearance levels now available to her, she learns that Ash is actually acting on company orders to secure the creature for safe return back to their corporate masters….crew expendable.
Intruding on her conversation with Mother, a smug Ash confirms for Ripley that he is indeed the company’s mole. An outraged Ripley shoves Ash, and the two get into a violent altercation. Ash is bleeding milky white blood and begins choking Ripley by stuffing a rolled up porn magazine into her throat (?!?). Parker and Lambert walk in on the scene, and Parker uses a bat to literally knock Ash’s head off…it is then revealed that Ash is an android.
Reluctantly agreeing to reactivate Ash’s severed head for more information, Ripley learns from her dismembered science officer that their company wanted the creature for its bio-weapons division. Ash also reaffirms that his poor surviving cremates don’t stand a chance against the creature. It is, in Ash’s words, a “perfect organism… unfettered by conscience, or delusions of morality. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.” Before permanent deactivation, Ash gives a curl-lipped smile and tells Ripley that she and her crew, “have (his) sympathies.” Parker takes a flamethrower to the treacherous android’s remains.
Ripley’s new plan; fetch all of the extra fuel and supplies they can get, rendezvous in the escape shuttle, and abandon ship (this was Lambert’s idea earlier, until Ripley reminded her that the evac ship couldn’t carry four of them… but three? Yep). During the escape plan, Lambert and Parker are cornered by the giant alien and killed, but not before poor Lambert endures the final painful indignity of being (implicitly) raped by the creature.
Ripley is all alone now; the ‘final girl’, so to speak (back when it was a novelty, now it’s a cliche). She sets the mothership to detonate through a complex arming procedure, and heads for the evac shuttle until she remembers the ship’s cat mascot, Jones.
In a previously deleted scene added back into the film for its 2003 re-release, Ripley comes across a cocooned Dallas, who is barely alive. He begs her to kill him. She reluctantly uses her flame thrower to oblige her captain and end his suffering (this was a deeper look into the alien’s life cycle, later explored at length in ALIENS). She then makes her way (with Jones) to the shuttle and launches juuuuust in the nick of time. With mere seconds to spare, Ripley watches the atomic detonation of the Nostromo and its ore refinery payload in a tremendous burst of colorful, violent radiation. She prepares a cryogenic pod for her long trip home. As she undresses (and is most vulnerable, of course) she realizes she and Jones are not alone on the shuttle…
… the alien has followed them, tucking itself into the shuttle’s wall ducting; the creature’s smooth, eyeless head created a natural camouflage. Ripley retreats into a nearby airlock. There, she grabs a convenient speargun (don’t ask) and prepares to do battle with the tenacious monster.
Unlike “Psycho”’s vulnerable, naked Janet Leigh getting slaughtered in Norman Bates’ motel shower, the equally vulnerable Ripley dons a spacesuit, like Jeanne D’Arc donning her battle armor. Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley is much like Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode in 1978’s “Halloween”; both are women who choose to fight back over being victimized (interesting side-note: Curtis is the late Janet Leigh’s real-life daughter). Once fully suited up, Ripley slowly emerges and begins nervously singing “You Are My Lucky Star” (a tune from an old musical, “Broadway Melody of 1936″) as she tries to lure the creature out into the open. After a moment, she peers over her shoulder to see that the alien is now right behind her (!). She hits the button to the outer door, and the creature is blown into the open hatchway. This is where the speargun comes in handy, as she shoots the creature in its acid-bleeding guts.
Even in the vacuum of space, the beast tries to reenter through one of the shuttle’s exhaust vents, which Ripley then smartly fires at full thrust, which blows the menace into the void of space. Ripley has won the battle with the future fuel of her nightmares. She records a final accounting of her lost ship, and goes into a cryogenic pod with her cat.
It’s all about the characters.
ALIEN is not simply all about the gimmick of wrapping a B-monster movie in high production value….yes, it does, but it’s also the attention to detail (both in the look and in the characters), that really gives ALIEN real depth and layering. Each of the seven characters are given moments where they transcend the usual horror movie-victim cliches. Think 1965’s “Ten Little Indians” rather than 1980s “Friday the 13th.”
The unexpectedly cultured Captain Dallas is seen in a rare private moment enjoying a bit of Mozart. Kane is revealed to be scientifically curious and even adventurous (to his detriment) when the landing party first encounters the derelict spacecraft. The quiet and devious Ash, who can barely mask his contempt for Ripley, has a spectacular cybernetic meltdown during his attempted-murder of her (Ian Holm plays the hell out of it, too). The ‘griping’ Lambert is a perfect audience surrogate; effortlessly conveying the fear and panic that would probably grip many of us in her situation, but always in a very natural way.
Initially lazy and unmotivated, the shiftless Parker rises to unexpected heroism in several scenes, including his prevention of Ripley’s murder at the hands of Ash. Ripley, seemingly a secondary character initially, slowly rises to the lead by the film’s end. Even the characters’ dialogue overlaps at times in a Robert Altman-esque way. It’s surprising how utterly real and natural these characters are for a ’space monster movie.’ Each of these characters feel like real people; I’ve met and worked with people just like these in my own life at one point or another (okay, maybe not a milk-bleeding, homicidal robot, but close…).
Style as substance.
Then there is also the design and stylings of the film, which are characters unto themselves. Ridley Scott (“Blade Runner” “Thelma and Louise” “The Martian”) ladles on the style, but not the artifice. The technology of the film always feels gritty and used, much like George Lucas’ original Star Wars trilogy (well, at least the first two films), but taken even further.
Ron Cobb’s production design is industrial chic. Some parts of the ship look cleaner than others; the white sterile cryogenic chambers versus the engine rooms, for example. But each section still manages to feel like part of a cohesive whole. There are many lived-in touches throughout the ship too, such as porn images tacked onto the walls of crew quarters, or a drinking bird toy in the mess hall. Little flourishes that remind us these are real people.
Within the Nostromo’s interiors, we see a ship so big it appears to have its own weather system (much like NASA’s vast Vehicle Assembly Building in Cape Canaveral, Florida), with condensed droplets of water cascading down upon Brett’s ball cap. You can almost feel the humidity aboard the ship too, as you see sweat and oils on the actors’ faces.
We also see closeups of the oil and grit on Ripley’s hands, much like the many closeups of Harrison Ford and Rutger Hauer’s hands in Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” (released three years later). Since director Ridley Scott is an artist as well (often drawing his own storyboards), closeup images of dirty or mutilated hands seem to play a recurring role in some of Scott’s earlier works.
There is also, of course, the late Hans Ruedi Giger’s ‘alien’ itself; a radical departure from the bug-eyed monsters (BEMs) seen in so many (too many) monster movies of the 1950s and 1960s. In fact, Giger’s creature has no eyes on its smooth head (or at least none that we can see). It also has two sets of jaws (inner and outer), as well as tubing on its back and a long, whip-like tail. From what we glean in the sequels, its upright vaguely humanoid form is a feature retained from its human host Kane (“son of Kane,” as Ash quietly coins it). A later incarnation of the creature birthed from a dog runs on all fours (dog or cow, depending on which version of ALIEN3 you see).
Overall, the xenomorph (as it is later coined in ALIENS) is thoroughly convincing and has since become iconic, with many imitators but few equals. Drawing upon the late Giger’s seeming obsession with nightmarish merging of metal and flesh, the creature is not quite reptile, insect, nor amphibian; it is truly other. Alien. The xenomorph is a masterful piece of sci-fi horror design.
I’d be remiss as hell if I didn’t mention the contribution made to ALIEN by the late, great Jerry Goldsmith’s score. If you listen to his sullen opening music, it could just as easily work for a slow Steadicam walk towards a darkened, haunted English manor on a foggy morning.
In fact, ALIEN’s opening images of a beautiful Saturnian ringed planet (followed by a detailed Star Wars-looking miniature spaceship) could’ve just as easily been splashed over with a brassy heroic fanfare, and their entire tone would be changed. Goldsmith’s music tells us that it’s not going to be that kind of movie. ALIEN’s moody score evokes paranoia and a general sense of being ill at ease. Occasional blasts of horns and brass during Ripley’s solo escape are used as panicked punctuation, not as an anthem for heroism. Goldsmith’s score (conducted by Lionel Newman) is not for a heroic space opera (which he’d later do for Star Trek), but is more evocative of a gothic horror movie that just happens to be set in outer space.
My own close encounters of the ALIEN kind.
I’ve had the good fortune to meet one of the members of the ALIEN cast in person; the late John Hurt (“Kane”) back in 2016, not long before he passed away. It was only a quick photo op at a Doctor Who convention in Los Angeles (he played the “War Doctor” version of the Doctor Who character in 2013), but I did manage to tell him how much I enjoyed his colorful performance as “S.R. Hadden” in the 1997 film, “Contact.” “Contact” was the movie my wife and I saw on our very first date. Other credits of his include “The Elephant Man” (1980), “Nineteen Eighty-Four” (1984), the “Harry Potter” films, and “Hellboy” (2004). He even reprised his ALIEN role for a comedic cameo in Mel Brooks’ “Spaceballs” (1987). I regret that was the only time I had to talk with him, and that it was so brief; he’d lost his battle with cancer soon afterward. I wrote a memorial to him here: https://musingsofamiddleagedgeek.blog/2017/01/31/to-sir-john-hurt-with-love/
While I never actually met Sigourney Weaver, I did have the chance to see her live onstage at San Diego Comic Con 2009, on a panel with Zoe Saldana (“Avatar” “Star Trek 2009”) and other ‘strong women of cinema’ for a panel on…well, strong women of cinema. She and her “Avatar” costar Saldana seemed to have an almost mother-daughter bond. Weaver was both frank and funny; I could still see a bit of Ripley in there. She was also quite candid when she revealed to the audience that she was turning 60 later that year. In addition to her iconic role in 1984’s “Ghostbusters,” I also very much enjoyed Weaver’s work in the 1999 Star Trek spoof “Galaxy Quest.”
Forty years later, ALIEN still holds up very well indeed. Almost everything about the film, from the Oscar-winning miniature effects work (courtesy of “Space: 1999″‘s Brian Johnson) to even the hairstyles of the cast still hold up today. About the only betrayers of the film’s true age would be in little technological details, such as the obsolete cathode ray-tube monitors throughout the sets, or the wired communications equipment and monochromatic computer monitors.
These were unavoidable obstacles, since the movie’s production crew opted to use real-world tech to keep its futuristic story of ‘space truckers’ grounded in then present-day reality. Overlooking such minor details, the film requires little suspension of disbelief to work for a modern audience.
Ridley Scott later revisited his old ALIEN stomping grounds with 2012’s “Prometheus” and 2017’s “Alien: Covenant.” Frankly, I didn’t enjoy either of those films nearly as much. Both tended to over-explain too many details of the original that were best left as unsolved mysteries. They also dumbed down the characters (save for the android David, played by Michael Fassbender) to little more than “Friday the 13th” camp counselors waiting to be slaughtered. Many of the interesting quirks and nuances of the blue-collar Nostromo crew (or even the colorful marines of James Cameron’s stellar sequel, ALIENS) were lost in favor of more traditional science-fiction archetypes. Personally, I wished Scott had never revisited the ALIEN franchise, as it was a foregone conclusion that he couldn’t top his own initial entry into its canon. Forty years later, ALIEN still works… truly a perfect organism.