There’s so much I love about 1979’s Alien. This is a film I feel like I’ve grown up with from watching its first TV screening with my Dad when I was about 6, through to renting it on video through to watching it on the big screen either in its original form or it’s excellent Director’s Cut. It was also the first THX film I watched and the first Blu-Ray. It’s been quite a journey.
The plot goes like this- a mining ship stops off on an unknown planet after receiving an SOS signal (which is, in fact, a warning signal). Whilst exploring this new terrain, an alien life force attaches itself to the helmet of one of the crew members. He and it are brought aboard (against the wishes of Ripley, the crew member who is in charge at that point and who wants quarantine regulations to be adhered to). Ash, another crew member lets them in any way. And so the nightmare begins for the crew and the space vessel.
I love H R Giger’s design of the alien, the spaceship Nostromo and the elephantine Space Jockey that is witnessed on the alien planet. I love the penis-like aspect of these designs, especially the alien as it bursts from John Hurt’s chest and then when it is fully grown. It’s all steel teeth (two sets) and huge curved jelly head. It’s magnificent. As Ash says later ‘I admire its purity’. I agree.
And how it grew! Another aspect of Alien that I love is that the alien really was a man in a suit. In these days of appalling CGI effects, my love of practical effects and *shock horror* real living, breathing adversaries is unswayable. The alien in Alien was played by 6ft 10in (you read that right! He was actually 7ft in the alien suit) Bolaji Badejo. Alien wouldn’t have been scary or real if made in the era of CGI. Period.
Alien is also a film of extremes and contrasts, another aspect of the movie that I love. There are the clean white lines of the Nostromo’s interior as opposed to the noise, wind and turbulence of the alien planet and the dank and dark boiler room noir of the air shafts of the cargo vessel. There’s also the tranquillity of the hypersleep juxtaposed to when the crew are awake again and going about their everyday lives or when they’re confronted by the extraordinary and fighting for their lives. I love these extremes and contrasts as they juxtapose within the film amazingly.
The cast is another reason why I adore Alien. In this present era with its almost incessant need for diversity (whilst certain members of the media narcissistically scream ‘LOOK EVERYONE! WE’RE BEING DIVERSE!’ ), the cast of Alien is very diverse but without it being something that was a major strategy when the film was being cast. We have male, female, black, white, tall (and not just the men) and short. We even have a cat! And a xenomorph. And an android. That’s fantastic diversity right there but with the added bonus that each player contributes massively to the production and makes their mark. This is diversity but it brings talent to the table rather than being merely a demeaning box-ticking exercise.
This ensemble cast is another one of Alien’s trump cards. We don’t know who will survive by the end of the film. Sigourney Weaver wasn’t publicised as any kind of leader of the cast and so her being the survivor really is a big surprise. In fact, Dallas as played by Tom Skeritt is/was the Nostromo’s captain and so it can be presumed that he will be the valiant male lead to be the sole crew member to survive and heroically do battle with the alien. But, as with Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and George A Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, the person who we expect to survive until the final reel is cruelly taken from us much sooner. When Dallas is killed in the airshafts whilst trying to track down the alien, there truly is a sense of ‘WTF!’ and a genuine feeling that ANYTHING can happen within the film. Which is great cinema. This is also one of the tensest scenes in a film full of tense scenes. Ridley Scott’s direction is masterful.
My favourite character within the cast (apart from the alien and Jones the cat, obviously) is that of Lambert. She seems to psychically sense that all is not right early on in the film as if she can see into the future and knows that they are in grave danger even though the rest of the crew can’t see it yet. This reminds me of a theory that Carol J Clover writes in her book about slasher movies, Men, Women and Chainsaws. She asserts that within the groups of teens in slasher movies, there is almost always one person, usually female, who is very much attuned to any negative events that will almost certainly befall her and her friends and can foretell that their lives are in grave danger (Laurie Strode in John Carpenter’s masterpiece Halloween is a glaring example of this). Lambert very quickly ascertains that they are up shit creek without a paddle and that their chances of survival are minimal at best. This is why we see her as extremely apprehensive very early on.
Jerry Goldsmith’s fantastic soundtrack is another component that is vital to Alien. The eerieness of the events leading up to the alien’s unleashing of menace on the Nostromo and its crew is met with quiet, unsettling music of impending dread and distorted echoes. When the shit hits the fan, this is paralleled with noisy, discordant orchestration that perfectly matches the apocalyptic events we see unfurling on the screen. It is perfect. The soundtrack is just as extreme and schizophrenic as Bernard Herrman’s for Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece Taxi Driver.
The ending of Alien is frankly genius and utterly brilliant. I love the fact that Giger’s sets play a role in this vital scene. And if you haven’t seen Alien then please don’t expect me to give away the ending. I would never ruin such a cinematic treat for anyone. If you haven’t seen Alien, I recommend you see it NOW!
Add to this a frankly genius marketing campaign (minimalist trailers full of foreign, disconcerting sounds and fast-moving images and no dialogue whatsoever. It all invokes an utter feeling of dread), a poster and merchandise campaign that was just as intriguing and based around the idea that less really is more and a tagline that would go down as one of the very best in film history (‘In space, no-one can hear you scream’.) Even the tagline would be ripped off, adapted and referenced by taglines used for other films.
But whilst all of this adds to Alien and its legacy and why I love the film, there is one reason more than any other as to why I love Alien so much- it’s two hours of cracking entertainment.
Alien is a masterpiece.