DIRECTED BY: Ridley Scott
WRITTEN BY: Dan O’Bannon (screenplay); Dan O’Bannon & Ronald Shusett (story)
PEW PEW: The film takes a while to build up and, even at its most suspenseful, isn’t about action.
CAT FOOD: The inter-crew drama and the implications of corporate and military greed are fertile ground for bleak social statements.
So malleable is the science fiction genre that it almost always transcends itself and creeps into other genres. And so here we have our first horror/sci-fi crossover… not that that’s such a spectacular feat in and of itself. Crossing over into one of the oldest film genres of all time, horror film, really takes nothing at all.
Consider the fact that sci-fi, in its formative era, was developed as a vessel for the evolved human mind — a force that had long lashed against the cage of what it already knew — to develop a verdant paradise of ideas and dreams that did not yet exist in this world. Thus, a lot of early science fiction played on the wonders of the human imagination — man, always with an ambition bigger than the world around him.
But some science fiction authors chose to allow this vessel to explore the more primal aspects of the human mind — chiefly, fear. Often, fear of technology, fear of corporate and political influences, and fear of the downfall of mankind’s mostly comfortable civilization and the unleashing of mankind’s inner animal. Possibly the earliest science fiction story, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, explores a lot of fear and wonder, and is thus a perfect example of how science fiction and horror can blend seamlessly.
The subject at hand, Ridley Scott’s beautiful black odyssey Alien, is another flawless example of this blending of genres. In this film, seven ‘space truckers’ on their way home from a long deep space operation happen upon a distress beacon on a nearby planetoid. As the only ship in the vicinity of the planet, it becomes their duty to investigate the source of the beacon.
Once on the ground, three of them leave the ship to discover a downed alien craft. Inside this craft, they find one non-human pilot (long dead) and a generous helping of eggs contained in storage. What creature film would be complete without characters who unwisely tamper with their forbidding surroundings? After a little bit of what, in hindsight, could be perceived as foreplay on Kane’s part, the poor sap of an Executive Officer gets a new clingy alien friend attached to his face.
Despite the wise Warrant Officer’s advice not to bring the guy on board (good hero, smart hero), the rest of the crew insist and are aided by a mysteriously insubordinate Science Officer. When Kane and his new friend break-up (she was a total user), the crew prepare to go on with their lives and head home.
But guess who’s coming to dinner! (Please be advised, there are spoilers ahead.)
In a scene monumental to cinematic history, an alien lifeform that Kane’s ex impregnated him with (she wouldn’t even stick around for the kids…) bursts out of his bloody chest before the eyes of the entire crew and takes off into the inner workings of the ship. In no time flat, the little beastie grows to adult size and takes the crew members out one by one, despite their attempts to work together to overcome the creature’s superior survival skills.
While the creature is terrifying and seldom seen, the nightmare quickly becomes worse when it is discovered that our creepy Science Officer is an android programmed by The Company (the crew’s employer) to capture the beast alive and use the ship and her crew to achieve this end. The trouble morphs from fear of the unearthly terror on their ship, to the fear that corporate and political influences have conspired to render the lives of the crew members meaningless. Not only are they being hunted by a killer alien, no help will ever come for them.
With a minimal cast of nine (we’re counting the sassy ginger cat!), only a single, non-speaking antagonist, and a very limited range of landscapes, one would probably dismiss this as an uneventful film when compared to the other science fiction films that populated the late 1970’s (the Star Wars boom). But Alien became a Star Wars of its own kind.
Not a single casting choice is a waste — everybody suits their role perfectly. Most notable is of course is Sigourney Weaver, who plays the unlikely hero, Warrant Officer Ripley. The androgyny of her character (the role was written for a man) is such that she’s victim one minute and steadfast champion the next, in an inner tug-of-war that spans the duration of the film.
The single non-speaking antagonist? The alien (referred to in later installments of the series as a xenomorph) was dreamt up by brilliant bio-mechanical artiste extraordinaire H.R. Giger, and is every bit the menace the film builds it up to be. You only see it a few times, but it’s an stunning experience when it does happen. This isn’t one of those pictures where you wait and wait and see a rubber hand-puppet. This thing is a work of art in its own right. The thing about this single antagonist being such a big deal isn’t so much that it’s such a terrifying badass — the fact that we later find out that the crew’s enemies also include the synthetic Science Officer and the entire clandestine company that employs them, and that these forces have unleashed this terrifying badass on them on purpose, is the real horror. Proxy wars fought during the Cold War were of a very similar design, and this theme features prominently within the larger Alien film franchise.
I believe the most brilliant thing about Alien are the landscapes in which its story plays out. Are they limited? Of course. We only really see three in the whole film, each one bleak and daunting in its own way. In a bold display of wisdom, two different worlds were created by two different design teams. The xenomorph, the alien shipwreck, and the barren planetoid were designed by Giger. His twisted but eerily lithe designs achieve a great mystery that is intimidating both when humans are interacting with it, and when it is interacting with them.
Representing the human compliment is a team headed by sci-fi conceptual mastermind Ron Cobb. The human ship, her living space, and her inner workings are forbidding in their own way. The claustrophobic bleakness of a ship designed to haul minerals first, and house humans second goes a long way to creating an atmosphere of trapping terror. Indeed, the cat (Jonesy) and a drinking bird are the only ‘homey’ things on board.
All said and done, Alien is lush with dimly-lit, wholly oppressive terror and pulse-pounding suspense that, while it admittedly takes a while to brew up, carries on up until the very last moment, when you indeed wonder if the last crew members are safe… and what awaits them when, and if they ever get home.