Not long ago, I reviewed a movie that had the honor of being not only one of the best sci-fi movies of all time, but one of the best movies period. That movie was Blade Runner, one of Ridley Scott’s most enduring classics. So it is with great pleasure that I dedicate this next review to another one of his masterpieces, the cult classic known as Alien. However, one can scarcely get into this movie without at least mentioning the franchise it spawned. Indeed, Alien went on to become not only a commercial success, but a cult-hit that inspired three sequels, two cross-overs, several video games, and even books and comics. Many of said sequels sucked, the less said about the crossovers the better, and Scott himself was not attached to any of the sequels as director. But that does not change the fact that the Aliens franchise was, at it’s core, one of the most original and inspired science fiction franchises of all time.
Over the years, this movie inspired lasting praise, not the least of which came from literary critics who drew parallels between it and classical literary sources. These included H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountain of Madness, not because the movie was similar in terms of storyline, but in terms of its “dread-building mystery”. Upon the release of the Director’s Cut, Roger Ebert listed the movie in his Great Movies column, calling it “one of the most influential of modern action pictures”, and praising it for its pacing, artful direction, and how it took its time to build tension. It was also a commercial success, something many classics don’t see until years after their release. But enough of what others thought about it, let’s get to what I thought about it! Cue the opening sequence!
Alien opens on the scene of a massive vessel traveling through deep space. The passengers, haulers who work for the mega corporation Weylan-Yutani, are in deep sleep and awaiting their safe return to Earth space with their shipment of ore. However, a distress signal from a neighboring planet brings them out of deep-sleep and sets them on course for this planet. Upon waking, they learn of the signal and their change in course, and are quickly told that company policy demands that they answer the call, otherwise they will lose their “shares” when the shipment is brought in. Through all this, we are immediately made made aware of two things: One, corporate monopolies control all shipping and mining in this universe; and two, that the company maintains loyalty by appealing to their employees greed. Another thing which we are made aware of is the concept of cryogenic-units which are used to keep people preserved during deep space travel in this universe. While the Alien franchise didn’t invent this concept (I believe Arthur C Clarke has that honor) it did much to popularize it. One can scarcely pick up a hard sci-fi book without reading a bit about “hypersleep”, “cryosleep”, “reefersleep”, and the like.
Skip ahead to the planet where the distress signal is originating from, and we are confronted with an alien derelict which I can only describe as awesome! Really, truly, alien looking! In the course of spelunking through the cloudy and oddly shaped interior (you can feel the tension building!), they encounter a field of eggs. One of these eggs opens up when the XO – Kane, played by John Hurt – gets near, and let’s lose a spidery parasite that attaches itself to his face. After he’s returned to the ship, the crew learns that there’s nothing they can do for him now, since the parasite will kill him if it’s disturbed, and that it has acid fpr blood and therefore can’t be removed without causing serious harm to the ship. They learn this second fact the hard way, giving the thing a tiny cut causes an acid spill that melts through two decks! And in a space ship, holes are not something you want! But, as luck would have it, the parasite falls off and dies all by itself. Problem solved, right?
Well, no… shortly after losing the spidery thing and waking up, Kane ups and dies, in the most graphic and horrible way imaginable! This is another aspect of the movie that was both novel and original for its time, the concept of the chest exploding alien! They gestate inside you, scary enough, and then emerge as this nightmarish, toothy thing with spindly arms and a long, segmented tail. In any case, the crew jettisons Kane’s body and is just beginning to breathe normally again when the fully-grown thing of nightmares kills another member of their crew. What follows is a claustrophobic, mad rush to kill the alien, but those attempts quickly fail. The ships Captain (Tom Skerritt) is one of the first to fall, leaving Lt. Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver) now in charge. She soon realizes that the company wants the alien taken alive, and is even willing to sacrifice the crew to get their hands on it. She further learns that one of crew – Ash, played by Ian Holm – is a corporate mole who’s job, it now seems, is to make sure this directive is followed to the letter. Oh, and did I mention he’s an android?
As soon as he’s found out, Ash tries to kill Ripley, but she and her crew manage to take him down and get some answers from him. He confirms that the company wants the alien and the rest of them are expendable, and is also sure to leave them with some cryptic words: “You still don’t understand what you’re dealing with, do you? Perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.” “You admire it,” says one of the crewmen, to which Ash replies: “I admire its purity. A survivor… unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.” Classic lines! Then, just to be prick, he let’s them know exactly how slim their odds of survival are: “I cannot lie to you about your chances, but… you have my sympathies”. Naturally, they say “screw it!” and decide to scuttle the ship. But the alien creature is no slouch and manages to kill all but Ripley and the ships resident cat. To this day, I am not sure what the point of the cat was. Maybe to provide some tension; I mean nothing is more scary than a cat jumping out of nowhere during an already tense scene, right? In any case, she finally kills the alien by blasting it out the airlock of her shuttle and burning it with one of the ships thrusters. She is then left alone to drift home, and files a heartfelt report of how all her friends were killed in deep space by a hostile creature of unknown origin.
To be honest, this movie was a tad uncomfortable at times, at least when compared to the sequel. But then again, that was the whole point of the movie, wasn’t it? It was meant to feel uncomfortable, claustrophobic, and paranoid, because that it exactly what you would expect to feel if you were in that situation. Put yourself in a spaceship, surrounding by vacuum, then imagine you have a hostile organism on your hands that has the run of the place, and is both an expert hunter and hider. What feelings come to mind? Claustrophobia, since you’d feel like your trapped with it, and agoraphobia because you know you can’t just open a door and run outside. For these reasons, and because of the amazing artwork, set designs, the concept of the aliens, and of course the theme of personal and corporate greed, Alien deserves full credit for getting the ball rolling on the whole of the franchise. But really, it was never meant to be a standalone piece, so comparing it to the sequel is not really fair or warranted. If anything, this film and it’s sequel are companion pieces, Aliens picking up where Alien left off and expanding on it, something which it did very well. But more on that next time, stay tuned!
Entertainment Value: 8/10