It had been a very long time since I'd seen this little gem (you might
have heard of it), and I wondered whether it would still hold my interest
- let alone scare me. Back in the early 80s, along with An
American Werewolf In London and Jaws, this was part of an unholy
trilogy of films that were shown far too early in the evening on telly.
All three scared the crap out of me. American Werewolf has still
got it (see the review) and Jaws
still has (although there's no review - it's not British), but could Alien
cut the mustard, twenty years on?
Well, yes and no. It's a beautifully shot, brilliantly written film for
sure, but it's just not scary any more. Perhaps it's just a case of seeing
it once too often - all the shocks now seem telegraphed too far in advance,
and compared with a lot of films, you just don't see much (the chest-bursting
scene excepted). Anyway, here goes:
The beginning sends shivers of recognition down the spine - the camera
pans across the empty blackness of space as the letters "A L I E
N" appear, very slowly. Unfortunately, the Nostromo doesn't appear
half as impressive as it once did - it's basically just a load of Airfix
kits stuck together. As the computers on the ship burst into life, with
their screens reflected in the emergency helmet visors, you're struck
by how the film hasn't dated (unlike the stuff that came later - ie Inseminoid).
As the crew wake up from their hypersleep (John Hurt looks like shit in
his big nappy) and mumble their way through breakfast, the modern viewer
begins to wonder how so little action can be such compulsive viewing.
There have been few films since that have dared to show how humdrum life
in the future will probably be (ignoring the idea of huge scary monsters
biting people's faces off, for the time being).
Outside the ship, space looks fantastic - distant galaxies and colourful
planets. In fact, the whole film is a lot more colourful than you might
remember. The sequels are all very drab, but in this one even each space
suits is a different hue.
Of course, you all know the story (if you don't where have you been?),
and after a very light touchdown on the uncharted planet, every panel
in the ship decides to explode for no discernible reason. And while we're
at it, why have they all gone down to the planet's surface? Why has no-one
decided to stay on the Nostromo?
Ash's clowning around as the others set off to check out the alien ship
looks far more sinister when you know what he's up to - as is his reaction
to Ripley's deciphering of the message as a warning: "By the time
it takes (us) to get there, they'll know if it's a warning or not..."
John Hurt's character is a real hero-type, first to volunteer for the
mission - and the bloke who goes into the hole. He's also pretty bloody
stupid - I mean, would you poke at a huge "leathery egg" if
there was something moving around inside it?
The egg burst doesn't quite scare you as it once might have done, and
the face-hugger itself looks a bit crap. Of course, Ash breaks all the
rules and lets everyone back in to the ship, and they discover the alien's
"defence mechanism" (the scene where it's acidic blood melts
through the hull is a great set-piece).
Then this vicious, fast-moving, acid-spitting alien menace disappears.
So what do they do? Wander into the room where it obviously still is,
armed with sticks with lights on the end. Luckily, it's already dead,
and the crew is soon sitting down to a celebration meal (surely Hurt should
be in some kind of solitary after what's just happened to him?), which
is wrecked when Hurt forgets his table manners and explodes all over everyone.
This scene seems to get shorter and less bloody every time I see it -
either there's the censor's scissors at work, or I'm just getting old
and jaded. And if the speeded up exit of the baby alien isn't supposed
to be funny, then it was a very bad bit of SFX work, because it is (funny,
Of course, after that it's out with the cattle prods and the home-made
alien detectors (which unfortunately also pick up cats), and the wholesale
slaughter of the crew begins. What strikes you now is how the ship looks
like a real, working thing - the room with the chains and the dripping
water, the cool iris hatches in the corridors.
Famous last words:
"Here kitty... ah, kitty crap. Jones? Jonesy?"
And of course:
Ripley: "It's moving right towards you!"
Ash's "death", peculiarly, is the most disturbing - considering
there's no blood. As is his attempt to kill Ripley by shoving a rolled-up
jazz mag down her throat. And of course, the deaths of Parker and Lambert
give us our first good look at what's been scaring the crap out of us
for the last hour-and-a-bit - a man in a wet suit. Brrrr.
Ripley (who has already proved herself to be the real hero of the film
several times already) then decides to blow up the ship. Then tries to
save it. What's the point of a five minute warning when it takes 30 seconds
to stop the process? That only makes it a four-and-a-half minute warning.
The explosion's quite good, and then of course we get the twist - that
she's blown up that huge ship for no reason at all. The strobe lighting
helps hide the crapness of the alien outfit, and she finally manages to
kill it. This alien is a lot tougher than anything that comes along in
the later films. Not only does Ripley scald it, throw it into a vaccuum
and shoot it with an enormous harpoon, but it only actually dies when
she fries it in the ship's rockets. In fact, I'm not convinced that even
that does it. It's still in once piece as it floats off, anyway.
Alien is a great film - but is one of the few examples of a film being
outclassed by its sequel in almost every way. Perhaps familiarity breeds
contempt. But whatever way you look at it, it's been hugely influential
- no sci fi film has been the same since.
Director: Ridley Scott Writer(s): Dan O'Bannon (story) Ronald
Cast: Tom Skerritt - Captain Dallas, Sigourney Weaver - Ripley,
Veronica Cartwright - Lambert, Harry Dean Stanton - Brett, John Hurt -
Kane, Ian Holm - Ash, Yaphet Kotto - Parker, Bolaji Badejo - 'Alien',
Helen Horton - Mother