Without Star Wars, Ridley Scott’s stately, foreboding Alien might have never received the green light, although it’s hard to imagine a film further away from Lucas’ vibrant space opera in terms of tone and effect. Thrumming with Freudian overtones and lavishly conceptualised from the surrealist art of H R Giger, at its heart Alien has more in common with the stalk n’ slash genre crystalised in John Carpenter’s Halloween the year before. For all its dread-building atmosphere and subsequent psychoanalytical readings, it suffers from a series of stupid deaths more befitting a Friday the 13th sequel than a high-minded sci-fi horror.
The story concerns the crew of a mining spaceship, the Nostromo, awoken from their cryo-sleep to investigate a distress call from a barren planet. They discover a vast derelict craft of alien origin, stuffed with sinister-looking eggs. One such egg pops open and the contents, a spidery facehugger, latches itself firmly onto the mug of one of the hapless crew.
Bringing the stricken explorer back on board, things rapidly go from bad to worse – trying to cut the thing off the victim’s face, they discover it has acid for blood, which burns its way through the decks of the ship. After a period, the facehugger falls off by itself, and Kane (John Hurt) awakens, groggy but apparently in good form. Only when he tries to eat something, the next incarnation of the alien bursts rudely from his chest cavity in one of horror’s iconic shock moments.
Written by Dan O’Bannon, who worked with John Carpenter on Dark Star, Alien grounds its science fiction in blue collar reality. Before Alien, sci fi was largely the domain of scientists in jumpsuits, and aliens of the bug-eyed variety. Featuring a cast of wordly character actors, including Tom Skerritt, Ian Holm, Veronica Cartwright and the then little known Sigourney Weaver, the Nostromo’s crew are a believably everyday bunch.
Maybe it’s the post-Scream effect, but watching Alien again from a modern standpoint, the amount of dumb slasher deaths crammed into this movie is unbelievable.
With a alien on the rampage, characters blithely wander off into the bowels of the ship looking for a cat not once, but twice. Sorry, I love cats but if there’s a phallic-headed, face-fucking biomechanical killing machine around, it should be thanks for the memories, Kitty. Captain Dallas (Skerritt) curiously goes down before the ship by conducting a one-man hunt for the creature in the craft’s ventilation ducts – three words for you: PULL RANK and DELEGATE.
Even the initial contamination is beset by idiocy. If you’re alone in the ruin of an alien ship, and
some sickly-looking egg hatches in front of you, don’t start sticking your face anywhere near that thing. Get back onboard and shoot yourself off into space in an escape pod before the facehugger even has chance to pop out.
The only character that displays any intelligence is the ship’s robot, Ash (Holm). He’s smart enough to stay nice and snug on the Nostromo while those pathetic humans go exploring the alien planet, and certainly doesn’t get involved in any bug hunts. Ash is so clever that he even tries killing Ripley (Weaver) with symbolism – reinforcing the macho glass ceiling by trying to choke her to death with an emblem of sexism, a rolled up porno mag.
Luckily, these quibbles are offset by Alien‘s magnificent production design and reliable performances by the stalwart cast. The creature itself remains one of the most mesmerizingly terrifying movie monsters, a livid representation of nature at its most brutal and indifferent.