Saturday Editor’s Pick: Alien (1979)

by on February 26, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Fri March 2 and Sat March 3 at Midnight at IFC Center [Program & Tix]


As a break from rampant Francophilia in New York this weekend, why not take in Alt Screen favorite Alien? Fan the flames of anticipation for Ridley Scott’s prequel of sorts, Promethueus, due this summer…


Benjamin Strong for L Magazine:

Alien is, after all, just a genre film — albeit a perfectly executed B horror movie disguised with an A-picture budget that paid for, among other things, artist H.R. Giger’s set and monster designs, without which the movie is wholly unimaginable. To this day, the lion’s share of hosannas for Scott go to Blade Runner, but Alien is just as mysterious and immersive in its dystopian details. Every aspect of Scott’s filmmaking contributes to our foreboding sense that no two things (and thus, no two species) are entirely distinguishable. The Nostromo’s dank hulls provide easy camouflage for the parasitical intruder, but Scott doesn’t stop there. Through a suggestive use of lap dissolves, he continually lays one murky image over another. Meanwhile, machines emit animal noises, and vice versa, and both sets of sounds bleed into the strains of Jerry Goldsmith’s menacingly ethereal score. Finally, so precise is the timing of Brian Q. Kelley’s editing that this reviewer, to his complete embarrassment, twice leapt from his seat during a press screening, despite the fact that he had previously seen the film a dozen times and knew exactly when the shocks were coming.


Keith Uhlich for Time Out New York:

After 30 years, the “Boo!” and gross-out moments are permanently cemented in the cultural psyche—from the face-hugger’s leap out of the translucent egg to John Hurt’s dinner-table stomach burst. So what’s left to discover about Ridley Scott’s great deep-space horror show? Mainly it’s the sense of pace and craft that the once-promising director would soon trade in, post–Blade Runner, for empty, pretense-laden spectacle. When Scott introduces us to the crew and corridors of the interplanetary mining ship Nostromo, he emphasizes silence and languor, the better to immerse us in the cavernous physical and mental playground that the alien (designed by Oscar-winning Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger) will use to its merciless advantage.


It’s the creature’s instinctual murder spree that makes the immediate impression, but that would be nothing without the simmering tensions among the human counterparts. At times, Alien plays like an upstairs-downstairs comedy of manners, complete with disenchanted, proletarian grunts (Harry Dean Stanton and Yaphet Kotto’s union-men mechanics) and effete, eye-rolling snobs (Ian Holm’s above-it-all science officer) trading class-specific aspersions. What it all comes down to, of course, is Sigourney Weaver in her underwear facing off with a drooling, phallus-shaped nightmare made flesh. The dissertations practically write themselves.



Michael Wilmington for the Chicago Tribune:

It’s a scream from another era that still echoes around us – a movie that can still give you the shakes, even though most of its surprises have long since passed into popular legend. The plot wasn’t new even when the film was first released. With its hook of a seven-member, multicultural spaceship crew running afoul of a ravenous space alien that gets aboard their ship and malevolently kills them one by one, it suggests a mix of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001,” Howard Hawks’ “The Thing” and every monster movie since “Frankenstein.” But the look of the film was new. Few science-fiction movies are as cold, as full of cavernous space, angst and horrific beings. The original “Alien” is a work of popular entertainment and movie art in which the makers took the “art’ as seriously as the entertainment.

The look of “Alien” remains fabulous: a cross between the elegant austerity of “2001” and the raw funk of “Dark Star” and other low-budgeters. The sets are dazzling and macabre. The characters are both archetypal – even slightly cliched – and cipherlike. Being trapped on those sets, with those people, still imparts a creepy chill. There have been three other “Alien” movies since, by directors James Cameron, David Fincher and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and though all have their points, none is as relentless as this. Weaver was never quite as sexy, vulnerable or compelling. And though they kept trying and repeating, none had an alien this gruesomely, shatteringly awry and unexpected. When it jumped, or when it jumps now, so do we.


Jeremiah Kipp for Slant:

The austere minimalism of Ridley Scott’s Alien has kept it from becoming dated. Originally released in 1979, this “haunted house in outer space” scary movie still manages to spook audiences, though its infamous “chest bursting” scene plays somewhat comic now, with the crew looking on aghast like a bunch of stooges. Best known for creating an atmosphere of dread through production design and art direction (the cavernous ship looks like a sci-fi variation of a dilapidated car garage) and, of course, H.R. Giger’s creature (all limbs and shiny black skin and protruding jaws—watch those teeth!), Alien may be the most artfully directed and well-acted slasher movie of all time. Here’s the rub: If you’ve seen the movie, it’s exasperating to watch poor Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) march through one wet, filthy engine room after another, chasing the ship’s cat for five minutes, en route to impending doom. Alien is a one-trick pony, but it does its job remarkably well. One wishes Ridley Scott still possessed this kind of cinematic restraint. He’s helped by an especially fine cast whose characters grow increasingly paranoid, addled, or insane. Also welcome is the late-’70s distrust of corporate authority, where the mother ship winds up being more duplicitous and evil than the marauding alien. Horror films used to have that edge, the feeling that they were actually about something.



Roger Ebert for the Chicago Sun-Times:

Scott’s 1979 movie is a great original. It builds on the seminal opening shot of “Star Wars” (1977), with its vast ship in lonely interstellar space, and sidesteps Lucas’ space opera to tell a story in the genre of traditional “hard” science fiction; with its tough-talking crew members and their mercenary motives, the story would have found a home in John W. Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction during its nuts-and-bolts period in the 1940s.One of the great strengths of “Alien” is its pacing. It takes its time. It waits. It allows silences (the majestic opening shots are underscored by Jerry Goldsmith with scarcely audible, far-off metallic chatterings). It suggests the enormity of the crew’s discovery by building up to it with small steps: The interception of a signal (is it a warning or an SOS?). The descent to the extraterrestrial surface. The bitching by Brett and Parker, who are concerned only about collecting their shares. The masterstroke of the surface murk through which the crew members move, their helmet lights hardly penetrating the soup. The shadowy outline of the alien ship. The sight of the alien pilot, frozen in his command chair. The enormity of the discovery inside the ship (“It’s full of … leathery eggs …”).

A recent version of this story would have hurtled toward the part where the alien jumps on the crew members. Today’s slasher movies, in the sci-fi genre and elsewhere, are all pay-off and no buildup. Consider the wretched remake of the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” which cheats its audience out of an explanation, an introduction of the chain-saw family, and even a proper ending. It isn’t the slashing that we enjoy. It’s the waiting for the slashing.

The result is a film that absorbs us in a mission before it involves us in an adventure, and that consistently engages the alien with curiosity and logic, instead of simply firing at it. Contrast this movie with a latter-day space opera like “Armageddon,” with its average shot a few seconds long and its dialogue reduced to terse statements telegraphing the plot. “Alien” has been called the most influential of modern action pictures, and so it is. A few more ambitious and serious sci-fi films have also followed in the footsteps of “Alien,” notably the well-made “Aliens” (1986) and “Dark City” (1998). But the original still vibrates with a dark and frightening intensity.


Michael Agger for Slate:

The dissenting view on Alien has always been that it’s just a haunted-house movie in outer space, and Scott couldn’t resist a few manipulative “boo” moments. (A ginger cat jumps out of nowhere; the alien’s hand reaches from the wall to grab Ripley.) But the staying power of Alien lies in the way it dredges up primal fears. Scott’s long shots emphasize the vastness of space, the sense of being marooned in a hostile environment. The spaceship interiors were designed for maximum claustrophobia. And the alien itself, created by the Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger, is not completely foreign. It’s a corruption of nature—an intelligent insect—both comprehensible and terrifyingly unknown. Then there’s the way many scenes play like a sophomore biology-lab experiment gone awry: Ian Holm poking at the glistening organs of the alien body or Skerritt cutting one of its fingerlike appendages with a laser saw, releasing a spring of acid blood. And the queasiness is intensified by the old-fashioned, analog look of the effects: The alien that leaps onto John Hurt’s space helmet, for example, is a mass of sheep’s intestines, steam-cleaned to be white.
The scene in which the alien chews its way out of Hurt’s stomach remains the pièce de résistance. When the movie was first released, there was speculation that Scott had cut in some subliminal images of graphic sex to heighten the shock effect. It’s one of the handful of movie moments that once seen can never be unseen, as much as you’d like to erase it from memory. We may not be brutalized by it in the same way that audiences were in 1979, but it’s not a tantalizing image or a grotesque glimpse into some dark side of human nature. It’s a pure pop moment: leading nowhere and full of sensation. It’s something for celebrities to talk about on VH1. You saw it, and you felt something.



Becky Sayers on the Dan O’Bannon script for The

A great deal can be discerned simply by knowing the original title of O’Bannon’s screenplay: Star Beast. The word “beast” implies a certain degree of ferocity and animalism – a concept that becomes important when analyzing the role of the alien itself. In some ways, Alien may appear as a dualistic piece: Man vs. Animal, Man. vs. Science, Man vs. The Unknown, etc. All these views place the human being in direct opposition to another force: the Other. In O’Bannon’s story, however, these dualisms ultimately don’t matter. The division between animal and man is completely shattered. The facehugger uses the human as a host, ultimately birthing a creature that is part human and part alien. One may even say that the beast is just as much an alien as it is a human being. This is why the word beast works better in this example than alien. While the creature is indeed alien to the crew, it is more accurately just a ferocious animal. In fact, it’s the only animal that equals the human being’s ferocity, cunning, and physical ability.


In O’Bannon’s script, the alien is simply following its nature – and its nature happens to involve the process of destroying the body of another species and using it to reproduce. Can the alien be blamed for acting according to its nature? It was the humans after all that decided to explore space, a world in which they do not belong. The unintended consequences of such exploration could be deserved. The discovery that human beings may not, in fact, be the only contender at the top of the food chain subverts many traditional concepts of the human’s world.


In summation, nihilism is all about deconstructing mores and ripping the meaning out of physical forms. In Alien, the human body has no sanctity – it’s merely a capsule, a tool, to breed more destruction. In Dan O’Bannon’s original script and in an alternate cut of the film, the alien actually rapes Lambert, one of the female crew members. In the theatrical cut, only a scream is heard. O’Bannon’s initial inclusion of the rape furthers the nihilistic attitude toward the body. Not only can the alien forcefully impregnate the body, it can also satisfy bestial desires with no moral tethers. The alien can do everything a human being can do (think, kill, feel, rape, procreate) and for the most part, it can do it better.


In the end, Alien presents an austere theme: the more humans embrace technology to uncover the universe, the more they learn how unimportant they are. In the face of cold technology, they are useless warm-blooded beings. In the face of alien creatures, they are pathetic victims. It is these themes found in Dan O’Bannon’s story that make Alien so timelessly terrifying.



Manohla Dargis for the Los Angeles Times:

At once graphically elegant and viscerally effective, the future conjured up by Scott was dystopian to the core. The blue-collar crew members don’t just have to wage war against an unknown monster; they have to fight a far more familiar enemy — namely, the faceless, heartless owner-boss who is perfectly willing to sacrifice them on the altar of profit. The sense that HAL 9000 (the computer from “2001”) was now unabashedly working for the Man imbued “Alien” with an unease that seemed of a piece with a downbeat decade defined by recession and paranoia, and still suffering from a throbbing Watergate hangover. The film’s famous tagline — “In space, no one can hear you scream” — somehow seemed a perfect coda for the wider culture, but also fit, as it turned out, with Scott’s lonely worldview.


Serious as a heart attack, Scott has made a career out of paranoia, existential dread and doleful endings. That makes him somewhat of an anomaly in Hollywood, as has his unabashed fondness for powerful, independent-minded female characters. Initially written to be played by a man, the film’s other famous creation, of course, is Ripley, the role that turned a little-known theater performer named Sigourney Weaver into a zeitgeist figure as big and fearsome as Giger’s monster. Like her shrieking, shape-shifting foe, Ripley has evolved over the years, mutating from a scrappy survivor to a wrathful mother (in the second film, “Aliens”) to a shaved militant battling contagion (in the third) to the sacrificial lamb of a franchise gone terribly awry (in the fourth).


Mostly, though, what had gone missing in the years since the first film was the essential terror that hums through much of Scott’s work. Not the fright induced by monsters with slithering tentacles and rapacious spikes, but the chilled-to-the-bone fear that no one can hear you scream, no matter where you are.



Andrew O’Hehir for

Unlike its increasingly baroque series of sequels, Ridley Scott’s original 1979 “Alien” is a film about human loneliness amid the emptiness and amorality of creation. It’s a cynical ’70s-leftist vision of the future in which none of the problems plaguing 20th century Earth — class divisions, capitalist exploitation, the subjugation of humanity to technology — have been improved in the slightest by mankind’s forays into outer space. Although it has often been described as being a haunted-house movie set in space, “Alien” also has a profoundly existentialist undertow that makes it feel like a film noir — the other genre to feature a slithery, sexualized monster as its classic villain.


…When I first saw “Alien” I could see no connection between it and Joseph Conrad’s great novel “Nostromo,” a philosophical adventure yarn about a corrupted Latin American revolution — the naming of the ship just seemed like a little literary in-joke. (Nostromo is the name of a revolutionary leader in the novel, not of a vessel.) But nearly a quarter-century later, “Alien” has acquired a classic quality of its own, and seems to offer some of the uncategorizable fatalism and pessimism of the book, even if it’s an entirely different kind of story. Decoud, Conrad’s authorial figure in “Nostromo,” regards the universe as “a succession of incomprehensible images,” and during his imprisonment turns suicidal, reflecting that “in our activity alone do we find the sustaining illusion of an independent existence as against the whole scheme of things of which we form a helpless part.”


I think that accounts for the dread we still feel at the end of “Alien,” when Weaver, memorably clad in that bikini underwear, locks herself (and her irresistible cat, Jonesy) back into that plastic egg for the long ride home. She has survived, but toward what end? And the world she is returning to is the one that betrayed her in the first place.


Recent Features

Gene Kelly retro at Film Society (thru Jul 26)

July 13, 2012

I'm happy again and like myself: 100 years of Gene.


Erich Von Stroheim retro at Film Forum (thru Jul 30)

May 28, 2012

The decadent realism of Hollywood's favorite sadist.


Migrating Forms Fest at Anthology (thru May 20)

May 11, 2012

Traveling through time and space at NYC's upstart experimental film fest.

View All →