YEAR RELEASED: 1979
DIRECTOR: Ridley Scott
CAST: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, John Hurt, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton and Yaphet Kotto
MICHAEL S. COLLINS says the original Alien (1979) has never been bettered…
Now, the thing with spoilers is that they are so subjective.
I was once admonished for spoiling one of the plot points of Hamlet, back when David Tennant was staring in it, so apparently, even 400 years is too soon for some.
So rather than err on caution, for a film which is now steeped in pop culture, here is your early warning.
This article will be full of spoilers for the great horror film Alien, so, if you haven’t seen it yet, then I suggest you pop off to your nearest streaming service and rectify that anomaly, before reading on.
There are three things that make Alien, that propel it in legendary status.
The design work, the cinematography, and the casting. The iconic Oscar-winning design of the Alien itself, by H.R. Giger based on his painting Necronom IV, is a stand out in of itself.
Special praise to SFX designer Carlo Rimbaldi, whose efforts in the animatronics are akin to his successor Stan Winston: at no point does the audience think “that’s a man in a suit”. Despite it being a man in a suit!
The creature lives and breathes on screen, as much as Sigourney Weaver or Tom Skerritt do.
And yet, if you put it in the wrong setting, it might look frankly ridiculous.
So underrated to the success, but equally as important to it is the set design of the Nostromo. Industrial hallways and bits of scrap metal hanging off the walls, dark corridors and retrofitted mirrors.
Claustrophobic before the killer arrives…
The place looks claustrophobic before you add an animalistic killer into the mix.
Also, note how the steampunk surroundings (for lack of a better term) give the alien itself plenty of room to blend into the background. As it does on several occasions.
The cinematography is by the late Derek Vanlint, a man whose career should have gone onto (and would have, for he turned down several prize jobs) better things than Canadian TV commercials.
His cameras are apt at finding just the right framing, for the damned thing to appear out of the corner of the eye.
Take Brett’s death, as the alien slides down into the shot behind Harry Dean Stanton.
Or the intersection of shots between Kane in the air ducts, and the others tracking his intended prey.
At each scene, at each angle, the camera finds the optimal spot to bring out the worst in the scene.
It would not do to mention this film, without bringing up the fateful dinner John Hurt tries to have, and here again, note how so much extreme violence in this film is implied off screen.
Hurt’s death has the most gore, by necessity, but also far less than the version in your mind.
And again, look at the camera lingering on Hurt’s Kanes fingers, as they jerk in and out of consciousness: Kane is alive, very briefly, post chest bursting.
Recall, too, how the camera leaves Lambert’s death, and we only hear her dying moans on audio.
The Alien might be up front and visceral, and yet the real horrors remain implied…
But yes, the casting is superb.
The oft-repeated joke is that the cast of Alien die in reverse order to their fame.
This is not quite true, as the great (and sadly departed) Harry Dean Stanton is not quite on the 1979 fame level of Tom Skerritt, Ian Holm, or even Yaphet “Bond villain” Kotto.
But the general principle is true.
They kill the biggest star first!
John Hurt was the biggest star cast, and the first to go, but hey, that exit is still remembered!
As Orson Welles once put it, is it better to have 90 minutes on screen, or the 5 minutes everyone still talks about?
Although, unlike The Third Man, Sigourney Weaver didn’t blend into the background.
Ian Holm is remarkably good with his uncanny valley reactions, playing a robot long before the reveal.
Tom Skerritt gets to be the dashing lead before the alien nabs him right in the middle of his big hero moment, a moment nabbed entirely by Deep Blue Sea.
Kotto revels in a role which is actually the most credible and intelligent of the characters, and even his genre savvy can’t stand up to the Alien creatures own vast intelligence.
But, we return to Sigourney Weaver, whose career was made on this film.
Nowadays, she even has roles that react as a casting gag to this momental role, see The Cabin in the Woods as one example.
By killing off all the known actors, and leaving a spot and you miss it Annie Hall extra left, the 1979 audience could only fear the worst.
Instead, they got Ripley, the new action hero, whose general common sense and likeability makes her a refreshing anecdote to so many 80s snarkers.
Weaver had star quality, the camera and the director (Ridley Scott) knew it even if the audience hadn’t picked it up at the start of the film. By the end, oh they knew.
As for Ripley, you’ve noticed, haven’t you?
She’s the only one who wants to go through with the standard rules on quarantine when Kane gets a face hugger on him.
The captain tries to overrule her and Ian Holm does (boy, wonder if that’s any eerie foreshadowing of his intentions?).
If the rest had listened to her, they wouldn’t have died.
This happens in all the Alien films. No one listens to Ripley, and then they die.
Nearly 40 years on, Alien holds up as one of the greatest films of all time.
By transferring the Haunting to outer space, Ridley Scott expanded what others thought they could do.
Alien is the haunted house, in space.
It’s lesser sequel Aliens is an action movie in space.
Meanwhile, all the modern attempts at sequels, and prequels, are merely trying to be Alien-in-space.
But that’s been done, in 1979, and never bettered.