Alien (1979)

Directed by Ridley Scott

Contains spoilers.

Hailed as one of the most original and influential pieces of cinema, this 1979 film is a certified classic of both the science fiction and horror genres. Alien set many precedents for movies to come and remains one of Ridley Scott's most memorable movies.

Over a hundred years in the future, the commercial towing vessel Nostromo has been rerouted from its journey back to Earth in order to investigate a mysterious signal picked up from an unknown source on an unexplored planet. After following regulations and visiting the planet, the crew of the Nostromo return to their Earthbound vector. Unfortunately, a highly evolved and predatory alien has been brought aboard.

The story slowly unravels, taking the smallest steps in progress. From waking, to eating, to talking. We meet the characters, and find out their concerns. Then they travel to the surface of an uninhabited planet, and their ship breaks down. They split up, some stay behind to fix things, and others walk to the source of the signal. Everything speaks to measured and deliberate revelation. When Kane, one of those gone to investigate the signal, is surprised by something we can't even be sure what happened. Scott does an amazing job of concealing, surprising, and revealing.

When Kane is brought back to the ship, slow and measured shots slowly reveal what's happened. A strange parasite is affixed to his face. Attempts to remove it do nothing but display just how perfectly evolved it is. Ash, the science officer, studies the organism, but nothing can be done for the time being. Later, the parasite appears to have vanished, apparently leaving Kane in good health. He comes to and seems perfectly fine. But that's wrong.

At this point, Scott treats us to the stuff of nightmares, one of the scenes that made this film truly iconic. Over the years, many movie monsters have made lasting impressions, but none quite so lasting or impressive as this. Faithfully dubbed the "chest bursting" scene, easily cements Alien with an audience. If it doesn't give you nightmares then it'll make you grimace or your jaw drop. 

 

Today's horror and thrillers are formulaic in nature, from the soundtracks to the predictable "twists."

 

The "chest bursting" scene is one, among many, that would go on to earn Alien an Academy Award for its visual effects. In general, the setting is beautifully rendered, featuring fantastic miniatures that could rival today's computer graphics as well as visuals that truly bring to life the titular alien. LV-426, the planet where the mysterious signal originates, is imagined and depicted like a harsh storm. It works splendidly as both a plot device and a force to be reckoned with. The bad weather and gloomy landscape make it the first foreshadowing that investigating the signal could be a bad idea.

What starts as a curious and intriguing look into the future ever so slowly spirals into a frantic struggle for survival. With a surprisingly intricate story that manages to weave corporate conspiracy into an alien, survival, horror flick, the mood ends up being chronically tense. Even the calm moments manage to have a feeling of offness about them, and the tense moments are downright heart-pounding. This is an expertly crafted horror where the thrill lies not in jump scares or gore but rather in a permeating sense of unease. From the lack of music to the long takes, Alien is an exercise in skillfully sculpted environ. Today's horror and thrillers are formulaic in nature, from the soundtracks to the predictable "twists."

Overall, the formula composing Alien doesn't stand alone as a wholly original work,  in fact it's taken inspiration from almost a dozen science fiction sources from decades past. But these inspirations come together in an almost symphonic way. The characters are relatable and sympathetic; the music [or lack thereof] takes root almost annoyingly deep; the dark, gritty future is possible; the alien is terrifying. The everyman characters bring their setting to life in a way unlike most other horror movies, and the ship that seems intriguing and inviting ends up feeling claustrophobic and alienating. Alien becomes an almost cathartic, movie-watching experience.

As the movie slowly speeds up, leaving behind its eerily slow pace, it begins to reach a frantic crescendo. As the characters scurry about, trying to enact their plan to survive, their fear and desperation becomes infectious. After an hour of methodic storytelling, suddenly the shots are faster, the dialogue is rushed, and events are strained and hard to bear. As the characters feel the pressure of being hunted, the audience easily feels their pain. Once again, Scott's prowess in depicting the ship and visual effects helps in this regard. The quickening pace of the story as we reach a climax feels ever more visceral in the cramped quarters of the ship and the suddenly blaring noise.

Every dark hallway feels like a trap and the sirens feel like they're instigating the alien. Turn on the lights! Turn off the sirens! At the start, the situation feels like its almost under control, as if there's only so much that could actually go wrong. But when things fall apart, they really get fucked up. The story dissipates like a match in a hurricane, but just as quickly as we reach the climax, we realize that wasn't the climax at all. Immediately after the panic and frenzy there follows the true masterpiece of Alien, the awe-inspiring finale that forces you to hold your breath. Both groundbreaking and rule breaking, this understated climax really needs to be seen to be believed. With the fantastic pacing and mood in mind, there really is no better or more satisfying way to end this movie.

 
  • Acting – 18 / 20
  • Story – 16 / 20
  • Cinematography – 15 / 20
  • Soundtrack – 9 / 10
  • Entertainment Factor – 9 / 10
  • Sci-Fi/Horror – 10 / 10
  • Other – 10 / 10

TL;DR: Aside from being one of the most influential science fiction movies ever made, (which is reason enough to see it) Alien remains an adventurous and imaginative sci-fi thriller, set apart from the modern, CG-propelled and found-footage monstrosities. As one of the first films to give me nightmares as a child, revisiting this film reassured me of its position as a classic. The visceral story, visionary environment, and vivid suspense make it a timeless piece of cinematic history, with some scenes that will stay with you forever.

 

Grade B = 87 / 100