(This will be a review of the original 1979 theatrical cut, not the 2003 director’s cut)
Ridley Scott’s second directorial effort is arguably his best. Not only for Scott’s filmography, but for cinema as a whole. What Alien (1979) did was set the standard for the horror genre. Although deemed as a sci-fi film, an argument can be made to push it in the direction of pure horror; it is a truly terrifying tale. Even after 35 years of its original release, it’s a film that continues to supply audiences with nuance and depth after every viewing. The terror still reigns supreme, even if you’re aware of the events that are about to happen. The uneasiness and tension that builds, knowing that danger looms, builds to the film’s authenticity.
As soon as the opening credits roll, the audience is introduced to the Nostromo, a cargo ship that’s en route back to Earth after completing a deep space mining mission. Once inside the ship, the onboard computer (referred to as “Mother”) is activated, awakening the crew from their cryogenic pods. Once awake, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), Dallas (Tom Skerritt), Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), Brett (Harry Dean Stanton), Kane (John Hurt), Ash (Ian Holm) and Parker (Yaphet Kotto) cheerfully enjoy dinner, expecting to land on Earth soon. They quickly discover that they’re still in the outer rim of space, nowhere near Earth. What awoke them was a radio beacon from a nearby planet, and by contract, were supposed to investigate.
Once landed on this unknown planet, it became apparent that there was no sign of human life in sight. After a small crew is sent out to investigate the terrain, Ripley makes the notion that the beacon was not a cry for help, but a warning to stay away. At that point it’s too late and the terror begins.
To reveal anymore of the plot points would be a disservice to those who have yet to see the film. The beauty of Alien comes from what is unknown. Scott toys with the audience by never fully revealing the complete body of the alien. Instead, it stays in the shadows, terrorizing each member of the crew, giving an authentic sense of uneasiness to each scene.
The power of what is unseen is what makes the horror element work. There’s no overabundance of CGI or cheap jump scares. What’s most impressive is that it isn’t over the top with violence. That’s not to say there aren’t any gory moments, there are a few, but it’s only gory when it needs to be. This is a movie very deserving of it’s R-rating. Each event has a build up that contains a payoff worthy of a scare. This is due to the brilliant performances given by these actors. The iconic “chestburster” scene is the perfect example. While filming, the actors in the room had no idea that an alien was set to burst out of the chest of one of the crew members. What the audience gets in the final cut of the movie is a genuine reaction, adding to the scale of horror to the situation.
Ripley is the star of the show. She seems to be the only one on the ship with a clue as to what’s happening. With each viewing, you will wonder if the ending would be any different, had anybody listened to the things Ripley was suggesting earlier in the film. While everyone is freaking out, she remains calm and attempts to rationalize each plan, realizing that there’s a consequence with each move. Not everybody listens, and because of that, death lurks around every corner. She’s the ultimate badass that transcends the common female protagonist stereotype you may be used to seeing.
As for the alien itself, the fear that it gives the crew, as well as the audience, is daunting. The way Scott films it is brilliant. The alien is never seen in the light, only in darkness. There are times were you can almost feel it breathing and salivating behind you. At that point, you know that death is inevitable. Even when things looks hopeful, which isn’t much, something happens that pulls the audience in to reveal that the ride isn’t quite finished until the closing credits hit the screen.
When Scott announced that he was returning with upcoming film, Alien Covenant (2017), fans everywhere rejoiced. Although positively received with the critics, Prometheus (2012), the apparent Alien prequel, didn’t exactly live up to its expectation with the fans. At best, it was divisive. The general audience didn’t even know it was connected to the Alien franchise. Despite all of that, hopefully Covenant is solid enough to encourage newcomers to visit the film that started it all in 1979. Alien is indeed a classic worthy of the title.
FINAL SCORE: A+