- Directed by Ridley Scott
- May 25, 1979 (United States) / September 6, 1979 (United Kingdom)
After responding to an alien signal of unknown origin, the crew of the commercial space tug Nostromo must deal with a killing machine of unknown origin in a struggle to survive.
Alien was a whole change of direction in science fiction movies. It went all in on things films had previously danced around. This was a genuinely frightening and unnerving monster movie set in space. Previously whatever monster the people had to fight was not much of a threat and the suit always looked like cheap rubber and felt. This creature was an actual threat and it looked real and dangerous. It was a killing machine. It looked like something straight out of your nightmares.
And the victims of this monstrosity were trapped. There was no escape for them. No plane ride out or explosives followed by a long trip home where everybody reflected on the harrowing adventure. They had to stand and fight. And the cavalry would not come because those in charge of the cavalry wanted one of the creatures to study. This crew had not stumbled upon it but rather in a change of direction for the monster movie genre they were sent to find it whether they realized it or not. We had elements of conspiracy tossed in to the genre.
One thing director by Ridley Scott got very right in this movie was that you never see a full shot of the creature until the very end. Your mind does so much of the work for you. Most of the tension and fright that you feel is because you are imagining what it looks like and what it can really do. More often than not the thing just snatches somebody and zips away. Maybe once or twice we actually see it kill somebody, but the rest of the time death is implied with a scream or a splash of blood or the victim disappears with the alien. And when you finally see it at the end the reveal is a startling shock.
This is also not a clean and crisp future where everything was bright and polished. Alien took a page from Star Wars and set it in what was a lived-in world where you were not in the next solar system in a short amount of time. You had to go into cryo-genic stasis with the implication being that the trip was a long haul. Nor was the ship something sleek or elegant. It was clunky and awkward.
Sigourney Weaver turned in a star making performance and was quite possibly one of the first strong female characters to be at the center of a science fiction film. Princess Leia had come before, and Princess Leia was quite strong and independent in comparison to other space princesses/female science fiction characters that had come before her. You may laugh but think about it. Princess Leia stood strong and tough against Darth Vader and Grand Mof Tarkin. Normally when the female character was with the villain, she would be frightened but Leia gave as good as she got and if it were not for her nobody would have gotten out of the Death Star prison detention level. But she was not the central character of the films.
Ellen Ripley was the central character here. She was the tough one here without being ridiculously tough nor was she a superhuman force of destruction against the threat. The story was centered around a realistic woman. And she was an engaging and interesting character with real fears and real reactions we could all empathize with. Ripley was just like us in a way.
All the characters felt real. There were differing views and they argued among themselves, but they were not caricatures meant to simply hinder Ellen Ripley along the way to her success or placed there solely for the kill. You never once said to yourself “Why did they do that? Were they just trying to be difficult?” You can see why for example Dallas (Tom Skerritt) would bring Kane (John Hurt) on to the ship even though it broke rules. It is a very human reaction. Yes, it had to occur to keep the movie rolling but it was not a moment that made you go “That is just too dumb to be believable.” At least not then. In hindsight it was STOOPID.
Another difference between this and many of its predecessors is that these were not military heroes or scientists or explorers or even teenagers (thank God!) coming across the something they kind of wanted to encounter for any number of hackneyed reasons. These were blue-collar working class individuals of the future that were trying to make a buck and go about their lives who were thrust into an extraordinary life or death struggle by powerful individuals that cared little if they lived or died.
Alien was for all intents and purposes set in a workplace and we got characters you might find at any job. Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) were the jerky guys of the job. We all have at least one workplace asshole. If you work from home, it is probably your cat. The ship’s science officer Ash (Ian Holm) was not overly or even obviously villainous. The workplace villain. The reveal on what he was and what his goals were was a surprise.
Alien produced a great many imitators. It still is producing a great many imitators, but few have ever been quite as good. Some have been entertaining even though they are schlock, but I cannot think of any that has been as exciting and tense as this.
Not only did this movie produce alien killing machine imitators but it started a trend in science fiction of evil corporations. I think just about every science fiction film for the next five or 10 years had an evil corporation with nefarious goals and quite honestly it got old for me. I am not saying it did not always work. I am just saying it was used with an annoying regularity in everything from bigger budget films to the direct video stuff that filled the shelves at my local rental place. People that wanted to copy Alien, copied and put front and center the things that did not necessarily make it so special.
I cannot close out this review without mentioning the amazing trailer. Nobody does them like this anymore. You get a genuine feel for the film without having much of the movie put out there. It piques your curiosity without laying much out. This is a lost art perhaps because audiences are a bit unwilling to imagine much these days.
Alien is a science-fiction horror classic that changed the game. There has been nothing like it since. Worse yet people have tried to copy this movie with very limited success. Even the sequels have not quite measured up to this in what they did here. This is an amazing movie.