Directed by Ridley Scott, Alien is one of those classic science fiction flicks that is effective even by today’s standards. The special effects are still creepy, save for maybe the Muppet-like jubilance of the “chestburster,” and the designs by Swiss surrealist H. R. Giger are impressive. Scott’s use of the winding labyrinths inside the ship give the movie a terrific claustrophobic feel and Sigourney Weaver’s portrayal of Ripley is iconic.
Alien, originally pitched as a Jaws in space idea by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, has a number of influences and was nearly produced by Roger Corman’s studio. It sat around for a while, languishing in between studios until the success of 1977’s Star Wars drew more attention to space films. Alien was eventually put in production with a budget of $4.2 million and went on to sprout a franchise and even a crossover with the Predator franchise.
The film opens on the commercial spacecraft Nostromo. It is returning to Earth, hauling mineral ore and carrying a crew of seven. The crew gets dispatched to a planetoid nearby to search out the origin of a signal, but they harm the Nostromo in landing and wind up staying a lot longer than planned. Ripley, the crew’s Warrant Officer, determines that the signal has come from an alien spacecraft. They find the remains of a creature inside, while Kane (John Hurt) is attacked by another creature near what seems to be a nest.
Kane is taken back on board the ship, against the better judgment of Ripley, and it is eventually revealed that an alien has grown inside him. The creature gets loose in the ship and begins to pick off the crew, leading to an eventual stand-off between the alien and Ripley.
The sets of Alien are tremendous. The surface of the alien planetoid is a marvel of design put together from Giger’s designs, while the Nostromo is an impressive spacecraft – inside and out – for 1979. Inside the Nostromo is a maze of wires and pipes and tubes, so it can be very hard to spot the alien moving around at times. This adds to the mystique and horror of the film, especially as Ripley heads into the escape pod toward the climax.
The alien itself is also very impressive, hands and all. It came from Giger’s designs, of course, and was portrayed by Nigerian design student Bolaji Badejo. Scott wisely left out visuals of the full alien for most of the picture, choosing only to unveil the full design in the movie’s closing moments. It also helps that the creature is evolving as Alien moves along, which never puts us at ease because we never know what the bloody thing is going to look like. It sheds skin layers and appears to grow rather rapidly.
Alien is at its best when it builds tension organically. The musical score from Jerry Goldsmith is distinct but subtle; scenes aren’t washed in manipulative music to get audiences to feel a certain way or not. Cinematographer Derek Vanlint takes us through the corridors and mysteries of the universe with smooth movements, melting with the elusive music to firmly fix us in Scott’s creation without forcing the issue.
Indeed, it is the pacing of Alien that really sets it apart from similar pictures. Whereas most modern blockbuster films are frenetic, Alien lurks in the shadows like its titular creature and stalks the audience. It doesn’t chase, though, and never appears to be working too hard or too desperately. It could be said of Scott’s film that it is careful, in fact, and that helps create a mystique and a tone that lasts long after the closing frames have passed.
Innovative and patient, Alien is classic science fiction horror. Its mounting tension and staggering effects create a truly remarkable film experience, one that hasn’t been duplicated to this day. There are better science fiction movie and maybe even better horror movies, but few films have melded the genres together so effectively.