Alien (1979, Ridley Scott)


Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The Nostromo is a spaceship heading back to earth with 20 million tons of mineral ore on board. However, the crewmembers are woken from their cryogenic sleep when the ship detects a strange signal…

The cast: There are only seven speaking parts in the whole film. An early ensemble scene sets up the class struggles within the team as mechanics Parker (Yaphet Kotto, a former Bond villain) and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton, who mostly just says, “Right!”) argue with the officers over money. The vibe is truckers in space who live a functional, mundane, earthy life. This isn’t a Flash Gordon space opera; it feels real. The underplayed group dynamic helps hide the fact that Ripley (Sigourney Weaver, fantastic) will be the one character left standing. Early on, she’s just part of the team. Due to a miscommunication, Veronica Cartwright thought she was playing Ripley until she turned up in London for filming; she then reluctantly moved to the role of Lambert, who does a lot of crying. Tom Skerritt has a quiet authority as Dallas, while John Hurt was a late replacement for the role of Kane (John Finch began filming but was then taken ill, so Hurt was cast overnight). The best of the cast by a smidgen might be Ian Holm as Ash. Watching the film knowing that he’s actually an android with a secret mission is a joy because the clues are there in the performance. The subplot ups the ante for Ripley at the worst possible time, and also has a perverse psychosexual twist when a deranged Ash rolls up a porn magazine and attempts to thrust it down her throat.

The best scene: Well, it’s the obvious one. This film was released in the year of my birth; I didn’t see it until about 1990 when it was already a ‘classic’. How wonderful must it have been to see Alien and *not know* what happens to Kane? He’s been attacked by a ‘facehugger’ – a small alien that clasps itself around your head – and fallen into a coma. After the creature detaches itself, Kane eventually comes round. He seems fatigued but otherwise okay, so joins his crewmates for a meal. He then starts to convulse violently. His pals hold him down, but his chest explodes. Blood goes everywhere, and an alien creatures climbs out of his corpse and scuttles off. The shocked looks on the actors’ faces are partly genuine: they didn’t know exactly how the effect would be achieved. In some ways it’s a shame that the moment has become such a cliché (even being spoofed in Spaceballs), but that’s only happened because it’s so good in the first place.

Alternative version: Ridley Scott oversaw a new edit of the movie in 2003. He actually trimmed out a few shots but also added some new footage. It’s not a hugely different experience from watching the original. The most significant change is the addition of a scene near the end where Ripley discovers Dallas cocooned in alien goo. He’s still alive but in terrible pain and begging to be killed.

Review: Ridley Scott has said he was only fifth choice to direct this film. Can you imagine? It’s a world-beating performance, talking a simplistic B-movie script with a couple of decent ideas and turning it into something extraordinary. On the surface, Alien is just a haunted-house horror set in space. If made today it would no doubt have romantic subplots and hackneyed back-stories for all the characters. Not here, because Scott knew you don’t need them. The film begins deliberately slowly, with elegant titles, superb music and some brilliant model shots. When we go inside the Nostromo, the camera slowly creeps around empty sets. The ship interiors are lived-in, distressed, believable. And there’s some lovely attention to detail – a gust of wind accompanies an airlock opening, for example. Even as the crew awake and investigate a strange planet, nothing much happens in the first third. But it’s gripping stuff because of the strong cast and the textured world they inhabit. The slasher-movie format then kicks in – Scott was aware of comparisons with And Then There Were None – while the final 20 minutes feature just Ripley with virtually no dialogue. As usual with Ridley Scott, the unobtrusive camera feels like a character in its own right. It’s often our POV, moving gracefully and slowly when the scene is cautious; going handheld when it’s manic and panicked. A scene of Ripley, Dallas and Ash searching the medical room is played in a static, low camera angle, as if from the monster’s point of view, and it’s almost unbearably tense. Meanwhile, the design work of the sets and props is astonishing – again, a Ridley Scott trademark. You want to freeze-frame the movie just to check out the typography on wall panels. (The only flaw might be the Flash Gordon computer room, which feels too sci-fi for the industrial mood of the ship.) We famously never get much of a look at the fully grown alien, but the ideas behind its life cycle are horrific. This is all-out body horror where the victim is raped and forced to go through a violent labour. Terrifying.

Ten clinking chains out of 10

Next time: Ripley returns to the planet of the aliens…

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