The Talented Ms. Ripley
Alien (1979): 10 out of 10: A cargo ship the USCSS Nostromo is diverted to an uninhabited planet to investigate a distress call. All is not as it seems, and the crew unwittingly takes on a stowaway. Alien is one of the greatest science fiction films ever made.
The Good: Everything. Okay, let me break it down a bit. The acting is top-notch across the board. This was a star-making role for Sigourney Weaver who, despite starring in such films as Avatar, Ghostbusters, Working Girl, Gorillas in the Mist etc, is still best known for her role as Ellen Ripley. (Which, in all fairness, she was nominated for both an Oscar and Golden Globe for her performance as Ripley in the sequel Aliens. She lost both to Marlee Matlin, who didn’t even have a flamethrower. You know Sigourney is getting up there in years and, despite three nominations, has never won an Oscar. Might be time for one of those nobody likes you that much, but you might die soon Oscar (Academy Honorary Award). She will have to get in line behind Glenn Close though.)
Another note: Sigourney Weaver was nominated for Bafta as Most Promising Newcomer (Along with Gary Busey and Ray Winstone). All three of them lost to a chap named Dennis Christopher who was in Breaking Away, then went on to a supporting role in Chariots of Fire. After Chariots, Dennis spent an awful lot of time afterwards as a picture on a milk carton. He did, however, manage to get some bus fare and arrive on the set on a movie called Alien Predator, which had neither the creature from Alien nor the creature from Predator. (And predates the AVP universe by quite a few years). Alien Predator was renamed by its distributors to The Falling before all the lawsuits. In a twist I did not see coming, it turns out Alien Predator is actually a pretty entertaining film. Still really BAFTAs?
Speaking of entertaining films, where was I? Oh yes, I am reviewing the movie Alien. There are two characters that to me really emphasize why Alien is a step above a regular monster on the loose movie. Brett played by Harry Dean Stanton (Repo Man) and Parker played by Yaphet Kotto (Across 110th Street). Brett and Parker are the maintenance men of the space freighter and delightfully, for much of the running time, seem to be in a different movie. Stanton and Kotto are like every subcontractor I have ever hired. They shirk their work, argue for a raise constantly (a bigger share), do a half-assed duct tape job when they actually work. They are easily my favorite characters.
They also expose a serious problem with a lot of Science Fiction. A working spaceship is going to have some blue-collar workers. Yet too many spaceships seem to have people more familiar with Shakespeare than socket wrenches. Since Alien there have been better attempts to be more realistic about the type of people appearing in the future. (Star Trek, the science fiction property I think of first when I make this criticism, even has finally created an animated show called Lower Decks to focus on the non-heroes in Starfleet. It looks like a silly comedy but that is still refreshing.). After Alien, there were some serious attempts to represent the poor and the working class in space. Total Recall being a good example.
Outside the acting and characters, we have the Xenomorph. Now, while our Alien does sometimes have jazz hands. (Okay, just that one scene). It is truly a scary creature. It is also stealthy. There are a couple of scenes where the alien is visible in the shot’s background, but you won’t realise it until repeat viewings it hides so well. And the face huggers are a design masterpiece, complete with every Sci-Fi fan’s perfect Easter gift.
Last, I want to talk about the filmmaking and special effects. This is a beautifully shot film. The practical model effects are some of the best I have ever seen and are really superior to current CGI designs. The set dressing and design of both the Alien planet and the USCSS Nostromo are excellent. Alien is a film from 1979, so the ship’s computers are hopelessly out of date. In fact, there are so out of date it lends an almost retro cyberpunk vibe watching the film today. Also, everyone smokes like a chimney which may surprise modern audiences. (I will have more to say about that in my review of Aliens).
The Bad: There was some hubbub when Humanoids of the Deep came out a year later with a final scene that was a direct ripoff of the Alien chest burster. Oh, my sweet summer children.
Like Jaws before it and Die Hard after it, Alien became its own trope codifier. As a result, Alien style films became all the rage for B movie producers. (And some A movie types as well.) It was not just the story, either. If I see one more film that takes place in a hallway that looks suspiciously like the USCSS Nostromo with chains and water cascading from the ceiling it is probably a Saturday because that is when I watch a B movie and a lot of them seem to ape the Alien interior look. It is scary, effective, and cheap, so I understand the appeal. But when your mountain top lab looks just like a space freighter, that is a bit lazy (Looking your way, Alien Lockdown).
It is not just the endless homages from filmmakers that lessen the effect of watching Alien for the first time. Sigourney Weaver was unknown when she made Alien in 1979. She literally had a relatively minor role in Madman (1978) with F. Murray Abraham that has only 142 ratings on IMDb and no external reviews. Outside of that, a few TV projects, and a walk on blink and you miss it scene in Annie Hall. Alien was her first starring role. There is no sign during the film she would be the final girl. (She does such horror trope things as go for the cat while the alien is loose. A death sentence in pretty much any film of the genre.) Basically, with twenty minutes left, you come to the realization she is the only one left alive.
Like Sigourney Weaver being the heroine, the chest burster scene is so much a part of popular culture its ability to shock, as it did in 1979, is lost. (Alien is hardly the only film to suffer this fate. Jason’s scene with the canoe at the end of 1980s Friday the 13th was so shocking at the time it caused (name redacted) to break our glass coffee table with her foot. Nowadays, such a scene is almost mandatory in a slasher film.)
There are a ton of other things Alien introduced or codified in science fiction. One of Alien’s strengths, however, may also be a weakness. It may seem an awfully slow film to modern audiences. Take what Roger Ebert says in his review of Alien “A recent version of this story would have hurtled toward the part where the alien jumps on the crew members. Today’s slasher movies, in the sci-fi genre and elsewhere, are all pay off and no buildup.” He is right, of course. But part of that is the expectation of modern audiences. It is why so many movies (and books) start thier stories in medias res. Can’t let the audience with endless choices be distracted with a tweet or a TikTok.
Alien starts slow and builds the pace slowly. (An interesting comparison to Aliens, which introduces the aliens early through a dream sequence and is relentless in its last hour.)
The Ugly: Alien 3.
In Conclusion: Alien is a refreshing hardish sci-fi from a different age. Alien is both entertaining and brilliant. Like its brother from another mother Predator, the original film is better and deeper than it had any right to be.