The tagline for Ridley Scott’s 1979 “Alien” is, “In space no one can hear you scream,” and is it ever appropriate. “Alien” is a claustrophobic film that makes you feel just as isolated, desperate, and lonely as its characters. The look, the feel, and the sensation of being in space seems real, mostly thanks to some breathtaking set designs. “Alien” looks good.
The forerunner to James Cameron’s Humans vs. Aliens opus, “Alien” is the movie that started it all. The film follows the 7 crewmen of the Nostromo, a commercial spaceship carrying minerals back to Earth, when a distress signal sends them to an alien planet to investigate. The crew, led by Dallas (Tom Skerritt) finds a dead alien pilot on a ship that had crashed there many years ago. The crew also discovers hundreds of cocoon-like pods, and out of one pod springs an alien fetus (later to be known by sci-fi fans everywhere as a Facehugger) that latches onto the face of a crewmember.
The rest of the plot is common knowledge, including what the Facehuggers do: they lay egg in their hosts (human or otherwise) and die off. The egg, inside the host, grow into an alien creature that bursts out of the host’s chest and grows into a full-fledged acid-spewing killing machine. It is not pretty.
Like “Aliens”, “Alien” takes its time getting to the action. By the time the alien bursts out of a crewmember’s chest and flees into hiding, we are well past the hour mark. The movie runs slightly under 2 hours, and the second half of the film is focused on the hunt (the crew hunts the alien, which in turn hunts them), when the film turns up the action and the killings begin.
The first half is all exposition and outstanding set pieces and more than a little bit of paranoia involving Ash (Ian Holm), a crewmember who, it turns out, is actually a synthetic robot bent on bringing the alien specimen home at all cost. The ship and its artificial intelligence computer, nicknamed Mother, are in cahoots with Ash, and the two cares very little for the humans onboard the Nostromo. Director Ridley Scott (“Blackhawk Down”) uses a lot of brief close-ups and hidden glances on the Ash character to let us know that not all is what it appears to be, and neither is Ash.
Despite being a very thrilling film, I have two quibbles with the film. There is the whole notion of cigarettes. The crew smokes like chimneys, which leaves me to wonder how this is possible since I would think smoking is detrimental to people who needs excellent health to thrive in a space environment. Or can any Joe Schmoe go up in space and live out there for long stretches in the future?
The other quibble is with the cat, Jonesy. I can swallow that the cryo chambers (the beds that allows the crew to sleep through long stretches of space travel) can be modified to accommodate a cat, but who is feeding this thing? Who is cleaning up after it? And whom does it belong to in the first place? Better yet, the Nostromo is a cargo ship, and if everyone is so deferential to the “Company” (the background corporation that owns the ship), wouldn’t bringing something as personal as a pet on a long official mission through space be a little…against protocol?
Besides the presence of Jonesy probably being illegal (not to mention illogical), the cat also provides the movie with its silliest moments. On more than one occasion crewmembers are sent in search of the cat while a dangerous, murderous alien is stalking the ship’s corridors! While I’m sure that whoever owns the cat (I’m assuming it’s Ripley) loves it, would you really risk your life, and the lives of your crewmember, to go chasing it all over the ship? I think not. As a result of Jonesy’s presence the film loses a lot of intellectual points.
“Alien” is an all-around strong film marred by some silly additions of the feline element. Its “high-tech” set pieces are a little out of date (in particular the Mother chamber, which is covered in blinking lights (?)), but it’s still a terrifically paranoid and intense movie, and definitely worthy of a franchise.
Ridley Scott (director) / Dan O’Bannon, Ronald Shusett, David Giler, Walter Hill (screenplay)
CAST: Tom Skerritt …. Dallas
Sigourney Weaver …. Ripley
Veronica Cartwright …. Lambert
Harry Dean Stanton …. Brett
John Hurt …. Kane