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Alien: Review Rewind

It’s the film you immediately think about when we talk about science fiction horror. It has spawned countless, mediocre knockoffs all trying to cash in on a fantastic question, but never coming close to scratching the itch. Alien succeeded in so many ways because it was fresh at the time, but the reasons it continues to hold up through the years is a testament to themes that it tackled. It may seem odd to think about a film with elements like artificial intelligence, alien impregnation, and space travel as being a grounded experience. However, that feeling is what keeps you engaged the entire time and makes the ride all the more visceral and unnerving. With that in mind, here’s your Rewind Review of Alien

Summary

In space, no one can hear you scream.

It’s honestly the best, if not number one movie tagline ever uttered or written for a film. It captures so much in those few words, but asks enough questions to make you curious. What is making you scream? What would you do in a situation like this? How do you survive in a seemingly impossible situation? Fortunately for us, the film is able to answer these in spectacular fashion.

Alien follows the crew of the Nostromo, a mining vessel that has recently completed a job and is making the long journey home. Upon finding a beacon, the ship’s on-board computer MU-TH-UR (pronounced “mother”) takes them off-course to investigate planetoid LV-426. The “away team” comes across a derelict ship full of eggs and inadvertently opens one, revealing a creature that attaches to Kane’s face. As the crew debates on what to do, they learn a few of the alien’s attributes before it eventually releases itself and dies. After Kane dies in violent fashion from the xenomorph’s birth, the crew quickly realizes that they are dealing with something beyond their ability. What follows is a descent into madness that has rarely been matched in cinema since.

The Director’s Chair

Scott on the set of The Martian

While he has proven incredible ability since, Ridley Scott cemented himself as an impressive director when he knocked this out of the park. Though I’ve seen it countless times, it was a joy to re-watch this film for review as I caught some incredibly important aspects:

  • Scott’s minimal use of score is surprisingly loud. Compared to modern horror films that give away moments of tension by cueing up the soundtrack, Alien allows moments to happen and then infuses those with more tension when the score comes on the back-end. It also stands in stark contrast to the booming scores that proceeded it, like 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the score drives so much of the plot’s tension.
  • Speaking of 2001, the opening scenes are definitely invoking that vibe and inspire similar feelings of exploring the unknown grandeur of space only to eventually disrupt that later in the film.
  • Scott is also able to get normalized performances from his actors. I say it like that because its tempting to have your characters speak in unfamiliar ways in science fiction films. Scott is able to avoid this problem and the resulting realism is very telling. You are able to attach yourself to the characters more easily when they talk in relatable ways opposed to an overload of techno-jargon and/or stiff performances.
  • Taking a page out of the Spielberg minimalist playbook, Scott is very conservative in showing the xenomorph and only does a full reveal later in the film. While that later shot doesn’t exactly stand up, it doesn’t distract from the overall quality of the film because the selective usage achieved it’s desired effect: let the audience’s fear fill in the gaps of what they can’t see.

The Xenomorph Channels Rape Imagery

Arguably the most terrifying creature ever presented on screen, the xenomorph was the joint creation of screenwriter Dan O’Bannon, director Ridley Scott, and artist H.R. Giger. After O’Bannon introduced Giger’s work from the Necronom IV, Scott was sold that this creature vision was the correct call. With it’s bio-mechanical feel and dark, violently sexualized appearance, the xenomorph is precisely the kind of creation you want to stay in your nightmares and appear no where else. O’Bannon has stated that he wanted to create something that would “attack the audience sexually” and while the alien does that visually, the entire life cycle of the xenomorph does that equally across the sexes.

Take the face-hugger for example: It’s design has constantly been compared to reproductive anatomy, specifically female. Using that as the base, it subverts human impregnation by having a creature force itself onto a male, making Kane the carrier in a unwanted pregnancy. It places male characters, who usually hold the most powerful roles in science fiction, into a place of vulnerability.

The way a xenomorph fetus violently bursts from it’s host perverts traditional pregnancy. It’s also interesting that it comes out of the chest, a area of the human body usually associated with strength and nourishment between the sexes. By destroying this area when it emerges, it symbolically shatters a part of the crew’s humanity and leaves everyone in the audience clutching their own chests.

 

The fully mature xenomorph is a entity onto itself, a culmination of those previous elements whose sole purpose is to either kill or secure more hosts for its violently disruptive life cycle. As long as this enemy persists and stalks the crew, it stands as a constant reminder to the way it lives and propagates. All of these elements unsettle us and force the audience to address these issues when they leave the theater.

Ripley

Standing in the midst of all that subverted sexuality is Ellen Ripley

Going back to watch, I always remembered Sigourney Weaver’s character gaining more strength later on in the franchise. If you were to ask me before the re-watch, I would have said she didn’t gain confidence until her action packed sequel. However, I have to retract that previous thought because that’s not exactly what happens. Ripley’s character is actually pretty strong in the first film. It’s her male counterparts that are constantly undermining her ability and authority. Did you know that Ripley is second in command? It’s a little factoid that can get lost in the thrill of the film, but it’s a pretty important aspect. Why, you may ask? Well, she is adamant about not letting Kane on board the ship with a alien attached to his face (A decision that would have likely saved everyone…except Kane). She stands up to her commanding officer and is eventually undermined by the science officer Ash (Ian Holm). However, this little piece of information makes the audience side with her logic when we later figure out how dangerous this creature is.

Ripley’s character displays an innate amount of strength in the face of fear. Unfortunately by the end, Ripley still turns into as a semi-version of a horror “Final Girl”. Though It’s important to note her role as the logician in this film. It makes her eventual survival despite the odds make even more sense. Not to mention, it sets her up for a stronger arc in the sequel where she will confront this fear again and come out stronger on the other side.

Literal Space Truckers

Remember my comment about “normalized performances” above? Scott is able to craft a tale about ordinary people that just happens to be set in the future. And having a familiar feel and talk is paramount to achieving that. The conversations they have are paramount in creating that feel. Let’s talk about the very first moments of dialogue in the film: Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) launch into a conversation about bonuses. Why are they talking about that after a long hyper-sleep? For these miners, they are simply picking up where they left off before going to sleep. I love to think that they were having this argument before they went to sleep and naturally just continued it once they woke up.

What does this do for the audience? For one, it makes hyper-sleep seem like a normal, every day occurrence. We don’t question it too much because the film doesn’t make a big deal out of it. Second, it lets us know these people are just like us, even if it’s set years into the future. They are still having debates about the same issues we have. This stands in stark contrast to the future, utopian landscapes of the Federation in Star Trek or the Alliance in Firefly. This realism is important because it helps ground the parts that will eventually require the audience to suspend their disbelief, an action we are all too ready to do because of the setup we are given.

You know why the chest-buster scene works? Obviously, there’s the scene explanation from Scott that kept the reveal a surprise from the crew. But, going back to our natural conversation thread above, they are still trying to return to normal after an abnormal encounter. They talk about the quality of the food, looking forward to home, and a variety of mundane, average small talk. It’s not until the chest-buster comes out that the chance for normal is completely shattered.

Homegrown Effects

If you’ve read one of my reviews, you know how much I love practical effects. This film continues to shine because everything in it is real. There’s no CGI monster running around devouring our foes; it feels like an actual terror raining down on them. The ship looks like a practical mining ship, or as practical as a future mining ship could look. The buttons and computers were made using the tech of the day and were conservative in how far they took advanced the look of it. It made everything look like terminals or consoles that you could figure out or work yourself.

Let’s go back to CGI monsters for a second. Stepping away from human operators is definitely a decision that has hindered future entries in the franchise. There hasn’t been a xenomorph CGI model that matches the original or the ones seen in Aliens. And you need the title character to look good. When you fail to take care of this critical part, you get the bullshit below from Alien 3

Not sure what she’s scared? Me neither

In a still frame, that actually doesn’t look too bad. In motion, it’s an absolute train wreck and takes me out of the experience. Now, Alien does have one scene that doesn’t hold up and that’s the death scene of Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) and Parker. There’s a really weird floating effect they attempted to do with the xenomorph that simply doesn’t work. Especially after multiple viewings, it’s the one area of the film I roll my eyes at, every single time.

There’s the occasional scene where you notice the transition from real to puppetry, like Ash’s broken head. Overall, these moments don’t take me out of the experience and still hold up fairly well.  I’m definitely willing to give it a break given what they accomplished during that time period.

“God Damn Robot”

How else would you react to one of your co-workers being…uh…not human

I love Parker’s line after we figure out Ash’s real identity; It matches the audience thoughts exactly. Especially when you think the situation can’t get any worse or weirder, the movie finds one more avenue to drive down. Ash’s actions throughout the film still work even after watching it multiple times. Opening the airlock door, (not sure if they meant that as a joke to Hal 9000, but it’s still funny looking back,) seems like the humane thing to do, but we understand later how deadly it was. His attempt to persuade Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt) from operating on Kane was likely giving the creature time to finish it’s process. Yes, Ash was likely unaware of how exactly the xenomorph functioned, but could likely make some educated guesses. He does assist in creating some tech to find the xenomorph, but he likely knows this help is in vain given what he knows.

So what purpose does Ash serve in the film by doing those actions? One, he represents the company and the scary reality of towing the company line until death. Second, while we already have to deal with our interpretation of the xenomorph, the film introduces an additional wrinkle by making us confront our fear of artificial intelligence. While the xenomorph subverts our notions of sexuality, Ash’s character makes us deal with how much trust should we place in a machine and what do we do when that trust has been misplaced? It almost sounds like too many things to happen in the same film, but it definitely enhances the conversation.

Wrap-Up

There’s a reason every sci-fi horror film has used this movie as a playbook. They do it because Alien has set a bar that few even come close to nearly 40 years afterwards. Even re-watching this film with fresh eyes, there’s really nothing I would change (except that one weird shot I already mentioned). I’m constantly impressed by the small details and scene development that have allowed this one to stand the test of time. So you likely won’t be surprised or disagree with my score

Rewind Review Score: 10 out of 10

If you don’t have your own copy, or you haven’t had the terror/joy of seeing Alien yet, you can pick up a copy below

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