Alien: A Retrospective Film Review

In space no one can hear you scream goes the tagline of one of the most important films, in not only the horror genre, but science fiction film history. In the seventies, the decade of the original Star Wars film, Alien (1979) was the culmination of a merging of both horror and science fiction to sublime effect. Alien was in many respects the ultimate video nasty – that VHS your father would warn you never to touch due to the evil within that would stamp itself on your young mind.

The cast of Alien (1979)
The cast of Alien (1979) L-R John Hurt, Veronica Cartwright, Tome Skerritt, Yaphet Kotto, Sigourney Weaver, Harry Dean Stanton and Ian Holm.

At first look things didn’t bode well for little known British film director Ridley Scott, whose only experience with film was a small Napoleonic historical feature The Duellists. He bought a script by Dan O’Bannon bizarrely titled ‘Star Beast’ and hired a Swiss surrealist painter called H.R. Giger as a creature designer. All this spelled a low budget B-movie affair as opposed to a classic film that ‘Alien’ has become.

Director Ridley Scott on the set of Alien (1979)
Director Ridley Scott discussing the next shot with the crew on the set of Alien (1979)

The entire aesthetic of Alien like the original Star Wars film was based around a gritty, used and realistic future. In this reality the world weary cast (much older than most slasher film fare) were portrayed as average corporate joes working a company mission for their ‘shares’. From the beginning of the film it is made apparent that the expected hero is Captain Dallas (Tom Skeritt) as opposed to Lt. Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), who is expected to be the horror obligatory damsel in distress. From the beginning of the film there is a forbidding sense of weird Lovecraftian dread seething under the surface, as a distress signal is picked up by the mining space ship Nostromo’s computer MU-TH-UR 6000. Thus leading the crew through hazy helmet cams and radio static to a planet (LV-426) where a downed derelict alien spacecraft, shaped like a beckoning woman’s legs is found complete with a plethora of menacing eggs and a huge elephant faced fossilised creature.

A still image from the film Alien 1979
The gritty futuristic dystopia was popular in Sci-Fi in the late 70s and early 80s.

Alien is a triumph in astrobiology in depicting an alien life forms life cycle. Shockingly one of the alien eggs opens and a ‘facehugger’ attacks the erstwhile crew member Kane (John Hurt) and a power struggle between Ripley and Dallas arises when she refuses them entry to the ship with the parasite attached to Kane, on quarantine grounds. The company science officer Ash (Ian Holm) lets the crew back aboard and his attempts to remove the creature from Kane’s face is unsuccessful. Eventually the creature falls off and dies and Kane awakens seemingly fine. What follows is one of the most powerful scenes in film history. Ridley Scott did not inform the cast in the script what was going to happen leading to genuine reactions of horror and dread when Kane (John Hurt) writhes and convulses as the phallic alien ‘chestburster’ pops through his body much to the horror of the audience and crew alike. Essentially the film plays on a horrifying psycho sexual male fear of rape as the phallic ‘chestburster’ and vaginal ‘facehugger’ attack in a penetrating manner.

the chestburster from Alien 1979
The infamous ‘chestburster’ from the film Alien (1979)

Quickly the film takes on a haunted house in space scenario as the eponymous alien becomes even bigger and more menacing.  The suspense for the final reveal of the Alien is superb as we are given only brief glimpses of the creature throughout. Systematically it kills off the crew one by one. Brett, Parker and Lambert and the thought to be hero Captain Dallas who buys it in a climatic air duct scene, leaving the crew’s safety in Ripley’s hands. Ash is revealed to be an android under company orders to retrieve the Alien alive with all other crew expendable. He is eventually taken out by the other crew members. The Alien eventually kills off everyone except for Ripley and the ship’s cat Jonesy. Ripley  is forced to set the ship to self-destruct and escape with the shuttle. The alien sneaks aboard and she is forced in her catharsis to blow it out the air lock in the culmination of the film’s action, leaving her in hyper sleep adrift in space.

The xenomorph alien from Alien 1979
The terrifying xenomorph from Alien (1979).

Alien was received with huge critical and box office acclaim upon its release. It won the 1979 Academy Award for Visual Effects and was inducted into the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 2002 for historical preservation as a film which is “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. It spawned three sequels and several prequels to varying degrees of success, although none of them bar James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) matched the purity and horror of the original film. Many have imitated yet few have come close to the power of the original.

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