RogerBW's Blog

Alien 23 December 2021

1979 science fiction horror, dir. Ridley Scott, Tom Skerritt, Sigourney Weaver: IMDb / allmovie. Nobody listens to the woman, and as a result they all die.

This was almost a Roger Corman film. But after Star Wars everyone was scrabbling around for a sci-fi script that they could use to cash in (big-budget Hollywood is all about being the second to do something innovative), and this one ended up with a bit more money behind it.

It also got H. R. Giger, Ron Cobb, and Moebius working on various parts of the visual design, and I suspect that alone would have made it memorable, even if it hadn't had a cast of experienced actors (plus Weaver, unknown at this point) and a director who'd go on to make Blade Runner. The ship internals in particular were a revelation: compare something like Silent Running, with its flat panels and occasional decoration, with this, where every surface is textured even if it's not filled with switches and buttons. How many spaceships before this point had a keyboard? And it's a multi-stage dressing of the set, too: it's not just that we have a panel full of switches, it's that there is also a coffee cup in a place where clearly no coffee cup should be. It clearly owes a lot to oil rigs and big mining trucks, a system designed by people who wouldn't have to use it themselves that's then had other people applying personal touches, and that visual style has been copied all over the place.

As for the filming, there's a clear Hollywood New Wave influence: the five minutes of silence at the start, and particularly a late scene where three survivors are discussing what to do in the main crew room: some of them are nearly out of shot, and facing away from any microphones so that their dialogue's practically inaudible. It's very naturalistic, but not at all what people expected of crash-bang science fiction. (Similarly, nobody ever bothers to mention that the company has a bioweapons division, or that androids are a thing; contrast Aliens, where Cameron's foreshadowing gets quite heavy-handed.) These are not Sci-Fi Heroes: they are, like many horror protagonists, just the poor suckers who happened to be standing there when the monster went off.

Of course, there was studio interference too: Scott had originally wanted to end with Ripley getting her head bitten off by the alien, which would then make the final log entry in her voice. Why? Well, horror films at the time were expected to have a downbeat ending… but I can't say that this would have improved the film. (Even if it's a bit odd that a shuttle should have an easy way of dumping toxic chemicals into its cabin.) But this was before the convention of the final girl had become established, so the survival of the least-known actor among the cast would have been a greater surprise to contemporary audiences.

And what a cast! Everyone except Weaver was an established name; Hurt and Holm alone could have made the film superbly watchable, but everyone's solid here. One scene in particular stands out to me: after Ripley has argued that the contaminated crew should remain in the airlock to follow quarantine procedures, and Ash has defied orders to let them in anyway, the two of them have an argument in the lab. The framing is very much the cold-hearted rule-follower versus the emotional hero (Captain Kirk wouldn't have followed quarantine rules if he thought he could save a crewman's life!); but on a rewatch we notice that it's also the future sole survivor versus the company stooge who regards the whole crew as expendable, and that does feed into the acting.

Yes, of course there are the big shock moments: the initial attack in the egg chamber, and the dinner scene. The latter does have an air of let-down for me now: they're so proud of that puppet, they show it so clearly, and it just looks a bit naff, compared with the really good physical acting and other effects that have been going on up to this point. (Also of course there should be a lot more blood.) But for me the best shock scene was Dallas in the ducts, which effectively builds up tension and then pays it off without filling the screen with flying body parts. (I wonder whether that's why the deaths of Parker and Lambert then felt anticlimactic; everyone else has been killed in a way that made sense according to their established characters, and all right Lambert freezing up is consistent with what we've seen of her before, but it's much more of a conventional monster attack than what's mostly gone before.)

This film is a case of all the bits lining up right.

As usual if you want more of my witterings you should listen to Ribbon of Memes.

  1. Posted by Owen Smith at 05:27pm on 23 December 2021

    Wasn't this film largely responsible for starting the convention of the final girl suriving?

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 05:36pm on 23 December 2021

    It was certainly one of the films that showed that it was a thing audiences would accept.

    In terms of horror, there had been a few examples before this, most notably Sally Hardesty in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Laurie Strode in Halloween (1978) – which have a little more of the element of characters getting killed off in descending order of moral turpitude, though the Friday the 13th series (from 1980) really made that a key component. (Another thing that Scott wanted to do here that the studio wouldn't let him was to show everyone on the crew – except Ash – as having casually slept with each other before.)

  3. Posted by Owen Smith at 04:00pm on 24 December 2021

    There's a cut scene I've watched somewhere where Ripley is quizzing Lambert about who she's slept with, since as the two women on the crew it only takes the two of them to spot that no-one has slept with Ash. That assumes all of the crew are entirely hetero, I don't know whether Scott was concerned about that or was picking his battles (that he lost anyway).

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