Alien (1979): A Timeless Classic
There are very few films in the history of cinema that have been as revolutionary as the genre-bending, enveloping-pushing fright fest that is Ridley Scott’s Alien. Though it’s been released nearly forty years ago, the movie, released in 1979, looks and feels as if it could have been produced yesterday, employing powerful visual effects that rival even the most sophisticated of what Hollywood has to offer in modern times. On all fronts, Alien is a flawless film – and that’s not up for debate. But where would one begin, in attempting to decipher the reasons for the longevity and sheer power of the film?
I suppose that you could start with the environment in which Scott presents us with in the film. The immaculate set design is a hook straight from the start; though the story is of top quality, with a screenplay written by Dan O’Bannen, the film could have easily fallen into b-movie territory had it not been provided with the proper treatment that it so rightfully deserved. It’s the kind of tale that will suck you in and leave you completely entranced, but it’s the visuals that give the viewer the initial punch to the gut in order to get the viewer’s attention. The film starts off with the unrelenting bleakness that is outer space with the crew of the commercial starship Nostromo investigating a distress call on an alien ship. While the crew takes their first breaths outside of cryosleep, we are greeted to an immersive and highly intricate design of the interior of the ship, with everything seeming completely functional and nothing out of place. And although the Nostromo’s design is more 2001 and less H.R. Giger than what the film is remembered for, it’s still worth noting how impressive it is nonetheless – even if it’s just a footnote in the grand scheme of things.
Because the ship’s design, astounding as it may be, cannot compete with Giger’s creature design, or the absolutely awe-inspiring visuals that we are greeted to upon the arrival of the crew to the alien’s distress call. The first moments of Kane (John Hurt) descending into the threshold and gazing upon the space jockey, coupled with the seemingly endless amount of eggs are the stuff of beautiful nightmares. It’s some scary scenery, undoubtedly – but there’s a morbid beauty in this silent landscape. The inherent sense of wonder in all humans, regardless of the situation, is most likely a major factor in this phenomenon.
The film’s pacing is also one of the biggest factors of Alien’s success, something that Ripley Scott added into O’Bannen’s original screenplay. According to Bannon, in an interview by David Konow, published by Tested.com in 2013:
“I didn’t write ‘play it slow’, which is what Ridley did! He played it slow and he was damn lucky that slow worked so well for that kind of material. It could be deadly, but in this case, it worked fine. I had imagined it unfolding more rapidly, but I also believed in taking your first act to set up your situation and not firing off all of your guns in it, because that doesn’t leave you anywhere to go in the second half.”
While Alien does indeed ‘play it slow’, there are certainly no points in the film at all that feel as if the movie is dragging on – each scene is deliberate, and coupled with the gritty eye candy of each frame, every second feels like a gift to the viewer. The alien’s development as well helps the film progress naturally while also taking it slow, as it is constantly changing and morphing until we see its final, terrifying form. But before we discuss the alien itself, there’s much more to be said about the pacing, especially in regards to Sigourney Weaver’s character in the film.
The genius of Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is that, much like in this article, she is given basically no character development until halfway through, at which point she takes the bull by the horns and emerges as the hero, the victor, the undisputed female champion of the horror survivor-type. The entire first half of the movie leads one to believe on first viewing that the main protagonist is Dallas, played by Tom Skerritt, the captain of the ship, only for that expectation to be completely shattered by his death off screen. It is at this point that Ripley assumes command and steps up to the plate, becoming the most iconic character in the film and creating an almost symbiotic relationship with the alien (who is not yet known by the title of “Xenomorph” yet) throughout her entire professional career.
Alien throws yet another curveball as to the question of who the real antagonist is as well – yes, we know that the monster here is the alien, but the android Ash (Ian Holm) was the one to set this all in motion. The film has many, many layers, and peeling them back reveals that it’s not as simple as it may seem from the start. How villainous is Ash, truly? If his prime directive was to retrieve the alien at all costs, and he knowingly did this, which in turn killed most of the crew, is he the villain after all? It’s all a matter of perspective, but’s it’s a wonderful element that, once again, is overlooked.
It’s understandable that many of these themes and other facets of the movie become completely overshadowed by the alien. H.R. Giger’s work has bordered on the terrifying, the obscene, and the darkly perverse; all of which can be seen in the design of the alien itself. Most of the terror of the film comes from the use of shadows and uncertainty of where the alien will strike next, and for the better part of the film, the alien is only seen in bits and pieces, making it all the more powerful when it is finally revealed in all of its monstrous glory. The alien, which was simply a man in a suit, is terrifying. It is unrelenting, powerful, and out for blood – but it only works so well because of the design and the execution. While many critics have stated that the final, full reveal of the alien killed the suspense, I have always seen it more as a bomb that’s finally exploded.
Maybe it’s just that; maybe it’s the suspense that has carried the film so strongly throughout the years. We could sit here and discuss how everything looked all day, but Alien’s success might be able to be truly pinpointed right down to the way it’s made us fans feel for so many years. It’s agonizingly suspenseful and scary, with a supporting cast that makes it hurt each time one of them is killed off, which can be contributed back to O’Bannon and the plays in equal measure. It’s got great acting, an amazing, tasteful score, and a decent amount of hard science fiction mixed with horror.
Though the movie is tense and bleak throughout, it ends on a serene, almost sweet note of Ripley falling back into cryosleep in her escape pod after defeating the monster. It’s a fitting conclusion, one that makes the entire ride feel more than worth it.