Ridley Scott, 1979
Starring: Sigourney Weaver, John Hurt, Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto
Nostromo, a commercial spaceship, is returning to Earth when it receives a distress signal. The ship’s computer automatically wakes up the crew, all seven of whom were in stasis. The signal is coming from a small, nearby planet and Captain Dallas, the second in command, Kane, and navigational officer Lambert go to explore. On the planet they find an abandoned alien spaceship and the remains of an alien creature. Kane finds an enormous cave full of eggs. One opens and a strange creature attaches itself to his face, possibly killing him. Dallas and Lambert take him back to the ship, but Ripley, third in command, refuses to let them back on due to quarantine issues. She is intentionally ignored by the science officer, Ash, who lets them on in order to examine Kane and the creature.
Eventually the creature falls off of Kane’s face and dies, though Ash studies it. The Nostromo begins heading back towards Earth when Kane wakes up, seemingly fine. Unfortunately during a celebratory dinner, something bursts out of his chest, killing him, and escapes. It hides in the dark recesses of the ship. They go after it, but it quickly grows to mature size and is incredibly lethal: eight feet tall, immensely strong, and with acidic blood that can eat through the ship. First it kills Brett and then others. Can the surviving crew members destroy it before it slaughters them all?
Along with The Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Halloween, Alien is undoubtedly one of the most influential and popular horror films of the ‘70s, if not of all time. The alien creature, designed by Swiss artist H.R. Giger, has become iconic in the horror world and, next to John Carpenter’s The Thing, is probably the most convincingly terrifying alien in all of horror cinema. Part of what makes Alien so memorable is that the film stands on more than its monster. There is excellent pacing and a wonderful, suitably alien score from Jerry Goldsmith, but I think one of Alien’s most memorable elements is that the script made all the characters non gender specific. While Alien otherwise bears some things in common with ‘70s slasher films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Black Christmas, Alien excels because its main cast of characters are all adults, unlike most slasher films, and its “Final Girl,” Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley, does not stand out simply because of her gender.
Arguably there is one major flaw. In the concluding scene, where Ripley has a final face off against the alien in the ship’s control room, she is inexplicably forced to stand around in some very skimpy underwear. This is absurd compared to the film’s overall insistence on gender neutrality and it is difficult to forgive this ridiculous moment. But in general, the acting is strong and though the script does more than barely sketch out the characters, the cast is memorable. Aside from newcomer Sigourney Weaver in her first starring role as warrant officer Ellen Ripley, the other actors are equally balanced enough to prevent us from guessing who will die first.
Veronica Cartwright (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) as Lambert is probably the most annoying member of the cast, whining and crying her way through much of the film. The script is probably more to blame than Cartwright herself. She believed she was hired to play Ripley, but was replaced at the last minute by Weaver. Cartwright also received a nasty surprise during filming. During the dinner scene, the cast had a limited understanding that an alien would burst out of John Hurt’s chest. They weren't told that a whole lot of blood and gore would come with it too. When Cartwright gets covered in blood, her horrified, somewhat hysterical reaction is real.
Ian Holm (Lord of the Rings) was the most experienced actor on set and plays one of the most memorable characters, the science officer Ash, who has a very creepy secret. Just behind him in experience was John Hurt (The Elephant Man) as the unfortunate Kane. The cast was rounded out by Yaphet Kotto (The Running Man, Live and Let Die), Tom Skerritt (MASH, The Devil’s Rain), and Harry Dean Stanton (Repo Man). Nigerian student Bolaji Badejo was discovered and cast as the Alien, because of his height and slender frame.
Script writer and Alien creator Dan O’Bannon got his start working with John Carpenter on Dark Star and later went on to write and direct Return of the Living Dead. He believed he would direct Alien, but was replaced by the up-and-coming Ridley Scott, who had just finished directing his acclaimed first feature, The Duelists. O’Bannon still had a fair amount of control over the production and brought in a number of artists he met while working on the failed Dune adaptation. In addition to Giger, who created most of the film’s incredible visuals, artists Ron Cobb and Chris Foss also worked on the film.
Strictly speaking, O’Bannon didn't do anything original here; he just expertly blended a number of elements. Alien has basically the same plot structure of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians aka And Then There Were None, which was adapted for the screen many times, most famously in 1945. A number of people trapped in a house are murdered one by one and the surviving members must hunt down the killer before it is too late. Alien also borrows liberally from Mario Bava’s underrated Planet of the Vampires, one of the finest sci-fi horror films ever made. O’Bannon and Ridley Scott both claimed to never have seen it, but the similarities are remarkable. The lamentable Alien prequel, Prometheus, also blatantly rips off both plot and costumes from Planet of the Vampires.
There are a number of other influences, namely earlier science fiction films, including The Thing from Another World (1951). And despite no obvious connection to H.P. Lovecraft, there is also an undeniably Lovecraftian feel to the film with its themes of a cold, almost predatory universe, claustrophobic loneliness, and the threat of nature and creation itself. As with several ‘80s horror films, namely the work of David Cronenberg, Alien is also undeniably body horror with the overwhelmingly sexualized set designs that indicate a fear of sexuality, procreation, pregnancy, and rape.
There isn’t a whole lot about Alien I can say that hasn’t been said before, but it comes with the highest possible recommendation and remains one of my favorite mainstream horror films. Incredibly successful, Alien received a number of awards, kicked off Sigourney Weaver’s career, and spawned a number of sequels, comics, action figures, etc. It’s available on Blu-ray, but I highly recommend the Alien Quadrilogy set, which includes all four films - Alien, Aliens, Alien 3, and Alien Resurrection - and an impressive amount of special features.