Alien Week: Alien (1979)
The late seventies era, when the rebel yell of the new Hollywood movement had quelled, lended to the legitimization of genre films; where sci-fi and horror were dominated by giant insects and space movies by producers like Roger Corman and William Castle.
Everything innovative and influential in modern film goes back to the late seventies and directors like William Friedkin, Steven Spielberg, and Roman Polanski were legitimizing these particular genres in ways that were both satisfying on an aesthetic level while striking gold at the box office. Ridley Scott, outside the camp of the American New Wave, took the best of both worlds, the result being Alien which changed moviemaking in more ways than one.
Scott’s second feature is a perfect example of everything coming together. A collaboration of talent on all fronts, behind and in front of the camera, everyone is working at the maxim of their potential, and years later the end result is an unrivaled classic. From H.R. Giger’s storyboards and concept art, Shussett and O'Bannon's screenplay, Derek Vanlit’s moody cinematography, the incomparable Jerry Goldsmith's score, and a visual effects team who, with Scott redefined the landscape of horror.
Led by a varied cast whose casual worldly formation make the blue-collar crew of the Nostromo all the most tangible; there’s no weak link. While Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley would become a pillar for feminine badasses in cinema, Tom Skerritt, Yaphet Kotto, Harry Dean Stanton, Ian Holm, personal favorite John Hurt, and the always short staffed Veronica Cartwright are an ensemble crew.
Stanley Kubrick ingrained audiences with his technical refinement with 2001: A Space Odyssey, a brilliant if a bit cold around the edges sci-fi epic. Making the intangential tangible isn’t easily afforded in science fiction, especially a space-cum-horror tale; but the Nostromo crew is unlike the body count lemmings that populate elimination horror.
Harry Dean Stanton and Yaphet Kotto have the gruff, jokey playfulness that reminds of your favorite mechanic, your dad, and uncle who are working on the family car. Tom Skerritt as Dallas is the perfectly humble leader, reluctant to the derelict vessel's distress signal, but he’s following company orders. John Hurt, the “first one to go,” feels the least deserving, whose innocence and sheer helplessness is heartbreaking (especially in light of his recent passing), and there’s a Christ metaphor if you want to pick that up. In what might be one of the film's many nerve-fraying moments is the milk white gushing reveal of science officer Ash, whose indifference to human life can only be the actions of an android (well, the A/2's were always a bit twitchy...).
In his CPU, the xenomorph is a perfect organism. Scott and Bannon’s dehumanizing of what was the no-nonsense mindset embodied by former science officers (a la Spock from Star Trek) achieved by taking ‘human’ out of the equation entirely. Ash is wonderfully realized by the icier than thou Holm; his literal meltdown is one of the most imaginative and scary sequences. Showcasing how darkly expressionistic Scott could be as a director so early in his career.
While Cartwright’s Lambert has been on the short side of fan response, she might actually be the most human character in the film. Is there any rational person think they’d behave any differently to seeing their fellow crew member's chest explode, and the rest consumed by an unstoppable killing machine? Veronica Cartwright doesn’t have the easiest job but her performance is committed and unrightfully scorned.
If we’re talking about the advancement of sci-fi as horror, Alien is the bedrock of actualizing its material with the veneer of a thorough production; through a mannered level of carnage, deft execution and slow-burning suspense which functions seamlessly. The marriage of very high art with a genre not known for artistic relevance, can subtly choke the air out of you while igniting its conceptual dynamite. Ridley Scott’s direction is adventurous but cloistered and achingly suspenseful; oozing with atmosphere and recognizably scary.
For all the brilliant and timeless sets and special effects Alien is driven by its protagonist, Ripley, whose presiding feminist reputation feels incidental to her being a strong character powered by powerful performance. If 2004's Alien vs. Predator has taught us anything, it’s that the series relies on more than just xenomorphs. Ridley Scott is a rare breed, just as much a showman there’s dedication to the craft of making a movie, an auteur whose commitment to a genre is dependent upon originality and forging new ground.