Scrambled or sunny-side up?
If horror movies have taught us anything (and believe me, they have) it's that aliens are evil creatures bent on world domination and/or human-eating. Sure, some movies want to portray the aliens as benevolent creatures, such as “A.I.” or “Close Encounters Of The Third Kind” but the majority of alien-based movies go straight for horror. A mixture of the unknown and the potential for easy scares is just too hard to pass up. While there have been scary alien-based movies for decades, there is one movie that stands above the rest, not just in terms of scares, but in terms of actual importance.
Alien is a 1979 science fiction horror movie written by Dan O'Bannon (Heavy Metal, Total Recall) and directed by Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Gladiator). The movie stars Sigourney Weaver (Ghostbusters, Galaxy Quest) as Officer Ripley. Ripley works on commercial towing spaceship Nostromo which is towing a refinery filled with ore back to Earth. The seven member crew receives a transmission of unknown origin from a nearby planet. Ordered by their employer, the Nostromo detaches from the refinery and lands on the planet. The landing is rough, damaging the ship and forcing part of the crew to make necessary repairs. Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt, Top Gun, Contact), the navigator Lambert (Veronica Cartwright, The Birds, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers), and Officer Kane (John Hurt, Midnight Express, 1984) explore that planet in hopes of finding the signal's source. They discover the signal is coming from an ancient alien spacecraft. Inside, they find the fossilized remains of a giant alien which appears to have had something break it's ribs from the inside. The Nostromo's computer deciphers part of the signal, revealing it to be some sort of warning. Kane discovers a chamber filled with alien eggs. One egg opens, releases a creature that attaches itself to Kane's face. Ignoring quarantine procedures, science officer Ash (Ian Holm, Lord Of The Rings, The Aviator) brings Kane into his lab to try and remove the alien from his face. Their attempt is unsuccessful when they cut the creature, revealing it's blood to be a highly corrosive acid that eats through multiple levels of the ship. Eventually the creature detaches on it's on, dying in the process. Kane appears to be well, but during a dinner, he experiences sever chest pains and convulsions. A small alien bursts from his chest and escapes into the spaceship. The crew tries to track the alien down, only to discover that it has grown into a giant, vicious monster. One by one the crew is killed by the alien. Ripley discovers that Ash has been ordered to return the alien to their employer, regardless of the crew's safety. Ash attacks Ripley, but she is saved by Lambert and Parker (Yaphet Kotto, The Running Man, Live And Let Die) the ship's engineer. It is revealed that Ash is actually an android put on the ship to retrieve the alien. How will Ripley defeat the alien and reach Earth safely?
Arby's strikes again
Thanks to the numerous sequels, comic books, action figures, and video games, we all know what the full-grown alien looks like. Of course, the original movie hides the alien for a majority of the movie, giving us only a few glimpses throughout the almost 2-hour long movie. We see the head, teeth, giant arms and legs, but rarely do we ever see the entire creature. Much like Steven Spielberg's “Jaws”, Alien gives the audience just enough of a look to scare us, but allows our imagination to carry the fear even further. The spaceship is a good setting for the movie as it creates a sense of both claustrophobia and helplessness. The knowledge that no one can help you is just as terrifying as the alien itself. A lot of the movie's horror comes from that anticipation. I mean, the movie is called “Alien” so you know that you're going to get something, you're just not sure what. The cat-and-mouse game with the alien heightens the suspense and leads to some chilling thrills. In all of it's forms, the alien looks great. It is monstrous with it's giant, phallic-like head, drooling mouth, sharp teeth, and unnaturally long arms and legs. The sets look good as well with a nice juxtaposition between the white, sterile interior ship and the dark, grimy underbelly of the vents and basements. By today's standards, the shots of the spaceship clearly look like models and reminded me of Star Wars, but they served their purpose well enough.
Gimme some sugar, baby
The decision to make a female the lead character and hero was an important one as it was uncommon at the time. Though Sigourney Weaver was not a well-known movie actress at the time, she is strong and forceful throughout the entire movie. Even when she is shown in her underwear to convey vulnerability, she is still in control. Ian Holm is quite enjoyable as the cold, calculating Ash. The reveal that Ash was an android was quite unexpected, almost a little too much for my liking. It makes sense in terms of the story, I just would have liked a little more foreshadowing. The rest of the cast is just as good, playing their parts very well. It should be noted that the cast skews a bit older than your typical horror/thriller, especially at the time. This adds an air of credibility to the characters and their actions. They're not just stupid teenagers going into the abandoned house, they're highly-trained professionals in a dangerous situation they have no control over. The violence and action is pretty consistent in the movie, though some patience is required in the beginning.
Does this make my hair look big?
Alien is a fun and scary thrill ride that has influenced countless horror and sci-fi movies. The pacing and suspense really make the movie what it is, helped along by good special effects. Even a simple strobe light, when placed on the alien, creates a far more terrifying experience than one would expect. Sigourney Weaver is great as Ripley and Ian Holm is just as good as Ash. While later movies focused on the aliens themselves, the original teased the audience with the creature, giving us just enough to let our imaginations run wild. Ridley Scott combines both horror and sci-fi genres well and is able to capture both the action and fear that make the movie entertaining. If you've never seen any of the Alien franchise, start with the original and you won't be disappointed.