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Alien (1979)

R 117 minutes

Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by Dan O'Bannon, Ronald Shusett

 · Sigourney Weaver
 · Tom Skerritt
 · John Hurt

Review by Thom Stricklin

Happy Halloween! I've made a remark or two about good horror this month, fittingly, but I must say, I haven't had a good scare in ages.  Startled, sure, but never terrified.  That's why I've been looking forward to the special edition release of Alien.

Believe it or not, this is sort of my "holy grail" of the Alien series.  I've seen James Cameron's Aliens and (Amelie director) Jean-Pierre Jeunet's underwhelming Resurrection front to back.  I've caught parts of David Fincher's Alien 3.  But before Wednesday night I'd seen no more than trailer footage of what many consider the greatest, Ridley Scott's original: Alien.  In a way, I am thankful, because it was a great payoff to first watch it in a 600-seat theatre.




Everyone has heard film buffs say, "Alien is a haunted house movie disguised as sci-fi," so I needn't say it again. This certainly isn't horror in the sense we're used to, however.  There are no giant machetes stabbing through wooden doors, or deceased janitors trapping victims in the elaborately schemed labyrinths of their dreams.  It's a cut apart even from recent sci-fi/horror a la The Faculty or Event Horizon.  If this weren't a creature feature with a lot of blood, acid, and strange android fluid, this would probably be considered a thriller by today's standards.

Actually, this is just very good horror.  It seems a forgotten art, but the best horror realizes that it doesn't require cheap 'gotchas' to terrify you, and Ridley Scott made just such a realization. Among the best cinematic directors in history, Scott knew that heavy shadows, thick steam, and disorienting strobes would be more frightening than some guy in a fake rubber suit.  He recognized the greatest fear of space travel: not little green men (or a towering beast with razor-sharp teeth), but fear of the unknown.  As Ripley peers around corners, wondering where the alien was, wondering if there is a limit to its danger, that look of fear toward the shadows is exactly the fear of uncharted corners of the galaxy.  In short, the Alien is a personifcation of all the fears and dangers of our future. Though our own space program was waning, 1979's Alien was the perfect admonition for all those who'd gotten starry-eyed and dreamy with Star Wars.




"Minimalist" is a word I was tempted to describe the character handling as being, but that would be misleading.  There is no exposition here.  The audience wakes up with the crew of the Nostromo, almost as a silent part of the team, and only learns about the others through their normal behaviors and interactions as they go about their daily tasks and, later, as they combat their intruder.  There is no melodrama, even when egos clash and tempers flare, and this too is for good reason.  In order to sell the frights, this film had to be realistic as possible, and it's not easy to make alien-encounter films realistic.  If the ship was smooth and lined with marble floors, if the crew armed themselves with rayguns, or if Sigourney Weaver put her hair up in buns, this would be a fairy tale.  Instead, the ship looks like a tetanus hazard, flamethrowers are the only defense (as bullets would assuredly compromise the integrity of the fragile hull), and Ripley is about as warm and fuzzy as a brillo pad.  Because of this, we can truly experience the panic and terror as if we were among the very flawed, (mostly) human passengers.



I imagine Alien won't have the same appeal to audiences that it had twenty-four years ago, not just because we're accustomed to fast MTV-style pacing and sudden startles as opposed to slow, calculated and brooding fear.  No, many of us suffer the condition of having seen one or more of the Alien sequels, all of which overexposed the aliens and totally ruined their mystique.  But please, suspend all preconceived notions about the franchise and the genre.  Clear your mind and walk into the theatre as though you are watching it for the first time.  Your skin will crawl as you walk out, and you'll wish you hadn't parked in the dark corner of the lot.  Catch this while it's playing in theatres, if at all possible.  You'll regret limiting this jagged little piece of eye-candy to your television set.

697 Words Published: 31 October 2003

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