31 Days to Scare ~ Alien (1979)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: After a space merchant vessel receives an unknown transmission as a distress call, one of the crew is attacked by a mysterious life form and they soon realize that its life cycle has merely begun.

Stars: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, John Hurt, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto, Bolaji Badejo

Director: Ridley Scott

Rated: R

Running Length: 117 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review:  It’s Memorial Day weekend 1979 and you are an audience member in one of the 90 theaters showing a movie called Alien.  You’ve only seen the poster with the tagline, ‘In space, no one can hear you scream.’  Maybe you saw the teaser trailer (one of the all time best) in front of another movie earlier in the year or perhaps you’ve seen nothing of the film at all.  This is a time before the internet and the type of massive publicity surge studios use to show nearly everything but the closing credits before a movie opens.  No one else has told you what to expect, no dialogue later to become iconic has been quoted endlessly, there have been no copycats that tried to ride its genre coattails to similar success.  Everything about this is new to you.  I am so jealous of you!!

Seriously, think back to a time before you saw one of your favorite movies and then think about yourself now and how things changed after that experience.  You wish you could go back and relive that first thrill again.  While you can watch your go-to dozens of times over and only grow to love it more, nothing will beat that sweet first glimpse of greatness that made it so memorable in the first place.  Jaws, Jurassic Park, Moulin Rouge!, Grease 2 (yes, Grease 2), Rear Window, The Sound of Music, The Godfather – just a handful of titles that come to mind I’d love to go back and experience again like I’d never seen them before.  Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic Alien sits high on that list as well…and pretty high up.

A supreme genre hybrid and crown jewel in both science fiction and horror, Alien is the be-all, end-all of creature feature films set in the stars while also impressing as an incredibly scary haunted house flick with a few nods to the Westerns made famous in the ’50s.  Go into Alien without knowing what’s in store and you are sure to have shock after shock, finding a scream around every corner of the large commercial space vessel Nostromo which gets cleverly boarded by our titular character. 

The original idea of screenwriters Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, both sci-fi fans with ties to the industry, the existence of the film can be tied back to the Star Wars craze.  Fans were clamoring for more space odysseys and with The Empire Strikes Back still in development/production and not due until 1980, 20th Century Fox took the first space script that came to them, then called Star Beast.  Renamed Alien, the studio hired relatively new director Scott (recently represented with The Last Duel) to lead the way of the modestly budgeted picture and Scott cast the film using the freedom the script gave him by making the characters unisex.  That means we could have gotten a male Ripley if Sigourney Weaver (Copycat) had decided to skip her audition that day.  While Weaver is just one of a fantastic ensemble of actors and would only later truly step into a spotlight leading role in 1986’s Aliens, almost from the start you can see the then 29 year-old actress taking control of the screen anytime she’s present. 

Weaver hangs to the side for much of the first hour of the film, as her crew answers a distress call on a small moon they were redirected to as they made their way home.  Landing on the barren terra, the three crew volunteers tasked with finding the source of the signal instead find what looks to be a spaceship in ruins and eventually encounter an…unpleasantness which leaves one crew member incapacitated.  Bringing him back on board to give him medical care, they restart the journey home as fast as possible but it’s already too late.  They’ve brought something on board that will emerge, grow, and kill them one by one until only one is left to face the towering creature head on.

Even watching the movie for as long as I have, I’ll never get over at how ahead of its time it was.  On so many levels.  First off, the presence of such a strong female character that winds up the lead is so rare in this genre and this certain type of take-charge female is particularly impressive.  Other films feature women that become strong or fall into a position of being forced to adapt or else, but Weaver plays Ripley as a woman that’s always been proving herself and this experience is not all that different.  She would return to the role again in three subsequent sequels and was Oscar-nominated for the next film but here is where it all began, and the groundwork is laid strong for what develops over the years. 

Another way the film seems ahead of its time is that it literally looks like it was made a decade or more in the future and then shipped back for the audience to view.  The special effects are outstanding and deservedly won an Oscar and the production design was also nominated and could have likely won as well because the magnitude of the sets is jaw-dropping.  Budgeted at 11 million dollars, the producers made their money go a long way and it shows in each blinking light on the control panels, grandeur of the planetary design, and scale of the ship’s shadowy corridors.  The alien itself is just a man (Bolaji Badejo) in a rubber suit but the costume is so detailed and the editing from Terry Rawlings and Peter Weatherley so skilled that you never notice the seams. 

Anyone with a pulse should feel it racing at some point during Alien.  Using not just the creature itself but light, practical design/effects, and our own imaginations to create scenarios in our head, Alien creates a high sense of dread that rarely lets the audience have time to catch their breath. The cast, the production, and Scott’s assured hand in direction combine to give what could have been a B-movie in the wrong hands a classy sheen that’s stood the test of time.  Even today it remains an extremely frightening film that works because of its simplicity in scaring us. Countless movies have tried without the same type of (or any) success in recreating what Alien brings forth…just stick with the biggest baddest mother of them all.

One comment on “31 Days to Scare ~ Alien (1979)

  1. […] Botten also completed his 31 Days to Scare series with write-ups of 1996’s “Scream” and 1979’s “Alien.” […]

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