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Alien

Directed by Ridley Scott with Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerrit, Harry Dean Stanton, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto and Veronica Cartwright, 117 minutes, color, 1979

 

Cover of DVD edition of "Alien"

Cover of DVD edition of "Alien"

By Carter B. Horsley

Would you sign up to work on a cargo spaceship that would be out on a mission for a year or so in space time but much longer in earth-time?

Our notion of work in space at the start of this millennium is that astronauts are very brave and very intelligent and highly trained people willing to sacrifice many conveniences to be explorer-scientists.

This film takes place a couple of centuries forward in time, about 2200 A.D., and the state of space travel is such that somehow it is economical to conduct mining operations in the far reaches of space and to ferry cargo back and forth on humongous spaceships that dwarf contemporary supertankers or off-shore drilling rigs.  Technology permits the crew to be relatively small, in this case, just seven.

This film begins slowly, showing the crew aboard the "Nostromo," which is capable of carrying 20 million tons of ore, waking up after a long slumber to discover that they are not approaching earth, but have been diverted by the spaceship's computer, referred to as "Mother," to respond to an apparent S.O.S. signal from some uncharted planet not in the earth's galaxy.

Some members of the crew grumble that there is a commercial trip, but Ash, the science officer, tells them that they are obligated to investigate "any systemized transmission indicating a possible intelligent origin…under penalty of total forfeiture of shares."

As several members of the crew foray outside the spaceship to investigate the origins of the signal, Warrant Office Lieutenant Ellen L. Ripley, played superbly by Signourney Weaver, in her first starring role, has determined with the help of the spaceship's computers that the signal may not be a S.O.S., but a warning. She is dissuaded from going over the search team by Ash, the medical officer, played intensely by Ian Holm, who argues that by the time she catches up with them, "they'll know if it's a warning or not."  After discovering a giant wrecked spaceship, the search team explores its interior and Kane, played nicely by John Hurt, is lowed into its vast hold where he discovers rows of "leathery objects, like eggs or something" with a layer of mist over them and then notices that one of the objects seemed to be pulsating and have movement, "life."

What the crew encounters on that planet is a very nasty species of alien life intend on impregnating itself into other living forms.

What makes this film a masterpiece is its spectacular sets and the design of the alien, the acting, the suspense and the character of Ripley.

Like "2001," the sets are very impressive and convincing and were conceived and created by H. R. Giger, the surrealist painter, and Moebius, the French artist.  The alien first appears as a large crab-like creature but grows into a giant, slimy, drooling, eel-like monster.  The spaceship is part of an extra-terrestial mining operation and its vast interiors are appropriately dark and full of places for the alien to hide.  Ridley Scott, the director, takes his time establishing the personalities of the crew and their routine investigation of the distress signal.  The crew arrives at the seemingly desolate planet from which the signals have emanated and a search party discovers the wreck of a strange and large spaceship. Its interior is vast and its structure almost seems organic. While investigating the interior, one of the crew members, Kane, is attacked by a strange, crab-like organism that attaches itself to his face.  He is brought back on board the spaceship.  Ripley insists that he be quarantined, but and refuses to let the search term back in but Ash lets them in presumably to try to save Kane's life.

The crew member played by Hurt is apparently alive despite the seemingly smothering impact of the alien organism that covers his face.  When the rest of the crew tries to cut the organism away, it spurts out an strong acid that begins to eat its way through the ship's many steel decks.

Some time passes and suddenly the organism has disappeared from Hurt's face and Hurt recovers, somewhat disoriented but with a strong appetite.

While eating, however, Hurt gets sick.  Very sick.  As he is put on a table, his stomach begins to burst and out pops a very bloody and ugly alien baby with a terrifying set of teeth.  The alien baby slithers away as the crew stands back in a state of shock.

The scene is very gory and very frightening and memorable.

The crew recover their senses somewhat and start searching for the organism.  As members of the team, including Captain Dallas, played by Tom Skerritt, disappear, Ripley confronts Holm who appears more interested in bringing the alien back to earth for study than in saving the crew.  Holm tries to kill Ripley by stuffing her throat with rolled-up documents but she survives only to discover that Holm is an android who manages to still be able to talk even after his head has been severed and his milk-colored fluids spill out of his head, a second gory and very frightening and memorable scene.

With Holm finally dead, Ripley realizes that the crew's life is very much in danger from the still loose alien and that if it is not found and disposed of it will propagate itself on earth. The alien proves to be a mighty foe and the remaining half of the film documents the very scary search for him that tests Ripley's skills and prowess to the limit.

Ripley's deering-do is impressive and Sigourney Weaver brings an intelligence and urgency to the role that belie her cool looks.  Veronica Cartwright as Lambert the navigator and Yaphet Kotto as Parker, one of the spaceship's engineers, are excellent and Harry Dean Stanton as Brett, another engineer, is also good.

Director Scott's pacing eeks out every once of terror and surprise imaginable.  The viewer becomes so stressed out that the odds of survival seem impossible, so formidable and determined  is the malevolent alien.

"Alien" opened two years after Star Wars, which raised the special effects ante in movies to new heights and Alien raised the bar still further as the grisly alien beast became the stuff of really menacing nightmares.  The movie was an Oscar for best visual effects, but surprisingly did not win one for Art Direction/Set Decoration for which it was nominated.  Dan O'Bannon did the screenplay, which was based on a story he had written with Roland Shusett.

The film's great atmospherics would be a harbinger of director Scott's next great film, "Bladerunner," (see The City Review article), and his way with special effects would also be notable in "Gladiator" in 2000.

The success of this film lead to three sequels: "Aliens," directed by James Cameron (1986); "Aliens3," directed by David Fincher (1992); and "Alien Resurrection," directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, (1997), all of which also starred Sigourney Weaver.

This film is ranked 31st in Carter B. Horsley's Top 500 Sound Films

Click here to read Tim Dirks's long essay on the film at Filmsite.org

This film is ranked 70th in the Internet Movie Data Base Top 250 films as of April 2, 2001

Click here to order the DVD of this film from amazon.com for 15 percent off its list price of $29.98.

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