Tales of terror in the dark has been a staple of storytelling since man first sat around the glowing embers of a dying fire, trying to scare each other.
There are a few themes that make for a classic horror story. Paramount among these is isolation, being alone in the dark; no help anywhere near you with a monster closing in.
In 1979 a film was released that took these components of terror and used science fiction as the backdrop, Alien. Alien was a new breed of film; Sci-Fi was not the actual genre that would be horror.
The science fiction here just set the stage, instead of the broken down car on the lonely road or the gothic mansion in the middle of nowhere there is a commercial towing ship, the Nostromo.
The trip is so long that the crew is kept in hyper sleep, dreaming away the time between the stars. There is a class structure among the seven crew members, the two half share maintenance men Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton), the commander Dallas (Tom Skerritt), Science Officer Ash (Ian Holm) and the main crew Rippley (Sigourney Weaver), Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) and Kane (John Hurt).
This also reflects the typical horror genre, the kids at camp in cliques, teenagers versus adults in the town cut off from the outside. This technique permits internal tension as the main danger builds.
One of the things that make this film so classic is its simplicity. There are really no ancillary sub plots; no background exposition the audience is pulled into the story at the same time as the characters.
Rather than diffuse the focus of the storyline we get the full intensity of the moment. Most films would have made the mistake of providing a love interest, flashbacks to the lives the crew had back on earth.
The first time we see the crew is when they awaken from hyper sleep and that is symbolic of how these characters are awakening to a nightmare completely divorced from their previous experiences.
What we have here is a classic old school horror film set in space. This was just one of the groundbreaking aspects that make Alien the achievement of American cinema that it is.
Alien was turned down by most the major studios; they went through four directors before Ridley Scott took command. As with many films that not only push the limits but sets a new standard it took a lot to get Alien made.
Fortunately, there were people at Fox that saw Alien for what it was and for what it remains a complete reinvention of a very old genre.
The cast here is perfect, simply perfect.
Weaver plays Rippley in an almost causal manner. There are no tendencies towards over acting here. She demonstrates a masterly control of her craft. During the last act of this movie she has almost no dialogue but an incredible amount of activity.
Weaver pulls it off with perfection. Cartwright portrays the character that the audience can identify with most closely. While on the surface she seems to be the complainer, the whiner, she is actually the voice of reason. She manifests the attitude of lets just blow up the ship and get out of here.
There is the required comic relief by means of Kotto and Stanton. They are always looking for a better deal than is in their contract, prolonging their work and making fun of the others.
Skerritt is one of those actors that seem to pop up in the most unlikely films. His is just a testament to the versatility of this actor. He is great as the authority figure, in case the captain.
With the absence of back-story and side plots he can concentrate on playing a by the book man trapped in circumstances the book never covered.
After so many other directors where offered Alien and turn it down, we as the audience is fortunate in deed that it was undertaken by Ridley Scott.
Scott demonstrates incredible control and attention to detail. What is even more amazing is this was really his first big budget film.
The use of ambient sounds throughout the film, always reminding the viewer of the isolation is well crafted. He even went so far as to not tell the actors what would be happening, the fright on the face of Cartwright when the creature bursts out of Kane’s chest is very real.
Scott used the notable graphic artist H.R. Giger, known for his sexually provocative, organic nightmare renditions.
Giger empowers the creature with a living, realistic persona all while maintaining a look of sheer horror. Much of the dialogue and activity the actors use here is from improvisation. They worked well together and Scott was smart enough to let them do their jobs.
Scott’s use of lighting, often filming with only ambient light is textbook. He employs a mixture of the familiar and futuristic sets works to keep the audience off balance, always waiting for that other shoe to drop.
In the introduction to the director’s cut Scott explains there were very few changes made. What he showed back in 1979 was what he wanted shown.
The director’s cut restores a few short scenes, trims a couple of other scenes but basically Scott avoids the growing trend of directors going back and redoing a classic film just because modern technology permits its.
With a film like Alien pacing is everything. Some scenes are almost too long. This results in the audience feeling uneasy, on edge. So, when a little shop happens they are drawn into think that is it but Scott always places big thrill just moments later.
Even the ending after the ending, something common now, was completely novel back then. We would have been satisfied when Rippley blows up the ship and prepares for her long sleep but instead Scotts let’s us come down from the last act and then ramps things up again!
Alien is a hallmark film. It broke ground and while it was been often imitated it will never be surpassed.
All the elements of Alien come together in a symbiotic fashion where the whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts.
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