Alien isn't just a monster movie. In many ways it is the definitive interstellar creature feature that spawned dozens of half-baked imitations (including some that had the Alien moniker) Thirty-four years after its release, the movie remains one of the best monster -- and science fiction -- movies ever made.
The movie begins slowly. The camera glacially pans over the exterior of the Nostromo, a massive deep space commercial towing vehicle. The camera moves inside to slowly wander the corridors, living spaces, and crew quarters of the vessel, showing it lifeless and abandoned until suddenly it awakes: a cryptic message has been detected from a nearby planet. The ship immediately begins waking up its crew from cryosleep.
It's a fantastic sequence that evokes 2001's wordless opening scenes while allowing us to soak in the environment we'll soon be spending so much time in. It also immediately sets the tone for the movie: this is a lived in universe, much like Star Wars, but populated by blue-collar workers and grungy flight officers rather than lightsaber-wielding farm boys.
The crew is surprised to find themselves far from Earth, in an unknown star system, and quickly learns they were awakened because of a "transmission of unknown origin". That transmission originates from a moon orbiting the system's Saturn-like ring world.
The tech of Alien looks old. It's cutting edge 1970s computer displays, which is to say it looks a lot like the output of an old Apple II, but even now -- decades later -- it still works. I think it's because even in 1979 the Nostromo felt like an ancient, battered warhorse; adding 30 years only amplifies the effect.
"We must go on! We have to go on!" -- Kane
Once on the planet, three crew members are dispatched to investigate the source of the beacon. It turns out to be a crashed derelict starship that was carrying a cargo of strange, over-sized, leathery eggs. When a crew member gets to close to them, an egg opens. An alien creature -- a horseshoe crab sized horror with a lethal tail and spider-like legs -- emerges and leaps at the crew member's head. It wraps itself around the helmet, shatters the visor, and impregnates him with ... something.
The rapidly changing growing nature of that something makes up the next two-thirds of the movie. It is an alien monster, terrible, deadly, and merciless. It soon begins hunting the crew, which struggles to find some way -- without any guns -- to fight off the horror that's crawling through their ship.
Aside from its initial, bloody appearence, we don't see much of the alien. Instead we catch glimpses of it -- a gleaming black skull crest, murderous jaws within jaws, insectile limbs slowly moving the creature into position. The glimpses let your mind construct the monster for you; even today when I see the full Alien creature I can't help but think "no, that's not what it looks like ..."
It's far, far more terrifying in my mind's eye.
"Ripley, for God's sake, this is the first time that we've encountered a species like this. It has to go back. All sorts of tests have to be made." -- Ash
What I've always loved about Alien, and what drew me to it's quasi-prequel Prometheus, is the sense of history. Where did the alien derelict come from? Where was it going? Who was the "space jockey" (the pilot of the derelict) and how could he have been killed by his own cargo? Did the aliens evolve, where they genegineered, or maybe a little of both?
There are so many excellent questions, and the movie gives them plenty of time to bounce around your brain as the crew comes to terms with the monster that's infected their crew mate.
It's in these scenes that Alien establishes the monstrous DNA for dozens of rip-offs.
- All small group of individuals who can be picked off one at a time.
- The scientist who dies shortly after revealing all the essential information about the monster.
- A sprawling (yet claustrophobic) industrial complex (starship, factory, underwater oil drilling platform).
- A shadowy monster who lurks in the corridors, devouring unsuspecting crew members one by one.
- The strong female character who's the only one who survives to the end, defeating the monster through a combination of gile, wit, and luck.
- Flame throwers. 'Nuff said.
It's a formula shamelessly copied by movies like Creature, The Relic, Deep Star Six, Species, Mimic, and Pitch Black. Most of them failed spectacularly (I'm looking at you, The Relic) and even most of the subsequent Alien movies failed to achieve the horror of the original. Even Prometheus fell short, mostly because Ridley Scott got so caught up in his own fake history that he failed to create a coherent plot
The notable exception, Aliens, succeeded because James Cameron knew he simply couldn't rehash what came before. He turned a tense horror film into a roller coaster thriller that still damn scary. He evolved the Alien, introducing an entire ecosystem and a team of badass soldiers who still weren't enough to beat the creature.
You can't talk about Alien without discussing Sigourney Weaver's Ripley. She's a no-nonsense warrant officer, third in command on the Nostromo and often the voice of reason. She doen't really come into her own until the final third of the film, when half the crew is dead. Ripley is the character that was missing from Prometheus -- male or female, that movie desperately needed a character who could shout "bullshit!"
I've watched Alien many times over the years, and the thing that surprises me is that it doesn't get old.
There are so many amazing scenes. The initial "chest buster", when the alien rips its way through Kane's ribcage. The crewman who wanders off, takes a moment to soak in water down from over head, then gets kill by the adolecent alien while the orange tabby hisses nearby. The first glimpse of the alien's murderous teeth. Captain Dallas's desperate attempt to drive the alien through the ship's corridors and into an airlock.
Each moment builds on the next, leading the increasingly desperate crew to the realization that their ship is lost, and soon their lives will be as well.
It still makes me jump (especially when I'm sitting in the dark, writing a review that should have been done the day before...). What higher praise can I offer a horror movie than that?