Alien is one of those films that could have easily been a B-movie, but just missed out on the number-one spot on the worldwide box office to Moonraker – a Bond movie with an established international fanbase and around triple the budget.
It started off with a small cast, Sigourney Weaver in her first lead film role and a simple plot, and managed to explode as a behemoth cult-classic. Depending on how you count it, there are at least five further Alien films, and the two Alien vs. Predator works. The discussion on whether any of this was a good idea is for another time, but we can at least say that Ridley Scott’s sci-fi masterpiece has earnt its place among the likes of Star Wars and Harry Potter (yes, I’m counting that as a film series – fight me on it, I don’t care) where at the very least, the beginnings of the franchises were good enough to carry the incredible weight of some very questionable decisions later on.
As mentioned, the plot is a simple one about an alien making its merry way onto a spaceship, getting hungry (probably) and trying to murder everyone aboard as we follow the crew’s efforts to figure out how to kill it or escape. It’s nice and straightforward – unburdened by major plot twists but expertly executing some fantastic reveals with great acting, which is what really propelled this movie to where it is. The biggest shock in the film is when we learn that Ash (Ian Holm) is an android and the Weyland Corporation who sent the crew out have a hidden agenda to bring the alien back, which perfectly complements the narrative by adding a further feeling of isolation and helplessness to the crew who are already trapped in a floating maze with a killer stalking the air vents. I would also say that watching this movie could come as a welcome relief if you’ve been watching a lot of churned out blockbuster movies recently, because the plot leaves so much to the imagination. We learn almost nothing about anything that happens outside the relatively short timeframe of the film, but so much is teased and left to the imagination about both the beginning and the end – unless you watch the prequels or the sequels that I am ignoring.
Overall, this is a really well-executed film that didn’t waste the opportunities that the cast or the storyline afforded it. The way we are introduced to the xenomorph in its three stages as a face-hugger, a baby and a fully-grown monster are suspenseful and well shot, and could have been so easily done in other ways which would have been fine and largely retaining the plot, but having the levels of intrigue and fear building up from the very start is one of the things which make this almost two-hour movie go by in a flash for me every time I watch it. Instead of having the creature just waltz onto the ship, we get to experience the crew trying to figure out what the strange thing that attached itself to Kane’s (John Hurt) face is, their horror as it bursts from his chest in one of the most iconic scenes in cinematic history, and finally the xenomorph in all its glory, looming over Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) baring a few sets of metallic teeth in an incredibly shot scene. Not only that, but if you look at where other sci-fi media was at the time, for example, Doctor Who, Star Trek and even Star Wars, the concept design and execution of the xenomorph costume is staggeringly real, dark and horrifying. One of my favourite scenes, however, is a bit less conspicuous but I think is no less impressive. It happens as Ripley (Weaver) is put in charge and has gathered with the crew to try and decide what they should do now that they’ve lost contact with the captain, Dallas (Tom Skerritt) when he was searching for the alien. What is impressive about this scene is how natural it is. The team are spitballing ideas and arguing their cases, shouting over one another and generally behaving like human beings, as opposed to a screenwriter’s fantasy. Despite all the madness and far-fetched theme of this movie, the dialogue and the acting skill running through the film, exemplified in this scene, helps to keep you immersed in the story, grounded by the realism of how the characters interact with each other.
There are, as with everything, parts of this movie that aren’t so great, and I can think of two things that are noteworthy. Having said that, they are just things that temporarily remove me from the reality the film creates, making them minor gripes which in a way show just how good the rest of it is. The first is something I noticed on my second watch, and has screamed in my face every time since. It is very simply the way that Jones, the inexplicable space cat, is put in a crate and battered around by Ripley in their escape. And I mean battered. He is chucked around like Indiana Jones in a fridge. It isn’t, strangely, from an animal rights perspective that this bugs me, but in the same way that I feel disproportionately annoyed when an actor has to ‘drink’ from an empty mug. It just doesn’t look right and you can really tell most of the time and this is such a simple thing that I think could have been fixed with a weighted prop. Granted, Ripley is probably very stressed in that scene, but I still believe that she would have tried not to give poor Jones four broken legs. The second is the scene where Ash tries to kill Ripley. I really think Ian Holm did the best he could with the direction I imagine he was given, but it’s the one scene that hasn’t grown on me since I first saw the film, when it was already about thirty years old and I had yet to grow an appreciation for film making and wasn’t impressed by something if it didn’t seem as true to life as possible. To go from ‘shady and calculating science officer’ to ‘everyone knows you’re a robot’ can’t be an easy thing to direct or act, but suddenly going really wooden, trying to shove a magazine in Sigourney Weaver’s mouth and then flailing around, madly spitting milk all over the place probably isn’t the most convincing way forward.
It’s a cult classic for a reason. The expert storytelling, gritty dialogue, creative costume, and prosthetics come together to make it worthy of having its own day (April 26th is Alien day, for those of you who don’t know). I think that, unfortunately, the merging in popular culture with Predator, which is a classic that’s just bad, and the sheer number of subpar sequels and prequels has made it so a lot of people haven’t gotten around to watching the original, which is a shame. If you’ve seen and loved this movie, I hope pointing out that there is very clearly not a cat in that box doesn’t spoil it for you when you next watch it. If you haven’t seen it yet, what are you waiting for? Go back and see how pathetic my complaints are and imagine how good the rest of the film must be.