Filmsite Movie Review
Alien (1979)
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Background

Alien (1979) is 20th Century Fox's extremely suspenseful, space science-fiction horror film about a menacing, unstoppable, carnivorous, stowaway, hermaphroditic Demon beast. The grisly, claustrophobic, action-oriented film without a lot of dialogue contains some very suspenseful, tension-filled moments (deliberately drawn out with slow pacing), visceral thrills and shocks, and special effects and visual effects techniques.

It introduced both somber horror elements and gore to its traditional science-fiction tale. It was similar to the cycle of cheap and campy 1950s B-type 'alien monster' films but possessed superior production values, directorial talent and casting. This box-office hit, budgeted at about $11 million, brought in almost $80 million in revenues (in the US) and $105 million (worldwide). At the film's center was a resourceful, self-reliant, hard-assed, feminist action heroine (unknown stage actress Sigourney Weaver in her first major film role). However, audience expectations were for a male protagonist-hero (identifying with Tom Skerritt predominantly) - they were inevitably surprised by Weaver's critical role.

[In the original 1976 first draft of the screenplay, the characters of the crew were uni-sex, and all character roles were interchangeable for men or women. The characters, CHAZ STANDARD, MARTIN ROBY, DELL BROUSSARD, SANDY MELKONIS, CLEAVE HUNTER, and JAY FAUST, were referred to only with their last, gender-free names.]

Freudian and sexually-charged symbolism and images abound - the beastly adult creature has both a phallic head and an open, dripping vaginal mouth. And in the film's most startling scene, one of the male crew members, 'impregnated' by the insidious creature as a surrogate mother, 'gives birth' to the baby alien from his chest. And the name for the starship's computer interface (2037) that awakens (gives life to) the crew members is simply called "Mother" (or MU-TH-R 182).

The alien intelligently chose to use the bodies of its victims as hosts for its eggs. (One of these scenes, revealing the fate of vanished co-stars Harry Dean Stanton and Tom Skerritt, was excised from the final print in the original version, but restored in the late October, 2003 'director's cut' theatrical re-release. In the scene, Weaver discovers a cocooned Dallas and Brett mutating into an egg. Ripley obliges Dallas' request to kill him by blasting both of them with her flame-thrower.)

The struggle to survive in the vacuum of space (basically similar to haunted house tales) against the uninvited, primal and deadly creature intensifies for the crew members of a grimy, commercial space freighter as they are eliminated one-by-one through corporate machinations. [The same kind of story about an alien invader (at an Arctic outpost) was originally told in Howard Hawks' The Thing from Another World (1951), and in It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958). In fact, representatives of the latter film sued the producers of Alien, claiming plagiarism.] And class division between the officers and the blue-collar engineering crew (in the below-the-deck bowels of the rickety, worn-out spaceship) provided additional tension and struggle.

The screenplay for director Ridley Scott's film (only his second feature film following The Duellists (1977), although Walter Hill was originally to be the director) was written by Dan O'Bannon, who based the script upon a story (originally titled Star Beast) that he had written with partner Ronald Shusett. The imaginative and fantastic settings (and the hostile, slime-dripping Alien creature itself) were conceived and created by Swiss surrealist designer and painter H. R. Giger and Heavy Metal French artist Moebius (Jean Giraud). Nominated for two Academy Awards, Best Visual Effects and Best Art Direction/Set Decoration, it won a single Oscar for Best Visual Effects (awarded to H. R. Giger and four others). Because of the original film's success, Scott was able to finance his next futuristic film, the equally popular Blade Runner (1982).

Alien, a darker and less pristine version of George Lucas' immensely popular Star Wars (1977) from only two years earlier, and similar to Spielberg's blockbuster Jaws (1975) about an unseen terror lurking underwater (although set in space), reinvented the sci-fi horror genre, and set the tone and plots for a slew of similar, imitative low-budget films during the decade of the 1980s (and into the 1990s as well).

Director Scott claimed that three films were influential in shaping Alien's vision - the two sci-fi classics: Lucas' Star Wars (1977) and Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and Tobe Hooper's brutal horror film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). Because of its success, it influenced all future films of its genre type, and countless inferior imitations, such as Species (1995) or Mimic (1997). [It was the first of a quartet of films, followed by three similar sequels all made by soon-to-be prominent, promising, and/or talented filmmakers, each with the same female protagonist played by Sigourney Weaver.]

See also The Alien Quadrilogy
The Four Films
Director
Description
Alien (1979) Ridley Scott Superior sci-fi/horror film; nominee for Best Art Direction; Best Visual Effects Oscar-winner; with the tagline: "In space, no one can hear you scream"; the film's commercial towing-vehicle, named the Nostromo, was taken from Joseph Conrad's 1904 novel of the same name
Aliens (1986) Writer/director James Cameron Superb big-budget, adrenalin-fueled action film, a seven-time Oscar nominee, and two-time winner (Best Visual Effects, and Best Sound Effects Editing); Sigourney Weaver was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar (an incredible feat for a sci-fi film) in Rambo-like role, and lost to Marlee Matlin's performance in Children of a Lesser God (1986); a crew of gung-ho space marines were on a mission to kill the beasts; the fictional spaceship U.S.S. Sulaco in the film was named after the silver mining town in Joseph Conrad's 1904 novel Nostromo.
Aliens 3 (1992) David Fincher, with his feature film debut A dark, mean, claustrophobic and unappealing film, after being drastically edited and recut by the studio before its theatrical release; the female protagonist Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) teamed up with shaved-head convicts in a monastic penal colony, and sacrificially died by falling into a vat of molten metal
Alien Resurrection (1997) French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet Although killed off in the third installment, Ripley was brought back through cloning 200 years later; she was joined by space pirates, including Winona Ryder as butchy Annalee Call (a new model droid), as they attempted to stop the genetically engineered creatures from getting to Earth; its best sequence was an underwater chase
Prometheus (2012) Ridley Scott An Alien prequel (occurring 29 years before the events of Alien (1979)), in which the crew of a spaceship named Prometheus, funded by the Weyland Corporation, headed off to the distant moon LV-223 in another star system and landed there in 2093 after a 2 year, 4 1/2 month journey. Supposedly, the inhabitants of the destination were greater beings (or "Engineers") who created Earth and humankind, and then changed their minds and wanted to destroy humanity. Starring Charlize Theron (as corporation executive), Michael Fassbender (the ship's resident android David), Guy Pearce (as dying magnate Peter Weyland), and Noomi Rapace (as the lead heroine, archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw).
An Alien Quadrilogy (a nine-disc set) was released in late 2003, with two versions of Alien (1979):
  • 117 minute cut (original theatrical release)
  • 116 minute 'director's cut' (made by Ridley Scott in 2003)

The Quadrilogy also restored David Fincher's original cut of Alien 3, improving it quite dramatically.

Alien Vs. Predator Films
   
Predator (1987) John McTiernan About an alien humanoid called the Predator in the jungles of Central America; starring Arnold Schwarzenegger (as "Dutch"), Carl Weathers and Jesse Ventura
Predator 2 (1990) Stephen Hopkins A sequel starring Danny Glover and Gary Busey and a completely different cast; set in the year 1997 in Los Angeles; initially rated NC-17 for violence, but then recut and re-rated as R
Alien Vs. Predator (2004) Paul W. S. Anderson

Released in late summer 2004 and PG-13 rated (rather than R-rated like its predecessors), due to cuts made to eliminate gore and a subplot; it was the only film without Weaver as Ripley; it was a prequel to the series, set in the early 21st century (the present); the plot was based upon 20th Century Fox's two most popular franchises, Alien and Predator, and upon the popular Dark Horse Comics books; in the story, a billionaire archaeologist-scientist (Lance Henricksen), on a group expedition to Antarctica in search of ancient ruins deep underneath the ice, was caught between the battle between aliens and predators from outer space

Alien Vs. Predator: Requiem (2007)
Colin and Greg Strause (Visual Effects supervisors making their feature film debut)

An inferior, poorly-received sequel rated R (for violence and gore), again by 20th Century Fox; the setting was Earth, with the residents of the small-town of Gunnison, Colorado, including ex-con hunk Dallas (Steven Pasquale) and tank-top-wearing Kelly (Reiko Aylesworth), caught in the crossfire between the warring alien creatures, following the crash of a Predator ship that unintentionally released its cargo of captured aliens; included a notably horrific scene in which an Alien/Predator hybrid used infants in a maternity ward to breed more Aliens

[Note regarding various other Alien- and Predator-related products: In 1982, the Atari 2600 console featured the first Alien video game. Like the ever-changing and evolving film series, the alien presence in video games in later years grew to include an arcade version of the Aliens film and a Game Boy version of Alien 3. In 1988, Dark Horse Comics published its Aliens title, which placed survivors of the 1986 film on a mission to destroy the creatures' home world. In 1989, the Dark Horse Comics' Aliens vs. Predator told about a group of interplanetary ranchers involved in a battle between the Alien monsters and deadly extraterrestrial hunters introduced in the film Predator (1987), starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, and then in the sequel Predator 2 (1990).]

The promotional poster for the film illustrated a cracked alien egg, with an eerie yellow glow at its lower end in a dark void of space, as it hovers over the latticework of the egg chamber. The tagline states:

In space, no one can hear you scream.

The Story

To begin this first film, an upright "I" in a pale blue color appears at the center and top of the screen during the opening credits. Then, other bars of bluish color begin to fill in the character strokes for the rest of the letters of the film's title: ALIEN. [According to various sources, the letters that slowly reveal the title of the movie start out as hash marks, one for each crew-member that is killed in the film.]

A large hunk of a spaceship appears in the darkness of space as a title screen provides background for the story:

commercial towing vehicle 'The Nostromo'
crew: seven
cargo: refinery processing
20,000,000 tons of mineral ore
course: returning to earth

The film is the story of the crew of a claustrophobic, intergalactic space cargo/scavenger ship with twenty million tons of mineral ore. The enormous Nostromo, in close-up, moves from right to left across the screen in interstellar space, similar to the opening of Lucas' Star Wars (1977). [The name Nostromo was borrowed from the name of the 1904 novel by Joseph Conrad, a tale of capitalist exploitation.] Its mission has been to pick up raw materials from faraway planets. An eerie atmosphere pervades the seemingly abandoned Factory Starship as it moves through the depths of interstellar space on its long journey home to Earth. It is a hulking, grimy, variegated hulk of a spaceship, yet inside it boasts octagonally-shaped corridors, intricate piping and venting systems, ultra-modern video systems, vast lighted control panels, computer-generated images on screens, and emergency space helmets ready for use.

Suddenly, the empty silence is broken - a red video screen pops to life with a message for the "Nostromo 180924609." The signal is reflected in reverse on the visor of one of the helmets. More computerized signals are received and reflected. The screen goes black. Strips of fluorescent lighting in a corridor are turned on. A white octagonal door/passageway opens - white lab coats hanging next to the door shift with a passing draft of air. The camera penetrates into the room.

As the lights come on, the seven clear-plastic lids of padded, coffin-like cribs rise up (three on each side and one in the rear). Six visible crew members - with a seventh unseen member in the rear - are lying prone in the bunks, each wearing a white loincloth or shorts. One of the crew members named Kane stirs first, slowly sits up, sleepily takes breaths, and then stands. A second crew member also awakens. They have been prematurely jarred awake from their hibernating, hyper-sleep, womb-like state by the electronic pulsing of the starship's computer, affectionately named 'Mother.' They have been forcibly 'birthed' or pushed out of the nest by 'Mother.' (Although they don't know it yet, an urgently-repeating radio signal - a distress signal - has been received from a downed space vessel on an uncharted planet, and the computer has responded by alerting the crew.)

The scene cuts to their amiable 'truck-driver' chattering at a meal table - plastic containers of artificial foods (and two toy birds with dipping beaks and blue tail feathers) are set before them under a bright white table light. They enjoy their first meal in months. The crew members include Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt), second in command Ripley (Sigourney Weaver in her film debut in a starring role) with the ship's yellowish, ginger cat named Jones eating next to her on the table, navigator Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) who complains of being cold, engine room operators Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) and black Parker (Yaphet Kotto), Kane (John Hurt), and Ash (Ian Holm). When Kane mentions how horrible and dead he feels [a telling statement], Parker concurs:

Kane: Oh, I feel dead.
Parker: Anybody ever tell you you look dead?

Assuming that they are close to home - because they have been awakened, Parker and Brett voice their concerns about not being paid equitably, and direct their agitations toward bearded commander Dallas:

Parker: Before we dock, I think we ought to discuss the bonus situation...Brett and I, we think we ought to, we deserve full shares. Right?
Brett: You see, Mr. Parker and I feel that the bonus situation has never been on a, an equitable level.
Dallas: Well, you get what you contracted for like everybody else.
Brett: Yes, but everybody else gets more than us.

When an electronic signal goes off interrupting their conversations, and Dallas is alerted by Ash: "'Mother' wants to talk to you," he leaves the cabin to receive a private message ("for my eyes only"). Parker grumbles: "Can I finish my coffee? It's the only thing good on the ship." Dallas routinely runs through the security procedure to gain access to 'Mother' - the ship's main computer.

After gaining clearance, he enters the bright-orange lit, sand-colored room and types in his question for Interface 2037: "WHAT'S THE STORY MOTHER ?" Meanwhile, the crew members Ash, Lambert, Ripley and Kane take their positions on the bridge, throwing switches to bring the screens and center to life. Surprised that things look unfamiliar on their navigational screens, Lambert exclaims: "Where's Earth?" Ripley has the same discovery: "It's not our system." Ripley transmits a message through space to the Antarctica Traffic Control Station:

This is commercial towing vehicle Nostromo out of the Solomons. Registration number 180924609 calling Antarctica Traffic Control. Do you read me? Over.

After repeating her transmission with no response, Lambert and Ripley both realize they are too far out in space to be heard by their traffic control system on Earth: "Nothing." They are not even in the Earth's galaxy.

Brett and Parker, the ship's mechanics who must provide constant maintenance for the ship, make their way through the engine room in the dark belly of the ship. Parker is still complaining that they work hard, are underpaid, and suffer inferior status: "Listen, you ever notice how they never come down here? I mean, this is where the work is, right?" Brett responds angrily: "Well, it's the same damn reason we get a half a share to their one. Our time is their time. That's the way they see it...Same old s--- , man."

The entire crew gathers around the ship's mess table - Parker reminds Ash that he has taken his seat, and then wipes the seat clean before sitting down. Dallas informs everyone that they are only halfway home, woken up by 'Mother' to investigate a repeating signal from a nearby planet, possibly an SOS:

'Mother' has interrupted the course of our journey...She's programmed to do that should certain conditions arise. They have...It seems she has intercepted a transmission of unknown origin. She got us up to check it out...an acoustical beacon. It repeats at intervals of twelve seconds.

Although Parker complains that they're "a commercial ship, not a rescue ship," he suggests that a bonus of more money will change his mind: "It's not in my contract to do this kind of duty. And what about the money. If you want to give me some money to do it, I'd be happy to oblige." Ash reminds him, with Dallas' backing, that they are contractually obligated to investigate "any systemized transmission indicating a possible intelligent origin...under penalty of total forfeiture of shares. (He whispers) No money!" Dallas snaps and orders: "You got that?...All right. We're going in." Dallas orders in an investigation team using the shuttle or landing module, named the Narcissus. (Note: This is a second reference to a Joseph Conrad novel, published in 1897, The Nigger of the Narcissus.)

The Narcissus (with all seven crew members aboard!) disengages from the main ship's platform and after a rough, turbulent approach, the loss of a shield, other damage and an onboard fire, it crashes against the barren, unknown, uncharted planet's rocky and hostile surface - the source of the signal. After surveying the damage in the engine room for a depressed-looking Dallas, Parker reports over the intercom system that dry-dock repairs may take twenty-five hours (Brett's estimate of seventeen hours is conveniently inflated).

After settling, the same transmission still sounds every twelve seconds from a source just under 2,000 meters in a northeast direction. Kane worries: "We can't go anywhere in this." Ash delivers an atmospheric report on the harsh conditions:

Oh. It's almost primordial. Inert nitrogen, a high concentration of carbon dioxide crystals, methane...trace elements...there's rock, lava base, deep coal well below the line.

Three of the seven-person crew (Dallas, Kane, and Lambert) don space suits, "break out the weapons" and embark to investigate. In the quiet of the shuttle, Ash will monitor their movements from within via closed circuit screens. Lambert complains: "I can't see a god-damned thing." Meanwhile, back in the hold of the shuttle amidst shafts of steam, Parker and Brett humorously pressure Ripley with more talk regarding their share:

Parker: If they found what they're lookin' for out there, does that mean we get full shares?
Ripley: Don't worry, Parker, yeah. You'll get whatever's comin' to you.
Brett: Look, I'm not gonna do any more work until we get this straightened out.
Ripley: Brett, you're guaranteed by law to get a share.
Parker: What?
Ripley: Why don't you just f--k off?
Parker: What?
Brett: Whaddya say Rip?
Ripley: If you have any trouble, I'll be on the bridge.

The planet's rock-strewn surface is covered with dust, darkness, and an impenetrable mist in an unbreathable atmosphere. Lambert gripes again: "I can't see a god-damned thing...I like griping." Ripley joins Ash in a viewing pod as he follows the path of the searchers. She suggests deciphering the meaning of the transmission from the beacon signal through ECIU - some kind of computer analysis, and scrutinizes a pattern of 1's and 0's on her computer screen.

As the searchers continue their exploration, the sun rises after a short while, and they are able to see an indescribable, bizarre site. Dallas asks: "Ash, can you see this?" Although the transmissions through Ash's monitors are fuzzy, distorted and often broken up, he reverentially replies: "Yes I can. I've never seen anything like it." The "very bizarre" finding has two large, phallic-like prongs or extensions coming out of the ground. Lambert is frightened and awed: "Let's get out of here," but they push on. It looks like they have encountered a derelict alien craft that crash-landed. The trio explores the dark exterior of the huge alien spacecraft with numerous sexual (vaginal) orifices. In the interior, lined with a hard, leathery, ribbed surface, they find a gigantic, reptilian, skeletal creature that is seated, with ribs bent outwards. According to Dallas, it's an "alien life form. It looks like it's been dead a long time - fossilized. It looks like it's grown out of the chair. Bones are bent outward, like he exploded from inside!" Lambert fears: "I wonder what happened to the rest of the crew. Let's get the hell out of here."

Back on the Nostromo's shuttle, Ripley has intelligently determined that the alien signal is not a distress S.O.S, but is more like a warning to stay away. She is calm but agitated and plans to go after the crew and tell them:

Ripley: Ash, that transmission. Mother's deciphered part of it. It doesn't look like an SOS.
Ash: Well, what is it, then?
Ripley: Well, I, it looks like a warning. I'm going to go out after them.

Unbelievably cool, Ash responds and dismisses her discovery by downplaying her finding: "What's the point? I mean...by the time it takes to get there, you'll, they'll know if it's a warning or not, yes?"

At the same time, Kane is lowered into the very interior of the alien craft, the cavernous, deep hold of the broken ship - "a cave of some sort...it's like the god-damned tropics in here." He marvels at the spectacle: "What the hell is this?" He discovers a bizarre pod field and describes rows of eggs encased in a bluish mist-shrouded pit:

The pit is completely enclosed and it's full of leathery objects, like eggs or something! There's a layer of mist just covering the eggs that reacts when broken.

When kneeling and inspecting more closely, he slips through the mist and then recovers, continuing to view the leathery, egg or pod-like life forms or objects in what looks like a hatchery. The eggs look slightly transparent when he shines his light on their exterior and ponders: "It appears to be completely sealed." An embryo moves and flutters within one of the pods, pulsating with life: "Wait a minute, there's movement. It seems to have life, organic life." After bending down to look inside one of the pods, it opens. He is both fascinated and repulsed as the petals of the top of the egg pod peel back and a moist, pulsing mass of tissue is exposed. [The moving embryo creature is actually director Ridley Scott's rubber-gloved hands - a disguised Hitchcock-like cameo.]

In the film's first frightfully-scary moment, he moves closer for a better look at the pinkish, veined sac through his helmet glass. As he reaches out, a parasitic growth of coils whips out of the pod, pierces through his helmet, and suffocatingly clamps and attaches itself to his face. Kane is not killed, but he is rendered unconscious by the face-hugging creature. The scene shifts to a long-shot of the windy terrain surrounding the site. Ash waits patiently in his viewing post. After a lapse of time, the trio appears back at the shuttle - Kane has been carried back by Lambert and Dallas. Dallas requests Ripley's presence on board the shuttle:

Dallas: Are you there, Ripley?
Ripley: (assuringly in command) I'm right here.

Ash quickly scurries to the interlock hatch waiting for orders to let them in. Dallas communicates about Kane's condition to Ripley, who firmly insists on proper quarantine procedures. She refuses to open the hatch and objects to Dallas' orders:

Dallas: Something has attached itself to him. We have to get him to the infirmary right away.
Ripley: What kind of thing? I need a clear definition.
Dallas: An organism. Open the hatch!
Ripley: Wait a minute. If we let it in, the ship could be infected. You know the quarantine procedure. Twenty-four hours for decontamination.
Dallas: He could die in twenty-four hours. Open the hatch!
Ripley: Listen to me, if we break quarantine, we could all die.
Lambert: Could you open the god-damned hatch? We have to get him inside.
Ripley: No! I can't do that and if you were in my position, you'd do the same.
Dallas: Ripley, this is an order. Open that hatch right now, do you hear me?
Ripley: Yes.
Dallas: Ripley! This is an order! Do you hear me?
Ripley: Yes. I read you. The answer is negative.

In a tense confrontation, and against the wishes of second-in-command Ripley, the three voyagers are readmitted into the shuttle by insubordinate science officer Ash in clear violation of quarantine rules.


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