24 June 2009

Retro Review: Alien (1979)


1979, 116mins, R
Director: Ridley Scott
Writer (s): Dan O'Bannon, Ronald Shusett
Cast includes: Sigourney Weaver, Ian Holm, Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, John Hurt, Harry Dean Stanton, Yaphett Kotto
Release Date: 25th May 1979

It’s not hard to fathom after a viewing of “Alien” how it mutated into the cinematic landmark it is today. Initially conceived as a sci-fi horror piece to ride of the success of “Star Wars” – “Alien” is both a mighty success as a horror picture and as a slice of science fiction majesty. The film boasts the creative eye and strong characters that mark out the top in pioneering adventure flicks but also the unbearable suspense and subtle lashings of viscera that populate only the finest fright films. It’s a blissfully joyful burst of dark and increasingly warped sci-fi paranoia, brought to the front by one of the greatest characters in movies history and certainly one of the most intimidating and terrifying villains to grace the silver screen.

The commercial spacecraft Nostromo is heading back to Earth, but all of its crew have been pulled out of hyper-sleep early due to a distress beacon on a nearby planet. After debating the pros and cons of looking into the signal the crew decide to follow protocol and investigate, landing on a barren and windswept planet in the dead of night. A small portion of the seven man team moves out but one of them is infected by some sort of parasite that renders the victim unconscious and attaches itself to the unfortunates face. The man in question is Kane (John Hurt) and after being quarantined in a comatose state he reawakens with the creature having dropped off and apparently died. However it quickly transpires this is part of the organisms’ life cycles as the next generation violently bursts out of Kane’s chest and escapes into the dark corners of the ship. The animal evolves at an alarming rate and before they know it the crew is being hunted by a 6 foot bipedal monster, intent on death and seemingly invincible.

At the time of it’s release “Alien” was entering an era of science fiction mega bucks movies, films like “Star Wars” and the initial wave of “Star Trek” features had induced a burning desire for further space adventures whilst the stalk and slash horror styling’s had been made popular once again thanks to Jason and Michael Myers. “Alien” combined both pop culture fads beautifully resulting in a truly futuristic thriller that could dial up the tension to unbearable levels and wasn’t’ afraid to spill a little intestine in the process. The masterful direction of the story is matched by performances of unusual depth and a visual design that remains one of the most extraordinary and distinctive to have come out of Hollywood. The way that artist H.R Giger created the disturbingly organic and contorted sets along with the iconic beasts itself is key to the long lasting endurance of the picture with film buffs. Many have tried to imitate the visual pang of “Alien”, but it would be impossible to argue it’s ever been bettered.

The character of Ellen Ripley is that which would launch the mostly bright career of Sigourney Weaver, here in her debut performance the then 29 year old Weaver was able to bring a strength and realism to the role that most up and comers can only dream of. Looking at Weaver’s career it’s peppered with some wonderful characters and it’s a credit to the actress that she was able to go out and pursue such varied roles after such a groundbreaking and gritty performance here. Granted Weaver will likely always be remembered as Ripley and did indeed return for three further creature feature sequels but ultimately when watching “Alien” today it’s striking how good her acting is and yet how flavoursome her CV turned out to be.

The rest of the cast are a mini marvel largely because as actors they all proved after years of exposure rather mediocre. However here Scott was able to draw natural and sympathetic turns from them all, granted Ian Holm and John Hurt turned out to be fine thespians but the rest are a decidedly more mixed sauce. Speaking of Hurt his participation is really limited to the films most iconic and recalled sequence in which at a meal the second generation Alien bursts bloodily from his chest. The twist was kept hidden from the cast who react in such natural terror and stupefied expression that they sell the sheer horror of the scene beyond the gallons of fake blood and glimpses of innards. Ian Holm exudes a delightful menace and coldness as the ship’s science officer whilst Tom Skerritt is gung ho and admirable enough to pass unquestionably as the Nostromo’s alpha male. The fact that Skerritt sells the part of Captain Dallas so well only goes to empower the picture further, without spoiling proceedings to much it offers “Alien” an unsuspecting punch that Alfred Hitchcock could have been proud of.

The fear is generated in effective fits and bursts, Scott deploying a slow boil mechanism before drawing the picture to fiery temperatures of excitement and scares at the end. Like Spielberg did with the shark in “Jaws”, Scott works hard not to overexpose his menace before the final quarter hour, only offering tantalising glances at Giger’s freakish harbinger of doom. Everything that works about “Alien” from a horror standpoint can be drawn from its artistic restraint and taut atmosphere, and it doesn’t hurt that the Jerry Goldsmith score is ominous in the extreme. The haunting melodies and superb direction elevate “Alien” above the mire of shamefully exploitative horror pieces that thronged the market at the time, with a masterpiece like this less truly equated to more.

“Alien” made you care about the characters and so their deaths had more resonance whilst the clammy and expertly staged interiors only added to the intense terror pressure radiating of the motion picture. As raw entertainment there can be no question that “Alien” works well, not a bored moment is likely to be suffered during Scott’s momentous moment of monster movie magic. However it’s endurance as one of cinema’s most celebrated efforts can more likely be collated down to the well poised humanity of the performances and supremely original visual construction of the project, it’s unwillingness to let gore topple suspense also a prime note. “Alien” deserves to be seen as a sci-fi classic and a horror movie must, a picture that took two genres and put a refreshing and legendary spin on both. In the climate of creative nothingness that infects today’s market how often can you say that about a movie?

A review by Daniel Kelly, 2009


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