Stuff I Watch in October: Alien (1979)

Happy October and welcome! All 31 days this month, I will be reviewing all the films I watch in the month of October. They’re mostly a selection of horror or suspense films in my own library or films and shows that have been recommended to me.

Please enjoy and leave a comment!

And if you missed any of our past reflections, take a look:

The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
Psycho (1960)
The Haunting (1963)
It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (1966)
The Other (1972)
The Legend of Hell House (1973)
Young Frankenstein (1974)
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
Halloween (1978)

Our next film is…

WATCHING: Alien (1979)

Alien

DIRECTED BY: Ridley Scott. Can I just take a second to say that this man is one of the most consistently good directors out there? I feel like he gets almost zero play for the work he’s done in the 40 years.

WHAT IS IT?: Picture a “haunted house” stuck in space, months away from landing back on Earth. There’s one escape pod that can seemingly only support the life of one person, nobody is able to travel beyond the walls of the ship, meaning that they’re effectively TRAPPED with a murderous thing that roams the dark, smoky halls of the ship. Hiding does no good because it knows where you are. Retreating to the ventilation shafts also does no good because that’s how the thing prefers to travel. That’s “Alien”.

PLOT: Headed home to get paid for their latest haul, the crew of a massive mining ship gets a distress call in the middle of space and decides to investigate. What they find is, at first, wondrous as it is scary: a giant crashed alien ship. Inside, the pilot is dead from a mysterious injury: it appears as though something was inside of him and burst out of the pilot’s chest.

Further investigation of the ship reveals a chamber containing several “eggs”, the size of trash cans, littered all over the floor, each containing some sort of spider-like lifeform inside. All seems well until one of these lifeforms bursts out of its eggs and attaches itself to one of the crew members. Unable to get the alien being off of him (it has acid for blood, so surgery isn’t an option unless you want to injure yourself or the person with the being is attached to — or the ship itself), the crew decides to take off and deal with the consequences while in flight, a move that ends up having disastrous consequences for everyone involved.

And much to the chagrin of the crew, it’s almost invincible and cannot be killed by anything they have on the ship.

“You still don’t understand what you’re dealing with, do you?” Ash, the ship’s science officer asks the crew after having done the research on the creature. “The perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.”

And he’s right. Death, it seems, is inevitable — even if the crew cannot and does not accept that.

Thus, the tone is set for a showdown between two apex predators, one that has ruled their planet for centuries and one that has never been seen up until now — but that hides in the shadows, awaiting its next meal.

WHAT DID CRITICS THINK?: Upon its release in theaters, critics were mixed. Variety, Sight and Sound, and Leonard Maltin all ranged from somewhere in the middle to negative. Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert liked it — but thought it wasn’t “great” and a bit of a disappointment, with Gene Siskel dismissively calling it, “a haunted house film set in a spaceship and not a great science fiction film”. Just like a few films in this series, time has been kind to “Alien”. It’s now widely thought of as a science-fiction/horror classic. Critics Roger Ebert and Leonard Maltin revisited the film and both ended up giving it high marks.

WHAT DID I THINK?: Earlier, I described this movie as “a haunted house movie in space”, much like Gene Siskel — and I find NOTHING at all wrong with that concept. In a haunted house film, barring unique circumstances, the protagonist or protagonists can leave a haunted property at anytime and retain what’s left of their sanity.

The characters in this movie don’t have that luxury.

The dread here is palpable and matches the film’s famous tagline: “In space, no one can hear you scream”.

Ridley Scott seems to take as much joy in this concept as we all did when he was making this film. The opening of the movie is a long introduction to the setting rather than the characters, allowing the viewer to check out the environment we’re going to be trapped inside for the next two hours. The hallways are dark, industrial, foggy (this is a Ridley Scott film after all), and the ship almost becomes a character in and of itself.

It’s definitely a haunted house film at heart and, as futuristic and gritty as the film is, it’s obviously lovingly influenced by old science-fiction b-movies of the 50’s, recalling the likes of Roger Corman and the Universal movie monsters of old. Alas, Harry Dean Stanton didn’t initially want to be a part of the film for that very reason. It was director Scott who told him that the film was more of a thriller, akin to “Ten Little Indians”.

Like the music of “Halloween” and “The Legend of Hell House”, the score for “Alien” is very minimalist, allowing the hum of the ship, the sound of blasting steam and blaring alarms do the trick in tandem with dark, murky visuals, which are courtesy of the late, great H.R. Giger. Giger was the brains behind that beautiful alien ship, the pilot and, of course, The Alien, which has gone down in history as one of the most famous movie monsters ever created.

One of the other keys to this movie’s success are the performances from the cast of seven: Sigourney Weaver, the late sir Ian Holm, Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, Yaphet Kotto, Harry Dean Stanton, and John Hurt.

Skerritt is the captain of the ship with Weaver playing the second-in-command. The two have mutual respect but it’s Weaver’s Ripley who is more by-the-book, surprisingly more so than the ship’s science officer, Ash (Holm) who should know better than to bring an unknown lifeform on board. Kotto and Stanton play the ship’s two engineers who just wanna get paid, dammit, and will bitch at anyone they see about it. Cartwright is the ship’s navigator who has a problem with everything and isn’t very good in a crisis. And then, there’s Kane (Hurt)…poor Kane, part of one of the most shocking moments in all of science-fiction/horror. We hardly knew ye. Having worked in a few unionized industries, the characterizations here are very much rooted in real life and quite accurate.

But one of the most astonishing things about the movie is the main hero of the film. I won’t spoil it in case there are still people who haven’t seen this movie, but it transcended stereotypes and expectations of the time.

“Alien” is a great film on so many levels, one with loving influences and one that has lovingly influenced others.

GRADE: A

Leave a Reply