What Makes Ridley Scott's Seminal Sci-Fi Movie So Enduring?
Ridley Scott's 1979 masterpiece has rightfully assured it's place as not only a genre classic, but also as a key movie in cinema history.
A film that rewards on countless viewings, Alien stands apart from many SF movies thanks to careful, meticulous set-design and improv-based performances by the seven principals. Unlike other SF releases of the time, Alien looks like it could've been shot in any post-60s decade.
Sure, this is deep space in a distant future where a now insignificant 'earth' is spelled in lower-case, but the banter we hear between the crew of deep-space tug the Nostromo concerns the drudgery of everyday life, thankless toil, the divide between the white and the blue collars.
Sigourney Weaver's Breakthrough RoleGender roles are blurred; a then-unknown Sigourney Weaver plays the iconic Ripley, a character who will go on to be something of a feminist icon, but for now is Warrant Officer for the nameless corporation employing the crew, stuck amidst alpha-male posturing between the ships captain (Tom Skerritt), Chief Engineer (Yaphet Kotto), Science Officer (Ian Holm) and Navigator (John Hurt). Added to the mix are Veronica Cartwright and Harry Dean Stanton as lower-rung employees, ducking from quarrels but quietly bemoaning their lot when given an opportunity.
The plot doesn't deviate from Dan O'Bannon's initial screenplay, tentatively entitled 'Star Beast', first intended as a cheapo exploitation flick. A distress beacon wakes the crew from hyper-sleep, interrupting the journey home. Company directives dictate investigation; a fossilised wreck on a hostile planetoid surface is explored, where a nest of alien eggs is discovered. A crewman is attacked by a parasitic organism, attaching to his face, inducing a coma-like state.
When the exploration party return, the crew learn the distress signal was really a warning to avoid the crash site. The casualty is taken to sickbay; in no time, the parasite dies and falls off, leaving the victim in (apparently) good health. Not for long.
The Beast is BornIn perhaps the most famous scene, the embryo - embedded in the crewman's stomach - violently emerges, killing him in the process. The thing flees and the chase is on as the remaining crew search for the intruder, now a rapidly evolving monstrosity. One by one, they fall prey to it's insatiable appetite. A clever twist (it has acid for blood) means it can't be shot, or the hull will be compromised, leaving a tiger-by-the-tail scenario. As the crew dwindles, the odds stack up against the survivors...
Much has been written about HR Giger's hugely influential alien design - a heady mix of organic, phallic imagery, creating something uniquely, psychologically disturbing. Less is said about Ron Cobb's stunning set designs for the ship interiors - a complex, grubby environment that is utterly credible, providing a jarring contrast to the sleek curves of the derelict ship containing those creepy eggs.
Ridley Scott's masterful direction pulls these elements together, adding many layers of subtext: the parental tones of the ship's computer (tellingly called Mother) wakes the crew from incubated sleep, dressed in diapers; it forbids access to information that could save their lives, then is the target of Weaver's petulant outbursts as she rebels against it. Themes of suffocation and abandonment further reinforce some deeply Freudian concepts, making for a wholly unnerving experience.
Many sequels followed, best of which is Aliens (1986). None come close to the original in terms of sheer terror. It's telling that, thirty years on, Alien holds up against any other in the genre.