Review: Alien

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

As a horror movie, Alien is appropriately concerned with collective nightmares (being chased and caught; the monster is below us, now above us; someone we know is, in fact, not human), and lustfully derivative of the genre’s white-middle-class fears that give rise to the nightmares (loss of order, familiarity, and domination; community goes to hell). But the film has something more, at least in the first half: a developing narrative with an exclusive, integral logic of its own, built on ostensible collisions in logical flow. In other words, in its auspicious beginnings, Alien reminds one of more expressly surreal films. The difference is that Alien has an intentionally simple storyline derived from consistency in character types and motivations, including all nonhumans, machines, distant organizations, and the dead.

Ridley Scott’s’ fairy-tale premises are dreamily worthy of Leonora Carrington, or a small child well acquainted with violence (“…and then the monster stuck to the man’s face, made a baby monster in the man’s stomach, and die baby grew and exploded out of the man…”). The terrain we’re on is revealed in stages of haunting familiarity: nighttime quiet and insulation in the empty halls and shelters aboard the spaceship Nostromo. Incomprehensible but important-looking machines that sustain order somehow, that do their jobs unmanned, unquestioningly, absolutely. The Nostromo crew sleeping a sleep of complete surrender to “Mother,” the ship’s computer source of custody care, wisdom, hard facts of life, and solace in her Christmas-lit aerie. Later, we’ll find that the crew is compelled to answer a distress call on an unknown planet, despite a quite reasonable resistance to strange places, simply because the oft-referred-to but effectively nebulous male counterpart to Mother, “the Company,” tells them they have to or else. We see Kane (John Hurt) receive the consequences for being the curious one and touching what he should not. When the Company’s benevolence and direction are most needed by the nearly hysterical crew, that organization’s previously established fickle paternalism translates into an industrial compassion several cuts below Babcock & Wilcox. Worse yet, as the Company abandons its dependents in the middle of nowhere, delivered to certain horror, the crew finds that Mother has also turned her back.

Any notion of community would be more alien to this crew than the alien thing itself
Yaphet Kotto, Sigourney Weaver, Ian Holm: Any notion of community would be more alien to this crew than the alien thing itself

Obviously, more than a thread of a good idea is developing in Alien‘s first half; but we will not see its like again until the final minutes, when Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), trapped with the interloper aboard a cramped shuttle, simultaneously regresses (chanting a childhood rhyme) and heroically confronts the monster before settling in for a long, secure sleep. In between, the film’s nightmare premise is superseded by a part of its own roots—i.e., species, class, and race fear. An initially vague and distracting preoccupation with the cross-politics of the film’s principals fulfills itself after the creature is born via Kane. A lot of biases in this film are leaked rather than openly revealed for the sake of their own (our own) revelation. In this way, Alien seems determined to reinforce every otherwise negligible science fiction fanzine’s snort toward the bug-eyed monster sub-genre for being insubstantial and offensive—although the real foot-in-mouth problem here is not what was said but why it was said at all. Ripley’s snugly stripping-down on the shuttle while she is, contrarily, in a worse position than ever for the invader to have her, too, is a scene capping a long string of associations of the alien with sexual violation as well as the endangering of life. Nothing new or wrong in that; but it is the bizarre parallel between the alien and Parker (Yaphet Kotto) that draws my attention. Parker is the only black on board, he’s the tallest character outside of the monster, he is chiefly concerned with instant gratification, and his conversation and innuendos would forever bar him from polite society. The women in the crew avoid him when possible, pulling rank as an equalizer. Just before we know that the original creature plastered to Kane’s face virtually impregnated him through normal eating channels, some time before we see that the alien always flashes its viscid teeth before gnawing on its catch, Parker has the prophetic crudity to say at the dinner table, “I’d like to be eatin’ sumpin else!”, reinforcing the disgust and consternation he causes in the women about the time that the creature has come to do it worse.

Since any notion of community would be more alien to this crew than the alien thing itself—acute awareness of education, gender, race, rank, salary, and collar-color being paramount among them and in the script—we do not and should not, expect more than a lot of hatred, including the self-directed variety. But it’s a very naked bit of preference on someone’s part to have the stupidest and least desirable crew member, Brett (Harry Dean Stanton), always ready with an inarticulate labor-relations bitch, get knocked off first, indirectly for being so self-centered. If this is an easy tradition, it goes further by next terminating Dallas (Tom Skerritt), the ship’s burnt-out but altruistic captain. With the big question of what-does-the-monster-do-to-people having been answered by Brett’s killing, we can now get ready for Dallas’s resigned kamikaze try at ending the crisis, assured that the romance won’t be marred with the same offscreen brutality. Ash (Ian Holm), set up as a squishy, stuttering dwarf early on, ultimately attempts to force Ripley to fellate a rolled-up Popular Somethingorother when he can no longer stand her badgering, thus fulfilling our early suspicions of a wrongness hinted at by no more than a “thin” masculinity.

Ridley Scott’s preeminent viewer-hook is his sobering, viewer-as-unseen-participant camerawork. Even before the alien’s onboard shakedown, we have the sense of being privy to the Nostromo crew’s personal and working privacies. The shots remain at a level of potentially comfortable eye contact with the characters; the camera’s closeness to the individuals’ physical presence furthers the viewer’s feeling of colleague-like accession. This enhances the viewer’s role during the crisis: the camera is barely ahead of the makeshift SWAT team roaming the corridors in search of the monster, right there with Dallas in the airshaft, and reduced to sweeping pans-cum-audience-headspinning as Ripley runs alone.

But none of that saves the film from cliché and distraction. The fact that Scott’s camera is a working element in Alien‘s good and bad times suggests his complete fidelity to the film’s disappointingly limited ambitions. And that, in turn, belies conviction and any very satisfying degree of directorial control.

© 1980 Tom Keogh

ALIEN
Direction: Ridley Scott. Screenplay: Dan O’Bannon, after a story by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett. Cinematography: Derek Vanlint. Production design: Michael Seymour; art direction: Les Dilley, Roger ‘Christian. “Alien” design: H.R. Giger; “Alien” head effects: Carlo Rambaldi. Special effects supervision: Brian Johnson, Nick Allder. Visual design consultation: Dan O’Bannon. Editing: Terry Rawlings. Music: Jerry Goldsmith; incidental music from Symphony No.2 (“Romantic”) by Howard Hanson, Eine kleine Nachtmusik by W.A. Mozart; conducted by Lionel Newman. Production: Gordon Carroll, David Giler and Walter Hill; executive producer: Ronald Shusett.
The players: Tom Skerritt, Sigourney Weaver, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto; Bolaji Badejo, Helen Horton (voice).

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.