Jaws in space.
That’s what two screenwriters said as they walked into a Hollywood producer’s office.
And Alien was born.
Once again, this is the first time I’ve watched a supposed ‘classic’. So, how did the first proper sci-fi horror film fare in my books?
Alien is set on a working-class, commercial freighter carrying two billion tons of iron ore. All seems well, until they are sent a stress signal from a neighbouring planet, which the science office, Ash (Ian Holm), insists they must report to. But when they do, they accidentally bring life onto the ship, leaving it to wreck havoc in it’s blood thirsty lust.
Many of the first films ever made were dodgy depictions of a stumbling Mummy or ‘bolt-in-neck’ Frankenstein, roughly defined as horror, before we moved onto the slasher sub-genre: a psychopathic killer who stalks and graphically murders a series of adolescent victims in a random, unprovoked fashion.
But Alien isn’t your typical horror. This isn’t an awkward and gawky supernatural being, nor a simple minded mass murderer – the film perfectly blended sci-fi and horror in complete triumph. Much like slasher films, which came to prominence in 1978 with John Carpenter’s Halloween, they’re far from help. But it’s an alien loose on the ship. It doesn’t graphically kill. It leaves no trace. It’s doesn’t need a hockey mask to be frightening – it’s an alien. You’re done for.
Is the film actually scary? Not really. What makes it so thrilling is the suspense. Just like Psycho, so much is hidden. Oh lord, the suspense. Think to yourself, how many times do we actually see the Alien? Perhaps a little flash there. A hand reaching out from the darkness. Suddenly, it appears.
And this is what makes Alien exciting. Most of the film is our own imagination. And that is far scarier than anything they could put in front of us.
“I’ve never liked horror films before, because in the end it’s always been a man in a rubber suit. Well, there’s one way to deal with that. The most important thing in a film of this type is not what you see, but the effect of what you think you saw.”Ridley Scott
However, they do try their best, anyhow. The spaceship is brilliant – when Dallas is killed in the tunnels, everything is so tight and small and claustrophobic. Unlike it’s predecessors – ahem, Star Trek – not everything is polished or shiny or even working. The craft feels like a real, dingy, damp basement, and who’d want to be stuck in a basement with a violent, murderous xenomorph?
And, not only did the film break ground in terms of the genre, but also gender. Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), the warrant officer, is the female protagonist in film, and probably one of the best, ever. The character doesn’t shout ‘I’m a female!’ in your face, and that isn’t the point of the story, which is why it is so poignant. Ripley is understated, unsentimental and authentic – which clearly male writers find extremely difficult to do.
But it also ties back to the slasher films. Typically, a screeching, helpless, young woman would be the first death. Alien is the exact opposite. Ripley’s not the screeching, helpless, young woman; in the survival of the fittest, she out lasts them all and ends up defeating that dastardly creature.
However, Alien isn’t all good. Man, they make a lot of amateur mistakes. It’s clear none of them had watched a horror film before. You could get away with it in 1979 – nobody’s seen a good old sci-fi horror film before, roughly following the same story structure worksheet, it feels… dare I say it…? Predictable? I mean, how many times are you going to searching for this damned cat? It’s not going to end well for anybody!
Now that isn’t Alien’s fault, of course. It’s a great film that thousands of films that have tried to replicate, 2017’s Life being a perfect example. Many of the blundering mistakes are dictated by Ash, who, if you haven’t watched the film, is actually a robot trying to get the Alien back to Earth whatever the cost; the crew are deemed ‘expendable’. So, the ‘isn’t all good’s aren’t all good. See what I did there?
So, why have I given it an 7.5 out of 10? I’ll be honest with you, I’m not sure it’s a great film. It’s good, it’s suspenseful, but not scary. But also, that’s what makes it great… What are you looking at me for? I didn’t tell you to read this blog! Jesus.
Best character: Yaphet Kotto as Parker, the chief engineer always vying for more on his bonus. It does feel like he was added in just to bring some diversity, but Kotto is brilliant, especially off the back of his role as Bond villain Dr Kananaga in Live and Let Die.
Least favourite character: Let me clarify. Least favourite character is the not the worst performance. In fact, it’s probably the exact opposite. This is the character that I just didn’t like at all, and the prestigious award goes to Ash this week. The second main antagonist, Ash is the Alien is human – or not – form. In terms of worst performance, Veronica Cartwright as Lambert didn’t do much for me.
Favourite scene: This has become iconic and rightly so. Kane (John Hurt) has become the host for the Alien via the ‘face hugger’, only to explode from the inside through the ‘chestburster’. It’s a gory and horrific scene, and has become famous for the fact Ridley didn’t tell the actors what was going to happen. Kane had suddenly just started writhing around on the table to the shock of the cast – they thought it was going to be a nice easy chat, with Kane dying later. Blood spurts up onto his t-shirt, leaving them daunting what would be coming next. They were sent away so Ridley and his team could set up the baby alien, tripe and hydraulic ram. When they returned, the cameras were covered in plastic and suspicions were aroused. The alien burst through, blood was spattered everywhere and the emotion on all their faces is 100% real. Good directing.
Best quote: “You have my sympathies,” said by a decapitated robot Ash smothered in white goo. Also, a shout out to (although not in the film): “In space, no one can hear you scream.”
Alien – 7.5 out of 10