In the late 70's struggling screenwriter Dan O'Bannon was living on producer Ronald Shusett's couch. He was homeless and had no money. His lone previous writing project had been "Darkstar," the sci-fi comedy which was also the directorial debut of a young John Carpenter. He was a man with great talent, but little success. Then Fox picked up a the rights to a screenplay he had called "Alien." To direct they got an unknown British television commercial maker named Ridley Scott and a barely tested stage actress named Sygourney Weaver to be the lead. It had a budget of $11 million.
And after it came out in 1979, the movie world was never the same.
There are a lot of movies I would call "one of my favorites," and plenty of movie franchises I would say the same about, but when it comes to the "Alien" series, the only thing that can even come close to comparing in terms of my all-time favorite sci-fi films is "Star Wars." And now that the prequels have come along to taint what was once glorious, I'm unsurprisingly leaning more towards Ripley and the Xenomorphs.
I played bass for "Ripley and The Xenomorphs."
"Alien" essentially created modern sci-fi horror. Before then space had been a sterile, clean place for the Kubricks, Roddenberrys and Lucas's of the world to make pretty and high-tech looking. After all, it's space travel! The future! Warp Factor 1, Kessel runs in less than 12 parsecs and "I can't let you do that, Dave" and whatnot. But "Alien" gave us a realistic, dirty, lived-in future which actually looked like what space travel would probably be like in our eternally less-glamorous-than-we-imagined reality.
Perhaps it was this sense of realism that made what the film had in store for its audiences so hard-hitting and shocking. Scary creatures from another planet attacking us was not something new by any means. Hell that's every 50's drive-in movie ever made. And the idea of a person becoming corrupted by the monsters had been done in "Invasion of The Body Snatchers." But that film didn't feature the shocking gore combined with the sublime direction and timing of Ridley Scott. It was almost like a proto-Cronenberg experiment in body horror - something inside you that you can't control, violating you and literally getting under your skin before it claws its way out, ripping you apart.
The infamous chestburster sequence, which also happens to be my personal favorite movie scene of all time, got such a reaction from audiences that it was famously reported that people were getting sick in the theaters. The level of gore on display was the kind of thing you saw in "I Spit on Your Grave," not a monster movie about something from space. Those movies are silly and unrealistic. Or at least, they were until "Alien" came around to inject that realism. It always seemed authentic, even with an outlandish creature running about, because it took itself seriously, contained real characters, and all the grit and grime that comes from a setting that feels legitimate.
They did not skimp on the dank, that's for sure.
Most people today seeing it for the first time would probably consider "Alien" to be slow and timid compared to what they're used to, and they wouldn't be too much to blame for feeling that way. Cinema has evolved a lot in the 34 years since it was released, and time is not kind to most horror movies, as it's the nature of the genre to push the envelope and ramp up the scares. And like the majority of horror films of that era, a good amount of time is spent with building atmosphere and characterization. This has the trivial consequence of making it so you don't want to see bad things happen to the characters, which makes you feel something when those things inevitably happen.
He died with his dignity.
And like any respectable horror film, much is left to the imagination. Despite the horrific gore-fest of the dinner scene, that's the most graphic "Alien" gets by a mile. The rest is done in quick flashes of violence and is actually kind of subtle, even though what's happening is that the alien is ramming its "tongue" through the brain of its victims, which is pretty hardcore. It's even implied that the alien may have raped the character of Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) before killing her, or for all we know she was killed because of the rape (if it happened), which is all kinds of horrible that's unpleasant to even entertain the thought of. But we're left to draw those conclusions based on what the movie doesn't show us. And that, for my money, is the way to go, because when let to their own devices, our minds always do far worse things to the characters than the movie could have shown us.
Speaking of characters, "Alien" also set the precedent for what is now commonly referred to as "The Strong Female Lead," although few have been as well written or portrayed. Sygourney Weaver's performance as Lt. Ellen Ripley is one of the great landmarks in sci-fi and horror movies in general. There hadn't been too many movie characters like her before: a strong, intelligent, resourceful woman who was capable of being a badass, all while being totally organic about the whole process, and not making a big deal (or any deal at all) about the fact that she was female.
Wow. It's almost like you're an actual person instead of simply being defined by your gender...
A lot of characters like that and the actresses portraying a tough woman, be it your Michelle Rodriguezs or Milla Jovovichs or what have you, tend to come off as really artificial to me, mostly because they're always so in-your-face about being tough. They constantly have to remind the audience with a sneer and a one-liner that they're a badass, and are often combative far past the point where any normal person would stop and take it down a notch, just for variety's sake.
With Ripley it wasn't like that. She is a normal person in every respect, and she acts like it. She gets scared, confused and desperate just like anyone else would. But she just so happens to be brave and clever (and lucky) enough to survive to the end credits when everyone else didn't. There isn't a single point during "Alien" which seems like the pandering moment where the women are supposed to say "You go girl!" to the screen. It's nice when a movie doesn't treat its viewers like trained seals.
That's not to ignore the rest of the cast, all of whom are just legendary in this movie. Ian Holm, Tom Skerritt, Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton are of course phenomenal. But for me the two standouts besides Sygourney are Veronica Cartwright and John Hurt. Cartwright gives a performance which has to hold some kind of world record for a single person conveying that much fear. It's almost to the point of being obnoxious, actually. Had it not been for a stellar acting job it probably would have been. And John Hurt had an alien rip out of his ribcage. I'd say that earns anybody a mention when talking about memorable performances.
The only weakness to "Alien" is that there are aspects of it that time has not been kind to. This is mostly the specials effects on the alien itself. At the end of the day, it's just a guy in a suit. And while I'll prefer that any day over CGI, the problem is that since the suit was so awkward, and the poor dude couldn't actually see anything while wearing it (true story), there's never a great sense of gracefulness or predatory instinct when you finally get a good look at the thing. It's far too slow moving, almost like it's sleepy or drugged out of its mind, and there's one shot in particular (in Lambert and Parker's death scene) where it looks like the thing is a Thanksgiving Day Parade float, just smoothly cruising down the avenue, animatronic arms slowly moving up and down. It looks ridiculous.
"Mammy! Doncha know me?! It's your lil' baby!"
Also, there's always been something that's bugged the crap out of me: When Dallas or Ripley are talking to Mother, the ship's AI, they interact with it by typing out questions into the computer. Well, they'll only hit like 5 keys, but those 5 keystrokes are apparently enough to type of something like "REQUEST EXPLANATION FOR SCIENCE INABILITY TO NEUTRALIZE ALIEN." I have no idea what that interface is like at that point. I know watching them type all that out isn't exciting, but come on. Type faster. Ripley one-finger types like she's trying her best to break the damn thing.
MUST. TYPE. HARD ENOUGH. TO BREAK. FINGERS!!!
But those hardly ruin the movie, and most of the problems can be traced back to "Alien" being a product of its time, and for the budget they had it still looks fantastic. Even with the Apple II looking computers and their keyboards with buttons as big as cats. This is a film I could watch over and over and over again. Which I have done.
And somehow, in some ways, impossibly...in 1986 it got even better.
This trailer is a shockingly accurate representation of the movie. Starts slow with nothing happening, building an uncomfortable atmosphere before going INSANE at the end. Well done.
THE BOTTOM LINE - "Alien" is one of the best science fiction films ever made. It's also one of the best horror films ever made. And it's certainly, in my opinion, THE best film to cross those two genres. And it's one of my all-time favorite movies. It shaped my tastes in sci-fi, horror, gaming, and film. I can't express my love for it enough.