The lack of a seal of approval here is less a comment on the quality of the film, than the fact that it only starts to qualify as an action heroine flick in the final twenty minutes. [Though for sheer influence, omitting it entirely here would be unthinkable] For most of the film, Ripley (Weaver) has been just another one of the crew; if you found someone unaware of the series, and showed them the first two-thirds, they’d probably have Dallas (Skerritt) down both as the hero, and the character most likely to survive.
But it is one of the central rules of horror movies – or, at least, good horror movies – that anyone can die at any time. This is a rule to which Alien adheres, and makes it as much an entry in the haunted house genre as a science-fiction film. True, it’s set in space, with the main threat an extra-terrestrial creature, but outside of these elements, and in both tone and structure, possesses little in common with contemporaries like Star Trek and The Empire Strikes Back.
Indeed, perhaps the closest relation this film has, is Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead. Like Ripley, Bruce Campbell’s Ash (oddly, a name shared with the Nostromo crewman played by Holm) only assumes a heroic posture late in proceedings, forced by adversity to tap unexpected reserves of courage and strength. The movies also share characters trapped in a location from which they can’t escape, by a creature whose presence is in part self-inflicted, and at the same time wildly beyond their understanding. Their enemy is also pissed.
A plot synopsis hardly seems necessary, but here goes. [A spoiler warning is also in effect, albeit one probably relevant only for any Bantu tribesmen who happen to be surfing this site] The spaceship Nostromo, on its way home, picks up an unexplained signal from a planet and goes to investigate. On landing, they find an alien craft, and a lot of eggs, from one of which a creature leaps, attaching itself to crew member Kane (John Hurt). It later falls off, but not, as it turns out, until he has been implanted with a larva which bursts out of him during a meal, and scurries off into the ship. From there, it picks off the crew one by one, growing bigger and badder all the time.
Scott barely lets us see the monster for most of the film, probably a wise move given the budget, which at $11m was below average for the time, especially for a film with so many effects. While the designs, by Swiss weirdo H.R.Giger, are fabulous, their realization sometimes leaves a little to be desired. The scene of the critter scurrying away from Kane’s body is more likely to provoke sniggers these days, as are some of the model shots.
It helps enormously having a great cast: Ian Holm and John Hurt, Tom Skerritt, Harry Dean Stanton, and of course, Sigourney Weaver, in her feature debut. They are a million light-years away from clean and shiny SF characters, and the film owes more to Dark Star than 2001. It does start off at a very leisurely pace, perhaps too leisurely for an informed viewer, who knows that almost all these lovingly-detailed characters are going to bite the big one before long.
Once Kane gets infected, and especially after the alien gets loose, the pace picks up significantly, with tension being ratcheted to the max. The final sequences rank among the most memorable of all time, when Ripley realises all her crewmates are dead – it’s just her and the monster. And just when you think the film is over, with Ripley blowing up the Nostromo [in space, it appears, no-one can hear you scream, but you can hear a ship explode] and escaping by shuttle, clad in the smallest pair of knickers imaginable…it isn’t.
The film’s most important contribution to the girls-with-guns genre was in creating a plausible heroine, capable of surviving through her own skills, rather than being saved by the macho hero. This was a cliche particularly relevant in SF films, where women were usually passive, and though Alien‘s place in that genre is questionable, as discussed earlier, it opened a lot of eyes to the possibilities. Without Ripley, there quite probably would be no Sarah Connor, Lara Croft or Sidney Bristow.
The director’s cut, released 25 years after the film’s initial release, isn’t as much an alteration as some – as with Blade Runner, Scott opted to trim as well as insert, leaving the new version almost the same length as the original. The main addition is a sequence where Ripley discovers the remains of two of her colleagues, cocooned in preparation for the next step of the alien’s life-cycle. Otherwise, it is simply a joy to experience this film in the darkness of a theatre, where its understated creepiness is undeniably at its most effective.
Its critical and popular acclaim – adjusted for inflation, it’s the best-grossing girls-with-guns film ever at the box-office – inevitably meant that a sequel would follow. While Scott would return to similarly empowering themes more than once, first in Thelma and Louise, and then, less successfully in G.I. Jane, the reins were handed over to another director, James Cameron. He took the franchise in a radically different direction, arguably to even greater success. But that’s another story…
Dir: Ridley Scott
Star: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Ian Holm, Harry Dean Stanton