Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 23: Alien (1979)
Writer: Dan O’Bannon, Ronald Shusett
Cast: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto
Plot: In the far future, the mining ship Nostromo is making a run to Earth, hauling a refinery and 20 million tons of ore for a Corporation. The ship’s computer awakens the crew from its cryogenic sleep, and they expect they’re approaching hope. Captain Dallas (Tom Skeritt) informs the crew they’re only halfway to Earth, but the ship has intercepted a strange transmission that may be of intelligent origin. The ship is damaged upon landing on the planetoid, and Dallas, Kane (John Hurt) and Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) go off to search for the source of the transmission while Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), Ash (Ian Holm), and engineers Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) and Parker (Yaphet Kotto) remain behind to monitor them and make repairs to the ship. Kane’s team discovers an alien ship in ruins. The body of the creature inside the alien craft is enormous, and was apparently destroyed from the inside-out. Kane discovers an alien egg, which bursts open, allowing a tiny creature to affix itself to his face. Dallas and Lambert return him to the ship, but Ripley initially refuses to allow him to enter the ship, citing quarantine regulations. Ash defies her and allows them inside, where he tries to examine the creature. Dallas and Ash try to cut the creature off, only to discover it has acidic blood. The creature dies and Kane wakes up, seemingly in good health. As the crew sits down to dinner, though, he begins going through horrible convulsions. He falls over on the table and his chest explodes, setting free a tiny creature that escapes into the ship.
Hunting for the beast, Brett and Dallas are killed in short order. Ripley investigates the ship’s computer, only to discover that Ash is acting under special orders of the Corporation that sent them into space in the first place. They were deliberately sent to the derelict to find an alien organism and return it for study, and the crew is considered expendable. Ash attacks Ripley, displaying extraordinary strength and leaking a strange white fluid when wounded instead of blood – he is an android. Parker and Lambert save Ripley and destroy the mechanical man. Parker and Lambert go off to retrieve coolant while Ripley preps the escape shuttle, planning to blow up the ship. The alien kills Parker and Lambert and Ripley rushes to activate the ship’s self-destruct mechanism herself. She manages to fight her way to the shuttle and escape the Nostromo before it is destroyed, unaware the alien has boarded the escape craft with her. She comes across the creature sleeping, puts on an atmosphere suit and opens the hatch, blasting the creature into space. As the film ends she records a message to anyone who finds the ship and climbs into suspended animation, hoping she is found sooner rather than later.
Thoughts: I’ve largely avoided science fiction movies in this list, mainly because I hope this “story structure” experiment will be something I can do again and again, and science fiction most certainly deserves its own category (if not several). However, out of all the movies that straddle the fence between science fiction and horror, there are a few that keep to the horror side so firmly that to not include them in this project would be a disgrace. Hence, Ridley Scott’s Alien.
In essence, Alien is a haunted house movie in outer space. It meets the tropes of that genre very nicely – you’ve got a small cast in a confined area from which they cannot easily escape or summon outside help. (How many good Haunted House movies take place in a remote location, during a power outage, or in some sort of horrible weather? There’s always a reason the people trapped in the house can’t just leave, otherwise they look like idiots.) As they run around the “house” (or in this case, spaceship) they make their way through enormous labyrinthine hallways, find evidence of a creature that is beyond human that appears with greater, more violent, and more alarming frequency, and are picked off a few at a time until a single or small group of survivors finally manages to escape. You see parts of the monster, or shadows of its inhuman shape, long before you see the creature in all its glory, building the tension and the fear as you go along. This is why Alien had to go in this list – not only does it fit every Haunted House trope other than the ghost itself, but it does so brilliantly.
Aside from Ridley Scott getting great performances from his actors, much of the credit for this film’s success has to go to creature creator H.R. Giger. Giger’s artwork helped inspire screenwriter Dan O’Bannon, and thus he really was the logical choice to design not only the alien creature itself, but also the environments found on the alien spacecraft. There are scenes, admittedly, where you can tell you’re looking at a matte painting, but it’s an H.R. Giger matte painting, and that automatically makes it 99 percent more awesome than any other matte painting you’ve ever seen, including the one you helped color on your 11th grade production of Oklahoma.
Even certain things that could have looked terrible under other circumstances really work in this film. When Dallas is attacked in the air vent, the beast thrusts its arms at him. If you do a freeze-frame on the image, it’s kind of goofy… the creature throws out jazz hands like it wants to give Tom Skeritt a big, motherly hug. When you only get a glimpse of it, though, it’s scary as hell. And like all good scary movies, you get caught up in it enough that you forget some of the logical holes, like why the ship’s self-destruct mechanism is so damn far away from the escape shuttle. (Seriously, The Corporation? Talk about a design flaw.) Or the fact that we can hear the big ol’ Nostromo explosion in the vacuum of outer space, which is impossible… and this from the film that uses that little nugget of science in its own tagline: “In space, no one can hear you scream.”
The English teacher in me also has to give O’Bannon credit for abandoning the film’s original title, Star Beast. This was 1979, both Star Wars and Star Trek were heavily on the public consciousness and going with the “Star” title probably would have made the film successful. But Alien is just flat-out a superior title. It works both as a noun – describing the creature that hunts the crew of the Nostromo – and as an adjective, describing the fact that the thing they’ve found is utterly unlike anything we’ve ever seen in the universe. It’s a nice bit of wordplay that I think helps the movie just a tad.
When the time came, inevitably, to make a sequel to this film, the filmmakers realized it would be nearly impossible to replicate the terror of the original. After all, much of what makes Alien so scary is the fact that you don’t really see the adult creature in full until the near end of the film, allowing the deadly power of the human imagination to do its work. By the time Aliens went into production, the creature was already pretty much public knowledge, so James Cameron took the film in another direction: instead of making an awesome sci-fi/horror movie, Aliens was an awesome sci-fi/action movie. This, of course, was followed by Alien3, a film that was a hybrid of science fiction and “a movie so poorly conceived and directed I got disgusted with the whole franchise and, to this day, haven’t seen the fourth one.” There are also, of course, the two Alien Vs. Predator movies, of which there isn’t much to say. I am looking forward to Ridley Scott’s upcoming film Prometheus, though, which is apparently going to be connected to Alien, although how tightly or in what way is something he’s still playing very close to the vest.
Tomorrow we return to Earth, Stephen King, and the more traditional haunted house idea with Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.