"In space no one can hear you scream."
I've chosen to write about Ridley Scott's classic horror/sci-fi movie Alien in the first part of the new Film Friday series for a few reasons. Alien is a film which has influenced or at least been involved in a lot of my life, back when it was first released in the UK my parents went to go and see it (or at least my father dragged my mother along to watch it). But, as my mother is also prone to reminding me, I also went along to the cinematic showing of this film as she was pregnant with me at the time. I can only imagine how being pregnant would have influenced her experience of the film, it's certainly resulted in her consistently mentioning that same anecdote just about every time the movie Alien is mentioned. I'm not sure how I should take this and sometimes I wonder if I'm being compared (by her) to the Alien in the movie.
Fast forward about a dozen or so years and one of the more vivid memories from my childhood is my father proudly sitting me down before bedtime and showing me the opening scenes from Alien. The scenes with the lights coming on inside the Nostromo and the stasis pods opening up remain branded into my consciousness even to this day. Mostly because after showing a few of the opening scenes my father stopped the film and said "The rest of the film is horrible and scary so I won't show you it." and then sent me to bed. I didn't sleep well for quite a few nights after that, there's nothing quite like an active imagination to keep one from falling asleep without disturbing dreams...
It is worth saying that Alien was not actually the first movie in the franchise I watched in full, that prize goes to it's action packed sequel Aliens (which I'll probably touch on in a later issue of Film Friday), but it is definitely the one which left the biggest mark on me thanks to the actions of my parents. And there is no doubt that it's an iconic and brilliant film which holds up alongside and even shames many modern films (especially some of it's own later sequels).
It's hard to write anything original about Alien as it's such a critically acclaimed, influential and iconic movie, as has been noted numerous times before the structure of the movie is very simple - it's a haunted house/slasher movie in space, but the execution of the movie is something which turns the whole thing into much, much more than that.
The start of the film builds very slowly; establishing the setting, the technology and the characters with an almost leisurely pace. From the reflection of the computer screen on the empty space suit helmet onwards the show almost effortlessly crafts a world which feels real with it's low-tech approach to science fiction. The Nostromo is a brutish, ugly construct and the interior scenes continue the functional style of the exterior. There are no elegant, swooping curves or doors that go 'swoosh, beep' on this ship. Instead there are broken pipes and crew members complaining about their cut in the shares.
Which brings me smoothly onto the characters, the slow build of Alien gives us a chance to get to know these people - the engineers Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) and Parker (a pre-Homicide Yaphet Kotto), their amusing cliquishness towards Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and complaining about money. Ripley herself is also far more interesting here than in later movies and Weaver gives a great performance as the sole survivor while Tom Skerritt is on top form as the bearded and pragmatic Dallas. It's only Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) who is somewhat forgettable in this. But the most memorable performances (aside from the barely glimpsed xenomorph) lay with Ian Holm as the semi-villainous artificial human 'simulant' Ash and of course there is John Hurt who was described as "The Man" in Coupling because of the power and disturbing nature of that famous dining scene. Embodying all the male fears about pregnancy in the space of a few moments it's a scene which has been homaged, referenced and parodied more times than I'd care to count. It's a scene for all ages it's the most memorable of all the deaths in the movie (the other two which I always recall are Ash's - because of the sheer brutality and crudeness of it and Dallas' for the tension and sudden release at the end).
The final two characters in the film are the computer Mother (voiced by Helen Horton) and the titular alien itself, who was played by the 7' 2" tall Bolaji Badejo. It's pretty much his only time in the world of film, but he gives an exceptional physical performance, greatly enhanced and aided by the adage "less is more". Unlike some of the more modern horror movies Alien avoided showing too much of it's antagonistic monster/killer, partially because it was quite literally a man in a rubber suit (and would have looked almost comedic) and partially because the human imagination of things unseen is far more potent than anything actually seen. Keeping the alien in the shadows and just providing partial glimpses or sudden visions of it - a method I appreciate far more than the ultra detailed horror which has moved into vogue right now. There's nothing more frightening than the unknown.
These days it's difficult to watch the movie without considering all of the baggage which the franchise has gathered. While the movie Aliens (which I'll certainly write about later) is a worthy, if different, successor - the later movies are a series of let downs and by the time the franchise rolls into the Predator one things are stinking to high heaven (On a side note the computer game series for Aliens vs. Predator is a far superior creation, the story for AvP2 in particular is amazing and it's a real shame it wasn't adapted when the AvP movies were announced.) Alien itself is a superb example of science-fiction and horror at it's finest, and not amount of obviously dated computers present in the movie can detract from the experience. It's certainly a contender for the best movie of 1979 and one I am able to watch and re watch time and time again.