Movies That Everyone Should See: “Alien”

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commercial towing vehicle ‘The Nostromo’

crew: seven

cargo: refinery processing
20,000,000 tons of mineral ore

course: returning to earth

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Ridley Scott’s “Alien” is ostensibly a “science fiction” film. AFI does list it as one of the top 10 science fiction films of all time.

But “Alien” is more than a science fiction movie, if anything it’s a genre mashup. In addition to your traditional science fiction content – space travel, cryogenic sleep, androids, alien lifeforms, etc – “Alien” is a horror movie. A monster movie. A haunted house floating through space.

And “In space no one can hear you scream.”

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“Alien” is the story of a towing vessel, “The Nostromo”, and its crew. While traveling home to Earth with its cargo in tow, the ship’s artificial intelligence picks up an unidentified signal transmission and wakens the crew to investigate.

The five men and two women on board are a blue collar bunch. Though set in space, “The Nostromo” is a towing vessel, its cargo is mined ore. This crew isn’t the crew of the “Enterprise”, with historians, botanists, linguistic experts etc… They’re pilots. Mechanics. They’re employees.They’re worried about paychecks. Bonuses. They’re working class.

Relatable.

In a movie that quickly shifts into the action… I don’t think that important bit of character development should be overlooked.

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The Nostromo crew diverts in order to investigate the beacon, and lands on the planet’s surface. There, they discover what appears to be a crashed spacecraft. They also discover the remains of what must have been the pilot – a large alien lifeform. Upon examination, the crew discerns his chest burst open from the inside (foreshadowing things to come).

This scene does an amazing job of establishing the mood of the movie. Dark, bleak, strange. It certainly does seem like an alien world. A frightening alien world. It amazes me, watching this film from the 1970s how great “practical” effects can be. Miniatures, models, set work… The set piece of the crash exploration is a spooky, sci-fi tone-setter: part archeological dig, part space exploration, part crime scene investigation.

Of course, the scene doesn’t end with the discovery of “the jockey”. One of the crew, Kane, investigates deeper into the ruins/wreckage. There, he discovers a chamber of pod like “eggs”. While examining one, it blossoms… and a horseshoe crab-esque creature springs forth, attaching itself to his face in spite of the visor of his spacesuit.

The horror of “Alien” begins in earnest.

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Kane is taken back aboard the Nostromo over the protestations of Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley. Ripley wants to adhere to protocol and not let the crew bring Kane back on board with the “face hugger” on him. He should be quarantined for the safety of the crew. Regulations should be followed. But the Science Officer, Ash, ignores her and lets the Captain and Kane back aboard.

Kane is taken to the medical bay, where the Captain and the Science Officer attempt to determine how to remove the creature from his face. They’re immediately faced with two major obstacles. One, the alien has its tail wrapped around Kane’s throat. Injuring the creature without successfully removing it could result in it strangling him. The other is that the creature’s blood is highly acidic. A small drop of the creature’s blood, spilled in their first attempt to cut it, ate through the floor of two decks.

The horror here is multi-faceted. You have an ugly, unknown, alien parasite plus the subconscious fears of strangulation and suffocation. Just the concept of being smothered by this alien crab is terrifying. And yet they’re seemingly doomed if they harm it. They could destroy the ship if it bleeds.

The crew never gets to remove the creature. While their attention is diverted, the creature detaches itself, and dies shortly thereafter. Kane, at least for the moment, appears to have made it through the ordeal unharmed.

He hasn’t.

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While eating with the crew, Kane begins to cough and then spasm. As the crew tries to hold him down and keep him from choking, a gush of blood spurts from his chest. It’s quickly followed by the emergence of a freshly born alien, which apparently incubated within his body. The alien which was recently wrapping his face laid eggs within him.

The horrified crew of the Nostromo watches in shock as the newly spawned alien dashes out of the room, leaving their dead crew-mate behind.

It’s a scene that’s achieved pop culture immortality.

The movie then enters its final phase. As the crew hunts the unaccounted for alien, the movie becomes a monster movie in space. The Nostromo crew patrol the interior of the ship cautiously, hoping at first to net the alien and force it out the airlock, as to not risk causing it to bleed. Unfortunately for them, the creature matured rapidly. By the time they begin the hunt begins, the creature is larger than a person. And it begins to kill the crew off one by one.

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The setting of space comes into full play here. Gone is the typical horror movie problem – “Why don’t the just leave the house?” There’s nowhere to go, there’s no one to help. Remember, in space, no one can hear you scream.

Scott takes full advantage of the inherent claustrophobia, forcing the crew into isolated situations, and having them crawl through tight spaces and patrol narrow corridors. He uses music sparsely, relying instead on sound effects to heighten the tension. In one of the early stalking sequences, he layers in the sound of a beating heart, towards the finale it’s the sound of a ticking clock.

But it’s really the lighting of the movie which is his primary weapon. The movie is dimly lit throughout, but at times he uses strobe lighting, beams of light, whirling warning lights… it seems at times as if Scott is experimenting with ways to light a movie in order to strengthen a tone.

And they all work.

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The movie has one final science fiction card to be played. When Ripley assumes command, she attempts to query the ship’s onboard computer, “Mother”, on ways to defeat the alien. It’s then she discovers that the retrieval of the creature was made the ship’s primary mission. The crew has been deemed expendable.

“Alien” has thrown a dash of conspiracy into the mix.

As Ripley attempts to leave, she is stopped by the science officer, Ash. In the ensuing struggle, Ash begins to act strangely, and sweat a strange, milky fluid. When Ripley’s surviving crew-mates arrive to aid her, Ash is hit… and his head comes off. It’s revealed that Ash is a robot. Beyond repair, head barely connected to his torso, Ash uses his final moments to express his respect for the relentless nature of the creature onboard. The crew takes a flamethrower to him.

Ripley and her two surviving crew-mates decide to set the ship to self destruct and escape in the life pod. Before they can, the creature strikes again.

The last living crewman of the Nostromo is a crew woman. Ellen Ripley.

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Ellen Ripley was Sigourney Weaver’s first major film role (she had a part in “Annie Hall”). It continues to be the defining role of her career. The character of Ripley is considered to be a milestone in challenging gender roles in film. Of the crew of seven, that a woman would emerge as the victor was groundbreaking. She’s lauded as one of the greatest female protagonists of all time, and clocks in at number eight on 100 Years… 100 Heroes and Villains. Weaver would reprise the role three times.

This was Ridley Scott’s second film, also. His debut effort, 1977’s “The Duelists” won him the “Best Debut Film” at Cannes and gained the attention of producers Walter Hill, David Giler, and Gordon Carroll. They offered Scott the opportunity to direct, and Scott’s excellent storyboarding work in preproduction convinced 20th Century Fox to double the film’s budget. He in turn, created a classic film. It grossed $81 million, and was one of the highest grossing films of 1979. The sequels and related movies spawning from this film have yet to let up. Scott’s “Prometheus” is due this summer.

“Alien” is an incredible movie. It mixes successfully mixed genres to create a film which felt unique and original (it has since spawned a host of imitators). It offers the viewers the fascinations of a science fiction film, but then serves up the raw terror of a horror movie. H.R. Giger’s creature designs worked their way deep into the pop culture memory banks. The film itself has earned a place of respect among film fans, and help earn Scott his name as a great director.

It’s definitely a “Movie That Everyone Should See”.

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57 thoughts on “Movies That Everyone Should See: “Alien”

  1. This movie is the sole reason my husband didn’t like to put his hand on my belly to feel the baby move when I was pregnant…. hahaha

  2. I love the atmosphere of this film. The chest bursting scene is one of my favorite’s of all time. I love me some gore LOL. But when its laced with genuine terror, like it is here, it becomes much more powerful. A true classic.

    • Yeah, that’s such a sick concept too… some little alien space worm growing in you and then bursting out of you? Terrifying.

      And then yeah, Scott does this awesome job of using the sets and the lighting to create a really scary atmosphere… those creature designs? The whole thing, the whole package really works so well.

  3. Great post, man. I watched Alien and Aliens for the first time last year (shocking, I know!), and totally understand the love for both. I prefer Alien simply because of its horror atmosphere, but you can’t go wrong with the action of Aliens either. Are any of the other sequels worth seeing?

    • Been a LONG time since I’ve seen it, but Alien3 was actually David Fincher’s first feature film, I believe. So there’s that.

      But I seem to recall it being the one I liked the least Alien 4 I kind of thought was a return to form… so in order to feel that way, I must have hated on 3 a little.

      Honestly though, I need to revisit both. I had commenting based on my 15 year old recollections LOL.

      I’ve personally steered clear of the whole Aliens vs Predators garbage… I havent heard good things.

      Thanks for the kind words, and no I’m not shocked. we all have movies like that – the goold ole classics we need to ccatch up on!

      • I think Alien3 gets a bad rap because it’s such a downer coming off the action-high of Aliens. Personally I like Alien3 a little better than Aliens.

        But the first is the best, and really the only one of that lot that I would call a Movie That Everyone Should See.

      • Yeah, I’m kind of on the fence about “alienS”. When FMR is in like year six and I’m starving for MTESS candidates, it’s going to look pretty good… probably one of those deals. LOL

      • Aliens 3 was a problem because it really screwed with the end of Aliens. It wiped some great characters out off screen and pointlessly just because in the story it wanted to tell they were superfluous. If it was a stand alone story set in the Alien universe it would have been better, but because it happened directly after Aliens it pissed a lot of people off. If one hadn’t seen Aliens I think it would be one of the best of the sereis.

      • Well, it IS a Fincher film, so it has to be some kind a effed up. lol.

        Aliens is my favorite, but I dont mind rewatching the original a hundred times or so. Aliens though is the most quotable. If I had a dime for every time I’ve yelled “GAME OVER, MAN! GAME OVER!” I’d be a rich man. :lol:

        Personally I’d put Aliens on the MTESS list over Alien… but not by alot.

      • OOOOH. Controversy.

        Mild… but you know, controversy.

        HERETIC!! (Trying to drive up the controversy)

        I’ve always felt that the original was superior for the fact that it should get the credit for originating the universe, creatures, mythos, what have you, plus the horror element is greater even though the action element is way way inferior.

        They are both good though. Cameroon’s entry in the series will most likely one day be an entry in this series. :D

      • “OOOOH. Controversy.
        Mild… but you know, controversy.
        HERETIC!! (Trying to drive up the controversy) ”

        GET AWAY FROM (Aliens) YOU B!%Ç#!

        Hey, anything I can do to help the controversy, happy to oblige. ;)

      • Ohhhhh. POINTS for the comeback VIA the Movie Quote. That is a MAJOR Victory.

        Of course, the original’s lack of “Catchphrases” may actually strengthen my position in the debate.
        :D

      • Ah, you’re thinking of Alien: Resurrection. The clone of Ripley’s DNA was combined with the Alien Queen’s with the result…

        Eh, on second thought, I don’t even want to go there. Suffice to say, Ripley died in Alien3, and she was never “maternal” about the aliens.

    • Seriously? Oh man, you’re in for a good one!

      Hope I didnt spoil the shit out of it for you.

      I presume everyone knows by now that every detail could/would be covered in these posts

  4. Okay, I am by no means a film snob, but Alien just did not work for me. I would say I liked it, but nothing more than that. The suspense was built up masterfully, but that’s just it, by the end I was so tired of nothing really happening I didn’t care much anymore. Still, everyone seems to love it so I must be wrong ;)

    Blade Runner is definitely my favorite Scott, though.

    Good review!

    • “Okay, I am by no means a film snob’

      Yeah, we know, dude. You hang out here. LOL!! :D

      “The suspense was built up masterfully”

      Is often a challenge in and of itself, n’est ce pas? So the fact that so much suspense WAS created… well that needs to be a check in the win coulmn! I would kind of disagree about the “nothing happening”, but I will cede to the fact that whatever “kills” the creature makes are off screen… implied.

      “Blade Runner is definitely my favorite Scott, though”.

      Oh! Pbbbt!! ME TOO. Hell yeah. Top ten flick for me… I inducted that one into this series early on. :D

      And we all know what its like to not connect with a classic, for sure, so just shout that out whenever you’re feeling it man.

  5. The movie has not outdated itself. If you saw “Star Trek” 33 years after it aired, you say; This is nothing but a buncha stinking blinking Christmas lights. The artistic foreign world of “Alien” seems to be eternal.

    • HA HA HA!! Now THAT’S a good point!!

      I got the original Star Trek series on Blu. They did this thing where they had alternate takes where you could see modern special effects shots anytime an outer space shot was shown. I couldn’t watch them that way, because then theyd cut back to the bridge and wow!! LOL… youre so right.

      NOTE TO ALL: The stories still rock though. The comment above is not to be taken as permission to badmouth Star Trek at FMR. I just want that understood.

      But you’re right, this movie hasn’t aged a bit. You can tell some of the old school slight of hand they had to use a couple of times, but its not a detraction in the least.

      • Who me ? I’m dyed in the wool Star Trek true Blu (Ray). I am deeply grateful for your skill and knowledge in recognizing Sigourney Weaver in this. Could someone like Lisbeth Salander have made it to the screen without her portrayal?

  6. I remember seeing Alien in the theater multiple times. Thought it was great, except with all the dark lighting and the fast moving alien, I was disappointed with not being able to see the creature that well. I wanted to see what it was all about and the terrible things it could do. (like those internal teeth). I guess it helped them to save something for the sequels.

    “Let’s Rock!!”

  7. The sexual imagery in Alien really elevates the movie, as each evolution of the creature exhibits another disturbing congruity the human mating process, only twisted into a darker and more unhinged version.

    This allows the film, which is a slasher movie in most regards, to transcend that genre; instead of being about a monstrous being stalking people for breaking the perceived norms of society, its a repulsive monstrosity that does the violation, and the people are forced to flee in terror.

    Good movie. Definitely deserves a place in your canon.

    • Huh.

      Now there’s something I hadn’t thought of.

      I can see the mating process parallells through the creature being born… and its definitely not your typical “punish the sinners” slasher flick.

      Good one Danny, thanks for posting up!

  8. The first time I saw this movie was something like 5 years ago. It was New Year’s Eve and, after the traditional party, I turned on the TV… and there you go, “Alien”. What a great way to start a new year, wasn’t it?
    I like that you described it as a “multi-faceted” horror; that’s what struck me the most: the fact that threats came either from outer and inner spaces. Plus, it’s a highly entertaining film!

    • Yup, yup! It is entertaining for sure. Nice one on the “Outer AND inner” space. LOL. nicely put… I think the inner space one’s the scariest I dont want any Alien popping out of my chest! :D

      And hell yeah, that is a great way to kick off a new year. Kind of like here I guess.. this is our first MTESS of 2012!!

  9. Wonderful article about a wonderful film. Alien really is a must-see for anyone whether they like science-fiction/horror or not. There’s so much to enjoy from the atmosphere, ambience and style of Scott’s direction to Giger’s creature to the performances to the iconic nature of Ripley’s character, it is all great.

  10. First saw this after the world cup final in 82 (I was 13) scared the shit out of me! I watched it on my own, which didn’t help! I didn’t sleep a wink the whole night….
    Saw Aliens on it’s day of release, twice! and it became my fovourite movie, but having rewatched them both recently on Blu ray, I can only say that Aliens looks dated now, yes, it’s a good popcorn movie, but Alien has been enhanced by BRay, the detail of the set designs just jumps out! Alien is the complete movie, groundbreaking, still scary today! I’d even go as far as to say Alien 3 is as good a movie as Aliens after seeing the workprint(?)/directors cut on the blu ray,! the less said about ALien4 the better……
    I’m looking at Alien in some detail at the moment, as I intend to design some screen printed posters for when Prometheus is released!

    • Cool, man… that sounds awesome! LOL :D

      I have a very vivid recollection of the movie that AlienS is, in spite of not having seen it for many years (this one, the original never stays unwatched too long ;) ) But I guess that I’m going to have to rewatch 3 and 4 now in order to bring myself up to speed.

      As to your point regarding this movie aging well, and the blu ray helping the cause, I TOTALLY agree. That’s how I watched it and yeah… the sets ARE fantastic. I mean, they really work super well. It was great to see them in such detail. My buddy Ray was saying how his biggest complaint about thiis movie was not seeing the Alien in action much… and you know? Perhaps that works in its favor in terms of longevity.

      Nice share Nik, thanks for posting up!! :D

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  13. I absolutely love this movie, one of my all-time favourites (I’m in the “Alien is better than Aliens” camp). It’s one of the many movies my dad let me watch way too young when he was supposed to be looking after me on weekends, I think I was five or so when I saw it. I’ve always argued these experiences never scarred me, but my one and only irrational fear is of tapeworm (probably the nearest real-life equivalent) so maybe this movie did have some kind of effect on me…

    Anyway, I digress. Great movie, great review, greatly looking forward to Prometheus.

    • Thank you! Look out come Prometheus time I’m gonna put them in a poll head to head, you’ve gotta help make sure Alien represents!!!

      LOL… I dont know that that’s digressing, btw, I think that’s right on point. Good god, can you think of one of those things incubating inside you and then bursting through your sternum? Thats just sick… :D

      Love this flick. :D

      • I know, that whole parasitic incubation thing coupled with face rape, the Xenomorph is the most horrific thing in the universe, and that’s just in its childhood!

        The only question is will Prometheus out-do it? All the sequels failed to (though Aliens came mighty close) but can a prequel?

      • That IS the question…

        I’d happily settle for a movie that approaches that level of greatness. You know, just put it in the conversation…

        It’s got a serious shot, if the promotional materials are any indication

  14. Great review, I love this film. It is more than just a sci-fi horror it is a milestone in cinema. Even though I’ve seen it a million times, the emergence of the alien still leaves me feeling uneasy.

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