Sunday 15 September 2013

Movie Review: Alien (1979)

A suspense and gore horror movie set in deepest space, Alien is genre-melding classic that redefined the limits of science fiction, launched the career of Sigourney Weaver, and hatched a long-running franchise.

The commercial freighter Nostromo is heading back to Earth on a months-long journey, carrying 20 million tons of ore mined on distant planets. The crew of seven consists of Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt), Executive Officer Kane (John Hurt), Science Officer Ash (Ian Holm), Warrant Officer Ripley (Weaver), Navigator Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), Chief Engineer Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and Engineering Technician Brett (Harry Dean Stanton). They are supposed to sleep through most of the journey, but halfway to Earth they are unexpectedly awakened by Mother, the on-board master computer, when Nostromo receives what appears to be a distress signal from a nearby planet.

Dallas, Kane and Lambert descend to the surface of the mysterious planet and discover the remains of a mammoth alien space ship, and deep within it large organic pods harbouring a form of alien life. When Kane gets too close to one of the pods, a small slimy alien being jumps out and attaches itself to his face, crashing through his helmet. Although Ripley insists that the immobilized Kane should be quarantined, Ash ignores her and allows him back on board with the alien still attached. Although Kane appears to make a remarkable recovery, the horror is just beginning, and the Nostromo is soon infected with an ugly, highly intelligent, fast moving, viciously lethal, rapidly growing alien, intent on killing off the crew.

Director Ridley Scott creates an unglamourous, utilitarian environment on board the Nostromo, dominated by endless dank corridors, large industrial equipment, finicky strobe lights, grease stains, oozing leaks, and endless places to hide. Awash in dark murky colours, space exploration is no longer an exciting adventure with lightsabers, laser guns and wars between the planets; it's just mundane soul-destroying blue collar work, and the crew are essentially long distance truck drivers doing their job, bickering, complaining about work conditions and arguing about their pay and bonus.

Within this routine Scott drops in an intruder species that has evolved to survive and kill with maximum efficiency, and Alien draws enormous strength from the lack of symmetry in the ensuing conflict. The crew are beset by infighting and lack of mutual respect, and are definitely not equipped to defend themselves. The alien is nimble, brutal, and soon, very large. It's not a fair fight, there is no help on the way, and nowhere to escape. The suspense is immediate, and Scott makes the most of it. As Dallas orders his team to fan out and hunt down the alien within the grim bowels of the ship, it is painfully apparent that the hunters are the prey, and they know it.

While Alien is dominated by long periods of building suspense, it is punctuated by short, sharp, often gory punctuation marks, Scott sprinkling into his movie several highly effective and memorable scenes of horror that are forever embedded into the cultural landscape. The alien latching itself onto Kane's head is just the beginning. There is a creature birth, a pesky cat, a robot meltdown, and a final confrontation where horror and suspense come together at close quarters, human and alien facing off both knowing that only one can survive.

Scott enhances the impact of the film by quickly establishing a distinct character for every crew member, the opening 45 minutes both setting the context and defining the essential traits of the seven-person team. Dallas is decisive but mostly concerned about steering the ship back to Earth. Kane is thoughtful, Ash scientifically inquisitive and not beyond breaching protocol to satisfy his curiosity. Lambert is a follower while Ripley understands the importance of respecting well-established regulations and not afraid of standing up for what she believes is right. Parker and Brett are resourceful around the ship's mechanical components, but see themselves as separate and a class below the other five. When confronted by a determined common enemy, the individuality of the crew members heightens the sense of dread.

Sigourney Weaver's Ripley starts on the periphery and gradually moves to the centre of the movie, and by the end Ripley emerges as the unlikely crew leader, willing to sacrifice the mission to ensure some measure of survival. She would return in future episodes to confront her demons, as of course would many aliens. Alien is an irresistible start to a conflict between the species, the Nostromo a ship that stumbled onto humanity's most formidable enemy.

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