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Dissecting the Classics – Alien

May 9, 2017 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard

May is a pretty big movie month for me in 2017; Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 was near the top of my anticipated movies for the year, and the next big one is Alien: Covenant. Hopefully it succeeds at least as well as Marvel Studios’ latest. But for the next two weeks, we’ll be looking at the original classics that made this franchise so iconic.

Welcome to Dissecting the Classics , the column previously known as Taken For Granted. In this column, I analyze films that are almost universally loved and considered to be great. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.


Alien

Wide Release Date: May 25, 1979
Directed By: Ridley Scott
Written By: Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett
Produced By: Gordon Carroll, David Giler, and Walter Hill
Cinematography By: Derek Vanlint
Edited By: Terry Rawlings and Peter Weatherly
Music By: Jerry Goldsmith
Production Company: 20th Century Fox (London) and Brandywine-Ronald Shusett Production
Distributed By: 20th Century Fox
Starring:
Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley
Tom Skerritt as Captain Dallas
Ian Holm as Ash
Veronica Cartwright as Lambert
John Hurt as Kane

What Do We All Know?

Ridley Scott’s 1979 Alien is a cultural touchstone, perhaps the definitive science fiction horror film. H.R. Giger’s design for the xenomorph is perhaps the most recognizable hostile alien creature in movie history, while Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley may as well be the poster child for badass women in film. The direct sequel is a beloved action film, the franchise is profitable if not much else, and even in 2017, Ridley Scott making an Alien movie is still huge news.

My personal experience with Alien has a close association with my friendship with my collaborator Michael Ornelas; it’s his favorite movie of all time. It was one of the earliest picks on From Under A Rock back in 2015 and has since been near the top of my own list of favorites. I do consider it the best horror movie I’ve ever seen, and tend to champion over its excellent and arguably more well known sequel Aliens. What makes it so good, and so terrifying, even after almost four decades?

What Went Right?

One of the most striking successes of Alien is in its production design. The Nostromo is such a distinct spaceship, specifically in its interior. The influences of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars are there if you look, but it still has a distinct look. Its tight corners, flashing lights and grimy look raises the tension of the film. There’s a degree of realism in every piece of equipment; especially by 1970’s standards, this looked like a ship and a crew we might possibly pilot in the far distant future. And of course, the foreign planet and the ship in which Kane finds the xenomorph eggs are both visually distinct while still fitting into the overall aesthetic.

And of course, if we’re talking production design, we’ve got to talk about the titular alien. From its egg, to the facehugger to the chestburster to the final xenomorph form, this is a creature that doesn’t look like any other alien before it. H.R. Giger’s highly sexually aggressive designs are frightening and disturbing, and the practical effects used to bring them to life are some of the greatest of all time. These things look so real, and it makes their appearance in the film considerably more terrifying. And of course, the blood, which never feels cartoonish or overdone, and just enhances the sense of danger. And then there’s Ash, which is a totally different kind of impressive sci-fi style effects.

But of course, Alien wouldn’t be a great film if it just had fancy effects. Ridley Scott is not the most consistent director of all time, but he really knows what he’s doing here. He assembles a great cast and knows how to make them feel like a crew that’s known each other for a long time. He knows how to direct a horror scene, and how to make scientific procedure engaging. Scott has acknowledged the film as perhaps his best work, and it’s hard to argue.

One of the trickier and less remarked upon elements is how effectively the film hides its protagonist. The crew is portrayed with more or less equal screen time until the xenomorph starts picking people off, and finally, we are left with just Ellen Ripley. For such an iconic character, Ripley has very humble beginnings; there’s no sense of destiny or self-importance here. She is just a part of a crew, doing her job until chance and her own skill cast her as the final survivor. This is hard to pull off and I’ve never seen it done better than in Alien.

What Went Wrong?

Alien is as close to a perfect movie as I’ve ever seen. I know some viewers will have difficulty with its pacing, but for me it’s a perfect build-up of tension. There are some definite moments of horror movie-dictated stupidity, but genre conventions don’t usually bother me. Alien is as good an execution of an idea as there has ever been.

What Went Really Right?

Alien is a perfect storm of elements coming together at the right time. Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett had a fresh story to tell, and a new way to terrify the audience. Their story is full of sexual assault imagery, but done with alien monsters and to men. Their idea was given amazing life by H.R. Giger’s incredible art, which took the frightening concepts and gave them shape. And it came together when practical effects were able to do the story justice, and have managed to remain timeless. The effects brought Giger’s art to frightening life.

But, it’s more than just the xenomorph. It’s the cast, from great character actors like John Hurt, Henry Dean Stanton, Veronica Cartwright and Ian Holm to the breakout star. Sigourney Weaver might have had to wait a few years for Ellen Ripley to become truly iconic, but she’s still excellent in this first film. Alien is perfect sci-fi and perfect horror. And honestly fills its role so perfectly that one wonders why anyone would try to replicate its success.

Fortunately, we also have Aliens. And I’ll be looking at that film next week.

Like This Column?
Check out previous editions!
Jurassic Park
Back to the Future
Chinatown
Taxi Driver
The Matrix
Batman (1989)
Casablanca
Goldfinger
X2
King Kong (1933)
Beauty and the Beast (1991)
The Dark Crystal
The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
Raiders of the Lost Ark
The Godfather
The Godfather, Part II
The Silence of the Lambs

Or check out my column with Michael Ornelas; “From Under A Rock”. Last week,we had a very vocal comment section on <a href= L.A. Confidential. (Thank you.) This week, we’ll be tripping over Rapunzel’s hair as we review Tangled.

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I log reviews for every film I see, when I see them. You can see my main page here. Recent reviews include Guardians of the Galaxy as well as Vol. 2, and Prometheus.