As usual, when October comes around, I review films that are either directly Halloween related or directly Horror movie related. But for today’s review, I’m going to look at something slightly different, a movie that’s both horror and all around Science Fiction. The 1979 motion picture “Alien” is often labeled as one of the absolute best in either the Sci-Fi or Horror genera and in all honesty, I find it slightly over-rated. While I can certainly understand what an intense thrill ride this film was upon it’s opening in the late 1970’s, I feel that it hasn’t aged as well as other monster themed classics like “Jaws”, “Predator” and “Jurassic Park”.
The plot is that of your standard slasher flick, only this time its set in outer space as opposed to a camp ground or deserted country side. But the basic formula is still the same, a small group of people are alone in a giant space ship, cut off from the rest of the world and they begin to drop like flies at the hands of an uninvited passenger that’s determined to see everyone dead. Then in the end, only our female lead is lucky enough to escape and defeat the monster. There’s a hand full of good surprise scares but there’s so many false scares too that I can’t stand. The characters are nothing special either, you won’t bother to remember any of them afterword, despite some solid performances. Well, the lead character named Ripley, played by the always enduring Sigourney Weaver, is easy to cheer for and you really grow attached to the character when the sequel comes around but I’ll talk about that later.
The best thing about this movie by far is its setting, it’s all so detailed and effective that it becomes a character in of itself. Being stuck on this claustrophobic Spaceship with no one around to help you is genuinely intense. However, it doesn’t just add to the mood of the film, it looks amazing too. You never get the feeling like these characters are on a Hollywood set, you really feel like this is a state of the art spaceship, with detailed consoles, detailed props that are all over the place and even the outer design of the space ship is interesting. It doesn’t even look like a space ship, it actually looks like a big floating city and when you see its massive size, it makes the frightening realization of easily getting lost in it all the more real. The music was done by the always fantastic Jerry Goldsmith and even though this score is small and quiet, it really works for establishing an eerie atmosphere.
The way the alien creature comes to be is also effective, instead of just hatching from an egg, it releases a small creature that latches onto a victims face, then lays an egg in its body which latter hatches by bursting out of the victims chest. That’s plenty frightening to think that a creature is growing in your stomach just waiting to burst out and when it finally happens, it leads to one of the most famous death scenes in film history. The unfortunate victim that ultimately has a small alien bursting out of his chest is played by John Hurt, one of the best actors ever. In the 1987 Mel Brooks comedy “Spaceballs”, John Hurt makes a cameo in a scene that parody’s “Alien”, the creature bursts from his chest, to which John Hurt responds by saying “Oh No, Not Again!”
Of course, the creatures design by H. R. Giger is fascinating. It’s one of the most original and imposing depictions of a hostile outer space creature that I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, the settings are so darkly lit, and the film cuts so fast that you only get little glimpses of it, preventing you from fully appreciating how awesome the alien looks. In the movies full two hour run time, the creature is only on screen for roughly three and a half minutes. I know the old saying that “less is more” and what we don’t see is often scarier but there are other films that do a much better job utilize this formula. The 1987 classic “Predator” is a perfect example, we don’t fiscally see the monster until the end of the movie, but we always felt its presence. That film allowed us to see the monsters unique perspective of “sight” and we got to see an outline of what he looks like in his invisible form which got us really excited to see him in the flesh. Then when the monster is finally revealed, he gets plenty of screen time and satisfies your expectations. “Alien” just doesn’t satisfy in the same way and always leaves me wanting more.
To be as fair as possible, this movie does contain some imaginative new elements that I’d never seen in other motion pictures. It features one of the most unique title screens I’ve ever seen, with the title slowly being constructed as the opening credits roll underneath. There’s also a subplot involving a crew member named Ash who’s revealed to be an android. He goes through something of a “HAL 9000” phase in which he wants to preserve the creature at the cost of the crew’s life. When he gets destroyed, it leads to more awesome gross-out effects.
One thing that keeps me from caring about this movie is that it’s completely blown away by its sequel titled “Aliens”, released in 1986. “Aliens” is more than just a superior film, it’s personally one of my favorite movies of all time. It takes the basic formula of a B monster movie and turns it into an A+ masterpiece that I still watch frequently to this day. The story is bigger, involving space marines going into battle against armies of aliens as opposed to just one, and not forgetting an awesome new alien queen. The action sequences are thrilling, the weapons and vehicles are awesome, the sets and visuals are brought up on a grander scale and the characters are downright spectacular. These are people you cheer for and remember after the film closes. This movie still has a lot of horror elements and some downright terrifying sequences but there’s so much more to this film then just scares and cool sets. “Aliens” is a genuinely great action, Sci-Fi, Horror extravaganza that just gets better with age.
Without a full evaluation, here’s what I thought of the other installments in the series. “Alien 3” premiered in 1992 and to this day I consider it to be one of the worst movie sequels of all time. It repeats the first movie again, focusing on a single alien as opposed to several, a small group of cumpletly expendable characters that get killed off and absolutely none of the precious good qualities featured in the original film. The fourth installment titled “Alien Resurrection” was slightly more fun to watch but the bloated story and shameful re-interpretations of characters like Ripley made it another misfire for the series. In the 2000’s we got the AVP series beginning with “Alien vs Predator” in 2004 and ending with “Aliens vs Predator: Requiem” in 2007. While neither of them were good films, they could at least pass as mildly entertaining monster movies. In 2012, there was a movie titled “Prometheus” which took place in the alien universe but ultimately had nothing to do with the Alien creature. On its own, “Prometheus” was a decent Sci-Fi but nothing to scream about.
As for the 1979 motion picture “Alien”, it’s not a bad movie and I can see why it was such a big deal for its time but it just doesn’t hold up that well. It’s one of those “one time view movies”, where it’s worth seeing at least once but that’s it, there’s just nothing else about this flick that makes it worthy for repeat viewings, unlike “Jurassic Park” or “Jaws” which just get better and better every time. If you like this movie, that’s fine, but I’d advise sticking with its sequel “Aliens” instead. I give the 1979 motion picture “Alien” 2 stars out of 5.