All throughout the year, I’ve been reviewing genera classics, and have basically been seeing the praises out of them. However, just because a film is billed as a classic, and respectful for breaking new grounds, that doesn’t mean I’ll always love it. With October just around the corner, I wanted to take a moment to discuss a film that I respect on its own grounds as a classic, but have never had any real feelings for. The 1979 motion picture “Alien” is often labeled as one of the absolute best in either the Sci-Fi or Horror genera, yet in all honesty, I’ve always fond this film to be slightly underwhelming. Now following two years off the heels of “Star Wars”, “Alien” did succeed in braking new ground by merging Sci-Fi and Horror into one package, and with a modern look. Again, I can respect how this was an intense thrill ride for its time, and why it left an impact on a generation of movie viewers, but’s it’s still never stuck with me as anything special, unlike other monster themed classics including “Jurassic Park”, “Jaws”, “Predator” or even the 1986 sequel “Aliens”, which are all among my personal favorite films.
The plot is that of your standard slasher flick, only this time it’s set in outer space as opposed to a camp ground or deserted country side, but the basic formula still remains the same. A small group of people are alone in a giant space ship, cut off from the rest of the world, and after an unexpected stop on a barren moon, they begin to drop like flies at the hands of an uninvited passenger that’s determined to see everyone dead. In the end, only our female lead is lucky enough to escape and defeat the monster. The ingenuity behind the Alien creature is the driving force of the film, but the experience is something that’s subject to personal taste. This movie is all about atmosphere and mood, as opposed to wall to wall monster action. I for one am all for atmosphere, but for some reason, it just never worked for me in this film. There’s a hand full of good surprise scares, but there’s also a number of false scares too, which I can’t stand. Also, while there’s a very good set-up for the monster, sequences and events just get very predictable once the creature is loose. The characters are nothing special either, while the performances are all very solid, I never bothered to remember any of these characters afterword. The one exception is our lead character named Ripley, played by the always enduring Sigourney Weaver. She is easy to cheer for, but she wouldn’t join the ranks of my favorite characters until the sequel came out later.
The absolute best thing about this movie by far is its setting, and the set-design is a work of art to say the least. 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 does so much more than simply add to the mood of the film, it also looks stunning, and in my opinion will go down in history along with “Star Wars” as one of the best visual achievements in Sci-Fi cinema. I never once get the feeling like these characters are on a Hollywood set, as I genuinely 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 castle, which further characterizes this as a horror movie in space. It also makes the frightening realization of easily getting lost in that ship all the more real. Naturally the film won the Oscar for best effects, and also received a nomination for best art design. 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, as it goes through various stages before taking its final form. 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 then latter hatches by bursting out of the victims chest and finally it takes on its full grown form. 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 the late John Hurt, who was one of the best actors of his generation. 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 fantastic, arguably 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 I feel do a much better job utilize this formula. The 1987 classic “Predator” is a perfect example, as 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 monster’s unique perspective of “sight” and we got to see an outline of what he looks like in his invisible form. This effectively conveyed the creature’s presence without showing the monster at all, and when he’s finally revealed, it feels so satisfying because he’s visibly on screen for the whole third act. “Alien” by contrast never really conveyed the monster’s presence, nor did it give me a satisfying pay-off with the creature on screen.
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. This is personally my favorite part of the film, as it was completely unexpected, plus I’ve always been a fan of tales revolving around artificial intelligence and the dangers that may come with it. Ian Holm is down right chilling in the role, and it’s cool to observe his behavior on repeat viewings with the knowledge that you know his real identity. It’s almost too good for this movie, as I find the subplot revolving around this android more interesting, and subsequently more frightening then the main story with the alien monster. The last thing you want in a film of this sort is for the supporting villain to be more interesting then your main creature.
Another issue I’ve always had with this film is that it goes on and on, and the premise is just too simplistic for such a lengthy run time. The third act also gets very tiring, as we’re just watching our lone survivor run around this dark ship, with flashing lights, and very little excitement. Even the final showdown between Ripley and the Alien always felt a little anti-climactic to me. Whenever the movie ends I frequently find myself asking “why did I spend two hours watching that, what did it really do for me?” It didn’t give me anything meaningful to ponder, nor did it really entertain me. While I absolutely admired the craft and talent on display, I just never felt that excited, or submersed, and shockingly … it really didn’t scare me, but I can only speak for myself in that regard. Now while I love Sci-Fi’s with lots of action and spectacle, I also love slow moving horror movies that rely on atmosphere and build up. Yet, while I can see “Alien” leaving those effects on some viewers, I just can’t say it did any of that for me.
As for the 1979 motion picture “Alien”, it’s not a bad movie by any means, and has earned the right to be called a motion picture classic. It just won’t be sticking with me as any kind of favorite. It’s one of those films I’m glad I watched, but it’s really one of those “one-time view movies”. I know I’m likely in the minority about that, but I’m not going to lie about my feelings either. Unlike “Jurassic Park” or “Jaws”, which just get better and better every time, “Alien” was a film that fell beneath my expectations, but I can at least respect and admire it’s contributions to both the Sci-Fi genera, and film in general. If you like this movie, that’s fine, but if you’re only planning on watching one Alien movie, I’d highly advise sticking with its sequel “Aliens” instead.
I give the 1979 motion picture “Alien” 2 ½ stars out of 5.