Starring: Sigourney Weaver, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Tom Skerritt, Harry Dean Stanton, Yaphet Kotto, Veronica Cartwright
“We’ll move in pairs. We’ll go step by step and cut off every bulkhead and every vent until we have it cornered. And then we’ll blow it the fuck out into space. Is that acceptable to you?” (Ripley, Alien)
It speaks volumes of Alien‘s masterful construction that 33 years after its initial release it’s still one of the most effective sci-fi/horror hybrids ever made. While many sci-fi films of its era look dated beyond belief these days, Alien‘s unique style and pacing ensure it still holds its own (and usually comes out on top) among today’s similar offerings.
It tells the story of the Nostromo, a mining ship that intercepts a strange SOS signal from a nearby planet. Waking from hypersleep, the crew of the Nostromo land on the planet to investigate. There they find a deadly parasite that infects a crew member and uses his body as a host to infiltrate the ship, at which point it begins systematically killing the rest of the crew.
The key to Alien’s scare factor is Ridley Scott’s clever use of the “Jaws technique” – by showing as little of the monster as possible, Scott has the viewer filling in the blanks themselves, adding what personally scares them and making something much worse than could ever possibly be shown on-screen.
When the Alien is eventually revealed however, it’s to the credit of Swiss surrealist artist HR Giger that his creation is still terrifying in full view. Its long head and extending teeth are as close to a killer penis as you can get, and as the crew members are offed one by one and the film’s heroine is slowly revealed to be Ripley, you can almost hear the amateur psychologists in the audience feverishly scribbling down “inherent fear of penetration” in their mental notebooks.
They’re right this time, mind you. This sexual subtext is rife in Alien, and it’s what makes it so creepy. While you’ve got ol’ cock-headed Alien with its extending knob mouth pumping subconscious fears willy-nilly into the minds of the female half of the audience, the little Facehugger parasites are working on the male half. The Facehuggers turn the tables on gender equality – being as delicate with my descriptions as possible, it’s the female Facehugger, with its vagina-shaped underside, that impregnates the male human, dropping its seed down his throat and letting him incubate the baby Alien in his chest until it’s time to give birth in an incredibly violent fashion.
Indeed, it’s this “Chestburster” scene that remains the most famous in Alien, partly for the reasons given above but mainly for the way it comes out of nowhere. Legend has it the rest of the cast weren’t told what was going to happen, and so their reactions to John Hurt going into a seizure and convulsing, being pinned to the table and a huge lump blasting out of his chest were genuine.
Alien is a classic because it takes a minimalist approach to horror. Everything leading up to the last 15 minutes (at which point shit goes down) takes place at a very slow pace, setting an atmosphere as it goes and using that aforementioned Jaws trick to make sure the viewer becomes increasingly unsettled. Indeed, it’s one of the few films whose Director’s Cut – released in 2003 – is shorter than the Theatrical Cut, as Scott decided to remove more shots of the Alien (mostly the unconvincing “man in a suit” ones) to make it even more elusive and mysterious.
So, Alien, then. A sci-fi film about men getting pregnant and women being scared by big cock-headed space monsters. On paper it sounds like it should be a load of shite (especially when it’s described in such a facetious way as I just did), but in practice it’s one of the greatest horror films ever made – at separate times atmospheric and energetic, subtle and shocking, unsettling and terrifying.
Oh, and its trailer is amazing too.
WHERE CAN I SEE IT?
There are umpteen ways to see Alien in the UK. You can either get the DVD on its own if you click here or get it as part of the excellent Alien Quadrilogy boxset here. If you’re more of a Blu-ray person you can get the film on its own here or – and this is what I recommend – as part of the Alien Anthology Blu-ray collection which is stupidly cheap at the moment and can be bought here.
THE MENTALISTS SPEAK
“Classic film. Though now I laugh at a part when the alien looks like it wants a hug.. trust me you’ll know when you see it.”
“Terrifying! Still get nervous whenever I have a slight pain in my chest.”
“Saw the chestburster scene far too young. Still makes me squeamish. Such an amazingly atmospheric film. Best in the series.”
“A better film than Aliens, its naturalism makes it believable & terrifying. Probably my favourite horror film.”
“Nothing beats the first time you see one of the aliens burst out of someone’s chest!”
– Katie T
– Chandra N
“I have such good memories of this film. I watched it with a friend when I stayed over at his house when I was in infants school and I got so scared I ran out of the dark room and shut and held the door tight. I could hear him screaming behind the door trying to get out and can still vividly remember his shrieking to this day, but I thought: “That’ll teach you for trying to scare me, lol”
– Jamie W
“Unique, well paced horror, with amazing work from designers Ron Cobb and surreal Swiss sculpture and painter H R Giger. Five stars for realism that Scott and Cobb created with characters and design. Its not all square-jawed grunts but a unisex crew with baseball hats, jeans, and Hawaiian shirts that’s easy to establish a relationship with, plus awesome work from Sir Ian Holm as the sneaky Villain. One of my all time favourite movie classics! And girls should stand up and take notice of the first female action hero, as the original character of Ripley was supposed to be a dude.”
– John McP
“HARRY DEAN STANTON IS NEVER IN A BAD FILM, BECAUSE THAT FILM HAS HARRY DEAN STANTON IN IT.”
– Tony C
“WHAT TONY SAID”
– Brian R
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11 thoughts on “Alien (1979)”
Absolutely fantastic film, easily one of my favourites (with A Clockwork Orange actually taking that title). The brilliance of not even knowing about the Alien until nearly forty minutes in makes it a truly excellent way to build tension. You know something’s coming, but you don’t know when! It was also a nice change to your more tawdry horrors full of jumps and scares. As you say, this one bore into your brain – literally – until you were writhing with anxiety at what could possibly happen next.
Excellent review of a classic.