The Good: Excellent acting, Good sense of mood, Plot, Interesting characters, Great DVD extras!
The Bad: A little light on character
The Basics: Alien tells the story of a group of workers trapped on a mining ship, hunted by an extraterrestrial animal in one of the classics that pioneered the science-fiction/horror genre.
Being the first one out of the gate does not necessarily guarantee perfection or create a classic. In the realm of science fiction/horror, though, being the first out of the gate gave the masters of the genre a chance to pioneer the conceits that would be imitated and recreated in virtually all of the films in the science fiction/horror subgenre that followed. In the case of Alien, now available on DVD separate from the Alien Quadrilogy (reviewed here), the film is both legitimately great and a true pioneer. Unlike shows like Star Trek and films like Star Wars, Alien presented a dark, quiet universe, without an extensive population where the greatest enemies are much more subtle.
The commercial starship Nostromo is hauling ore back from the outer rim of the galaxy when its crew, which had been in suspended animation, is woken up. Finding themselves nowhere near home, the crew led by Captain Dallas discovers that the ship has been diverted because it picked up an alien radio signal. Dallas is given new orders, to find the source of the signal and the ragtag crew of workers is forced to set down on a dismal, inhospitable planet.
Once there, the two mechanics work to get the ship prepared for liftoff while Dallas, the ship's navigator Lambert, and executive officer Kane go for a walk outside while Science Officer Ash waits aboard the ship. The trio discovers a crashed alien vessel filled with eggs that are awakened by their arrival. They arrive back at the Nostromo with Kane carrying a parasite. The parasite soon dies and Kane is killed through the violent birth of a new lifeform from his body. Dallas, warrant officer Ripley and the other four members of the crew liftoff from the planet and in space, they find themselves hunting the lifeform through the ship, only to become the hunted themselves.
Alien, which was released in the late 1970s, has never looked as good as it does on this DVD. Remastered and cleaned up with a branching function that allows the viewer to see the film as it was originally presented or in the more recent Director's cut, Alien looks and sounds good, regardless of whatever else one might think about it. The truth is, there is a lot to like about Alien.
First, this is a film that has a wonderful sense of mood and rather effectively sets a creepy tone throughout. The Nostromo is a dirty ship and it is populated by people who are working stiffs, not heroes. Indeed, these are not military people, they are workers and their main concerns are staying alive and making money. As a result, the feel of the crew is one of ordinary people who are suddenly put in the unenviable position of finding their lives on the line based on the corporate greed of the Company which demands they investigate the radio signal.
The genius of Alien that makes it so scary is that the menace comes from without - in the form of the alien life form - and within, from the Company. This keeps the film from being monolithic and a straightforward chase film. Dallas is barely able to keep control of his crew and, in fact, the only way the two mechanics get back to working on the ship is when Ripley threatens them with loss of their paychecks. Ash and Ripley lay out the interests of the Company and compel those motivated by basic greed to risk their lives for the money. In this way, Alien is much like Jaws, in that it tells the story that on one level appears to be a simple horror film, while on a deeper level explores the evils of rampant capitalism.
Of course, in Alien, there is a very real monster which begins hunting the crew. It is a nightmarish creature that is easily one of the coolest looking, most iconic creatures in science fiction or horror films. The brilliance of Ridley Scott's Alien is that the actual creature is barely in the film, making its brief appearances all the more shocking. The hunt through the ship becomes scary because of the shadows, filthy surfaces and the unpredictability of the creature.
And this is what makes Alien truly great to this day; the characters, like the audience, have no idea what the creature is, where it is or how it will behave. As a result, the audience is terrorized with the crew of the Nostromo. Arguably, this was scarier when it was originally released because the plot conventions pioneered by the film had not been repeated and reworked in hundreds of other movies. But Alien was the one that set the essential number of plot reversals, the conventions of killing off the person who goes solo and the reversals near the end.
What makes it still work to this day is the realism of it. Sure, it's set in space on a space ship and it involves landing on planets and encountering nasty space monsters. But outside that, it's incredibly real. The characters bicker among themselves. They have their own priorities and limitations. These are people who do not have limitless supplies, they do not all get along and they are pretty much only looking out for themselves. But the best, most realistic, aspect of Alien is that not everything works. Things do not go as planned for the crew when they try to stop the alien. Simple things like flashlights not working and scanners giving out incorrect information play the audience - and the Nostromo crew - into entertaining disaster.
The actors sell the film perfectly. Tom Skerritt is Dallas and he portrays the captain of the commercial vessel perfectly as a man beleaguered by problems and underwhelmed by principles. In almost every scene he carries himself like a man bearing a heavy weight with the sense that there is no relief in sight. At the same time, he is able to speak with a calm authority that makes it perfectly believable that the Company would have contracted him to run the ship.
Similarly, Sigourney Weaver memorably explodes onto the screen as Ripley, a rules-abiding officer whose purpose seems to be to execute the will of the Company as their mouthpiece. Weaver's performance is one of the most human as the things her character clings to are stripped away in the face of the alien attack. Weaver perfectly embodies the normal person called upon to do the extraordinary when circumstances radically alter and she has a quality to her that makes the transition believable. Indeed, it is the impatience Weaver infuses into Ripley's early scenes that hint to the viewer that she has the strength to fight to survive.
With an impressive supporting cast including John Hurt, Veronica Cartwright, Yaphet Koto, and Ian Holm, Alien's performers add to the horror in a way that sells the picture perfectly.
This is not to say that Alien is a perfect film. It is slow in the beginning. It's tone is magnificent, but it belabors the build-up like a roller coaster with an especially high beginning ascent. It works, but it requires a trust in Ridley Scott. The only point that trust is truly violated is near the end of the film when Sigourney Weaver's butt crack is exposed for honestly no good reason (and we write that as fans of Weaver's work and butt!).
With hours of features, commentary tracks and an alternate cut that restores a scene that adds nothing special back into the film (indeed, in some ways it lessens the impact of the alien), this DVD set is a tremendous value and whatever is lacking from the film that keeps it from being perfect, the DVD bonuses more than make up for with informative and entertaining content.
This is a treasure trove for fans of science fiction, horror, or anyone who just wants something truly different. And it's quite easy to see how this little movie, set in a dank and miserable corner of a filthy universe spawned a franchise.
For other works featuring Sir Ian Holm, please check out my reviews of:
The Fellowship Of The Ring
The Return Of The King
Alien - 9.5/10
with Aliens and Alien 3 as one long movie - 10/10
For other film reviews, please visit my index page for a complete listing of all I have available!
© 2011, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.