Friday, March 4, 2016

Alien (1979) review

    I think the ship has already sailed on this particular movie's success but because this is my blog, I decided I would, nevertheless, post my review of it. Alien remains one of the seminal movies of my life, being the first R-rated movie I ever saw (at age 12) and also what inspired me to write my first piece of professionally-submitted fiction (a piece of Alien fanfic around the same time which I submitted to a contest which, unsurprisingly, rejected it). In a very real sense, Alien is the movie which helped warp my little brain into the twisted mass of endless non-Euclidean corridors it is.

    What is Alien? For those who have been living under a sci-fi-less rock, it is one of the signature movies by Ridley Scott. The starship Nostromo, a commercial freighter hauling 20,000,000 tons of ore, is heading back to Earth when it is unexpectedly diverted to an unexplored world due to what appears to be a distress beacon. Uninterested in science, the crew reluctantly explore only to discover an alien vessel containing a mysterious cargo. When one of them is infected by an unknown organism, they soon find themselves facing a threat they're completely unprepared to deal with.

Ripley was one of my first fictional crushes.
    The movie remains a sort of perfect storm of science fiction as well as horror movie tropes merged together into a greater whole. In simple terms, it's "just" a monster movie about a creature picking off the protagonists one-by-one but it does that in such a memorable way it has been influencing other films ever since. It is a masterful film for showing rather than telling, giving us insight into how it envisions the future as well as humanity's relationship to the universe without ever stopping to spell it out.

    Almost everything in the film works from the lighting to the special effects to the performances to the script to the pacing. There's two versions of the film available today with the original as well as Director's cut which adds some missing footage. Between the two, I have to state I prefer the original. While the Director's Cut is perfect for fans who want to see a longer and more subdued film, I think the original benefits from its slightly punchier pace. Either way, the movie takes its time getting to the monster and is all the better for it.

I love the cryopods. Don't ask me why.
    The H.R. Giger-created xenomorph remains one of the most iconic monsters in fiction simply because of how unsettling its psycho-sexual design was. The creature violates the laws of physics a few times (what did it eat to get so big?) but not so much it's wholly unbelievable. The very fact the titular alien is an animal rather than an intelligent species works well to underscore how utterly unprepared humanity was for dealing with the final frontier. It is a cold and impersonal universe where creatures like the xenomorph are much better adapted than mankind in its causal arrogance. As Ash says, "[A] Perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility."

So much is said with so little, unlike its successor Prometheus where so little is said with so much.
    Sigourney Weaver, a newcomer to film then, made herself a household name with her subdued performance in an extremely talented cast. John Hurt, Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, Ian Holm, and Yaphet Kotto all give great performances. The Nostromo crew isn't always likable, indeed some of them are real assholes, but they are engaging and believable.

    There are multiple twists in the movie with regards to the crew but none of which feel contrived. They are just unexpected and signs of just how badly the crew are out of their element. I particularly like Ian Holm's performance as he dances the line between quiet menace and simple social awkwardness. No one gives a bad performance, though, with folk like Captain Dallas trying (vainly) to be heroic while others such as Parker are motivated by greed until the xenomorph's actions drive them to a vengeance-orientated rage. Many of the characters have short arcs, which helps further the sense of emotional stakes--they're not just there to die.

The xenomorph is never seen clearly but what we do see is terrifying.
     The film makes excellent use of common industrial props alongside their more elaborate set pieces to give the Nostromo a believable "used future" look. While the xenomorph puppet isn't very mobile, the use of lighting in the film and cutaways cover up most issues with the special effects. One of my favorite scenes in cinema is watching the camera move away from the xenomorph's first (technically second) murder to Jonsey the cat's eyes while it watches what we presume to be a horrifying slaughter.

    To reference again, the movie's "showing, not telling", I give real props for how subtly all the backstory to the setting is woven into everything. The crew's conversations let us know this is a world where humans have been in space to the point it's routine but haven't yet encountered any alien life (but have protocols set up for the possibility). We know humanity hasn't spread very far from Earth yet has colonized spots like Antarctica. We know money is still the primary motivation for most people and corporations now wield enough authority you don't want to question their decrees. This is all without a single scene of exposition and that applies to later moments like the alien's biology as well as how to deal with it.

One of the scariest scenes of the movie is entirely seen through the eyes of a cat.
     I also give props to the movie for the fact it's a master of making you want to know more about the world rather than giving you too much information. What is the Company? Who was the Space Jockey who was carrying the xenomorph eggs? Are the xenomorphs natural or bio-engineered? How did the Company come to know about the life-form? Is the xenomorph actually malevolent or simply territorial? What is typical behavior for an android? We have enough answers to extrapolate but the mystery makes us hungry for more without leaving us unsatisfied.

    In conclusion, Alien is one of the classics of the sci-fi genre and helped popularize sci-fi horror for modern audiences. If you're a fan of my blog, you've probably already seen it but my recommendation is you should watch it again if you haven't seen it in a while. It's that good. It's a movie which combines strong performances, special effects, pacing, writing, and world-building all into a creation which is justifiably remembered as one of the best horror movies of all time.


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