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Tonight's Feature Presentation

ALIEN (1979)

Starring: Tom Skerritt, Sigourney Weaver, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto, John Hurt

Written By: Dan O' Bannon (also story), Ronald Shusset (story) Directed By: Ridley Scott

The Short Version

The single greatest sci-fi/horror hybrid ever made.

One of the top ten standalone horror movies ever made.

One of the top ten standalone sci-fi movies ever made.

That alien is one of the most amazing creatures ever designed.

If you don’t own Alien already, why the hell not?  Go get it!

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?


The finest for the finest.

Pairs Well With...


Because fire keeps the alien from coming after you.  That’s the theory, anyway.

“Here, kitty.  Here, kitty kitty.”

One of the greatest movie theatre experiences I ever had involved Alien.

In the town where I grew up, there was an old movie palace that dated back to the silent era, complete with orchestra pit.  Unlike many others, this one had the further distinction of never having been divided up into multiple auditoriums with smaller screens over time, so the single auditorium was enormous, and the screen large enough that if it were laid flat, it would be sufficently huge to serve as a field for certain sports.  (It was, indeed, larger than many modern screens designed to show Imax movies.)  While I was in school, the theatre had undergone some renovations, restoring it to its past glory, but adding a completely modern sound system.  One of the films the management chose to inaugurate the newly renovated theatre with was Alien, shown at midnight, using one of the original 70mm prints.

Folks, I don’t care how good your player is at home, how good your speakers are, or how big your TV is.  Nothing will ever match the awesomeness of a 70mm print played at a movie theatre.

However, since this is unlikely to happen to most of you – and even if it is – I strongly suggest that if you haven’t already, you go out and buy the best copy of Alien that you can find and add it to your permanent home movie collection for viewing at any time you want, be it midnight or otherwise.  Because seriously, there’s just no excuse not to.

Without question, Alien is the single greatest science fiction/horror hybrid film ever made.  Even more than thirty years and roughly six million attempts at the prize later, no one else has even come close.  Also on pretty much any credible list you care to name (including, of course, my own), Alien holds a place as one of the ten best standalone horror films ever made, and another spot as one of the ten best science fiction films ever made.  In case you haven’t caught on yet, this movie is just level-by-itself spectacular.

The story is classic.  The crew of a commercial towing vessel is prematurely awakened from suspended animation as they travel back to Earth, a mile and a half worth of ore refinery hanging from the hitch.  The computer has picked up an apparent distress signal, and per company policy – as well as any standard of common decency held by the merchant marine since the earliest days of sail – the crew is required to investigate in case there’s trouble.  The signal leads them to a rocky, windy, desolate world designated LV-426.  Upon landing, the crew finds that the signal’s origin is from no human ship, but rather, from something alien.

Given that the ship’s lone occupant has fossilized into the chair, it is a good guess that the ship crashed a long time ago indeed, but further investigation leads our intrepid heroes to discover that there is still cargo in the hold, and that cargo looks to be made up of eggs…

If you’re looking for the single biggest secret as to why Alien works as well as it does and stands the test of time, it’s this: the above rundown of the first act of the plot takes a long time to happen.  There’s no opening gore, no hint of any monstrosities – alien or otherwise – provided to “pump up” the audience in advance.  Rather, this is a straight up suspense piece, and Director Ridley Scott (you will not believe that this is only his second feature film) is going to take as much time as is required to set the mood before scaring the living crap out of not just the audience, but even his own cast.

I’ll pick out a few moments in particular to illustrate how he weaves not just this but some other magic, as well.

We’ll start with the very opening minutes of the film, just after the now-iconic opening credit sequence has finished.  With only the quietest of scores in the background, Scott takes the time to give his audience a very good look at the setting before there are any people there to get in the way.  A long establishing shot (along with a few lines of text) makes it clear that this ship is very big on the outside.  The camera then goes inside, taking almost luxuriant tracking shots down and through corridors, peeking into rooms, taking an extraordinary amount of wordless time to make sure that the audience sees that while this ship is also big on the inside, it’s big by way of being a labyrinth of tight hallways and rooms built to handle the necessities of real work rather than camera’s convenience.  These early moments of establishing shots will pay huge dividends later when the crew members are running for their lives through these corridors with no time to stop and admire the production design along the way.  By then, the audience already knows about the tight spaces and claustrophobic corners, making the chases and the games of hide and seek all that much more intense when the time comes.

Right after the establishing shots of the ship, the audience meets the crew, and again, Ridley Scott performs a deceptively simple masterstroke.  We first meet the crew members as they emerge from their suspended animation chambers (a set which also emphasizes the claustrophobia of the ship; sleeping for seven occurs in an area the size of or smaller than most viewers’ living rooms).  They awaken tired and groggy and looking like shit.  These aren’t soldiers or professional adventurers who are up and at ‘em and ready to go the instant their eyelids snap open.  These are normal working stiffs, or in the case of the ship’s officers, middle managers.  Nor are they all fresh-faced kids; their ages range considerably, and the group can hardly be called “homogenous.”  In other words, they’re just like most of the audience, and Ridley Scott has made sure to show that by having them wake up looking like hell, going to the breakfast table still out of sorts , and then snapping at each other like people whose morning coffee sucked when they walk to their stations.  Nice touch.

Just because they’re working stiffs, though, doesn’t mean they’re not smart; indeed, just the opposite.  Alien is a movie that asks both its characters and its audience to think.  As the suspense builds throughout the film and even once the horror chase has begun, it’s never about brute force when one is looking from the side of human survival.  (The alien can use all the brute force it wants.)  This is especially true at the film’s climax, wherein we find our last human survivor stuck in a very small space with the alien.  As has been the case for the whole movie, what happens next is slow, deliberate, and quiet.  It’s a puzzle of logic and stealth, and as a result, that climax is a lot more tense than anyone just picking up a machete and going whackity-whack could ever be.

The most memorable scene, however, and indeed one of the most memorable of all time, is “the dinner scene,” also known as “the chest bursting scene.”  Just about every list that includes Alien as one of the scariest movies ever also includes this moment as one of the scariest scenes ever.  Incredibly, it was shot in a single take, which in the end was vital, because no one on the set save the victim knew the actual extent of what was going to happen.  As a result, the audience gets real gut reactions from the people on the screen (Veronica Cartwright had no idea she’d be sprayed with blood, for one thing), and the horror of the moment becomes all the more intense.  What’s more, is the case for most of the movie, the moment is not spoiled by a brash soundtrack; the natural sound (and appropriate sound effects) play out and carry the moment, backed by an understated score and the sound of a beating heart.  Beautiful.

This scene also establishes that the alien is metamorphosing over time, so the audience can never know quite what to expect from one scene to the next.  Ridley Scott further plays on this idea with his insistence that from this moment forward until the final scene of the movie, the audience will never have a full, unobstructed view of the creature.  As Spielberg discovered by accident with Jaws four years earlier, this only serves to make the alien that much scarier.

There is a contrast, though, to this scary alien, which I think many consciously miss but which really serves as a vital counterweight in the struggle to survive.  The alien is described by one of the characters thusly:

“You still don't understand what you're dealing with, do you?  Perfect organism.  Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility...  A survivor: unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.”

And so it is.  Meanwhile, on the human side, we have people who, even under threat of being killed by a seemingly unstoppable alien with acid for blood, will still go out of their way to try and save the ship’s housecat.  To some this may seem silly or superfluous, but for me, it ultimately shows the difference between the notions of humanity and inhumanity.  In a very real sense, Jones the cat represents the conscience of the ship’s crew, and as such, is just as important to the film as anyone else.  It’s little things like this that build up over the course of a picture to turn something really good into something transcendently great.

For Alien is, without question, transcendently great.

Bottom line, there is no single thing that makes Alien deserving of its reputation as the single best science fiction/horror hybrid ever made; rather, it’s a combination of a thousand little things brought together under the matchless direction of Ridley Scott.  It’s the emergence of Sigourney Weaver as the smart heroine who gets things done.  It’s the macabre designs of HR Giger brought to the screen.  It’s an understated score backed by a heartbeat where others would have gone brash with the horns.  It’s steady pacing over cheap thrills.  It’s Jones the cat.  It’s all of this, and more, and at the end of the day, it’s definitely worth owning.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, October, 2011

More From The Bar! | Alien: Resurrection | The Thing (1951) | Prometheus |

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