Cast & Crew
Harry Dean Stanton
Produced by Gordon Carroll, David Giler, Walter Hill,
Ivor Powell and Ronald Shusett; Directed by Ridley
Scott; Written by Dan O'Bannon; based on the story
by Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett
(US); 1979; Rated R for sci-fi violence/gore and language;
Running Time: 117 Minutes (Director's Cut:
Domestic Release Date:
May 25, 1979 / October 29, 2003 (Director's Cut)
by DAVID KEYES
fated journey of commercial space vessel the Nostromo in
Ridley Scott's "Alien" is the kind of epic space
excursion that avid 1970s science fiction pioneers like
Steven Spielberg and George Lucas would probably discard
in early script stages. On a written page, described in
broad strokes, the concept lacks the potential visual dynamics
of a "Star Wars" and the innovative scope of a
"2001: A Space Odyssey." As a finished screenplay,
it would be hard to assume the result being anything other
than a carbon copy of those low-budget 1950s space exploitation
sci-fi horror films that only film-crazed teens would have
paid money to see. The revolution of visual effects in the
late 60s and early 70s, furthermore, meant that the concept
of silly B-movie space travel was no longer something that
audiences would fall for. Just as Stanley Kubrick hotwired
a new reality for filmmakers with "2001," the
genre dominated by fearsome aliens picking off Earth's inhabitants
had lost its footing.
studios knew this just as well as the average filmgoer did,
and when Dan O'Bannon's early drafts of the "Alien"
script made the rounds with various high-profile Hollywood
distributors, few of his calls were returned. Who could
blame them? This was, after all, the same guy whose first
mark of fame was John Carpenter's 1974 student film "Dark
Star," an extremely low-budget science fiction comedy
that, despite acquiring a cult following, was initially
seen by many as just another primitive example of a long-deceased
sub-genre (O'Bannon's admission: "Instead of the most
impressive student film ever made, we had the most unimpressive
professional film ever made.") A reputable writer is
supposed to consider himself lucky if his script is picked
up at all; O'Bannon might have saw it as a blessing that
his early treatments weren't dropped into the garbage bin
before anyone even got beyond the title page.
he probably had not counted on, though, was Twentieth Century
Fox being stimulated by the immense success of a movie called
"Star Wars." After Lucas' epic hit commercial
gold, the studio began anxiously scouring the industry for
any science fiction screenplays they could find, and at
the ideal moment, a revised version of "Alien"
wound up on their desks. Producer Walter Hill also shared
in the early enthusiasm expressed by Fox; he was the first
choice to be director (although according to O'Bannon in
a featurette released with the Director's cut DVD, Hill
was too insistent on taking complete credit for rewriting
the screenplay for there to be any hope of positive synergy
between the two). Bad news for Hill, good news for us; comparing
his history in the cinema to that of his successor Ridley
Scott is like leveling an expert and an understudy.
history of the inception of "Alien" is as complex
and convoluted as movie back-stories have been, but to completely
devote any kind of essay on the film itself to its pre-production
drama would also detract readers from embracing what is
on the screen itself: a movie so good, so involving and
so jolting that it not only takes is place among the great
science fiction films of our time, but also the great thrillers.
Hitchcock would no doubt have felt the hair on his neck
stand had he lived long enough to witness the dread that
both Scott and O'Bannon manage to pack in two hours of celluloid.
This is one of those movies that is strategic in its pacing
and skillful in its delivery of tension, and the fact that
it never tries to cheat the audience on explanations or
human involvement gives it a resonating quality that was
absent even in the great genre flicks of its time.
story, now regarded mostly as a platform for an evolving
movie franchise as well as countless comic book and video
game spin-offs, recalls the timeless setup of "The
Thing" by Howard Hawks in the way it isolates its characters
before terrorizing them with both the unknown and the unpredictable.
The movie opens in dead silence, as the Nostromo, a vessel
carrying tons of ore back to Earth, glides into the camera's
view plane. Inside, seven lone crew men (and women) are
being stirred from their hyper-sleep by the computer mainframe
(wisely referred to as "Mother"). Expecting that
their slumber was interrupted because of the ship being
in close proximity with its target destination, the crew
is shocked to learn that they were instead awakened to answer
a strange distress signal emulated from a nearby planet.
Conveniently, the movie has one of its characters point
out that such calls, according to company by-laws, always
have to be investigated by active crew members, and that
refusal to do so can result in a complete revoking of their
company shares. Go figure.
ship docks on the surface of the target planetoid; three
of the Nostromo crew -- Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt), Lambert
(Veronica Cartwright) and Kane (John Hurt) -- go out to
investigate the signal. In the distance, a foreboding foreign
spacecraft sits isolated, its view obstructed slightly by
jagged terrain and mist, but not enough to diminish the
notion that its size is fairly substantial. What is inside?
How did it get there? Needless to say for any film that
asks these questions, curiosity provokes the investigators,
and the three scale the territory to take a gander inside
the seemingly-vacant ship. Only the ship isn't a vacant
one in any sense of the word; aside from housing the petrified
remains of some kind of massive life form (the camera highlights
the notion that its decomposition is too great to tell if
it was human), a massive nest underneath the main level
features a cluster of alien eggs that are leathery in outward
appearance. That becomes ill-fated news for Kane, alas,
whose own curiosity takes him down into the nests just as
the mysterious contents inside one particular egg are beginning
Giger, the artist at the helm of the alien and its spacecraft,
was and is a pioneer in the field of dark art, utilizing
brazen concepts of sexuality and menace to evoke his distinctive
images. A quick glance through his portfolio instantly justifies
why both Scott and O'Bannon saw him as the ideal candidate
for this undertaking; his style brings a sense of visual
alarm to the table that gives the source material a raw
and unmatched edge (ask yourself this: would the movie have
been just as scary, no matter how good the writing, had
the alien itself been a walking skinny object with big eyes?).
Furthermore, the sheer scope of these artistic endeavors
create the impression that the alien life forms and their
environment extend beyond the reaches of the screen; they
are seemingly limitless and unrestricted, and therefore
add to the audience's paranoia as the terrifying truths
begin to slowly reveal themselves to the characters.
alien itself, born only after Kane is penetrated by a face-hugging
parasite that deposits the seed of the creature in his chest,
is the kind of screen menace that rivals even the great
horror film antagonists of cinema; tall, cylindrical and
covered head-to-toe in a slime-like substance, no one ever
knows when it will act, and it forces its potential victims
to tiptoe around in the tight ship corridors waiting for
the moment when it will emerge from the shadows. Adding
salt to the wound, the alien's evolved appearance gives
it perfect camouflage against the various pipes and wires
that edge the ship's interiors, and unless one is carefully
eyeing every surface, the probability of someone walking
directly into it without knowing so until it's too late
is quite high.
Scott's direction is not comparable to any other science
fiction space opera of its time; whereas most directors
like George Lucas embrace the fantastical shell of their
genres, Scott descends into this material as if it were
a straight thriller. The argument that the film's build-up
is much greater than the payoff only means its range of
horror has a greater effect on the psychological scale.
Consider, for instance, a scene when Dallas (Skerritt) ventures
into the Nostromo's air vents, and is monitored closely
by his fellow crew members via a visual indicator panel.
At the news of the alien life form headed directly in his
direction, Dallas descends one level and into the other,
only to find that the alien is waiting for him just beyond
the darkness at the bottom. Quick: is the terror greater
at the moment the alien reveals itself, or at the mere notion
that it is moving so swiftly towards its victim in those
prior few seconds?
lone survivor of the Nostromo, of course, is Lieutenant
Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), who would go on to engage in
battle with the alien life forms in not one, not two, but
three sequels (and as this review is being written, rumblings
concerning a possible fifth entry into this franchise seem
genuine). Even Weaver herself admits the preservation of
her character at the end of this film seemed accidental
-- after all, how many movies in that era gave the successful
surviving instinct to a female? Reportedly, the early scripts
by O'Bannon and Ronal Shusett were set up so that the seven
major characters were "unisex," meaning that either
a man or a woman could fill each of the roles successfully.
Was it indeed an accident that Ripley made it off the space
ship while her fellow comrades (namely the men) didn't?
I'd like to think not. As the movie progresses, even without
knowledge of the future events to happen, Ripley is the
one character that emerges with any sense of hindsight.
Her instincts tell her to shield her fellow crew from possible
infection when Kane is brought back to the ship with a face-hugger
attached to his head. She knows the potential outcome of
an alien life-form wreaking havoc on a human-based space
vessel before anyone else does. And when the emerged creature
begins picking off fellow crew members, she is the one who
has a formulated plan of action against the beast. This
is one of those characters that exudes internal strength
not because she has to, but just because that's just her
are, of course, other factors working against the crew of
this ship (such as an android named Ash, who doesn't want
the alien killed because he admires its uninhibited nature),
but most of them are basically plot devices designed to
build back story and explain certain side details (though
they are not essential, they also don't detract from the
setup, either). Ultimately, the movie's primary function
lies in the thrust of the thrills: the rising notion of
serious conflict, the intensity of the visuals, the importance
of shock value and the jolt of the film's several climaxes.
This is a movie about horror in its purest and unrestricted
form, as ordinary and likable human beings make no conscious
effort to unleash great terror but pay a great price for
having a little curiosity.
© 2004, David Keyes, Cinemaphile.org.
Please e-mail the author here
if the above review contains any spelling or grammar mistakes.