For the month of October I’ll be highlighting four films that I think deserve a shout. I have a pair of classics on the list and a pair that are lesser known or a bit lost to time. I’m also showcasing films that I believe serve as companion pieces for each other. Whether it’s their sense of style, directorial flourishes, setting, or themes, I think these films would make a great quadruple feature. There will be full spoilers for each film. You have been warned. This week we take a look at the legendary 1979 film Alien.
I spent ten years in the Navy, with around seven-ish of those ten stationed on submarines. I was an auxiliary mechanic, which means I worked with life support systems, hydraulics, potable water, sewage, and a lot of other unglamorous things. It was tough, thankless work. When I watch Alien and the doomed crew of the Nostromo, it reminds me of those days. Luckily U.S. subs have a lot less xenomorphs.
Sci-fi movies, before Alien and after, tend to lean on the sexy parts of space travel: phasers, faster than light travel, dogfights in the vacuum of space, and all manner of futuristic swashbuckling. Alien eschews all the glitz for grease monkeys, ore cargos, gripes about company bonus shares, and a crew that looks a lot like any one you would see in a plant or warehouse on Earth. It’s space travel with a union rep.
The movie opens on an eerie tracking shot through the Nostromo, casually glancing over detritus just laying around. It’s not a particularly clean ship. It looks lived in, not cared for. We watch the crew wake from cryo-sleep and groggily exchange pleasantries. Everything seems normal, even boring.
When Dallas, the captain of the ship, talks to the ship’s AI – Mother – he and the crew get a surprise: they are still very far from home, and wilder still, responding to a beacon. The beacon is emanating from a rocky hellhole – LV-246 – in the middle of nowhere. The crew balk hard at this detour, but the Science Officer, Ash (Ian Holm; Bilbo to his friends), tells them that if they do not respond to the beacon they forfeit all of their shares. Money talks, so they go.
The tech in Alien is chunky and utilitarian. There are no pop-up 3D displays or J.J. Abrams-esque lens flare machines. The ship is all function and no form, yet the form of its functionality is so unique that it’s like another character in the film. As the crew is landing their craft on the alien world there are a handful of displays giving very basic data. The ship is so one-use, that when they land it practically breaks everything onboard, leaving the mechanics a ton of work to do while Dallas leads a search party to seek the source of the signal.
Some scenes are so iconic, so altogether original and perfect, that they defy description. Alien has so many of these scenes and moments strung together you would be forgiven if you thought it was simply a flawless film. It’s not, but you would be forgiven. The discovery of the alien vessel? Perfect.
Their suits are clunky and stupid and the lack of visibility on the surface of the planet, along with the howling wind, contracts the focus of the away team down to centimeters of real estate. Then the ship comes into view. Kane (John Hurt) is breathless with amazement, “We’ve come this far. We must go on. We have to go on.” I talked about this in episode one of this series: Beware the edgy, dangerous friend. Kane’s excitement could almost be mania. He seems like a person who signed-up for space travel when he read about all the exciting places he would go in the brochure. Ten years later he realizes he’s a cargo ship sailor who spends the bulk of his life in cryo, sleeping his days away one shipment of ore at a time. Now this? Fuck caution, we must go on.
What they find is staggering. Inside the vessel, which is eerily biological in construction, they discover an enormous alien corpse in some kind of command chair. The corpse is fossilized and has signs of physical trauma. The lack of backstory is crucial. We’re just as in the dark as the crew. It’s actually what made the recent sequels so weak – explaining (if that’s what Prometheus and Alien: Covenant were supposed to be doing) only weakens the terror.
Kane’s fate in the cargo hold of the alien ship is a fine example of the consequences of wanting to know too much.
Dallas and Lambert bring the lifeless Kane back to the Nostromo and some tasty character development takes place. Ripley, who is the second in command, listens to Dallas tell her Kane’s status and she says they cannot come back onboard the ship. This is the correct decision. It sucks, and it certainly won’t win her any friends, but her job is to protect the rest of the crew and its expensive cargo, not be everyone’s chum.
Ash, the Science Officer who is on his first voyage with the crew, does the chummy thing and lets them in. In a film of bad decisions and their consequences, this one ranks as the worst; but it’s not without motivation of its own, which we’ll get to later.
Let’s take a minute to talk about the crew of the Nostromo and the cast who play them. Horror films, especially in the 70’s and 80’s, tended towards younger casts. Director Ridley Scott, the producers, and casting crew went with an older (relatively speaking) cast. It’s not really that they are particularly old – Sigourney Weaver was 29 at the time of the filming – but they all look mature, grizzled. This is by design. Scott and Co. wanted the crew to be like “truckers in space.” Roger Ebert in his review of the film noted, “Many recent action pictures have improbably young actors cast as key roles or sidekicks, but by skewing older, Alien achieves a certain texture without even making a point of it: These are not adventurers but workers, hired by a company to return 20 million tons of ore to Earth.”
Yophet Kotto as Chief Engineer Parker is every rage-filled twenty year submariner I worked with in the Navy who was on his second wife, his third kid, and his fourteenth cigarette of the day; Harry Dean Stanton’s Brett is the Second Class Petty Officer I served with who had been in for fifteen years, long given-up on advancement, and was counting days to retirement. Dallas, Lambert, Kane, Ripley, hell maybe even Ash, are people who live predictable lives and probably think they’ve seen it all. They wish.
After a terrifying attempt at removing the alien specimen from Kane’s face, the crew are surprised to find that it leaves him voluntarily. Kane wakes and an uncomfortable reunion occurs. Everybody is so nervous and they just want to go home. But before they hit the deep freeze, how about dinner? I now present a live reenactment of every Thanksgiving in America since Trump was elected:
I’d like to first remind everyone to leave the politics alone this holiday season. I’d also like to broach a possibly unpopular opinion: I think the little baby alien is adorable. Look at him run on that table! He’s the cutest thing! I mean, if you ignore the viscera.
From this point forward Alien becomes a nightmare in a locked house. The crew cannot let the creature run free around the ship, but they are also ill-equipped to find it, much less fight it. Like the women from The Descent, the crew of the Nostromo are engaged with an enemy they do not understand, in an environment that is practically tailor-made for that enemy. They start with a net for crissakes. In their defense, the last time they saw the critter he was fun-sized. Now? He’s a hulking creature who is simply not to be fucked with and he kills poor Brett with the ease of a Grizzly Bear taking down a squirrel.
The creature design in Alien is one of the gold standards. Inspired by the work of H.R. Giger, all of the creature effects in the film are slimy, slick, phallic or vaginal in nature, and disturbing. 20th Century Fox execs were resistant to the idea of using Giger’s work, thinking the designs would be to off-putting for audiences, which is another case of studios not knowing what the fuck they are talking about. The creature’s design has become legend and has inspired basically every monster design since. Pumpkin Head, the Demogorgon, Slender Man, and others all owe a debt to Giger’s wonderfully fucked-up vision.
After Brett’s demise a new plan is hatched: they use a homemade flamethrower to drive the beast through the ventilation shafts, into an airlock, and then blow it into space. Great plan, aside from the part where one of them has to be in the shaft with the alien. Dallas volunteers. Cue up the next iconic sequence:
That’s 3-0 for the alien if you’re scoring at home.
With Dallas gone, command of the ship passes to Ripley. Her first move is to excoriate Ash, who she has grown to distrust, and then to consult Mother. What she finds is the final turn of the screw. The “company” redirected them to the beacon. They most likely knew the beacon existed prior to the Nostromo leaving for its ore hauling job. After haggling with Mother and trying to type her way around the security protocols, she is given their real mission:
Top Secret – Science Officer’s Eyes Only
Bring back life form. Priority One. All other considerations secondary. Crew expendable.
Ash replaced the ship’s old Science Officer at the last minute; Ash let Kane back on the ship, against every law and procedure in the book; Ash was the one who miracled the little motion scanner into existence (Micro-changes in air density, my ass.); and Ash is the one who has somehow snuck into Mother’s access bay with Ripley, placid smile on his face, saying there’s a reasonable explanation for what she’s reading.
She tries to escape, but Ash is locking her in with door overrides and his strength is incredible. His behavior is bizarre, too. He is bent on killing Ripley, though he appears to be wrestling with it in the most unnatural way. He tries to kill her by shoving a rolled-up magazine down her throat, which is, like, not efficient. When Parker finds them he tries to stop Ash and is overpowered without issue. It finally takes a series of strikes with a fire extinguisher to stop Ash and reveal the truth: Ash is an android. Or as Parker says, “He’s a robot! Ash is a goddamn robot!”
They wire Ash’s head back together to see if they can glean any new information. What they get is a smug head on a table talking through mouthfuls of whole milk. Ash admits to admiring the creature’s “purity” and he basically tells them they are dead meat.
Ripley makes the call: initiate the self-destruct sequence, get on the ship’s lifeboat, and go into cryo with the hopes of getting picked-up. Ripley will get the lifeboat ready to fly while Parker and Lambert gather supplies needed for the voyage. They are only separated for a few minutes, but a creature like this only needs a few minutes. The scene is lit perfectly as we watch Lambert’s and Parker’s shadows as they busy themselves with the task at hand…and then a third shadow slinks into view, like a clever little sneak, and Lambert sees it out of the corner of her eye. I really fucking hate this scene. Lambert has been a shrieking mess the entire film, and here at a moment when Parker might actually be able to do some damage to it with the flamethrower, SHE WON’T FUCKING MOVE. Parker can’t risk burning her, so he charges the alien and gets mauled. Once he’s toast, it turns its eyes to the STILL NOT FUCKING MOVING LAMBERT. Ripley, who has had an open line to both crew members broadcasting throughout the ship, listens to their deaths as she rushes to try and save them. Lambert’s gurgles and screams over the intercom are haunting. Maybe move next time, sister. Oh wait, you’re dead. No next time.
With only one option left, Ripley starts the self-destruct sequence. With the ship’s cat, Jones, in-tow, Ripley races for the lifeboat…but the alien is blocking her way. She tries to go back and stop the sequence, but it’s too late. It’s either get on the boat, or get atomized. She goes for the boat, and lo, the path to salvation is clear. As is movie custom, she gets on the boat and at a minimum safe distance just in time. And she’s saved! Woo! It’s Miller Time!
Oh, wait, sorry – the alien is hiding on the ship. Cue final iconic sequence:
Get roasted, bitch.
This final stand by Ripley was the culmination of a complete character’s arc. She started the film as a brassy, tough, take-no-shit kinda person. She was the type of person who has worked for years as one of a few females in a male dominated workplace and has learned to take her lumps and give ’em right back. She’s also sensitive. In the scene where she is communicating with Mother and the cold, dark truth is being revealed, she is on the verge of a nervous breakdown, tears welling in her eyes, her nose running. She’s brave, even when she’s terrified, and she thinks on her feet. Unlike Lambert WHO HAS FEET MADE OF CONCRETE. Stephen King wrote about the character of Ripley and praised Weaver’s performance and the writing, right up until she saved Jonesy the cat. He considered this a bailout by the writers, as if that act was a way for the writer’s to say, “Women? Am I right?” I just saw it as a desperate act of a person who wanted to save one life – just one. Besides, I’m a cat guy. If my kitties at home are in trouble, I’m coming, and I’m bringing the flamethrower. I’d certainly have saved Jonesy before I saved fucking Lambert.
Anywhutzle. Ripley is a fabulous character, and for my money the best science fiction/action heroine of all-time. There’s an argument to made for Sarah Connor from the Terminator movies, and I’m sympathetic to that argument, but Ripley came first and Weaver is just a better actor than Linda Hamilton. Sorry, just reporting the facts. She influenced four decades of action heroines, like Sarah Connor and the women in The Descent, and Alien lives as a classic in great part because of that.
The movie was so influential it spawned imitators and sequels and spinoffs. Some of the sequels were excellent- Aliens and Alien 3 (I will brook no argument here – Alien 3 is legit); others were mediocre – Prometheus and Alien Covenant; and one of them was a ghastly abomination that is best left unspoken of – Alien Resurrection. The spinoffs and imitators- Alien vs Predator and the like – were never going to be anything better than “Meh.” They were always fighting an uphill battle against a superior work, a masterpiece. Ash’s final words before he gets shutoff one final time sum it up best for those who followed Alien:
You still don’t understand what you’re dealing with, do you? The perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.
I admire its purity. A survivor…unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.
I can’t lie to you about your chances, but…you have my sympathies.
Talk at ya later.
Next Week (Sunday, I think): The Cell