Sci-Fi Sundays is back, and this week MoM newcomer Ronnie Oz takes a look at Ridley Scott’s masterpiece Alien (1979). In space no-one can hear you scream, and all that!
** The following review was originally posted by Ronnie Oz on his own page, Movie Gems: facebook.com/moviegemsbyronnie **
Any movie buff or serious student of cinema would find it difficult to fully express in words the exhilarating experience of first seeing the masterpiece Alien. In many ways it is a near perfectly crafted film, almost without flaw in its cinematic technique and narrative delivery.
The plot is a fairly simple one, but it is the atmosphere, the visuals, the sound, the special effects and the performances that blend beautifully together to create a riveting, totally engaging experience from the first frame to the last.
Set in the future, a commercial towing spaceship Nostromo – on its return to Earth from a deep space mission – intercepts an SOS from a nearby planet. The seven-member crew have recently awoken from hyper-sleep and it is in their contractual duty that they must investigate the distress signal. They descend onto the windswept planet and a three-member team from the crew sets out to explore, discovering a derelict spaceship (the apparent source of the transmission) as well as a huge chamber containing thousands of strange alien eggs. When one team member, Kane (John Hurt), goes too near one of them a parasite within attacks, rendering him unconscious. He is brought back aboard and the spaceship resumes its journey. Soon after the parasitic creature dies and the host wakes up seemingly safe and well. However, none of the crew could have possibly imagined what they have really brought on board and the journey home will be a nightmare as they each fight for their very survival.
What makes Alien so great is the constant feel of tension and uneasiness. Right from the beginning (even though there is no dialogue for the first six minutes) you have a feeling that something is wrong… very wrong! This is brilliantly achieved by the shot angles, the camera movement and especially by the sound. The spaceship itself is a huge worn out industrial-style maze of halls and corridors, foreboding, somewhat creepy and extremely claustrophobic. When the unthinkable does happen within its confines the tension is palpable, especially because the crew must now fight the almost perfect “killer”.
There are so many scenes in Alien that burn into the brain, never to be forgotten: the crew awakening from hyper-sleep; the crew interacting with Mother (the ship’s main computer); the discovery of the derelict space ship and the cavern of strange eggs; the chest bursting scene; the discovery of the crew member’s (Ash) real identity; and Ripley’s (Sigourney Weaver) final confrontation with the beast.
No matter how many times the chest bursting scene is viewed, you can never really be free of its terror! The scene was filmed in one take with four cameras and the rumour that the cast, except for John Hurt, did not know what would happen during the scene is partly true. The scene had been explained to them, but they did not know the absolute specifics. Veronica Cartwright (Lambert) did not expect to be sprayed with so much blood and has stated that her reactions of complete shock were real.
The design of the alien itself is pure genius! I have never seen a scarier creature ever portrayed on screen: jaws within jaws and acid for blood, this living organism is the stuff of nightmares: “intelligent”, uncivilised, soulless and bent only on killing to ensure its own survival. And, very cleverly, the creature is never filmed directly facing the camera due to the humanoid features of its face. Director Ridley Scott, determined at all costs to dispel any notion of a man in a rubber suit, filmed the beast in varying close-up angles of its ghastly profile, very rarely capturing the beast in its entirety.
It must not be forgotten that Alien was made in the pre-digital era of film making. The amazing life size sets and the mechanical props all work to make the “world” in which the characters interact seem so incredibly real. Interestingly enough when re-visiting the film (as I have done many times) it still never looks “old” and the effects never appear out dated.
The direction of the piece is perfect, the script a well constructed work of art and the acting faultless, especially by Weaver as Ripley and Ian Holm as Ash. But it is the combination of atmosphere and sound that pushes Alien into the masterpiece category. The atmosphere – Gothic, claustrophobic and sometimes baroque – is all-consuming due to the splendid synchronisation of the visuals and the sounds, including the eerie brilliant score.
Ridley Scott reportedly said that originally he wanted a much darker ending for the film. He planned on having the alien bite off Ripley’s head in the escape shuttle, sit in her chair, and then start speaking with her voice in a message to Earth. 20th Century Fox wasn’t too pleased with such a dark ending and it was scrapped. Thankfully so as it would not have permitted sequels to this masterpiece, especially Aliens (1986) which was a sound piece of cinema.
However, despite the sequels and Prometheus (2012), the prequel-without-being-a-prequel, Alien still stands alone and cinematically tops all of them combined. It is the entire atmosphere which gets so effectively under your skin, so much so that you just can’t shrug it off long after the credits have rolled.
For me the brilliant tagline “In space, no one can hear you scream” so vividly conjures up the essence of Alien. It is difficult to describe the reactions of an audience during the first time I saw it in a large cinema theatre. I can only say that the tension was so thick in the theatre that you could hear a pin drop. I left the theatre that night knowing that I had just experienced the greatest of cinema. I still believe that to this very day!
MoM Rating: 9.5/10