It always surprises me when coming back to the first film in the series just how little we actually see the titular alien. It’s a masterclass in ‘less is more’, Scott gives the beast as little screen time as possible, and the movie is all the better for it. What we do see of it is utterly terrifying, and it truly is one of cinema’s greatest creations. Scott shoots it in a way that makes it seem incredibly acrobatic, flexible and, well, alien, and it’s very rare that it resembles anything even close to human looking, a remarkable achievement considering at the end of the day it’s just a tall dude in a suit with a very big hat on.
Upon this viewing, I started wondering who the real monster of the piece is. Now, of course, we know that underpinning the whole series are the mega bastard villains that are Weyland-Yutani, but the character I found scariest in Alien for sheer creep factor is Ian Holm’s Ash. His passivity and aloofness are chilling, particularly in the infamous chestburster scene. He is the last to react when the hideous, screeching mini-cock erupts from John Hurt’s chest, and there’s a glint of glee in his eyes as he see’s the payload appear. Remember, at this point, we don’t know he’s a bucket of bolts. To all intents and purposes, this is a human being failing to react when a man’s ribs are torn open and blood is sprayed all across dinner. Spine-chilling.
Alien is a film which blurs the genre’s. There are moments of sheer horror – the alien unravelling from the chains floating above, it’s arm jerking out at Ripley on the escape pod, and moments like these genuinely give you a jolt. It masterfully handles the sci-fi genre, giving it a gritty, dark, slimy edge. Where it excels, however, is as a thriller. The search for the escaped facehugger, devoid of soundtrack and dialogue, is unbearably tense. Ripley’s attempts to first start the self-destruct sequence, and then deactivate it, all while being chased by an acid slobbering monkey and carrying a cat, are heart-stopping. This is Ridley Scott at his absolute best. The empty corridors. The flashing lights. MU-TH-UR calmly booming out the rapidly decreasing countdown.
Of course, an article about the genius of Alien would be incomplete without a mention of it’s reluctant heroine, Ellen Ripley. Weaver, then an unknown, is an absolute revelation in the role, transforming from a stickler for the rules (her refusal to breach quarantine) into a suited and booted xenomorph destroyer is nothing short of wondrous, especially considering that for a good portion of the film, it’s her and her alone on screen. This, however, is not the film where she becomes action hero. The final scene, where she slowly clambers into the suit, is perfectly acted by Weaver, and if Scott had been going for absolute realism, the back of her trousers would surely have been brown. The fear felt by Ripley is palpable in a way rarely seen on screen, and I struggle to think of a more gut-wrenching moment than when she slowly croaks ‘You are my lucky star’ over and over. Seriously. It creeps me out. Her repeating that chorus is the stuff of nightmares.
As for the other characters, they’re a sparsely written, but well cared for bunch. In just a few brief scenes at the beginning, we feel a sense of camraderie, even if it is fractured. The actors are good, but this is really the Weaver and Alien show. (I will say, however, that the character of Lambert is one of the most annoying creations I have ever come across. Every time she opens her mouth, I want to shove my fist down her throat, but then I suppose she reacts exactly how anyone put in that position would, so props to Veronica Cartwright for that. Even if I do have to repress a cheer when the bitch gets killed).
Alien is one of those rare things – it’s a classic which actually lives up to the legend that precedes it. It began an entire mythology, it redefined horror, sci-fi and the thriller, and it created not only one of the greatest screen villains, but also one of the greatest screen heroines to combat it, in cinematic history. I’ve tried time and again to pick fault with it, and I simply can’t. There’s the odd dodgy effects shot, and poor old Ian Holm looks more like Derek Jacobi once his head gets caved in, but that is purely down to the age of the thing, and in my book, only endears the movie more to me.
I rarely call a film perfect, but this might just be that.
The reinterpretations of the posters for these classic films are by Mr Shabba. They can be purchased here and we are giving away an exclusive set soon.