Seven intergalactic travelers. One fucked-up alien antagonist. Apart, they don’t stand a chance. Together, they’re still pretty much screwed, unless the intrepid Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) can find a way out.
Alien is a hugely influential, claustrophobic sci-fi thriller which makes fantastic use of practical FX. Director Ridley Scott (who would later helm one of the other all-time sci-fi greats, Blade Runner) creates a irrepressible heroine in Ripley, who exudes coolness and confidence but has enough of a soft spot to make a mad dash to save the cat when shit goes down. She also makes a mean science fiction-horror ‘final girl.’
Ellen wasn’t always in a position where she was forced to be a hero. A passenger on the spaceship Nostromo, her job is is help the crew mine ore on friendly planets. However, when Kane (John Hurt) crawls into some kind of hatchery on a downed ship and gets an unidentified creature glued to his face, his unwise and ultimately fatal misstep gets the rest of the crew into a whole lot of trouble. Stalked by an alien of superior intelligence and an aptitude for hunting prey, the film’s desperate band of characters must overcome their differences and their power struggles and attempt to survive an overwhelmingly dangerous entity. On top of that, one of the passengers is hiding a secret- one that could potentially get them all killed.
People get the impression from the much talked-about and riffed-on ‘chest-burster scene’ that Alien is a big gorefest, but they would be not entirely accurate to assume this. In fact, Alien is less a schlocky splatter fest and more an atmosphere-filled, even subtle thriller which is also a bit of a slow burn. People are picked off one by one and try to pull together and overcome helpless terror in a pretty hopeless situation. Moreover, the Nostromo is not a overly friendly place for women passengers to begin with; there are only two female passengers among a group of men with big mouths and big egos. In a way, Alien can be seen as a feminist allegory; it is only when Ripley decides to shed her anxieties and her clothes, believing the creature to be dead, that it viciously tries to bring her in particular down.
Ripley is a strong protagonist in (a she doesn’t scream and fret a lot like many heroines. (b she doesn’t need a man to save her, (c she doesn’t amble around clad like a prostitute while strangling men with her legs/inadvertently turning on the fanboys who watch and (d she doesn’t have an unnecessary and poorly defined love interest. She does have one gratuitous pantie shot to please the gents who are watching but she mostly doesn’t fall into any of the traps of science fiction heroines. Although Weaver is very good, it should also be mentioned that all the actors do an outstanding job in their respective roles.
The design of the monsters is very good, the film ratchets up the suspense masterfully as the body count makes a steady rise, and Ridley Scott manages to keep this tale grounded in reality. Sure, the spaceship setting and face-hugging creatures are fantastical, but the ongoing barrage of fear and squishy sound effects- and the reactions of the characters- feel all too real. Alien is an effective scare flick that created an innovative world for the spin-offs and sequels to follow and leaves you feeling satisfied at the end. Tune in to The Cinematic Emporium for my follow-up review of the film’s sequel, Aliens, coming soon.