Retro Review: Alien (1979)

Distributor: 20th Century Fox

Director: Ridley Scott

Writer: Dan O’Bannon

Starring: Tom Skerritt, Sigourney Weaver, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto

Genre: Horror, Science Fiction

Rating: R

There are numerous analogies I can draw to a 21st Century thirty-something giving his critical and analytical thoughts on Ridley Scott’s Alien. A child making sand castles in the backyard giving thoughts on the Hagia Sophia. A mud-pie contest winner remarking on the latest special from Le Chateaubriand. A dead 30-watt lightbulb talking about the sun.  Not only does a sense of dwarfing irrelevance seem to permeate the air of any discourse that could be produced from such soil, but a nagging feeling that expansion on Murphy’s Law is in order develops: “Anything that can happen has ALREADY happened.”

What could I say about one of the most important and influential entries in both the horror and science-fiction genres that hasn’t already been said? Alien has been run through more ringers of analytical and popular reception than most other narrative works that are hundreds of years older have. Add onto that the daunting realization that I, as a millennial, have no feasible experiential access to the cultural paradigm in which the first-time viewers of ’79 received this gem, and the values of the upcoming review seems to run mighty thin.

With those formalities out of the way, allow me to offer what I think may very well be at least a serviceable attempt at bringing new insight to a work of timeless wisdom. As a budding film student, going through what my betters constantly address as “the classics” weighed upon me as both a great joy and a solemn responsibility. Offering something like a critique on these works was more akin to an honor that I put off out of equal parts laziness and reverence. 

But in the case of Alien, I find there is a work with, yes, much sophistication and multidimensionality, but also a very approachable and popular level style that can resonate with even the most unassuming dilettante. In that way, it’ll be similar to reviewing a Disney classic. Who says that popular works can’t be treated with erudite regard? Sometimes, things are popular because they’re good, and Alien is certainly living proof of that.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: A character sitting down to dinner with fellow crew members falls into convulsions, then dies a bloody death as an alien burrows out of his chest. One by one, characters are killed by the alien. While their deaths aren’t always shown, gruesome deaths are strongly implied. Characters shoot a flamethrower and fire a cattle prod while trying to defend themselves against the alien. Horror movie suspense of the “What’s that around the corner?” variety abounds. 

Language/Crude Humor: Expletives when faced with alien outbreak: “f**k off,” “son of a b***h,” “horses**t,” “hell.”

Sexual Content: Toward the end, a character takes off her space uniform, stripping down to a half-shirt and panties. In one of the pods, there are pictures of naked women, breasts shown.

Drug/Alcohol Use: Early in the film, a character is never shown without a cigarette in his mouth. At a celebratory dinner, a character is shown drinking from a can of beer but does not act intoxicated.

Spiritual Content: None.

Other Negative Themes: A character voices a stridently nihilistic worldview.

Positive Content: 

A bloodthirsty alien, devoid of remorse or conscience, kills off crew members of a deep-space mining ship. But Ripley conveys the strong message to never give up and to do everything you can to try to save your friends and co-workers. 

Courageous female crew member Ripley shows tremendous resolve and presence of mind during a traumatic event. She even takes the time to rescue the ship’s cat as surviving crew members attempt to escape the ship.

Review

I stated in my review of last year’s Ant-Man and the Wasp that I have a strong affinity for superhero tales in which characters “stumble upon the transcendent.”  Instances in a story where characters go about mundane and seemingly standard activities suddenly cross paths with the vast unknown realm beyond the limited scope of human understanding are fascinating given the proper treatment. From one angle, such Road to Damascus incidents can be derided in the same way that “deus ex machina” flourishes, in which characters are rescued from difficult circumstances through undeserved and unestablished powers that be, are treated as marks of poorly planned stories. Having a character develop suddenly through a near-divine encounter could be seen as lazy and melodramatic–more wide than deep–but the critical difference is that deus ex machina is used as a rushed and ill-conceived means for resolving a story, whereas encounters with the transcendent are rightly used to instigate and develop a story.

Such encounters are found in obvious measure with Skywalker learning of the Force, young Master Potter receiving his letter to Hogwarts, or Clark finding out about his Kryptonian origins. In less evident circumstances, the transcendent is something that is tangentially related to the regular goings-on of the events of the plot. It’s more of a haunting undergirding presence to the very obvious, as it should be. It’s always there, but never immediately acknowledged. The physically nebulous arena of the quantum realm of Ant-Man was one of the more fitting examples, though seeing that being reduced to just another plot device in subsequent entries was disheartening, to say the least.

These transcendent encounters are ones that should not only alter the characters’ understanding of the world around them but also of themselves and their place within it.  In “The Problem of Pain”, C.S. Lewis remarks about how one’s very nature and being can be drastically altered and dwarfed when encountering the numinous. American author H.P. Lovecraft practically made his career in exploring the cataclysmic and even fatal effects on the mortal being that such meetings with the entities that dwell within and exist as the great beyond can have. At the very least, such tales are an excellent exercise in humility, presenting a profound illustration against human hubris.

Ridley Scott’s 1979 seminal sci-fi horror classic Alien does even more than just explore how existentially and even physically devastating it can be for ordinary mortals to meet with beings beyond their understanding of principle and survival.  It goes so far as to tread such waters as they would be in a truly godless universe. We are introduced to a humbly limited cast of work hands aboard the Nostromo space tug as they are returning to Earth in stasis. 

Having our main band of humans be menial laborers in this sci-fi setting brings the crises that later overwhelm them to be as immediate as possible for us viewers. As fascinating as “the greats” may be in history, the commoners under their influence are the ones with greatest relation to us average viewers. Don’t tell me yet another story of Napoleon. Tell me of one of his infantrymen.

In addition to that, one of the essential elements of effective horror is a clear sense of vulnerability for what are effectively the audience surrogates. Characters who are marked as “the greats” tend to be saddled with a substantial amount of plot armor, detached from the masses of average folks who may read of their exploits from an armchair position. By contrast, these glorified resource gatherers simply doing a modest job for nothing but profit are far more worthwhile here in that they are more vulnerable and unprepared for what writer Dan O’Bannon has in store.

The crew is awakened from stasis in response to a mysterious signal from a nearby moon. This acts as both figuratively and literally a rude awakening for these ill-fated mortals. A factor at this moment is that the warrant officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is able to properly decipher the transmission, but is unable to classify it as either a distress signal inviting help or a warning discouraging further progression. From my reflections, that is precisely how a call from the chaos of the unknown should resonate with us. There are great treasures to gather from such exploration into the abyss of unexplored territory, but there also dragons lie guarding it.

Ripley is unable to relay this information to the crew members who have already made their descent too deep to be reached by those on the surface. In fact, this chance meeting with mystery is already taking its toll on the Nostromo and her crew. The ship is damaged when landing on the moon’s surface, and communication is stymied. Some make the descent into greater knowledge more quickly than others, and they are the ones in greatest danger to sustain the most injury from the realizations therein.

The hapless victim, in this case, is executive officer Kane (John Hurt), who is altered in the most devastating way from the encounter. Much of the critical analysis surrounding this film has been on the psychosexual overtones of the intrusion that the eponymous alien makes upon the crew. Upon examining some ovum-like sacs on the derelict ship, Kane is set upon by the infamous “facehugger” that forcibly impregnates him with the larvae form of the movie’s monster. 

From the thematically inverted image of a man being essentially “raped” and birthing a living entity that is partly himself but still “alien” in many ways, to the very design of the creature’s explicitly phallic cranium, the interpretation of Alien as just “as much a rape movie as much as Straw Dogs (1971) or I Spit on Your Grave (1978), or The Accused (1988)”, as David McIntee put it, is understandable. With that said, I find this angle to be not only unhelpfully pedestrian but also marked by more resentment and desire for “payback” from those who make such declarations in regard to the years in which female characters have been depicted as victims of sexual violence and aggression. These psychosexual analyses seem to say a lot more about the viewers and critics who make them rather than the film itself.

The analytical approach I find to be more holistic and less ad hoc is the Lovecraftian routine. A ubiquitous element in Lovecraft’s tales of cosmic horror is that of forbidden knowledge. He was one beholden to the constrained vision, in that he recognized humanity’s capacity for understanding and moral greatness to be severely limited, and that the closer we get to a full understanding of the cosmos, the beings within, and ourselves, the closer we push our psyches and beings to the point of breaking.

At the very least, in Lovecraft’s vision, every time we make contact with some eldritch reality, we are usually changed more fantastically than reality is. In Alien, the creature (Bolaji Badejo) seems to carry on in the same predatory and unrestrained fashion it always has upon meeting humans. By contrast, Ripley, Kane, and the others are physically, mentally, and existentially changed forever by the meeting. From the moment the facehugger latches onto Kane with no way of being removed except by its own natural course, he is no longer a man, but a warm incubator for a predator beyond his understanding or comprehension. It is for this reason that Ripley was quite right in refusing to allow the incapacitated Kane and the other crew members who explored the derelict ship back onto the Nostromo at first. Fear of the unknown is a strongly memetic trend throughout human history; one with a degree of rationality to it that shouldn’t be ignored.

There is one major player in the seven-man crew who seems to disregard all warnings of danger in pursuit of getting to know this creature a bit more with every chance. Ian Holm’s science officer Ash seems to be far more enchanted with the behavior and physiology of the alien than he is with the safety of his fellow crew members, going so far as to violate Ripley’s direct orders and even interfere with the crew’s attempts at killing the creature. In a famous twist that I dare not give away here, we find out exactly the drive behind Ash’s disregard for human life and high reverence for the alien’s natural savagery. He is operating from cold rationality and is receptive only to factual information. When challenged on his disquietingly high regard for the alien, despite it having killed three of his fellow crew, Ash responds, “I admire its purity. A survivor, unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.”

Recently, I’ve been giving much mental energy to the realization that those who are clearly not of the Christian faith–or even of a theistic worldview–tend to deliver far greater insight into the full breadth of both theism and atheism than most believers. At the time of directing Alien, Ridley was a mostly settled atheist. He has mostly agnostic leanings today, evidence that his struggle with the idea of God has been one of great longsuffering. In Alien, we see a vivid and troubling illustration of what living in a godless creation would be like. If all there is to existence is naught but the banal and primal aim to survive, the bestial tendencies of the alien and Ash’s dead outlook would be not only permissible but commendable.

Regardless, we are mortified and repulsed by the alien, and by those who praise such neglect for the value of life. A fundamental part of us cannot help but acknowledge that element in the vast void of being that says there’s more to both the cosmos and ourselves than what animalistic instinct reveals. The tagline to Alien is “In space, no one can hear you scream.”  Artistically, this primarily marks the film as first and foremost a horror flick, but thematically, much like that critical signal from the ruined ship, it serves also as both a distress call and a warning. Those who champion the godless vision ought to do so with solemn recognition for where that would leave us all existentially. No matter how abandoned from all hope we may find ourselves, we still yet scream when faced with the deathly glare of our own demise. We scream because we eagerly hope that we will be heard, even in space.

Almost no discussion of Alien is complete without praise given to the design work of the late Swiss artist H.R. Giger. His running tendency to fuse man and machine together in his illustration work embodied a very common thematic line in much popular sci-fi, in how advancements in technology tend to alter various features and processes in human nature.  That particular line is not found to a large degree in the film for which he won the 1979 Academy Award for Best Design, though. 

The furthest that Alien gets in exploring the idea of the line between man and machine being blurred is with Nostromo’s computer, Mother, who nearly acts as a stern managerial figure on behalf of the company that sent the crew out. It was primarily Giger’s 1976 surrealist print Necronom IV that served as the basis of the film’s entire visual direction where the creature and its original surroundings were concerned.

 Alien is a movie wholly married to its archetypes that, like any effective horror story, leaves the audience’s on its own to fill in the gaps of what it reveals. This is the major reason that the media franchise that followed from the 1979 release, while boasting its own degree of success and accomplishments in a number of ways, doesn’t measure up to the original in its efficacy. The alien creature is so palpably terrifying because it is so primal and base. Everyone has their own conceptualization in how they fabricate a fearful monolith of “the other,” and keeping the creature as unspecified as the plot would allow aids in this universal connection. The film is titled Alien, not Xenomorph. Subsequent installments in the franchise, while adequately making some strides as well some regressions in their own right, tend to dilute this fundamental element in the universality of the original’s archetypal appeal, as far as I can tell.

There is much more that I could remark upon in how Alien draws such effective contrasts between the limited cast. Engineers Parker and Brett (Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton) serve both as the comic relief as well as examples of those sorts of existentialists who would rather just crack open another beer when faced with the numinous. Because of those two, the movie can also register as a pirate adventure, with gold-obsessed sailors of the deep digging too greedily and meeting their end at the bottom. Ripley and Veronica Cartwright’s Lambert operate most unambiguously as the audience surrogates, as their emotional range is perfectly parallel to what the plot expects of the viewers while still maintaining genuine arcs. The leading male characters are, in a very subversive routine, the first to be claimed by the beast, despite their experience and authentic grit. Another essential factor in a successful horror tale is the complete lack of “plot armor.” Death cannot be a respecter of persons.

The definition of a “classic” in the field of the arts is “a work that stands the test of time.” Alien certainly meets that criterion in every way it can.  Fear is a universal experience, and we’ve been wrestling with it ever since we could walk. Without the hope of a better world from which we may draw some veneer of resolve, the great void of the natural cosmos is even more fearsome. But suppose we were not to accept Nature’s looming and constant threats without a fight? Suppose we are more than what she dictates? Suppose there is both more and less to Nature than what she presents on the surface–more in that mere survival is not the only purpose to her design; less in that she’s not insurmountable and there is a real promise of something transcendent beyond her veil? Suppose as C.S. Lewis once did that she is not our mother, but our sister? As a mother, Nature is cruel and terrifying, but as a sister, she is a far easier adversary with which to contend and there is the hope of putting ourselves at peace with her, or at least some semblance of peace on this side of the grave. 

Alien works ultimately because it can’t help but call out to that hope even in the pitch black of space and in the horrific face of death. It is that hope that wins out because Alien not only calls but screams for it. Make sure to listen while you can, dear reader.

 

Positives

+ Flawless pacing + Incredible design and practical effects + Unforgettable characters + Brilliant thematic dimensions + Excellent focus in plot structure + Effective and lasting horror elements + Defines the hybrid genre of sci-fi/horror

Negatives

- Takes more than one viewing to fully appreciate

The Bottom Line

A film that leaves so much to our imaginations and yet brings so much understanding. Understanding of the genres of science fiction and horror, understanding of film in general, and even understanding of ourselves. “Must see” simply doesn’t do it justice.

 

9.6

Tyrone Barnes

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