It’s hard to believe, but it’s already been 32 years since the original Alien movie hit theaters all over the world. It’s a classic. And it is one hell of a classic, at that. You might consider the original Star Wars movie (now Episode IV, ha!) to be a classic, but me sez: Alien fucking takes Star Wars down with a bang. Fear not, I will elaborate.
In German there was a fun subtitle to the Alien release: “Das unheimliche Wesen aus einer fremden Welt,” which sounds totally cool in German IMHO, and which translates roughly as “the uncanny being from another world.” Where Star Wars really is a space opera that seems to be much more of a fantasy quest, Alien is science fiction, practically as sf as it gets. It is set in the future, dealing with interstellar travelling on spacecrafts, computing technologies and encountering alien life forms. Granted, you could bring forth all that for Star Wars as well (which I’ll abandon in a second, promised), but where Star Wars steers off into romance/melodrama territory, Alien takes an altogether different route and decides to go all horror genre on our asses.
Horror, these days, sounds like we’re talking high school jocks and their scantily clad girlfriends getting slaughtered by chainsaw-mutants, but the horror of Alien is more of a traditional sort. While we also see some blood and buckets of human organs, much of the horror in Alien is about the fear. Somewhere on that vast spacecraft there is one being that is going to kill all others. Where is it? Where will it hide? And will the human (or feline) protagonists be quicker?
Alien was directed by Ridley Scott, who deserves all the praise imaginable for this movie alone, but he is also responsible for Blade Runner, which is also a really really good movie (though not among my favourites, gasp). Some people also like to talk about him as the director of Gladiator, but I’d rather pretend that movie never happened and act like the person who directed Alien in 1979 cannot be the same as the one who did Gladiator. Maybe his body was replaced with an Android during the shooting of Blade Runner? Now there’s an explanation I can live with.
The movie can be summed up with two words: Alien and Ripley. There is one of each, and that is a good thing. Later instalments of the franchise (except for Alien³) come with an abundance of Aliens who develop all sorts of gimmicky tricks, but in the original movie it is basically one on one, if we ignore the fact of the rest of the crew for a moment. Because let’s face it: it is ever so creepier that one single being can take down a crew of seven, one by one and resists almost all their attempts to kill it. And of course there are other factors that add to the creepiness of t it all, which is the claustrophic and dark atmosphere the vast spacecraft Nostromo provides us with, there is the uncanny birth and growth of the Alien itself and its design that seems to have creeped out of the weirdest dreams anyone (or H.R. Giger for that matter) could have.
And then there is Ripley. I’m going to get to the rest of the cast in a minute, but Ripley, I mean, Ellen Motherfucking Ripley, is one hell of a character to come up with in any sort of movie. Sure, she is skinny and pretty, but she also looks like she could just be working on your next car-assembly line, and she is for the major part of the movie a character we as viewers are not told to symphathize with. Actually, she kinda comes off as a bitch in some of the major scenes, although we admittedly understand early on that she is not a smartass and totally full of herself, but actually smart, confident and genuinely worried about the whole situation. Plus, she takes the Alien down. And likes the cat. The then practically unknown Sigourney Weaver could not have asked for a better head-start for an international movie career or a better role for a female lead in 1979 in a major Hollywood production. Lucky gal got both.
What a lot of movies get horribly wrong, is that they think they have to throw in an ensemble of characters that have some sassy dialogue and get killed off one after the other. What this movie gets wonderfully right is understanding that we have to care about these characters. And in Alien the whole crew, alongside Ripley, gets introduced and established in a way that not only gives the impression that these are real people, but what they do and say and worry about actually feels real. Because the shortcoming of a lot of science fiction movies in my opinion is the reliance on shiny electronics and management-level service jobs. But these people work. They are on this fucking huge spacecraft, cause they’re mining another planet. They need money, and they’re afraid they might not be getting it. They are employees, all caught in a hierarchy set up through their respective jobs within the company (Weyland-Yutani, yay) that creates tension within the crew. And some of the guys make sexist remarks, which is totally fine with me, cause they act like people do, while the women on the Nostromo respond as most women would and do (hell yeah, Alien, surprise y’all, passes the Bechdel test, if just barely. Oh, and the central operating system goes by “mother”).
No discussion of the Nostromo-crew is complete without mentioning Jones, the cat, of course. If Laika can go space-travel with the Soviets, why should there not be a cat on the Nostromo and provide some comfort to the space-laborers? A cat is so much more random than say, a dog, less instantly likeable for all her independence and strong will and far more eerie when it comes to reacting to humans or aliens. In short: the cat is awesome. And how awesome is it, that Ripley could practically take off and leave the alien behind on the about to explode ship, but runs back and grabs the cat, cause she can’t leave without Jonesy, the only other “crew-member” alive? That, my dears, is the human touch. In your face!
There is one lesson about Robotics we can learn from Alien: Androids are made by human beings, even though they are not human beings. They are created for specific purposes, and they usually outsmart (computer brain) and outwrestle (steel-skeleton) you. I’m reading Isaac Asimov short stories at the moment, with the three laws of Robotics that state that robots can’t hurt or kill human beings. Well, clearly, no one in the Alien universe heard of that law. Cause our favorite resident Droid Ash, played by Bilbo Baggins Ian Holm, is designed to make sure that Weyland-Yutani, the charming company, makes a decent profit with possible bio-weapons Alien-style, and does most certainly not care too much about the lives of you human beings, sorry. But of coursely it is not that simple: the nuanced performance confronts us with a character that seems torn. After all it is not just “a robot is a robot is a robot,” but it is an artificial intelligence that is capable of coming to its own conclusions. So while for a long time we and the rest of the crew do not know about Ash’s android-relations, when we do, we encounter a character that seems to have doubts about his actions, but pursues them nevertheless. The company made sure that its interests will be protected. And thus, human greed can easily be transferred into non-human (or semi-human? or meta-human?) androids.
The android and the questions that he creates take us deep into the science fiction aspects of the story. Being there, let’s take a look around: the year is 1979 in real-earth-time, and computers are loud and big and exhibit the graphic abilities of a three-year-old child (blinking lights and green writing appearing painfully slow on flickering screens). However, in contrast to other SF movies, Alien’s technology holds up surprisingly well, which has a lot to do with it being less of the slick and clean type a la Avatar and more of the gritty dirty reality that people are likely to encounter when they have to work. And on this interstellar freight-ship these computers look like they belong there, even in 200 years from now. Ok, people will have their iPads, iPods and iPets (instead of Jonesy? Aaaargh!), but although the computers are kind of amusing, they still feel real. Then again that might only be me thinking that because I was born in the 80s and thought SimCity2000 was an awesome game, being so big to need TWO floppy disks and running on Windows 3.1. So if you were born mid-90s chances are considerably slimmer to find this type of technology relatable. Don’t smirk, two floppy disks were a lot.
Do I really have to talk about the meta-level and comment on the superb filmmaking going into this one? The awesome minimalist score? The conceptual artwork that translates beautifully into the creation of the Alien itself and all the surroundings? The wonderful cinematography and lighting? And last but not least that incredible pacing: taking its time, building things up and then have horror unfold itself far out in space? No, right? Cause we all know how fantastically the movie is crafted. We’ve seen it, duh!
Three things remain to be commented on.
First, we have an almost exclusively white cast, and I can imagine there being more diversity, that being said, the movie is pretty perfect as it is, and I’m barely bugged by the lack of people of color, but, you know, still.
And then second and third – the other ship and many eggs. Yep, there was one Alien, but there are going to be many many more Aliens, just you wait. Cause hey planet where they landed on to trace the signal, we’ll be coming back to you in the sequel. Unfortunately we don’t get to see the other spacecraft and the giant jockey anymore.
But then, there is talk of a possible prequel being produced. Ridley Scott is allegedly interested, and Sigourney Weaver most certainly is, although she does not fit well into a prequel…. And prequels – or re-boots – can be fun, but in the case of Alien, where especially the first movie is such a singularly stellar piece of work, there is always the danger that a prequel takes away from that, in that a new interpretation of events gets established, one that kind of predetermines what we see happening here and one that possibly diminishes this feeling of witnessing a first contact – and a horrible one at that.
Not only floppy disks mentioned here, no, I’m actually holding up a VHS tape. Can you even believe it? Go and watch Alien now!