Friday, October 12, 2012


1979 *****

Over the last few years I've been Horrorthonning science-fiction/horror movies a few at a time, but I always knew that doing the genre right meant starting with Alien. Much like the stunt Halloween pulled off the previous year, Alien took an ill-defined genre and exploded it out of some guy's stomach, and the blood spatters on those futuristic walls have been chased by filmmakers ever since.

I've been chewing for a while on exactly what to write about this movie. It took some thought, because as has been mentioned here before, it's quite simply perfect. It's one of those movies that can still hit you unexpectedly with another excellent detail you forgot you'd ever noticed. This shot above was one for me, inside the alien ship but not yet to the big spectacle. Moody, strange and beautiful.

Two things struck me as of this viewing. One was the graceful impact of the movie's title. It's never stated or not, but I like to think the crew's contact with the alien ship and the living creatures within is humanity's first extraterrestrial contact (for the sake of the argument, let's ignore Prometheus). So for the first time mankind is sharing the same air with an animal, a thing from somewhere else and lo and behold it is fucking terrible. And the fearful architecture is so basic: an alien invasion, with a deep, psychological accent on the "in." This new, unknown life form comes with new, unknown kinds of fear -- things even worse than being hunted and killed.

What struck me most of all this time around was something I noticed about the production design. The setting of Alien is nothing less than iconic. You don't drop a story this simple into any old place and have it become what this movie has become. You're not only looking at an industry standard that's been imitated countless times, you're also looking at one of the lead characters in the story.

And of course one of the reasons the Alien-ness comes across with such sickening force is Ridely Scott's choice to use different designers: one for the human world, another (crazy person) for the alien ship and the titular beastie itself. I love Giger's work, but it was the setting of the Nostromo that really got my notice this time.

The legacy of the Nostromo's design is the pseudo-realistic/utilitarian/industrial sort of thing that shows up everywhere in science fiction cinema. Practically any sci-fi movie that isn't a Star Wars flick owes something visually to this film. As such, I think I'd lost sight of exactly what the original ship is. It's not, as I recalled, an extrapolation of existing NASA tech with an overlay of hypothetical industrialization of space. It's got poetry.

I can only think of one other movie that hits this same amazing note, and that's Ridley Scott's other masterpiece Blade Runner: A sci-fi setting that bridges the gap between the elegant practicality of 2001: A Space Odyssey and the lyricism of Star Wars, a setting of unique character, something you can watch decades later and marvel at how it doesn't look dated, because it just looks like itself.

It comes as no surprise, but the mood of this setting/character I'm gushing about is not a happy one. Looking at these exterior shots of the Nostromo, I felt like the ship wasn't built with pipes and vents and rivets as much as assembled from huge slabs of some unforgiving material that was already textured that way, dragged at great effort from some dark orbital quarry.

Compared to the alien ship, the Nostromo feels like home, but her comfort is brooding and oppressive. Even before any creature comes on board, you get the impression the crew just isn't going to win the day. The job sucks, your boss doesn't care, you're stuck on a depressing ship with a cold, cold universe outside.

And it's about to get so much worse.


JPX said...

I couldn’t agree with you more; Alien is a perfect film. Like Blade Runner, Alien is that rare science fiction movie that gets everything right, which is why the silly Prometheus was such a colossal disappointment. In both Alien and Blade Runner the characters behave the way you would expect. There is no stupid humor, no drinking, no getting high, no fucking, no silly arguing, no working class jerks causing problems, etc. Like 2001, this is serious science fiction. Why is it so rare for directors to get it right? Alien is the only good film in the franchise. “Aliens” was a fun, silly action movie, Alien 3 was fucking awful (the director’s cut makes it watchable) and Alien 4 was so silly I don’t recall a single thing about it. Alien vs. Predator was forgettable nonsense and I never even bothered with the sequel. Prometheus was an incredible misfire, which is surprising given that Scott is responsible for the best science fiction films ever made. Alien is timeless and perfect.

Catfreeek said...

I wholeheartedly agree as well, it's always amazing to me how beautifully this film stands the test of time over and over again. Excellent review.

On a side note, I was speaking with my local MovieStop employee yesterday and we got to talking horror and I mentioned the blog and the monster list and such. She was really excited to learn of a place where so many horror reviews were so readily available. She asked if she could put us on their flyer so they could promote us at Rock n Shock. I thought that was pretty cool.

JPX said...

Absolutely get us on her flyer!

Catfreeek said...

I figured it was okay so I told her yes, she said they may put a link to us on their website as well.

AC said...

love, love, love this movie! it's infinitely rewatchable, and i still find it scary every time. always great to see it reviewed here.

Trevor said...

I haven't watched this one in a few years, but I'm wondering - after having seen the quasi-prequel, Prometheus, do you watch Alien differently? In one respect, it sounds like, via the comments, that this movie seems better by comparison. That makes sense. JPX is dead on with how nice it is to have characters that behave like normal people without random drug use, nudity, etc.

How about in terms of plot - are there any parts of Alien that stand out more in light of Prometheus?

JPX said...

That's a good question, Trevor. I haven't watched Alien in a while but I am intrested to see it now that I've seen Prometheus. Although I've been hard on Prometheus there is some great stuff in that film sorywise and visually. I wish Scott would make a director's cut where he excises all the stupid stuff.

Octopunk said...

If Prometheus was on my mind at all as this started, it went away quickly. Alien is just so distinctly its own movie. (Watching Aliens afterwards evoked more echoes of Prometheus, but more on that when I review it.)

What's interesting is that this movie gets everything right while still containing some of the elements on JPX's laundry list of lame. Bad decisions are made, and Yaphet Kotto plays a great working class jerk who keeps griping about how the engineering staff should get a full bonus.

But the dialogue and characterizations are all crafted well enough that these things make sense instead of making you throw popcorn in frustration.

50PageMcGee said...

"Looking at these exterior shots of the Nostromo, I felt like the ship wasn't built with pipes and vents and rivets as much as assembled from huge slabs of some unforgiving material that was already textured that way, dragged at great effort from some dark orbital quarry. "

great sentence.

it's funny to me how something you kind of look down upon in toymaking -- external circuitry on a ship being molded directly into the body of the ship -- becomes a virtue when it's something really, really big.

DCD said...

Excellent review, Octo! I haven't watched this in ages and I'm (shamefacedly) not sure if I've actually seen the entire movie. Must clearly rectify that!

50PageMcGee said...

by the way, the pictures are all slightly off center, so the right hand border is shaved off. i'm getting it too.

anyone got any thoughts on how to make that not happen?

Octopunk said...

Huh. I didn't even notice that, but it happened in my previous review too. It's just the right border that's getting cut off, my pix aren't really cropped at all. Still, annoying. I'll see if I can fix it.

EDIT: Well it seems our template is too antiquated to change the width of our post columns, but I did fix it by going in and adjusting the width (and height so they're not distorted.) Before: w 400, h 225. After: w 380, h 214. Pain in the ass.

I reckon uploading pix in a smaller size will work. I'll look into this some more when I'm doing my next review.

Johnny Sweatpants said...

Thanks for researching that Octo.

"You're not only looking at an industry standard that's been imitated countless times, you're also looking at one of the lead characters in the story." Very true. The scenery in Alien is essential and it looks so natural that its sometimes easy to overlook.