Alien is 33 years old as I write this post. I think we’re past the statute of limitations on spoilers. All the same, there may be some ahead.
In my previous post, I marked Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi/horror film Alien with a 9/10 rating. If you are questioning that rating, I hope you’re asking why I don’t think it’s a 10.
It’s not a 10, but only because Blade Runner is a 10. Alien lacks one thing that Blade Runner excels at particularly, and that’s a seemingly unending amount of depth and thought exercise fodder. I have been thinking new things about Blade Runner since I first saw the Director’s Cut, and watching it is at least an annual event for me. Alien has some food for thought in it, but it’s limited.
That’s not a slight against the movie, though. Alien is nearly perfect in its simplicity of plot. Subtleties in the film suggest some of its director’s trademark signature themes (corporate control over human life, for example), but when the credits roll, however you choose to read into it, you just watched a tightly plotted and perfectly paced action/horror film.
Ellen Ripley is one of the greatest female characters of all time. She’s a bit unsavory by necessity. She works with men doing a traditionally male job, and it’s grunt work. By the time we join her, she has evidently made herself at home with the crew, dominated by foul-mouthed, grizzled technicians and cargo handlers. They can be abrasive, but she holds her own and often dominates conversations, especially as her title (Lieutenant) dictates.
So she’s a strong woman to begin with, but even in the late 70’s with second-wave feminism strongly influencing culture, I don’t think that’s enough to portray the feminist perspective Alien is often labeled with, and which Ripley is credited for (at least not in retrospect).
Alien is a film (really, the Alien franchise is an entire trilogy of films) about the essence and trials of womanhood. As Ripley physically tracks and fights a monster bent on the eradication of her crew, she metaphorically battles the horrors of birth into a strange, unfamiliar, and uninviting world, culminating in her realization that she must come into her womanhood and separate from her mother, becoming independent. This is played out in the form of Ripley ejecting herself from the ship (whose main operating computer is called “Mother”) to seek safety. But she also saves “Mother” in the sense that she successfully ejects the threatening alien as well.
I’m sure you can go wild with this concept and read into all kinds of little details. What does Jonesy, the ship’s cat, represent? What does it mean that Ripley protects the cat at all costs? What does it mean that slimey engineer Brett goes after Jonesy (literally chasing pussy)? Knock yourself out.
I don’t know if there’s that much to it. But thematic and literary elements aside, Alien looks perfect. The art of the film was worked over by H. R. Giger (NSFW?), which sets a dark and gothic tone otherwise unprecedented in film, and rarely matched since.
The monster is sometimes animatronic and sometimes a man in a rubber suit. In all cases, the effects that make the xenomorph work hold up extremely well, especially considering how accustomed we are to effects-by-computer these days. The physicality of the creature makes it more realistic and therefore more horrific. Alien is one of the great analog science fiction films, and it’s only bested in that regard by Blade Runner.
The characters in Alien may not be nuanced, but they’re not flat, either. Considering the film is a creature feature, that’s saying a lot. All around, acting is solid, and comes from some greats like Sigourney Weaver, Ian Holm, and Tom Skerritt. Every actor performs solidly here. I can’t think of much to dislike about any of that.
And for those reasons, I give the original Alien a 9/10. It aspires to be a solid monster movie in space with high production value. It is exactly that, and hasn’t fallen to pieces with age. Not only does it exceed my expectation of what a horror movie should be, it far outpaces the average horror movie of its time.