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40 Years of The Perfect Organism: Does Alien Hold Up?

Spoiler Warning! This article contains many spoilers!

Alien (poster)When I was about 15, Aliens had a reputation among my friends as a great film. It was part war movie, part science fiction film: futuristic in a tough, edgy way. After watching it on a battered VHS videocassette and thinking it was excellent, I settled down to see Alien. I expected a roller-coaster ride: I got something much darker than that.

It wasn’t the Alien itself that tipped me over the edge. I knew about the chestburster; I was expecting it. What really got me was the scene in which Ash (Ian Holm), the treacherous science officer, tries to kill Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and then seems to have some kind of fit. He staggers about, gabbling and twitching, clearly with murderous intent. That’s unsettling to watch in itself, but at that point Parker (Yaphet Kotto) hits him with a fire extinguisher. With a discordant crash on the soundtrack, Ash’s head comes off, and his headless body grabs Parker and tries to strangle him, while spraying some kind of revolting white gunge from his neck.

That was the point where Alien stopped being enjoyably scary and became downright disturbing. It was actually a relief to hear Parker say that Ash was an android, because at least there was an explanation for this horrible turn of events. From that point on, things get worse for the characters. I finished the film shocked and unsettled, and yet aware that I’d seen something really great.

Alien (poster 2)So, Alien is 40 this year. After a slew of prequels, sequels and spin-offs, most of them not very good*, can it still pack that kind of psychological punch, or is it too dated to really work?

Before we go any further, I think it’s necessary to take Alien on its own and ignore the other films in the franchise, even the really good one. Aliens is a tremendous film, but it changes the Alien somewhat and has a very different approach.

The monster in Alien isn’t a bio-weapon, a giant hive insect, or the art project of a mad robot: it’s an unexplained force of evil, a dreadful Thing That Should Not Be from a place that seems to run by totally different rules to our own—alien in the true sense of the word, and just as close to the monstrosities in an M. R. James ghost story or an H. P. Lovecraft novel as anything in science fiction.

Blue-Collar Spacesuits

Alien was not the first film to treat science fiction in a mature, realistic fashion (nor was it the first “haunted-house in space” story), but it helped set the tone for films like Moon and Outland. It’s got a particularly hands-on, lived-in feel, where characters wear t-shirts, drink beer and discuss getting ripped off by their employers. The subplot of the “company” feels both very 1970s and still relevant: the sense that your employers don’t care what happens to you, as long as they profit from it. You can see that sense of paranoia in conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s, such as The Conversation. The human enemy isn’t some fascist overlord, but a callous businessman who writes you off for a few extra credits in his bank account. It’s that anger of being seen as disposable that, for better or worse, still drives a lot of modern politics.

Crew

And of course, Alien takes a very feminist approach (arguably somewhat less so once Ripley gets into the escape shuttle). It’s the film from which the Bechdel test originates, which is now one of the standard tools of feminist film critique. Both Ripley and Lambert are sympathetic, but rounded and convincing: people in their own right. None of the crew—perhaps with the exception of Dallas—is entirely heroic, but it’s easy to see why Ripley is such a strong and popular character. And, on a darker level, the Alien doesn’t confine its sexual predation to women. Alien is full of sexual violence, but it’s an inhuman, parasitic sexuality that threatens everyone.

The acting is very good: all of the crew are convincingly weary and desperate (the casting of older actors is sensible, too, and adds credibility). The natural, low-key style of dialogue makes me wonder if some of the scenes were partially improvised, especially the ones at the dining table. While this feels realistic, it does make some of the speech quite hard to hear and means that we don’t get the carefully-scripted one-liners and verbal sparring of Aliens. The only truly memorable lines are uttered by Ash (while I’m here, Ian Holm would have made a fantastic Hannibal Lecter). But Alien isn’t quite the same sort of film as its sequel, and the realistic style just makes it feel more immediate and intense. 

The Look of Space

Visually, Alien stands up very well. Much praise has been rightly given to H. R. Giger’s designs for the Alien, but credit is also due to Carlo Rambaldi’s puppetry and Bolaji Bodajo’s eerie, mime-like movements that help bring it to life. Ron Cobb, Moebius and John Mollo did a great job of designing the human side of the setting, including the spaceship Nostromo itself. The sets look fantastic, and there’s a real feeling that the grimy, battered Nostromo could exist.

Nostromo

That said, it has aged badly in a few small ways. Perhaps inevitably, the ship’s computer looks old, partly because the design of computers and the way we thought they would look has changed drastically since 1979 (“Mother—God damn you!”). It looks slightly weird now to see Ripley or Dallas, modern-looking people, typing commands into a tiny green screen surrounded by inexplicable flashing lights. Similarly, a couple of special effects (most notably in the Ash subplot) are either a bit crude or rather obvious. However—and I wonder if this is a real test of quality in a science fiction film—even when you know it’s just a man with his legs through a table, even when the key scenes have been parodied and re-created over and again, Alien still rings true.

Taking Horror Seriously

A few years ago, I went to a screening of Alien at a local cinema. Most of the audience were in their late teens and early twenties. As the film started, I realized just how slow it is to get going. There’s no pre-credits death to warm the audiences up—instead the crew get out of bed, eat their breakfast and bicker about share prices. The audience chatted away noisily, and I thought, “This is going to be terrible.” By the end, they were silent. As we walked out, one kid turned to his friend and said, “Man, that was f***ed up!”

And it is. It’s a bleak, gritty, unironic film, slow at points and disturbing as much as thrilling. Despite the chestburster, there’s actually not a huge amount of gore in Alien—which isn’t to say that it doesn’t deserve its classification. The horror in Alien is sometimes awe-inspiring (the crashed spacecraft and its pilot, or the sight of the Alien descending from the ceiling to kill Brett) and sometimes repulsive (the sight of Ash’s flailing, headless body, or the sound of the Alien panting into the intercom as it disposes of Lambert). At points, Alien is like watching someone else’s nightmare, so surreal and horrible that it bewilders as much as grosses out. In fact, I think the natural companion creature for the Alien isn’t the Predator at all, but the being from John Carpenter’s The Thing, a mass of warping flesh that forms mouths and tentacles as it requires, and bursts out of its host to take its prey by surprise (I have a pet theory that the Alien has acidic blood to prevent the Thing from absorbing it). It’s horrific, but also disconcerting and magnificently weird.

Space Jockey

So, should you still watch Alien? Definitely. For one thing, it is a classy production, in the sense that everything in it is done extremely well. I’ve seen it argued that Alien breaks no new ground, but I think that misses the point somewhat. While other films might do the same sort of thing, none has ever done it so well. Alien is still “relevant”, in as much as it ever was. It doesn’t really teach us anything, or express fundamental truths about being human (except that we’re puny). But it does capture a certain kind of horror: the sense of man’s smallness and unimportance in a hostile, uncaring world, the feeling that if we ever met aliens or gods, they would simply destroy us.

– – –

Alien Isolation (cover)*There are surprisingly few spin-offs of Alien itself. To my mind, the best one I’ve seen is the computer game Alien: Isolation, set in a space station painstakingly created to reflect the visual style of the Nostromo. It’s very good, and the downloadable additional content includes missions set in the original film. It’s also worth noting that a number of short official films are being released this year to mark the 40th anniversary. I’ve not seen them yet so I can’t comment on their quality.

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5 Comments

  1. Avatar Steve Barley says:

    Thoughtful and insightful look back at one of the most memorable movies of my youth. Groundbreaking film at the time and a welcome relief from the surfeit of post apocalyptical sci-fi filling the vid shops back then.

  2. As someone who puts Alien up there as my favorite movie of all-time period, I believe that it absolutely still holds up. The effects still jump out at me, and the acting is just top-notch. Ridley Scott directed a beautiful film that captures the beauty and brutality of Ripley and the rest of the crew’s situation in a hostile and unforgiving alien outpost. Love it more each time I watch it. Great analysis by the way! I enjoyed reading your take.

  3. Avatar Toby Frost says:

    Just a small addition: I’ve now seen the six short films (they can all be found on Youtube, under “Alien Shorts 40th Anniversary”). I’m not going to go into much detail, but they are generally well-made and entertaining. Whilst pretty good overall, they reminded me of how small the Alien setting is, and how difficult it is to do something new with it and still fit into the background. It’s like shuffling a rather small pack of cards.

    “Alone” gets close to black comedy, and “Ore” has an interesting subtext of workers’ solidarity against the bosses. However, I felt that the best one was “Specimen”, which genuinely surprised me with its ending, and managed to introduce a new (very small) element to the setting while staying firmly within its parameters. They’re definitely worth a look.

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