Friday, July 22, 2016

ALIEN (1979) - ****½


Rated R for sci-fi violence/gore and language
Running time: 117 min.
Release date: June 22, 1979



Ridley Scott's Alien is an exercise in taking a familiar plot and adding a few original twists to it in order to have it seem fresh and original. The plot borrows from various plots out of 1950s sci-fi but Scott, however, has darkened the corners and heightened the tension. Scott has the vastness of space to work with but has provided claustrophobic settings and a buildup that can be described as gut-wrenching and nerve-wracking. Ridley Scott has taken the haunted house story, moved it into space, and together with his team of visual effects professionals, has created a monster that is highly original in appearance, if not motivations.

The opening scene is that of an expansive cargo ship slowly making its way through space, in a shot that must be an homage to the opening of George Lucas' Star Wars. We are then taken inside the ship, through its sterile hallways and dark control room. We are given an eerie sense of abandonment as there does not appear to be any signs of life aboard this ship. After a few moments, the ships computers come to life and now we realize that there is a crew to the ship. They awaken from their sleep-pods and proceed to prepare for their homecoming. The ship is the Nostromo and the crew are returning from an ore-mining mission on a distant planet. The crew are the captain, Dallas (Tom Skerritt); executive officer Kane (John Hurt); warrant officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver); navigator Lambert (Veronica Cartwright); science officer Ash (Ian Holm); and engineers Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) and Parker (Yaphet Kotto). 

The crew learn that they were awakened prematurely by the ship's computer, MOTHER. A transmission was intercepted and per protocol, they are obligated to investigate, much to the chagrin of members of the crew, who only wish to get home and get paid for their haul. The crew lands on a cold, desolate planet, damaging their shuttle in the meantime. Dallas, Kane and Lambert head out to conduct a search and find an alien spacecraft. When they board the craft, they find that its dead pilot is an alien lifeform that looks like its abdomen exploded from the inside out. Meanwhile, the ship's cargo hold contains hundreds of eggs. One of these eggs bursts open and attaches itself to Kane's helmet, melting through the face shield and attaching itself to his face. Ripley refuses the crew re-entry to the shuttle, citing quarantine procedures. However, the science officer Ash overrides her and allows the crew into the shuttle. Ash attempts to remove the creature from Kane's face, but the creature's defense mechanisms include tightening itself around Kane's throat and blood that appears to be acidic, as it melts through the hull several levels deep. After some time, the creature releases Kane and dies. Kane awakens from his come, not remembering much of the incident.

What happens next is one of the more memorable scenes of the film. With the crew sitting around a table eating a meal, Kane begins to convulse. Suddenly, a small alien creature bursts through Kane's stomach, killing him and running off. Scott showed tremendous restraint by building to this scene. The audience ponders the creature resting on Kane's face, wondering what's going to happen next. The nothing happens and the creature is dead and gone. Then after a small delay, what happens next explodes onto the screen out of nowhere. The crew attempt to find the creature and destroy it, not realizing that the creature has changed form and grown in size. When Brett finds the shed alien skin, this gives us the first clue that trouble is only a dark corner away. Scott just continues to build the tension by hiding the alien for as long as possible as the crew looks for it. We later get a scene where Dallas is in a very confined space, sweating because of the heat of his blowtorch and the claustrophobic setting, then when we least expect it, something happens that makes you jump out of seat. The build to this reveal is very tense.

Screenwriter Dan O'Bannon has written a script that was inspired heavily by sci-fi films of the 1950s and 1960s. The idea of terror in space is not entirely novel. The Thing from Another World (1951), Forbidden Planet (1956) and Planet of the Vampires (1965) have been cited as inspirations for O'Bannon's work. Along with Ron Shusett, O'Bannon creates an interesting way for the alien to board the ship; some of the crew have been given personality by the screenplay, such as Ripley, Parker and Ash; other crew members, such as Lambert, are written weakly and don't provide much to the story other than to scream quite a bit. The alien and its various incarnations were constructed by H.R. Giger, who has created a species that is both menacing and interesting in its traits. Giger and his team won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, deservedly so. 

This picture succeeds on the back of director Ridley Scott. He has created a tense, sweaty atmosphere inside the ship and his visual effects team have created some imaginative sets such as the deserted planet and the interior of the alien ship containing the eggs. The gore has been kept to a minimum for the most part while building up to a great chest bursting scene. The plot is thin and not wholly original, but it's given plenty of unique spin and coupled with Scott's steady hand, it's paced very well with the slow-burn build. But once that chest explodes, the movie takes off into the stratosphere and sets the bar for future outer space horrors.



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