Sunday, 5 February 2012

Alien (1979)

“You still don't understand what you're dealing with, do you?”

I should have reviewed this film ages ago. It’s certainly influenced so many other things that I’ve reviewed, not least Doctor Who during the 1980s. But at last I now have all four films, thanks to my friend Nick. That’ll be the next few films for the blog sorted, then!

I watched the director’s cut, which I originally saw at the cinema back in 1983. There’s a very stark contrast between the aesthetic of the Nostromo- functional, lived-in, run-down, unglamorous- and the gorgeous direction. The pace is extraordinarily slow. This is often, of course, because this is a tense thriller, but in the early scenes it simply seems to be for the sake of beauty. And beautiful it is, oddly enough. The ship may be a dull corporate blob, designed for function alone, but there is beauty. Also, there’s blueness. Lots of blueness. This is probably one of the bluest films I’ve ever seen.

Like Ridley Scott’s later Blade Runner, this is an interestingly contemporary take on the future. Again, everyone smokes. But this is a corporate ship, with lots of mentions of “The Company” but no mention of any governmental authority. How very 1979 and New Right. Also, everyone (even the cat!) is known by their surname alone, which gives a sense of coldness and alienation. It’s interesting that, while the characters are all distinct and well-drawn, none of them are particularly likeable. We identify with them because we identify with their circumstances as corporate wage-slaves in recognisable situations with sci-fi trappings and added peril, not because they’re people we’d particularly like to know.

This is an almost contemporary version of space travel, with a lot of screen time being given to the putting on of spacesuits and the opening and closing of airlocks. Space flight is not shown as safe or easy. Being a pioneer means danger and discomfort as it always has and always will.

Oh, and the computer interface has dated awfully, hasn’t it? And “Mother” seems awfully primitive in 2012. But still… this is superb. Hardly anything happens, but the tension is extraordinary. The scene with the cat in the locker, and the long, drawn-out scenes of Brett looking for the cat before he’s killed, and Dallas’ attempts to escape as Lambert panics, are justly legendary.

But what’s truly extraordinary about this film, and elevates it above the status of a superior thriller, is the gender and sexual subtext. I’m hardly the first to point out that it’s a man, Kane, who is brutally, orally raped and murdered, even giving birth to the creature. Interestingly, the white men all die first. And the final survivor (and probably the character who deserves to live the most) is Ripley. It’s an interesting subversion of the gender roles, and perhaps to an extent the racial roles, that we would expect.

Simple though the plot is, there are a couple of very nice twists. I’d forgotten that Ash was a robot; this is a superb performance from Ian Holm, who produces a character that makes sense whether or not you know he’s a robot or just a cold fish. And the alien being aboard Ripley’s escape pod is a huge shock. It’s a joy to see this film again, and I’m looking forward to the next three…


  1. When I watched 'Alien', I found it clichéd. Of course - it wrote the clichés...

    Also, John Hurt is going to have that chest-burster scene on his obituary showreel, try as he might.

  2. Oh, it wrote so many cliches!

    And yes, forget 1984 and I, Claudius- that's the one scene that he'll be remembered for...