By Carter B. Horsley
Would you sign up to work on
a cargo spaceship that would be out on a mission for a year or
so in space time but much longer in earth-time?
Our notion of work in space
at the start of this millennium is that astronauts are very brave
and very intelligent and highly trained people willing to sacrifice
many conveniences to be explorer-scientists.
This film takes place a couple
of centuries forward in time, about 2200 A.D., and the state of
space travel is such that somehow it is economical to conduct
mining operations in the far reaches of space and to ferry cargo
back and forth on humongous spaceships that dwarf contemporary
supertankers or off-shore drilling rigs. Technology permits
the crew to be relatively small, in this case, just seven.
This film begins slowly, showing
the crew aboard the "Nostromo," which is capable of
carrying 20 million tons of ore, waking up after a long slumber
to discover that they are not approaching earth, but have been
diverted by the spaceship's computer, referred to as "Mother,"
to respond to an apparent S.O.S. signal from some uncharted planet
not in the earth's galaxy.
Some members of the crew grumble
that there is a commercial trip, but Ash, the science officer,
tells them that they are obligated to investigate "any systemized
transmission indicating a possible intelligent origin…under
penalty of total forfeiture of shares."
As several members of the crew
foray outside the spaceship to investigate the origins of the
signal, Warrant Office Lieutenant Ellen L. Ripley, played superbly
by Signourney Weaver, in her first starring role, has determined
with the help of the spaceship's computers that the signal may
not be a S.O.S., but a warning. She is dissuaded from going over
the search team by Ash, the medical officer, played intensely
by Ian Holm, who argues that by the time she catches up with them,
"they'll know if it's a warning or not." After
discovering a giant wrecked spaceship, the search team explores
its interior and Kane, played nicely by John Hurt, is lowed into
its vast hold where he discovers rows of "leathery objects,
like eggs or something" with a layer of mist over them and
then notices that one of the objects seemed to be pulsating and
have movement, "life."
What the crew encounters on
that planet is a very nasty species of alien life intend on impregnating
itself into other living forms.
What makes this film a masterpiece
is its spectacular sets and the design of the alien, the acting,
the suspense and the character of Ripley.
Like "2001," the sets
are very impressive and convincing and were conceived and created
by H. R. Giger, the surrealist painter, and Moebius, the French
artist. The alien first appears as a large crab-like creature
but grows into a giant, slimy, drooling, eel-like monster.
The spaceship is part of an extra-terrestial mining operation
and its vast interiors are appropriately dark and full of places
for the alien to hide. Ridley Scott, the director, takes
his time establishing the personalities of the crew and their
routine investigation of the distress signal. The crew arrives
at the seemingly desolate planet from which the signals have emanated
and a search party discovers the wreck of a strange and large
spaceship. Its interior is vast and its structure almost seems
organic. While investigating the interior, one of the crew members,
Kane, is attacked by a strange, crab-like organism that attaches
itself to his face. He is brought back on board the spaceship.
Ripley insists that he be quarantined, but and refuses to let
the search term back in but Ash lets them in presumably to try
to save Kane's life.
The crew member played by Hurt
is apparently alive despite the seemingly smothering impact of
the alien organism that covers his face. When the rest of
the crew tries to cut the organism away, it spurts out an strong
acid that begins to eat its way through the ship's many steel
Some time passes and suddenly
the organism has disappeared from Hurt's face and Hurt recovers,
somewhat disoriented but with a strong appetite.
While eating, however, Hurt
gets sick. Very sick. As he is put on a table, his
stomach begins to burst and out pops a very bloody and ugly alien
baby with a terrifying set of teeth. The alien baby slithers
away as the crew stands back in a state of shock.
The scene is very gory and very
frightening and memorable.
The crew recover their senses
somewhat and start searching for the organism. As members
of the team, including Captain Dallas, played by Tom Skerritt,
disappear, Ripley confronts Holm who appears more interested in
bringing the alien back to earth for study than in saving the
crew. Holm tries to kill Ripley by stuffing her throat with
rolled-up documents but she survives only to discover that Holm
is an android who manages to still be able to talk even after
his head has been severed and his milk-colored fluids spill out
of his head, a second gory and very frightening and memorable
With Holm finally dead, Ripley
realizes that the crew's life is very much in danger from the
still loose alien and that if it is not found and disposed of
it will propagate itself on earth. The alien proves to be a mighty
foe and the remaining half of the film documents the very scary
search for him that tests Ripley's skills and prowess to the limit.
Ripley's deering-do is impressive
and Sigourney Weaver brings an intelligence and urgency to the
role that belie her cool looks. Veronica Cartwright as Lambert
the navigator and Yaphet Kotto as Parker, one of the spaceship's
engineers, are excellent and Harry Dean Stanton as Brett, another
engineer, is also good.
Director Scott's pacing eeks
out every once of terror and surprise imaginable. The viewer
becomes so stressed out that the odds of survival seem impossible,
so formidable and determined is the malevolent alien.
"Alien" opened two
years after Star Wars, which raised the special effects ante in
movies to new heights and Alien raised the bar still further as
the grisly alien beast became the stuff of really menacing nightmares.
The movie was an Oscar for best visual effects, but surprisingly
did not win one for Art Direction/Set Decoration for which it
was nominated. Dan O'Bannon did the screenplay, which was
based on a story he had written with Roland Shusett.
The film's great atmospherics
would be a harbinger of director Scott's next great film, "Bladerunner,"
City Review article), and his way with special effects would
also be notable in "Gladiator" in 2000.
The success of this film lead
to three sequels: "Aliens," directed by James Cameron
(1986); "Aliens3," directed by David Fincher (1992);
and "Alien Resurrection," directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet,
(1997), all of which also starred Sigourney Weaver.