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Looking back at ALIEN

Following the news of the recent passing of Alien designer HR Giger, Tom Pheby looks back at the 1979 movie that owes him so much.

I didn't need an excuse to watch Alien because it's a spectacular movie, however after hearing the news of Alien designer HR Giger's death I felt it was a fitting tribute to revisit this cinematic masterpiece.

On re-watching it the initial impression is that it's hard to believe it was made back in 1979 - that was the year that disco diva Gloria Gaynor was singing 'I will survive', Margaret Thatcher - the Darth Vader of politics - had just won a Tory landslide at the elections and movie goers where enjoying such dizzying treats as Kramer vs Kramer, The Muppet Movie and Life of Brian. It was also the year that we were introduced to the fresh faced, curly mop of Sigourney Weaver (Ripley) in Ridley Scott's highly acclaimed science fiction horror, Alien.

Movies in space would never be the same again because Alien literally turned the genre upside down. Its combination of tight script, sublime special effects and a superb cast - including John Hurt, Tom Skerritt, Harry Dean Stanton and Ian Holm - made it stand out from the crowd. What Star Wars did for family Science Fiction viewing, Alien did for the adult Horror-loving audience.

For anyone not familiar with the story, it begins on-board the Nostromo, a sort of giant intergalactic skip carrying minerals back to Mother Earth. Its crew are woken from hyper sleep because a clumpy computer has detected a signal from a nearby planet. This form of prolonged sleep can be induced by listening to a Justin Beiber album or watching the Sunday omnibus edition of Eastender's, so avoid both if you possibly can.

Back to the Story - it's not too long before the crew rise, complete with 'bedhead', to see what the kerfuffle is all about. After some deliberation and spiff balling, three of the crew are dispatched to the planets surface to find the origin of the distress signal. They encounter a strange wishbone shaped space ship which doubles as a giant egg basket, you get the feeling that this is the perfect time to find a really lame excuse that allows you to go back to the main ship and lie your head off about why you've returned. John Hurt predictably decides to be the inquisitive 'Astronut' (big mistake - huge!) and all reasoning goes out the window when he gormlessly gazes into the opening egg flaps. It's no surprise when his head is engulfed by a 'leggy, squid-ish spider-thing'.

Now we have the beginnings of the main drama. Back on-board the ship Hurt and his alien balaclava are placed under the watchful eye of Ash, the spooky science officer played by Ian Holm. It turns out this is no ordinary 'leggy, squid-ish spider-thing' - it has acid for blood, lives inside your chest before jumping out as you eat your Cheerio's and has the attitude of a spotty teenager that has been grounded.

Ridley Scott creates genuine tension through his direction. His use of tight framing, low shots and smoke filled corridors combined with snappy editing make sure that he maximises the impact and drama. He also manages to provide enough 'don't go in there' moments which sustain our interest. One of which is when the crew go in search of the unwanted house guest, Dallas (Skerritt) decides to enter one of the claustrophobic air ducts armed with a tiny cobbled up flamethrower, you just sense he's not going come back anytime soon.

It becomes a game of interstellar cat and mouse, until only one human, Ripley, remains. The clever use of scrap metal, large portions of a defunct bomber, and multiple mirrors give the impression of an enormous, cold expanse which increases the feeling of loneliness and despair from Ripley's point of view. You have to give a sizeable nod to all the key personnel involved with the set design and the art direction on the movie, namely Roger Christian and HR Giger - who we will get to shortly.

Sigourney Weaver is without doubt the star turn, creating a formidable female character in Ripley, and it was an interesting, daring and refreshing choice to make her the hero of the film. The finale is now considered by many as a classic template, playing with the audience and then cranking up the tension. After my recent rant on blockbusters, Alien perfectly illustrates my point:
Script - check
Cast - check
Director - check
Special Effects - check
All four together equals one awesome film.

Necronom IV
Matching Weaver's star turn is the Alien itself, it is an absolute triumph. It was HR Giger's painting Necronom IV, which depicted a creature with a human torso and grotesquely phallic skull, that was the inspiration for the design. Giger's designs also inspired the derelict spacecraft, the unfurling alien eggs, and the masked 'Space Jockey' gunner discovered on it. HR Giger received an Academy Award as part of the visual effects team for the film, and quite rightly so.

When James Cameron set about production on his 1986 sequel he turned to the legendary Stan Winston to create the special effects for the movie. Giger's designs remained practically unchanged - after all, you can't improve on perfection! Two more sequels inevitably followed Aliens, they both left much to be desired and somehow failed to conjure up the intensity of the original. I really hope that Hollywood leave well alone now and never attempt to remake Alien, it's far too good and nothing could come close.

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