Tony wants a hug.
‘How can you never have seen Alien?’ people ask me.
‘Take a chill pill,’ I tell them. ‘It’s not like Game of Thrones – I don’t have some half-assed philosophical objection to watching it. I’ve just been…y’know…busy.’
Which is the kind of answer that gets you tied to your chair in WarpedFactor Towers, while events on board the Nostromo unfold.
Now, let me say at the start of this review, coming to Alien 37 years late is a weird experience. Why’s it weird? Because everything in it looks like something else, something you’ve seen in the meantime. The enormous bulging busyness of the Nostromo’s hull reminds you of Red Dwarf. The internal layout of the ship, and the general griminess of it reminds you of countless subsequent space adventure movies, and more than a couple of handfuls of Doctor Who stories too. Almost everybody on board has become insanely famous in other roles, and you reel them off as you go. The HR Giger designwork has inspired literal decades of thinking about weird semi-alive spaceship design, so it feels instantly familiar, as if it’s been borrowed from all the other things that have used it.
Every now and again, if you first watch Alien 37 years too late, it’s very import to reboot your brain, because all of this and more was ridiculously groundbreaking back in 1979, which is why it picked up awards by the armful at the time and redefined what science fiction could be. Everything you think you recognise is more or less a later homage to this original.
When you think about it like that, watching Alien for the very first time in 2016 is a massively humbling thing to do.
Something else becomes quickly apparent, too. In 37 years, we’ve grown much less patient than the original audience in ’79. Watching it now, you almost expect more jump scares in the first hour, you expect more slithery things in dark corners to justify the chills that play up and down your spine. The point is, if they were there, Alien would be a much poorer movie, a much more paint-by-numbers affair, suitable only for a paint-by-numbers, smartphone-checking audience – the audience we in 2016 would usually struggle not to be. But Alien demands a commitment of you. It demands you turn off your phone, give it your eyeballs, and reap the rewards it promised. In terms of the scares, it’s actually the waiting that tightens up your nerves watching this movie. The waiting and the pitch perfect sense of normalcy screenwriter Dan O’Bannon and director Ridley Scott wring from the idea of this grimy, ordinary crew of spacegoers is what gets you invested, and what keep you there until John Hurt’s Kane sticks his hand where he shouldn’t and gets a hug he’ll never forget. These are blue collar Joes and Joannas, spacefaring bricklayers, and their early conversations reinforce this sense of a bunch of ordinary people to whom extraordinary things are about to happen. The quality of the actors hired to play such ordinary people is a big part of what sells the reality of the Nostromo – John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto, Harry Dean Stanton, Tom Skerrit, Veronica Cartwright, and in her career-making first lead role, Sigourney Weaver. That’s a cast that not only doesn’t for the most part look like a bunch of actors placed on a set to tell you a story, it’s an array of talent that’s practically guaranteed to bring real reactions and real tension to whatever you have them do.
The pacing of the film reinforces this idea that it’s not there to show you a story, but to simply report, almost documentary-style, on things that really happen to a bunch of ordinary people. The first half hour – the first full quarter of the movie’s run time – is taken up with them not being where they should be, and going to obey orders like a good, profit-hungry bunch of grunts, showing us how they do the things they do to run their ship. The whole second half hour takes us from their arrival on a weird planet with a signal beacon to Kane’s explosive destiny over dinner. The challenges they face are elegantly elevated, and it’s true that much of their trouble comes about by virtue of the fact that they systematically ignore the stellar, if somewhat cowardly advice of Veronica Cartwright’s Lambert, mostly amounting to a cogent ‘Let’s get the fuck out of here.’ The revelation that comes about Ian Holm’s Ash is something of a catch-all explanation for why their luck doesn’t go better than it does, while also giving the movie a grand ‘folly of humanity’ theme that has been a fundamental part of science fiction since at least Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Here it works to re-frame the ‘evil’ in the movie, shifting the blame from a creature that’s just a perfect survivor, stripped of any delusions of morality, to those who would protect such a creature over and above the lives of their own species.
It’s no secret that O’Bannon, in writing the script for Alien, focused on the alien first, allowing the humans to be characterised in a later draft, and as it happens, allowing for the casting of genuinely interesting actors, rather than a simple cast of pretty people. The focus on the creature is still paying dividends to this day, because if nothing else, its life cycle is a propellant of the drama throughout the movie, from the egg to the face-hugger, to the chest-burster, to the full-grown biped, one thing the alien in Alien always does is keep you guessing. That helps to keep you jumpy too, the scares coming sometimes out of nowhere, and at other times unfolding with an almost perverse languor. It’s still a creepy sonofabitch 37 years on, for all the effects, so groundbreaking at the time, are now probably the things that look most dated – the copious streams of saliva washing down out of the full-gown alien’s mouth, the extending inner jaws, even the chest-burster and its scuttly escape standing up less well than the hidden creepiness of the alien in the ventilation shafts and the still-effective face-hugger.
Bottom line, I came to Alien way way later than I should have, given the ready availability of its experience and the uncertainties of 21st century life. If you haven’t seen it yet, go away and watch it right now – for the most part it still stands up to this day, which is why for instance in 2002, it was selected for preservation in the US National Film Registry. Why in 2008, it was ranked the seventh best science fiction movie of all time by the American Film Institute, and why Empire magazine regards it as the 33rd best film ever made in any genre. Not bad for a movie Scott wasn’t even intending to make – after his first big picture, the Duellists, he was hoping to delve into old English literature with Tristan and Iseult. Star Wars convinced him his profitable and artistic short term future lay in science fiction, and he delivered first Alien, then Blade Runner, changing the face of science fiction twice in the space of three years. Good decision, Ridley. Really, really good decision.
If, like me, you’ve been intending to ‘get around’ to Alien, the message is simple and straightforward. Get around to it right now. It’s realistic, naturalistic, horrific, sweaty, base under siege stuff, elevated to a whole other level, and it’s fed in to almost everything else you know about space drama for nearly forty years. Go back to school today and learn from the best.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk