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Alien - 40th Anniversary (1979) dir: Ridley Scott

A distress beacon signals horror

The original theatrical cut of Ridley Scott’s sci-fi horror has received 4K rerelease in time for its 40th anniversary. It begins with the crew of a commercial spaceship called Nostromo being awoken from their cryogenic slumber while halfway through their journey home. The ship’s computer, named Mother, has just detected a distress signal on a nearby planet. A clause in the crew’s contract obliges them to investigate any signal that may be consistent with intelligent life. While two members of the group - Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) and Parker (Yaphet Kotto) - have their misgivings about it, their boss Dallas (Tom Skerritt) insists that they follow company procedure on the matter.

Alien (1979)

When they make their way down to the planet’s inhospitable surface, they find the remains of a crescent-shaped spacecraft of seemingly alien origin. While Dallas’s lieutenant Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and science officer Ash (Ian Holm) remain on their ship, the rest of the crew enter the alien craft to see what they can find. They come across the corpse of the ship’s huge, long decayed pilot. On closer examination, it appears that this creature was killed by being burst open from the inside. Through a floor panel, they discover a vast consignment of huge, leathery eggs. Kane (John Hurt) takes a closer look and sees an egg slowly start to hatch. All too suddenly, a small creature emerges from it and attaches itself to Kane’s face.

Thus begins a nightmare that will threaten the entire crew.

Watch a trailer:

Classic science fiction horror

Alien is the first of two Ridley Scott-directed sci-fi classics to have been released in succession (the second being Blade Runner in 1982). While it’s basically a straightforward shock-filled creature feature - and is a very fine example of one - it also has a number of subtexts for those who look for them. The fact that it works on these two distinct levels is what gives it such an enduring appeal.

As with Blade Runner, from a production design standpoint it has aged remarkably well in four decades since its release. Most of the technology depicted is more functional than fanciful, with the film’s visual appeal coming more from atmosphere than attempts to dazzle. The interior of the Nostromo feels like some infernal industrial dungeon: a maze of darkly claustrophobic, duct-filled corridors given a hellish tinge via orange light sources and bursts of steam. The space suits which the crew don while venturing out onto the alien planet have their own steam-belching breathing apparatus. The one area where things look dated are the computer displays and consoles; the banks of flashing lights and LED displays may have been state-of-the-art back in 1979 but now look like antiques. The alien creations of the title are likewise cannily designed; they are not only suitably hideous but, again, possess attributes which serve useful functions such as acidic blood to dissuade would-be attackers.

Scott’s directorial feel is very hyperreal with lengthy stretches playing out in what feels like real time, alongside interludes of improvised banter between the crew which give the impression that what we are witnessing are a bunch of real people. If reality TV could provide a window into a space expedition in the future you could almost envisage it being just like this. The fact that the horror erupts from this believable environment plays a large part in what makes it so effective. The best shock is undoubtedly the infamous “chest-burster” scene. Nonetheless, even the more hackneyed moments (such as those involving Jonesy the ship’s cat jumping out unexpectedly) are astutely woven into the wider overall build-up of tension. The fact that the alien stalking the crew fits so chameleon-like into their environment, ready to coil out of the shadows at any moment, is also effectively used.

Veronica Cartwright and Sigourney Weaver in Alien

The film’s aforementioned subtexts warrant some discussion. There is a definite feminist slant here: the strongest and most principled character is Weaver’s Ripley. She is unafraid to stand up to her gruff boss Dallas or question the ethics of the ship’s science officer Ash. Most of the male characters don’t seem to give a damn about anything that’s going on bar staying alive and going home with their fair share of company pay - the exception being the creepy Ash, who wants to study the creatures he has found for purposes which remain sinisterly cloaked in secrecy. The iconic chest-burster scene can be seen as a symbol of the way in which the male of the species is ill-equipped for pregnancy, and in that (admittedly crudely visceral) sense, is clearly the weaker gender.

The other main subtext is the military-industrial complex who remain as spoken-of but unseen background detail throughout the film. Their machinations - contractual obligation and the presence of a character who, in effect, functions as a corporate plant within the crew - are what causes them to become endangered in the first place. The film’s industrial milieu not only acts as an effective horror setting but, in its own oppressive claustrophobia, as a monster in itself.

Alien is one of the finest meldings of science fiction and horror ever created. It’s a pity that, with the sole exception of James Cameron’s equally superlative Aliens (1986), it got saddled with a succession of disappointing sequels.

Runtime: 117 mins

Dir: Ridley Scott

Script: Dan O'Bannon, Ronald Shusett

Starring: Tom Skerritt, Sigourney Weaver, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto, Bolaji Badejo

Rating: ☆☆☆☆☆

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