Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #250
Number of Views: Multiple
Release Date: May 25, 1979
Sub-Genre: Sci-Fi Horror
Country of Origin: United States/United Kingdom
Box Office: $203,630,630
Running time: 117 minutes
Director: Ridley Scott
Producers: Gordon Carroll, David Giler, Walter Hill
Screenplay: Dan O’Bannon, David Giler (uncredited), Walter Hill (uncredited)
Story: Dan O’Bannon, Ronald Shusett
Special Effects: Brian Johnson, Nick Allder, Allan Bryce, Carlo Rambaldi
Visual Effects: Bill Pearson, Martin Bower
Alien Design: HR Giger
Cinematography: Derek Vanlint
Score: Jerry Goldsmith
Editing: Terry Rawlings
Studio: Brandywine Productions
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Stars: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto, Bolaji Badejo, Helen Horton (Voice)
Suggested Audio Candy
Jerry Goldsmith “Alien Suite”
For my big 250th appraisal I have decided to tackle a motion picture which I believe moved the goalposts when released in 1979. It had to be a whopper and they don’t come with much more girth than, yes that is a drum roll y’all discern, Ridley Scott’s archetypal intergalactic monster movie Alien. Like The Terminator many were won over by spectacular seconds but, in the same manner that James Cameron’s 1984 juggernaut, the original is every bit as handsome a creature.
Originally bearing the mantle Star Beast, the initial cut ran for 192 minutes and Scott’s leaner director’s cut came about when seemingly lost footage was unearthed in a London vault. Astonishingly, Alien very nearly didn’t get bankrolled. 20th Century Fox were concerned over its gory content and only Roger Corman expressed any interest before Walter Hill stepped up to the fray. Once Scott had toned down the violence Fox had a change of heart and jumped back on board, a decision which has been more than justified since as the series has pocketed in excess of half a billion and continues to bear fruits.
There were plentiful influences on hand which Scott used to shape the Alien experience. These comprised of Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope and 2001: A Space Odyssey for obvious reasons and Tobe Hooper’s seminal Texas Chainsaw Massacre for its depiction of raw, unremitting terror. Indeed, Dan O’Bannon insisted Scott and producer Hill screen the exploitation classic to help ratchet up the intensity for the movie’s numerous accelerated moments. It was also easy to spot the influence of Howard Hawks whose 1951 B-Movie creature feature The Thing From Another World provided the stimulation for its insular setting.
HR Giger’s original design showed the xenomorph as having eyes but he about-turned before shooting as he believed that by omitting these windows to the soul it lent itself to making the creature remorseless and unyielding. In addition, Scott never actually showed the alien face-on but instead through multiple close-ups barely drip-feeding the audience as he didn’t wish for it to be known as that dude in latex. The K-Y Jelly was then liberally applied to give the impression of slime. The original cut was far more gruesome but much of the grue was toned down to afford its wider audience. The infamous chest burster scene in particular was neutered so as not to ‘alienate’ audiences. Bah!
The aftershock of Alien sent ripples through the industry and, while its protracted budget didn’t allow for such an excessive cycle of clones as that of slasher, there were still plenty of folk looking to get in on the cheap culminating in a slew of bargain-bin rip-offs, many of which have their individual merits. Contamination, The Intruder Within, Titan Find and Corman’s own Galaxy of Terror and Forbidden World all played their part in keeping interstellar splatter on the platter through the eighties. They all came from Alien’s embryo. Speaking of gestation sacs and the like, the implicit rape of John Hurt was made explicit by both Harry Bromley Davenport’s E.T.-antithesis Xtro and Norman J Warren’s charming Inseminoid.
The crustacean of the title looked decidedly phallic as it burst through hapless Kane’s wash-day whites but it transmogrified as the film wore on, although still maintaining an almost sexual edge. When you consider that the story involved males penetrating labial gateways, becoming impregnated against their will, and giving birth to what was essentially a dildo with dentures, it is clear to see any erogenous connotation. Despite this, and Giger’s conceptual design was blatant in its sexuality, Cartwright and Weaver’s nipples were taped so as not to offend audiences. Go figure!
I actually see much of Halloween in Scott’s enigma. “In Space No One Can Hear You Scream” was an apt tagline but it was those protracted moments before the scream which resonated strongest. Just like John Carpenter’s majestic marvel, silence and suspense went hand-in-hand and it played on the loneliness of being hunted by an intimidating and calculated foe. However, where Laurie just had to grab that spare key from under the doormat to escape her aggressor, Ripley couldn’t bank on any off-the-cuff house calls to rescue her from her perilous plight. The murky atmospherics of the planet setting were far less than inviting but, in many ways, it played safe by not exploring the broad range of the concept’s possibilities, a view echoed by David Cronenberg. It became irrelevant when the end product was as tightly paced and asphyxiating as Scott’s film was.
The crew of the Nostromo themselves could be construed as somewhat shallow in their characterization but this was intentional as the real star here was always intended to be the alien itself. It was never Scott’s wish for this to be a celebrity vehicle but, considering the ensemble cast consisted of distinguished artistes such as Hurt, Holm and Dean Stanton, I would suggest he chose rather well. The painstaking casting was spot-on and much of the film’s dialogue actually improvised. He also wisely sidestepped any potential love interest between Ripley and Dallas which was superfluous to requirement.
In addition to the lead role of Ripley never actually being intended to be female, there were a number of twists and turns in the casting process. Ripley was originally intended for Veronica Cartwright who ultimately had to settle for playing Lambert. He chiseled the suitors down to Jane Fonda, Meryl Streep and one Sigourney Weaver, whose audition impressed him so that he gave her a shot. Thirty five years later it appears that his decision was absolutely pitch perfect and I’m pretty sure Streep would never have returned for Resurrection. Weaver’s performance, of course, paved the way for female protagonists in horror and deserved every bit of adulation that was invariably tossed her way.
So what is it which makes Alien the timeless classic that it unquestionably is? Have you ever heard the term it’s not a race? This pretty much sums it up to perfection. Watching Scott’s film for the first time is akin to having an anaconda steadily constrict you within its coils. Few films have ever combined the vastness of space with a restricted environment which plays on every one of your insecurities so exquisitely. Even now the debate rages on as to whether this or Aliens is the better overall film and that is a poser which yields no clear answer. There are no oversized smart guns, automated turrets or wise-cracking grunts here but there is a vast ocean of discord and dread. In over thirty years since its release nobody has ever come within a country mile of matching that.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 10/10
Grue Factor: 3/5
For the Grue-Guzzlers: Although the grue was toned down somewhat for its release, that infamous chest bursting scene still looks and feels nauseating. Poor Cartwright had no idea that the blood would spray in her face which meant her reaction was entirely authentic. I shared her distinct displeasure and asked to be excused from the dinner table for weeks afterwards. Otherwise, the gore was fleeting but enough was shown to suitably relay the sentiment.
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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