Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Alien (1979)


          Writer Dan O’Bannon was a film-school pal of John Carpenter’s, but his career foundered after the duo expanded Carpenter’s thesis film into the commercial feature Dark Star (1974). While Carpenter was making the low-budget shockers that launched his career, O’Bannon was mired in stillborn projects like an unproduced version of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi novel Dune, and at he ended up living on his friend Ron Shusett’s couch. Luckily, Shusett was an aspiring writer-producer intrigued by O’Bannon’s idea for a claustrophobic sci-fi/horror flick about an outer-space critter that preys upon a spaceship’s crew. (The concept borrows liberally from myriad sources, with the 1958 B-movie It! The Terror from Beyond Space often cited as a direct influence.) O’Bannon and Shusett fleshed out the story, which at one point was titled Star Beast, then sold the package to producers Gordon Carroll, David Giler, and Walter Hil, whose new company Brandywine Productions had access to Twentieth Century-Fox. Giler and Hill, both screenwriters, did more narrative tinkering, but Fox didn’t get excited until the studio’s Star Wars (1977) exploded at the box office. Alien was the next outer-space picture on deck at Fox, so the project finally got momentum—and as more people joined the party, the level of artistic ambition continued rising.
          Ridley Scott, then a veteran of countless TV commercials but only one little-seen feature, was hired because of his keen visual sense. Just as importantly, Swiss artist H.R. Giger, who worked on the same stillborn version of Dune as O’Bannon, was recruited for creature and set designs; his creepy “biomechanics” style infused the resulting film’s alien scenes with perverse grandeur. Representing a rare case of the development process doing what it’s supposed to do, Alien kept evolving, rather like the creature in the story, until finally, on May 25, 1979, audiences got their first look at a perfect marriage of exploitation-flick elements and art-film craftsmanship. Scott fills every frame of the picture with meticulous details, building excruciating tension by keeping the titular beastie almost completely offscreen until the film’s finale. He also created one of scare cinema’s greatest jolts with the unforgettable “chest-burster” scene.
          So despite underdeveloped characters and an occasionally murky storyline, nearly everything in Alien works on some level, from the sleek title sequence by R/Greenberg Associates to the terrifying climax featuring Sigourney Weaver wearing the smallest panties in the known universe. The production design’s mix of utility and grime is utterly credible; the score by Jerry Goldsmith is eerily majestic; and the interplay between actors Veronica Cartwright, Ian Holm, John Hurt, Yaphet Kotto, Tom Skerritt, Harry Dean Stanton, and Weaver nails under-pressure group dynamics. The movie that O’Bannon and Shusett once pitched as “Jaws in space” sits comfortably alongside Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster as one of the most cinematically important horror shows ever made.

Alien: OUTTA SIGHT

6 comments:

The Mutt said...

Even more than the Chest Burster scene, it was when Dallas is in the pipe and turns his flashlight in the other direction that made me hit the freaking ceiling. Holy smokes, is that a stunning moment!

Will Errickson said...

I think I agree with The Mutt!

And ALIEN truly gets better with age...

Bonnie Kidd said...

The most terrifying movie I have ever seen. After I thumped my chest to restart my heart, I realized that Scott had actually used restraint in the chest-bursting scene. There is very little blood, compared with the gore-fest that some other director might have shown used. This film is a cinematic achievement that still has not received its due from critics, despite its acclaim. I consider it one of the best films ever made, despite the exploitation of Weaver's butt crack.

Bruno Mac said...


It's also a very important entry in "hard Sci Fi." Star Wars threatened to turn Science Fiction films into "Dungeons and Dragons in space," but Alien and Aliens were examples of 50's pulp novels, where outer space travel was all about capitalism and commercial spacecraft on missions about making money. The crew of The Nostromo weren't anywhere near heroes along the lines of Luke Skywalker. They were working stiffs. Long haul truckers. This makes it all the more accessible. When you watch these films, you see what it's all probably going to look like in a couple hundred years. Huge refineries coming to earth from the Rings of Saturn, with a bored crew coming out of forces stasis long enough to eat bad food from the company vending machines.

Gerald Martin said...

Scariest part of the movie was Jerry Goldsmith's slithery score.

thingmaker said...

Today it's probably hard to imagine how effective this film was when first released. I remember being so wound up and, frankly, scared when John Hurt is exploring the egg chamber that I seriously considered leaving the theater... I was 21 a the time, and a lifelong fan of horror and SF. Hell, "Night of the Living Dead" was among my favorite films.
"Alien" was stunning. The sfx were as near perfect as anything seen and definitely good enough that you could take them for reality with no great stretch. The actors were believable and their performances off hand enough that, agsin, you could accept them as real. From what could be picked up from the technology you could see and the dialog spoken, the world appeared entirely believable. In short, while it was a horror film in a spaceship, it was also about the best SF film yet made.
And the Goldsmith score is classic. Between that and "The Omen" and Bernard Herrmann's "Psycho" (which had been batting about the collective psyche for almost 20 years already), you have the templates for almost every horror score for decades.