[ALIEN screens Saturday April 18th at midnight at the Capitol Theatre.]
Review by Charles Cassady, Jr.
Back in my undergrad days seemed like the Syracuse University student film society practically played ALIEN
as often as they could. Typically in heavy rotation with whatever else
was deemed college-cool in the 1980s, usually stuff scrounged up from
the catalog of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Werner Herzog. The hipster
programmers did enjoy the gory and the grotesque.
Ridley Scott's 1979 gothic ALIEN
is not as original as its trendsetter status would suggest; Scott and
writer Dan O'Bannon borrowed liberally from a clawful of other SF movies
(a little bit here from Mario Bava's PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES, a little bit there from the B-matinee fave IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE).
And after this film's monetary success a quiet payout went out from Fox
to offended author A.E. Vogt, whose short story "Black Destroyer" was a
bit similar as well.
But the ALIEN-ators
polished their thievings to a high gloss of morbidity, with production
designs, spaceships and props inspired by Metal Hurlant (the original
European Heavy Metal magazine) illustrators Moebius (who later helped
design the original TRON for Disney) and Phillip Druillet. Those
comic greats' involvement has, of course, been completely overshadowed
by the stylistic contribution of Swiss surrealist of macabre tech, H.R.
The decidedly unoriginal monster-on-the loose plot (showing unmistakable influences of the HALLOWEEN slasher
formula then current) has a group of blue-collar astronauts aboard a
vast, deep-space refinery-ship diverted to investigate a derelict
spacecraft of nonhuman origin. Soon their gigantic craft is invaded by a
fast evolving, ferocious parasite creature with acid for blood, whose
Giger-esque biomechanical shape allows it blend in fiendishly with the
ship's labyrinthine tubes, wires and knobs, to pop out from the shadows
and seize the dwindling cast.
Though the alien of ALIEN
has since been overexposed in crummy sequels, toys and comic books
(even Superman fought them), the alien was kept largely in shadow here.
Another great gambit used by Scott was shooting much of the picture
claustrophobically, with a shaky, hand-held camera in minimal lighting.
It was pretty daring for the era, 20th-Century Fox not mandating that
Scott perpetrate sweeping, Kubrickian f/x panoramas and interiors to
compete with STAR WARS in the eye-candy and cute-little-robot sweepstakes (turns out that there is a robot among the crew, neither little nor cute).
Sigourney Weaver's final pursuit through the self-destructing ship anticipates THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT
as one of the screen's better expressions of sheer, visceral terror; I
myself did find the whole series kind of lost its impact when her Ellen
Ripley sole-survivor character went G.I. Jane commando in the James
Cameron sequel ALIENS. You'll notice the picture is pretty
perfunctory about what exactly the alien is doing with its
squirreled-away victims. I was given to understand that MPAA and studio
suits thought the notorious idea/image of these parasitic larval things
bursting out of human hosts was the cutting edge of
sickening/distasteful, and some ghastlier stuff got cut because the
Hollywood folk didn't want to make a habit out of it. Later, when aliens
were fighting Predators, it became practically a PG-13 gimmick for the
Yes, it's a big, dumb boo! Of a
movie, inarticulate primal horror about contamination, vulnerability,
mutilation and dripping fangs. But effective and skillfully rendered
enough on those terms to make you want to launch all the followups out
the airlock. The belated prequel PROMETHEUS I still haven't made up my mind about. (3 1/4 out of 4 stars)