Released amidst a period of optimistic and fantastical science-fiction such as Star Wars, Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, Ridley Scott's Alien is a ferocious hybrid of the most frightening horror and the most organic science-fiction.
Alien is a simple battle between two different organisms played out in an ever-changing battleground. On the one hand, the film works on a mainstream level in terms of entertainment value to the casual cinemagoer, terrifying audiences with its horrific level of tension. On the other hand, the film also works on a far more artistic level, attempting to tackle notions of gender, class systems and elitism. Having spawned three sequels so far, the Alien legacy has travelled far from its original destination.
Journeying on what was assumed to have been a return trip to Earth, the mining freighter Nostromo re-routed to a remote and desolate planet after receiving an SOS call. The crew, resting in suspended animation, are awakened and investigate the source of the distress call. They discover a derelict alien ship on the planet, and whilst searching the ship one of the crewmembers Kane (John Hurt) is attacked by an alien being, forcing him into a coma. The alien dies, and Kane awakens. However, back on board the Nostromo, the seven crew members realise that their lives are in danger, and that an alien organism has somehow found its way on board the ship.
Yes, Alien is a primal battle between the seven members of the Nostromo crew battling against the Xenomorph, a being who demonstrates superior physical strength and a destructive agenda, but it depicts more battles occurring between the crewmembers themselves. Firstly, there is the issue of leadership that is explored. In 1979, the cast of Tom Skerritt, Sigourney Weaver, Ian Holm, John Hurt, Yaphet Kotto, Harry Dean Stanton and Veronica Cartwright were little more than B-list celebrities at best. Although it isn't the case with the benefit of hindsight, it would have proved very difficult for 1979 audiences to be able to immediately understand which characters were going to be the natural leaders of the film. Sigourney Weaver was an unknown quantity, and there was no indication that she would ultimately become the true heroine of Alien. Furthermore, because of Ash's ulterior motives involved in the mission, he proves that he is the official leader of the Nostromo because he is ahead of his colleagues in terms of possessing vital information. In Hollywood history, it's natural to assume that the main male character will assume the title of the hero, but Alien destroys this notion. Also, Alien refreshingly presents us with a spaceship's crew that do not exist in blissful harmony. These aren't members of Starfleet, boldly going where no man has gone before, these are workers doing their job for pay. There's even segregation amongst the crew, with crewmembers Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) angry at the lack of privileges that come with their lower rank.
The inter-linked notions of gender and androgyny reside in almost every frame of Alien, and they feature on both sides of the human/Xenomorph battle. Many scholars have studied at length the gender of the Xenomorph. It can be argued that the Xenomorph is male, because of its phallic and penetrative shape it forms when killing its victims. Also, it technically impregnates Kane, forcing him to theoretically 'give birth' to a newly born Xenomorph. The most debated factor, concerns the final sequence, in which the Xenomorph spies or lusts after Ripley when she is undressing. Director Ridley Scott trimmed a sex scene between Dallas (Tom Skerritt) and Ripley because he claimed that the film had a perfectly acceptable erotic scene in the film's conclusion between Ripley and the Xenomorph. Throughout most of the film, Ripley is androgenous, acting and thinking like a masculine figure whilst simultaneously expressing her emotions in a distinctly feminine way. However, it is only upon the film's conclusion, when Ripley regains her feminine sexuality by undressing and attracting a sexual gaze from the camera, that she can defeat the Xenomorph. It's as the film promotes the notion that in order for Ripley to survive in an ultra-capitalist, male-dominated world she must maintain her own gender. Ripley even mothers the cat as if it is her own child, which forces home the status of Ripley's gender. It also replaces the broken-down relationship between Ripley and her surrogate mother - the Nostromo, which the crew has nicknamed 'Mother', even if the ship itself does nothing to protect its crew/children from the Xenomorph.
Ridley Scott as director of Alien understands these themes and drenches the film with them, taking the opposite route that James Cameron did with Aliens where he replaced subtext with primary action. Emerging from an artistic origin, Scott brilliantly utilises the futuristic and yet organic graphic design of gifted artist H. R. Giger to render Alien a hybridisation of naturalistic and technological forces. Alien is a nightmarish depiction of a moribund society, unsure whether to progress or regress. It certainly doesn't depict the future as any sort of paradise, indeed, the future of the human race doesn't appear to be a rosy one.
The seven main cast members fill their roles so effectively that you are genuinely shocked when they start dying one by one. You feel the loss as if you are also a member of the crew. Sigourney Weaver, purely based on her performance in Alien, was able to carve out for herself a career based on sexy yet aggressive roles, in which she could handle the masculine world whilst remaining a feminine character. Alien has no clear heroes from the outset, but Sigourney Weaver rises to the challenge as Ripley and never relinquishes her hold. Ripley is clearly one of the most important feminist characters of twentieth century cinema.
Scott has no desire to make Alien glamourous, indeed, he pushes Derek Vanlint's cinematography to the bleakest level, which in turn presents the confines of the Nostromo as a claustrophobic and hostile environment, even for its crewmembers. Matters are helped considerably by Jerry Goldsmith's chilling and evocative score, as the veteran composer knows the balance between full-blown musical cues and complete silence. The film's tagline was "In space, no one can hear you scream", and this is why silence is all the more effective in Alien.
Even if you pay no attention to the over-analysed issues of gender abundant in Alien, it still stands as a horror/science-fiction classic, and arguably one of the two best Ridley Scott films along with Blade Runner. Managing to be both visionary and terrifying, the film is an eerie horror succeeding on a masterful level. The series of Alien films might have declined and pandered to a more action-orientated audience, but Alien is still the scariest.
Academy Awards 1979
Best Visual Effects - H.R. Giger, Carlo Rambaldi, Brian Johnson, Nick Allder, Denys Ayling
Academy Award Nominations 1979
Best Art Direction - Michael Seymour, Leslie Dilley, Roger Christian, Ian Whittaker
Presented in anamorphic widescreen 2.35:1, the picture quality of Alien is very good, with a clean, sharpened transfer and a decent palette of colour tones for such a murky and repressive atmosphere expressed through the film's exterior. Edge enhancement is mostly absent, and the film looks very impressive considering its age.
Presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, the sound mix for Alien is very atmospheric, even if it doesn't fully utilise spatial channelling to the extreme. Jerry Goldsmith's haunting score is given a decent range of left/right speaker usage, and the sound events are occasionally separated. The mix could clearly have been more aggressively channelled, but it still complements the film well.
Menu: An excellent animated menu, in keeping with the film, that starts off as a computer terminal reporting a malfunction, and then becomes the confines of the Nostromo.
Packaging: Presented in a transparent amaray packaging, the cover artwork is stylishly minimalist and given a dark colour framework. Chapter listings are printed on the reverse of the inlay card and visible via the transparent amaray.
Audio Commentary By Ridley Scott: Although the commentary track is nicely sectioned into topics by Fox, the track itself isn't as interesting as it could have been. When Scott does discuss the film it is intelligent commentary at its best, as he seems to offer a unique visionary approach to the film, and he explores the themes that spoke to him during production and the many influences that helped create Alien's distinct visual style. However, there are many long silences throughout the commentary track, and Scott's tone isn't the most enthusiastic. It's a crime that none of the seven cast members feature on the commentary, with the obvious missing candidate being Weaver herself.
Deleted Scenes: Ten deleted sequences are included, and are comprised mostly of added characterisation and more in-depth background scenes. However, fans will be delighted that the infamous Dallas Cocoon sequence is included, as not only does this sequence offer added insight into the Xenomorph anatomy, but it also refutes physiological claims made in the sequel Aliens. The sequences last for twenty minute approximately in total and are presented in non-anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen.
Trailer & TV Spots: Two theatrical trailers are presented that say little about the film but generate a thick later of tense anticipation. A reel of two TV spots is also included.
Art & Photo Gallery: For anyone interested in the fantastic production design of Alien, this is a worthy extra. It presents the original design templates from Conceptual Art, Storyboards, Production Photos and Promotional Art & Photos, and each still is accessible via user navigation.
Outtakes: Two unused sequences from the film are presented here and last for two minutes in duration and are non-anamorphic. The most interesting sequence involves Lambert inadvertently occupying the same room as the Xenomorph, but Scott shelved this because he didn't wish the alien's humanoid configuration to be shown.
Isolated Score: An excellent way to appreciate the fine Jerry Goldsmith score, this omits all sound other than the music cues from the film.
Alternate Music & Production Sound: This is a strange but fascinating extra, in which a slightly different version of Goldsmith's score is featured alongside the production track (dialogue and on-set sounds but no post-production sound). Interesting, if ultimately pointless.
Hidden Extras: Highlight Special Features on the main page, select left and a window will be highlighted. Selecting this window will take you to a detailed guide to the crewmembers of the Nostromo. On the Special Features menu highlight Main Menu and instead of pressing right to go to the More Special Features select down again you will highlight a hole in the floor. Select this and it will take you to some secret reports that Ash was sending to Special Ops.
The Alien Legacy: If you purchased the limited version of the Alien Legacy box set, you will find a bonus fifth disc inside Alien that contains a sixty-six minute documentary exploring the making of Alien. Featuring crew interviews and some extensive behind-the-scenes footage and design materials, the lack of interviews from the cast members is annoyingly noticeable, but the documentary still has much to inform about, even if it can never become the ultimate companion piece to Alien. Presented in fullscreen.
Arguably one of the greatest horror/science-fiction fusions of them all, Alien has been given an exceptional DVD release with some fine, well-thought-out extras and good picture and sound quality. As part of the Alien Legacy box set, or as a stand-alone purchase, the film is a must-see, even if just to compare with the mid-eighties high-octane sequel Aliens that followed.