Alien Quadrilogy: Alien Review
It seems incredible that there was once a time when Alien didn’t exist. It’s one of those films which has been so influential and made such a mark on popular culture that it’s difficult to accept that it’s only 24 years since it was made. Its origins were certainly very unpromising; an SF-Horror exploitation movie called “Star Beast” written by a guy who was known solely for his involvement in the quirky cult movie Dark Star. But, Hollywood has always benefited from a certain serendipity and it seems that the gods were smiling on the day that Dan O’Bannon’s screenplay found its way to David Giler and Walter Hill and, subsequently, to Ridley Scott. There has been much controversy about who is responsible for what – the documentaries on the second disc of this set go into this in deliciously bitchy detail – but what is undeniable is that whoever did what, Alien turned out like a dream; or, perhaps more appropriately, the most exquisite nightmare. It’s a collection of ideas and scenes remembered – and sometimes misremembered – from books and old movies, but these rusty old parts polish up beautifully when treated with tender loving care by a once-in-a-lifetime collection of talents.
Potential Spoilers Throughout This Review
Whether Alien is primarily a horror movie or a science fiction film is something which I’ll be considering later in this review, but what it does have is an absolutely classic narrative set-up. Writers have been using this since the days of Herodotus; collect together an ill-assorted collection of characters, put them together in an enclosed space and then introduce something guaranteed to cause trouble. Sometimes, it’s a boat at sea; occasionally, it’s a train; more often, it’s an old, dark, and allegedly haunted house. In Alien it’s the Nostromo, a somewhat rickety spaceship which has the task of travelling around the galaxy and towing in whatever cargo is around. There are seven crew members; the Captain, Dallas (Skerritt); First Officer Ripley (Weaver), Lambert (Cartwright); Science Officer Ash (Holm); Kane (Hurt); and below-deck engineers Parker (Kotto) and Brett (Stanton). All of them are in hyper-sleep for the long voyage home but something has woken them up. A distress call, to be precise, which they must answer or risk losing their sought-after bonuses. But when they reach the source of the call, a remote planet, they discover something very nasty and manage, through excessive humanitarian concern rather than incompetence, to bring it back on board with them. As anyone reading this review will probably be aware, they bring back the Alien incubating in Kane’s body. It bloodily erupts out of his chest one day at dinner, grows to enormous size very quickly and subsequently begins to pick the surviving crew members off one by one.
Very little of this material could be described as original. Dan O'Bannon happily admits that he stole from everywhere and that no one source is the direct inspiration. What is original is the way that it's handled. Like John Carpenter in Halloween, Ridley Scott uses his cinematic flair to bring life to a narrative which is somewhat hackneyed. The key thing he brings to the film is his gift for visual cinema. Every frame of the film is gorgeous to look at and some of them could be described as works of art in their own right. These images build up as struggling heaps assaulting the viewer's consciousness and some of them have stayed with this writer since his first viewing of the film over twenty years ago. The eerily desolate landscape of the alien planet, the 'space jockey' suggesting a whole civilisation which has been lost for centuries, the thin layer of blue mist covering the alien eggs, the lethal elegance of the face-hugger... All of those appear in the first forty minutes of the film and they're joined by other images which have become equally iconic.
Scott's skill lies in making the repulsive seem somehow natural and more troublingly, beautiful - and that, of course, is the whole point of the alien, which is the film's trump card. It's very rare that a horror film features a fully worked out alien being; even rarer that the being is given genuine beauty. It's the beauty of the natural predator admittedly, and there's no way you'd want to snuggle up with one on a night out, but thanks to H.R.Giger's brilliant designs the alien is the embodiment of all sorts of neuroses and fears. It's a part of Giger and therefore, the film suggests, a part of us. This has led to a multitude of academics coming up with readings of the film; some of them Freudian and simplistic, others - such as Barbara Creed's "Alien and the Monstrous Feminine" - quite convincing. But I'll content myself with the most straightforward explanation - the alien is terrifying because it gets us where we live; it attaches itself to us, it incubates within us, it bursts out of us and it kills us. By invading us where we are most vulnerable - within the delicate structure of our all-too mortal bodies - the alien intrudes into our psychology and won't go away. As Ash says, admiringly, “He’s a tough little son of a bitch.”
But all of this psychological suggestion would be worthless if the film didn’t work on the most basic level; as a cracking good suspense thriller. The pacing is the key here. Scott stretches out the first part of the film with lingering shots of the hardware and languorous views of the beautifully designed alien world and then, suddenly, he gets us when we least expect it. The chest-burster scene has passed into cinematic myth and was some kind of first for mainstream cinema – although Hammer did attempt something similar in their underrated To The Devil A Daughter. It’s a marvellous moment, simultaneously scary and guiltily amusing. As with all the best horror set-pieces, it’s frightening because it’s unexpected and cunningly timed, but it’s also funny because we admit that the filmmakers really have got one over on us. Reducing us to the level of children succumbing to a nightmare, the film has us in its pocket from the moment the alien explodes from Kane’s chest. What’s interesting is that Scott doesn’t immediately race hell for leather through the rest of the story. His sly pacing continues slowly and then speeds up for the key moments of horror. Sometimes he goes for the obvious scares – Dallas climbing through the dark shafts and encountering the alien is a beautifully judged jump moment – and sometimes he pulls the rug out from under us – notably in the scene when Ash is unmasked as an android.
Dan O’Bannon, presumably disgruntled that he didn’t come up with the idea, has questioned the decision to make Ash a robot but I think it works on the most basic level for the audience – it’s a damned good shock moment and it adds an extra level to the second half of the film. At this point we really should give some credit to the editor Terry Rawlings, who manages to make us jump just about every time we’re supposed to and keeps the tension high even when nothing much is happening.
I’ve described the film above as a suspense thriller, which circumvents the tricky question about whether Alien is horror or science fiction. This is an interesting dilemma because it brings to the fore the rigid concepts of genre which can lead to films being pigeonholed by audiences and cineastes alike. In a sense, it’s science fiction, or it has at least the trappings of science fiction. In particular, it has a completely convincing environment. The Nostromo, designed by Ron Cobb and built by Michael Seymour and the production design team, is fascinating because it’s the antithesis of the sterile, spanking new spaceships of Kubrick’s 2001. It does slightly resemble the dark, depressing corridors of the ship in Tarkovsky’s Solaris and the makeshift settings of Carpenter’s Dark Star. But what impresses is how well Scott maintains the illusion of a working, somewhat shabby spacecraft.
As in Peter Hyams’ visually similar Outland, you can easily believe that this is a real environment where people have worked for years. Similarly, Giger’s alien planet is one of the most convincing alien worlds ever committed to film because nothing is explained. It would be interesting to have a sequel which explains who the space jockey is and how the aliens got there in the first place, but in terms of Alien, the mystery is what makes it so effective. In the most literal term of the word, the planet is alien to us. Much the same goes for the alien itself. However, there is also an awful lot of bad science dotted about – space is given an awful lot of atmosphere, for example, and sound keeps travelling in a vacuum. Nit-picking perhaps but it does suggest that, apart from the visual and conceptual side of things, the film is not interested in being scientifically accurate. If considered as a horror film, the movie works perfectly as a kind of futuristic haunted house story with a physically real, and very nasty, ghost. The physical horror is also much more extreme than was usual in science fiction films at the time and certainly broke the barriers of what a major studio considered acceptable. One should also pay tribute to Jerry Goldsmith’s exquisitely sinister score which does much to keep the audience in suspense and is a fine example of how dissonance can add to the atmosphere as much as melody.
Consequently, I think you would have to call Alien an SF-Horror movie. But more than that, and more revealingly, it’s a fantastic Monster Movie, one of the best ever made. Obviously harking back to the golden era of the genre, back in the 1950s, it takes elements from all over the place - The Thing From Another World, It-The Terror From Beyond Space, Forbidden Planet, Them - and brings them up to date with a new level of explicit horror. Monster Movies were a combination of ‘look behind you’ horror, body-horror and science fiction concepts, largely influenced by nuclear-age paranoia. Its monster is up there with the very best and certainly realised much better than most of what had been seen before. You only have to compare this with other genre films of the late seventies - Empire of the Ants, The Giant Spider Invasion - to see what a giant leap it was. That can partly be accounted for by the money which the studio gave to turn a B-Movie into a major blockbuster, but it’s also the result of brilliantly clever lighting and direction. Scott rarely shows the monster in full, knowing that it would look like a man in a suit, and relies on glimpses and emphasis on one or two details – notably that terrifying mouth, a combination of Freudian phallic obsession and the vagina dentata – to persuade us of the power of the creature. It’s much scarier when left in the shadows and shown fleetingly than it is when, as in the sequels, it’s shown in plenty of detail so we can admire the expensive special effects. By the time we see the whole creature at length, in the claustrophobic finale, it doesn’t matter because we’re already emotionally exhausted and our critical faculties have been laid to one side.
Another, slightly obscure, way in which the film was important is that it was one of the first mainstream films use the concept of ‘body-horror’ which had been established by David Cronenberg’s early work. Cronenberg always believed that the most frightening thing was the sense of being bodily invaded and/or changed and his films frequently show the human body as being the battleground for a war between us and ‘the other’. The central image of the alien impregnating a man with its seed and then allowing its young to grow within the chest before being ‘born’ is a marvellously unnerving concept, especially for men who can’t sit comfortably and relate it all to the female experience of childbirth. The ‘cocooning’ scene which is in the director’s cut makes this even more explicit as we see the human body being used as a key stage in the alien life-cycle. If the monster comes from within us and uses us to maintain the survival of the species, where can we possibly hide ? The vulnerability of the human body is constantly referred to and made explicit in the climax when Ripley strips down to her underwear. Ironically, this is the first ‘normal’ sexual image in a film which abounds with bizarre sexual imagery. Add to this the implication – in Lambert’s death scene – that the alien might have a special interest in females and you get a film in which our physical fragility is a key source of the horror.
As Alien is not a film which offers great opportunities for its actors, it’s fortunate that the cast is so able. Sigourney Weaver is particularly brilliant, creating a tough and resourceful heroine whose healthy disregard for the opposite sex is confirmed by her ability to stay alive without any patriarchal help. Weaver’s creation, built upon and explored in the sequels – especially in Alien 3 - is one of the great acting achievements of recent years and it’s fascinating to see how strongly she began, even though this was her first major film role. If she makes the strongest impression, that’s because she has the best part but I don’t want to disregard the rest of the small cast. Tom Skerritt is ideal as Dallas, all public reassurance and private fears, and Veronica Cartwright gets a surprising amount out of a role which is really a little demeaning. The opposite of Ripley, all Lambert gets to do – after a strong start – is whimper and snivel and when she cops it, it’s hard to feel too many regrets. Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton provide plenty of comic relief in the early part of the film, making the most of some witty dialogue, and John Hurt makes a strong showing in a somewhat thankless but vital role. My own favourite out of the male cast is Ian Holm, whose quality of watchfulness is brilliantly used. The revelation of his robotic nature is a great shock first time you see the film but a second viewing shows that Ash has always been aloof and patiently waiting.
This is a great movie by any standards and still one of Scott’s best films. I refer to the original theatrical cut which I’ve seen and adored more times than I care to recall. After years of claiming that this is his definitive version, there now appears the Alien: Director’s Cut. Both versions are included on the Quadrilogy DVD release. The changes are generally quite minor. Some parts have been removed from the first half of the film to speed it up but this only amounts to seconds from individual scenes and nothing significant is absent. However, I think this in itself is a mistake because it’s the slow pacing of the opening which adds so much to the tension. The major casualty is the scene where Dallas asks Mother about the crew’s chances, which adds an emotional level to his death.
The added scenes are as follows:
- a confrontation between Lambert and Ripley outside the infirmary
- a brief shot of the alien hanging above Brett as he looks for the cat
- Parker gets Brett’s blood splattered on him as Brett is carried off
- the famous ‘cocooning’ sequence
Of these, the first is quite effective at establishing the tension between the crew and the third enhances Parker’s shock at Brett’s death. The second is jarring for those of us who have seen the film many times and don’t expect to get a glimpse of the alien until it rears up towards Brett. The fourth is a good scene in itself and seems to complete the life cycle of the alien. This does seemingly clash with the idea of the egg laying Queen in Aliens but as part of the first film it is very interesting. It does, however, have a certain impact on the pacing of the last section which some may not like.
All in all, whether you prefer the new version or the theatrical cut, or even like James Cameron’s rollercoaster horror movie Aliens better, there’s surely little argument about one thing – that Alien is a stunning achievement and one of the finest Monster Movies ever made.
There are two versions of the film contained on this disc. We get the original theatrical version of Alien, as released in 1979, and we also get the recently released Director's Cut version.
Both versions of the film are presented in anamorphically enhanced 2.35:1. The results are, frankly, staggering. Alien has never looked better than this and this DVD even trumps the print I saw of the Director's Cut at the cinema last week. It's sharp and very detailed but there is no evidence of the dreaded edge-enhancement. Shadow detail, important to the visual scheme of the film, is crisp. The shades and tones of colour are also beautifully presented - look at the opening credit sequence, for example, where the subtle shifts in colour are superbly represented. There is no grain or artifacting to be seen and no print damage - though there shouldn't be considering that the film has been recently restored. This is a stunning transfer and the extra scenes in the Director's Cut look as good as what surrounds them.
There are two soundtracks for the film on the disc - Dolby DTS 5.1 and Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround. Both are superb with the DTS slightly more impressive in terms of fidelity and shifts in volume. However, the 5.1 track sounds excellent as well and no Alien fan is likely to be disappointed with this highly involving experience. The surround channels are used to good effect and there are some impressive .1 LFE moments. The film was originally made in Dolby Stereo but there was also a 70MM 6 channel sound version created for the 'roadshow' presentations, including the one which opened at the Odeon Leicester Square in September 1979.
The only extra on the first disc is a superb audio commentary which features solo contributions from Dan O'Bannon, Ronald Shussett, John Hurt and Terry Rawlings. Also present are Ridley Scott, Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt and Harry Dean Stanton; they appear to have been recorded together and there is some nice interplay. However, some comments from Scott suggest that he has also been recorded separately. Anyway, the commentary is consistently fascinating with lots of acute observations about the film - some of them scene-specific, some not. The very good 1999 commentary by Ridley Scott which featured in the Legacy boxset is not present on this new disc so you might not want to get rid of the old one if you're a fan of the film.
Please note that the commentary is only accessible on the original theatrical cut of the film. I was especially pleased to note that Fox have made the decision to provide subtitles for the commentary track.
You can use the THX Optimizer to set-up your system correctly and the disc contains beautifully designed but not intrusive or tedious menus.
The Director's Cut contains 40 chapter stops and the theatrical version contains 32. Interestingly, the latter lasts only about 40 seconds longer than the former.
Disc 2 - The Supplements
The second disc is divided into three sections; Pre-Production, Production and Post-Production. Each section contains just about everything you ever wanted to know about Alien and probably some things you didn't. It goes into much more depth than either the "Alien Legacy" documentary from 1999 or the "Alien Evolution" piece which is included on the Quadrilogy bonus disc. Much of this will be solely of interest to serious devotees of the film but as you're reading this review then you're probably one of them. There are a number of featurettes which together form a long documentary called "The Beast Within". You have the option to watch all the featurettes together or to explore the disc in the three sections.
The first featurette deals with the conception of the film and is entitled "Star Beast". This was O'Bannon's original title for the film - one which he admits was pretty lame. However, it was discovered that no-one had used the title Alien before and this was felt to be considerably better. A good move I think, not least because "Star Beast" sounds like the kind of cheap B-Movie which Alien could have been but isn't. We hear, in exquisitely bitchy detail, about the various stages that the screenplay went through. In brief, O'Bannon wrote the script and then discussed it in depth with his friend Ronald Shusset. They were about to sell it to Roger Corman when they heard word that a new company, Brandywine , might be interested. This was a venture between three Hollywood veterans - Walter Hill, David Giler and Gordon Carroll - and they were looking for projects to develop. Giler and Hill read O'Bannon's screenplay and thought it was badly written - they weren't mistaken - but that it had potential, especially when they got to the chest-burster scene. Hill and Giler bought the rights to the screenplay and set about rewriting the script. O'Bannon feels that they ruined it and seems especially affronted that they changed the names of the characters. However, Shussett is conciliatory, calling the finished product a 'collaborative effort' and praising Hill and Giler for adding the android Ash subplot. Having read O'Bannon's original, it's hard not to feel that while he had the ideas, it was Hill and Giler who turned it into a viable film. Their dialogue crackles while O'Bannon's fizzles and their creation of Ash is a masterstroke which the sequels capitalised on with the character of Bishop.
The opportunity to read Dan O'Bannon's first draft screenplay, included in this section, is very welcome for those of us who have followed the screenwriting credit wars. Beginning with a lengthy self-justification, O'Bannon explains some of the influences behind the film while defending himself against some of the accusations of plagiarism which were brought, notably by A.E.Van Vogt. The script itself is fascinating for a number of reasons. Firstly, it's broadly similar to the finished film with the key difference being that there is no mention of the science officer being an android. Secondly, most of the set-piece highlights of the film are there in embryo form. Thirdly, and most importantly, O'Bannon's dialogue is truly abysmal. He tries for clever, self-conscious dialogue and fails hopelessly every time. It wouldn't be so bad if it simply wasn't funny but half the time it doesn't make any sense. I'm sure someone can explain the line "All right big shots, let's stop squandering the dubloons and start worrying about the job at hand" but would you really want to understand it ? None of the characters can speak in normal sentences; instead of saying "look at this", they say "feast your optics". Even the computer talks in epigrams. It's patently a first draft and maybe O'Bannon could have made something of it after several more tries but there's little evidence here of any ability with dialogue or character. That's especially odd given that he was involved in the hilarious Dark Star and, later, the witty The Return of the Living Dead.
The second featurette, called "The Visualists" goes on to explain how Ridley Scott and his producing partner Ivor Powell became involved and how 20th Century Fox decided to back the film simply because they'd just hit big with Star Wars and wanted any Science Fiction project which was to hand. They were also keen to work with Ridley Scott who had just made a name for himself with The Duellists and had the reputation of making things look good on a much lower budget than some of his contemporaries. The original plan, incidentally, was for Walter Hill to direct it but he decided he didn't want to work with all the special effects and given his later experience on Supernova he made a very wise decision. Scott immediately storyboarded the film and managed to push up the budget when he displayed his work to Fox. He also explains how he was influenced by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre - and his pacing in the film makes this evident. Most significantly, he discusses the decision to offer the design to H.R.Giger, the mad European artist who had made a major splash with his book 'Necronomicon'. Giger comes across very engagingly as does Ron Cobb who did a lot of the incredibly detailed spacecraft designs. Following this, after an opportunity to browse at leisure through a storyboard archive, we get the chance to look at conceptual art for the film from Ron Cobb, Chris Foss, H.R.Giger and the legendary French artist Jean 'Moebius' Giraud. Some of these are simply breathtaking and it's nice to be able to take them in at length.
The next featurette in this section is called "Truckers In Space" and deals with the casting of the film. This features interviews with the casting director Mary Selway, Scott and all the cast members except Ian Holm and Yaphet Kotto. Some interesting information is featured, notably that the role of Kane was originally to have been played by Jon Finch, who subsequently fell ill and was replaced by John Hurt. There are brief clips of his first day's filming but it's hard to picture him in the chest-burster scene. Sigourney Weaver's original screen test, shot on some hastily constructed sets, is also here with optional commentary from Ridley Scott. Finally, the pre-production section concludes with an archive of pictures of the cast.
The first featurette here is called "Fear of the Unknown: Shepperton Studios, 1978" and deals in considerable detail with the shooting process. It emerges that Scott wasn't particularly interested in directing the actors, dealing with their questions by writing a biography for each character and presenting each one to his cast. Lots of archive footage of the shoot and some great candid photographs. Scott also seems incredibly resourceful, a skill presumably learned from his experience in commercials. The tricks which stand out are the simple ones, notably the idea to use children in order to make the models look bigger. The actors clearly respect Ridley Scott but none of them seems to really like him very much and he obviously pushed them very hard indeed. Their reaction to him reminds me of the ones which actors have to Brian De Palma, another uncompromising visual stylist who isn't prone to being a luvvie. This is followed by a photo archive of pictures from the production and some continuity polaroids. The latter are, to be honest, very dull but do illustrate the work that goes into the vital process of continuity.
"The Darkest Reaches" examines the design process which created the Nostromo and the unnamed alien planet. The two were deliberately kept separate; the former was designed by production designer Michael Seymour and his team and the latter by H.R.Giger. Giger became quite obsessed with the task and worked closely on the construction, even getting involved with the spray-painting. Again, this is valuable for those of us who know a bit about the design process but never realised how much of it is sheer back-breaking slog. Lots of archive film material enlivens this featurette. The resultant sets can be viewed in another photo archive.
"The Eighth Passenger" goes into great depth about the design of the alien in its various manifestations. There's a lot of Giger here as you would expect and his self-deprecating comments about his rejected chest-burster design are disarmingly honest. Giger designed the face-hugger and the adult alien but that horrible little thing which is ejaculated from Kane's torso was designed by Roger Dicken. This latter creature can be viewed in glorious detail in a multi-angle Chest-burster sequence which gives you the chance to look at the scene from two different angles, either seperately or at the same time.
This has an optional commentary from Ridley Scott and is utterly fascinating and engagingly repulsive. This leads us into the last feature in this section, a photo tour of Giger's workshop.
This last section kicks off in fine style with "Future Tense", a surprisingly engrossing exploration of the editing and the music. What threatens to be dull is enlivened by Jerry Goldsmith's distinct lack of gruntle about the music score. His own original score was disliked by Scott and the producers and he rewrote it but was never happy about the results. Then, to add insult to injury, they replaced part of it with extracts from his score for John Huston's 1960 film Freud. Terry Rawlings is engagingly honest about his dealings with Goldsmith, as it was his temp track that led to the problems in the first place.
Seven deleted scenes are presented, all of them in good condition and properly edited by Scott. None of these are vital to the film but they are all good to see and the first - an extended waking up scene for Kane - is very effective. The second, an extended exploration of the derelict, is even better and shows off how good the model of the Space Jockey really is. Not so effective is a scene between Ripley and Lambert which is far too explicit about the characters' feelings and pretty redundant. The deleted scenes are presented in non-anamorphic 2.35:1 and 2 channel stereo.
"Outward Bound" is a pretty but bland look at the visual effects and these can also be examined at your leisure in a photo gallery. Equally bland is the last part of the documentary, "A Nightmare Fulfilled" which deals with reaction to the film. This has some nice archive material although it otherwise contains little that is new. Finally, there are the various stages in designing the poster - some of which are awful - and photo archives of the promotional shoot and the American premiere.
Not much to say about the audio and visual quality of the second disc. The interviews are presented in fullscreen and the film extracts are shown in non-anamorphic 2.35:1. This looks absolutely fine and does the job. The soundtrack is functional Dolby 2.0. English subtitles are included for the documentaries and deleted scenes.
The navigation menus are nicely designed and match those on the first disc.
All in all, this release of Alien has to be seen as definitive.
Superb transfer, exhaustive extra features, carefully designed presentation. If there's a reason not to give it a perfect 10 then I can't think of one. Whether you get it as part of the Quadrilogy or wait for the individual film releases next year, this is as essential a disc as you will ever see.