Some movies are such an instant touchstone in the history of the medium hey can change the face of cinema almost overnight. Halloween or Goldfinger are good examples, two masterpieces, perfectly told that influenced whole genres between them through style, look or just good old fashioned storytelling.
Another good example (mainly because it’s the subject of this review) is Ridley Scott’s seminal exercise in outer-space pant-shitting, Alien; nothing looked or felt like Alien before Alien came out, but after, EVERYTHING looked like it and felt like it.
The genius of Scott’s terror opus is deceptively simple: keep the human stuff human and the alien stuff alien. For our hapless crew of unknowing victims a crack squad of character actors (Harry Dean Stanton! John Hurt! Yaphet Koto! Ian Holm!) portray them as the kind of blue collar shlubs you’d find working in the back areas of a supermarket, continually squabbling about pay and forming cliques with and against each other they are lightly sketched, yet memorably acted. The ship they are on, lugging their moribund cargo across the stars, is fiercely analogue but incredibly tangible; battered, functional and, like the rumpled crew, hauntingly relatable.
For the alien aspect of the film, thanks to the contributions of Swiss artist H.R. Giger, we go insanely alien. Be it the primordial landscape of a hostile planet, to the mind boggling image of a horseshoe shaped extra-terrestrial craft where all the chaos starts you are unnerved exactly how UNfamiliar it all feels. And THEN on top of all that is Alien’s titular, well… alien. A triumph of design and execution literally spawned from a life cycle that gives John Hurt the kind of chest pain a pack of heartburn tablets isn’t even going to dent, this star beast is stunningly lethal, yet upsettingly sensual, lit shot and edited expertly, giving the feel that it’s constantly changing and evolving into progressively more dangerous forms.
Another aspect of Alien that it’s imitators usually fail to emulate is it’s sheer overload of metaphor, like the various forms of the alien lifecycle bounce from phallic to vaginal and back again; or the reoccurring images that recall violating acts of sexual assault (an alien tail slithering between someone’s legs, smothering by rolled up porn mag) and most infamously; Hurt’s literal and rather rude outburst at dinner is a direct call to the male fear of childbirth.
Hell, even the ship (which is shaped like a vast gothic cathedral, by the way) has a computer operating system named MOTHER so when shit hits the fan and the characters sweat their way through increasingly claustrophobic corridors end up resorting to that most primal of pleas – you guessed it – crying for their mother.
And on top of everything, we even have a legitimate career making role for Sigourney Weaver, well on her way to making Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley a stone cold feminist icon (despite the presence of tiny underwear).
In closing; it’s rare for a film so influential to feel so fresh after so long and that’s the power of Alien, just like it’s duel mouthed, cock-headed, death beastie; it evolves.
Alien: so good, in space, everyone can hear you cream.