When it comes to great directors, very few have a perfect record. Stanley Kubrick may have been a masterful filmmaker, but he also made Eyes Wide Shut, Steven Spielberg has War of the Worlds, and Quentin Tarantino has Death Proof. No-one is perfect, much less film directors.
Ridley Scott is a great example of this. Throughout his long illustrious career, he has earned his reputation as a cinema legend, but even he is not immune to making a bad film. Exodus, Hannibal and Robin Hood (the 2010 one) all carry his name, and all of them are varying flavours of awful.
But when he gets it right, the result can end up inspiring generations of filmmakers. Much like 2001 laid the groundwork for many future sci-fi films, Blade Runner did the same for dystopian sci-fi, and this film firmly established the rules for horror in a sci-fi setting; the mystery, the denseness, and the claustrophobia.
This film recently celebrated its 40th anniversary, and it still ranks in many critic’s top films of all time, it’s widely respected and revered by cinephiles the world over, even if its legacy was somewhat tarnished by future instalments. But for now, let’s forget about that, and take a look at the original, and see how it holds up 40 years later.
The crew of the Nostromo are awaken from cryo-sleep in deep-space to find their craft besieged by a murderous alien threat.
The story synopsis may be shorter than usual, but it is a film that is difficult to write about without spoiling its contents. Even though this film is 40 years old, I still find it best that films are experienced for the first time with no prior knowledge of plot events.
The winning formula at the core of Alien lies in its atmosphere. The sense of building dread set in an enclosed environment with an unknown threat will always be thousands of times more tense than monsters jumping out from behind every corner.
What helps this dread build and finally peak later is the knowledge that all of these characters have lived in the space that is now under attack for some time, it feels like a place people have lived, rather than just survived, and the characters and their interactions hint at several relationship dynamics that are lying just below the surface, which helps us buy into these characters as people, they all have flaws and relationships, making them sympathetic and making us sad when the Alien eats their brains with a side of garlic mayo.
This sense of pacing shows in the films restraint in revealing the Xenomorph also; in many less subtle horror films the threat would be introduced in a way to show as much of it as possible, highlighting everything about it and instantly making it less threatening. Paradoxically, the Xenomorph is rarely seen fully lit, it’s in shadows, or moves so quickly that it’s hard to tell what it looks like, only that it’s something you wouldn’t fancy meeting in a dark alley.
Aside from the atmosphere, the film’s characters lie at the heart of its story, and while a few can drift into stereotype territory, the choice of a female protagonist must have been a bold move in 1979. No longer is the female character there to just do the screaming, in fact Ripley is probably the most capable character right from the start, which must have been a breath of fresh air forty years ago, and is still somewhat noble today, even in our ‘enlightened’ times.
Ridley Scott’s abilities as a director also shine brightly in this film. He seems to work best with visually striking environments, creating the neon-soaked atmosphere of Blade Runner, and juxtaposing it here with a cramped, dull spaceship environment, with low-res monitors and stark drab colours, it gives the feel that this is an extraordinary thing happening in such an ordinary setting, which is such a bizarre thought when the thing in question is a spaceship.
The film is remembered mostly for a number of iconic moments within it that have stood the test of time, and are still being homage, or outright parodied, to this day. While these moments are a pay-off to a great building of tension, I find myself more enthralled in the building tension, the quieter moments where the characters are gathering their thoughts, that speak so much to their characters. All of these should be rightly remembered alongside the usual scenes as reasons why this film is so great.
In conclusion then, Alien is not just a great film on its own merits but left a legacy that so many films have tried to replicate that it pretty much set the standard that is still to be beaten. A masterfully shot, paced and acted piece of cinema, genuinely tense and unnerving and with one of the greatest cinematic threats in history, I imagine its influence will still be felt for many years to come.