A “sophomore slump”, depending on which definition you choose, can either be a director’s second film, or the next film they make after their breakout hit. For Ridley Scott, your options would be Alien or Blade Runner. I would say that anyone calling either of those a “slump” probably has a screw loose.
When I was really little, I was too frightened to see any horror movies. I would go to the movie theaters and video stores, walking past posters for Friday The 13th and A Nightmare On Elm Street, and wonder to myself what unimaginable horrors those films could show me. There was one poster that I found especially disturbing; An image of a fleshy egg, peeled partially open at the top, sitting on a grate. At the bottom was written, “In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream”. I decided to consult my parents on this one, since they had seen it in the theater. When I asked them if the alien in it was like the ones in Star Wars, the only answer I would get was something cryptic, like “Um. . . no”. I could tell that the movie had freaked them out, and therefore knew that there was no way I would be able to handle it. I was attracted to the darkness, but knew to stay away.
Years later, upon becoming a horror nut, I knew the time was right. While many of the slasher villains, who conceptually terrified me, turned out to be more entertaining than frightening, Alien did not disappoint. This was the unimaginable horror that I’d been waiting for.
I feel that it’s better to watch this film with that innocent, pre-franchise mindset. It’s easy to look back at this and say, “Yep, there’s the introduction of Ripley, the chest-bursters, the Company, etc”, but the thing that was most terrifying about this film is that you had no idea what was going to happen next. Ripley doesn’t get a hero’s introduction; You first really see her in the background, while everyone’s eating at the dinner table. For all you know, John Hurt is the star of the movie. It truly is an ensemble, with every single character playing an important role. Ripley is the “by the book” character that no one likes; Pretty much destined to die! And while the Giger Alien is about as recognizable as Dracula or The Wolf Man these days, in 1979 it was a shapeshifting monstrosity that you barely got a glimpse of. This was the first alien to truly seem alien, evoking the spirit of H.P.Lovecraft’s writings, of whom screenwriter Dan O’Bannon was a huge fan.
Ridley described the feel of Alien as being like “2001 meets The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, which is a brilliant concept that ends up taking on an entirely original feel of it’s own. In fact, Ridley does Tobe Hooper one better, by mixing Chainsaw’s flashes of violence and handheld aesthetic with a Robert Altman-like use of overlapping, and seemingly improvised, dialogue. It’s funny that the one thing all the imitators, and sequels, could never get is that these are living, breathing people. Working stiffs, caught up in a situation beyond their control or understanding. Beyond the set-up, everything feels very real.
This was obviously produced in the wake of Star Wars remarkable success, but must have seemed like a funeral dirge for audiences expecting the same level of action movie intensity. The spaceship Nostromo landing on a planet takes about as much time as any three scenes in Star Wars put together. I think this is why so many people think of James Cameron’s Aliens as a “better” sequel; Faster pace, more guns, more ‘splosions. Not knocking that film at all, but Cameron was making cartoons long before Avatar. It’s interesting to think of Alien as a hit film, when it seems very uncommercial in so many ways. In addition to the generally slow pace, the musical score is used very minimally (Though, I would say, highly effectively). I think the only imitator to truly capture the tone of this film is John Carpenter’s The Thing.
The direction is top notch. Ridley hasn’t found his “voice” at this point, so there’s very little in the way of slo-mo or completely washed out images. The actors all do a great job. The added “Director’s Cut” scenes are interesting, but I feel like they slow down the escape scene at the end, so I watched the original version instead.
The characters are surprised to discover this particular species of alien, but you get the impression that humanity has encountered alien life before. Why has this not been explored in the other films of the franchise? Perhaps we’ll see more of that, since Ridley is currently prepping two Alien prequel films.
This was not a film in the Fest that I needed to be sold on. I’ve seen it many times before, and will see it many times again. One of the best sci-fi and horror films of all time.
10 out of 10