Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Alien (1979)

There are few movies as universally acclaimed as part of the science fiction pantheon as Alien. It is, without a doubt, one of the most influential films of it's genre. This status is far from undeserved. Alien is a scary, perfectly paced film that redefined what the science fiction genre could be. It's gritty vision of the future was a breath of fresh air in a genre that seemed to only see a pristine, spotless tomorrow for the human race.

When Alien came out in 1979, no one had seen anything like it. The science fiction genre had been reinvigorated from the Star Wars hysteria, but no one was ready for something quite like Ridley Scott's Alien. It shocked audiences world-wide. When the crew of the mining vessel Nostromo, featuring Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Ian Holm and John Hurt, is awakened from their sleep to investigate a distress call of unknown origin, things don't go exactly as planned. When one of the crew members returns to the ship with an alien life-form attached to him, the crew is subjected to a disturbing series of events that lead to the demise of most of them.

Where Alien succeeds most of all, and one of Scott's trademark skills, is the perfect pacing of the film. The movie builds very slowly, but it's unstoppable once it gets rolling. The slow, almost plodding, nature of the movie's first half builds tension masterfully. It's plays like a mystery film. There is so much happening, so many unknowns, so much to discover that it slowly, but surely, sucks you in. Just as your lured into the film, it, just like John Hurt's chest, explodes in a flurry of terrifying action that leaves your breathless until the very end. The plot twists and turns all along still, throwing curve balls every chance it gets. Scott even manages to string you along, calm things down, for just a few minutes before dropping the film's climax on you like a bomb.

It would be remiss to talk about Alien without talking about THE scene. The single scene that makes the movie, the biggest reason why it's remembered and one of the most shocking and disturbing and fantastic scenes ever filmed. The first half of Alien is purely a suspense movie. It's dark, mysterious and haunting. It's the second half of the movie that left it's impact forever in the world of horror. The moment John Hurt's chest explodes in a shower of gore, the world changes. The idea of something living inside you is unsettling enough, but the violence of the alien's birth, is such a twisted and disturbing idea that it never leaves you. Few things have ever been as shocking as that moment and that is likely to remain true for a long time.

Where the films true legacy lies and one of the reasons it endures today, is because it offers a vision of the future that is extremely different from the other science fiction films of the time. While movies like Star Wars or 2001: A Space Odyssey are certainly classics, and great films in their own respects, the future they present feel strange. Where those film-makers saw polished white walls, Scott saw a dirt caked on exposed piping just waiting to be splattered with gore. The future that we see in Alien is a much more harsh and significantly more real feeling place. From the design of the ship to the costumes, to the simple, unpleasantness of life in space, like the lack of quality food, everything in the movie screams of tactile, gritty realism. The Nostromo doesn't feel like a science fiction set, but a place where people might actually be working. The future presented in Alien actually looks and feels like it might be our true future; harsh, violent and unidealized.

To call Alien influential or important doesn't quite do it justice. Every element of the film is masterfully crafted. H.R. Giger's designs, the perfectly pitched performances and the exceptional direction are only the tip of the iceberg. Unfortunately, Science fiction is rarely this good. Alien is a masterpiece no matter how you slice it.


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