043: Alien

This is the sixth movie in my Ridley Scott retrospective.

Alien remains one of my favorite movies of all time. It is sci-fi horror at its best. Nonetheless I was rather late to the party on this one. To be honest, I was scared of its reputation and watching the trailer for James Cameron’s Aliens back in 1986 didn’t ease my nerves one bit for Alien. One late Saturday night Alien was on television and I couldn’t let this one go. Holy cow, was I blown away. Not because it was especially scary, but more because of the atmosphere in the movie, which is stifling and claustrophobic and really got to me.

Ridley Scott made Alien after The Duellists as his second feature length film. Although The Duellists is a decent movie, it was with Alien that Scott really upped his game. Scott started his career as a set designer and worked extensively in the field of commercials. He knew already perfectly how to design and light sets and this comes to fruition in Alien. He manages to create a world where, although it is set in a distant future, it absolutely feels like this could be today. Star Wars may have coined the phrase Used Future, but Alien expanded on this enormously. Everything is grimy, dirty and lived-in, except for some key locations, including the ‘birthing’ chamber at the beginning of the movie. The inclusion of a beautiful musical score by Jerry Goldsmith and you have the perfect storm.

It is this familiarity with our present day that really sold Alien to me. At every moment in the story you are totally invested in the plight of these doomed personnel who have to fight off this killing machine. Absolutely riveting. Another factor in the success of Alien was the way Scott played with suspense. He had the audacity to spend close to an hour with these characters before anything scary happens. This is totally unthinkable today. Does it feel dated and slow? No, not at all. Scott keeps you on the edge of your seat the whole time with stunning visuals and interesting people. People played by lesser known thespians at that time. This was Sigourney Weaver’s first big role and it cemented her career.

For this latest viewing I went back to the theatrical cut. Ridley Scott would not be Ridley Scott if he didn’t tinker with his movies at a later point. I don’t think the 2003 Director’s Cut adds much to the whole, though. The scene at the end where Ripley finds her crew-mates could be seen as a deleted scene and shouldn’t be in the movie. It just breaks the tension of the endgame.

Although I like the sequels made in subsequent years, I prefer Alien over these sequels. James Cameron, David Fincher and Jean-Pierre Jeunet were wise to choose a different tone for their movies, because Alien set a very high benchmark that those directors probably couldn’t have surpassed at those points in their careers. It is somewhat regrettable that Scott made Alien so early in his career, because a lot of his movies sadly don’t come close to the brilliance of this sci-fi horror adventure. Let’s hope the upcoming Prometheus proves me wrong.

> IMDb