Every now and then on the Criticwire Network an older film gets singled out for attention. This is the Criticwire Classic of the Week.
Imagine, for a moment, that “Alien” never spawned a long-running franchise following Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley (known only as Ripley in the original film). One of the greatest strengths of Ridley Scott’s film is that it doesn’t signal that Ripley will be the last woman standing, giving as much time in the buildup to Tom Skerritt’s more archetypical hero Dallas. Ripley’s early scenes show her clashing with everyone around her, be it over her refusal to let John Hurt’s facehugger-wearing astronaut back on the ship for safety reasons or pay disputes with Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton’s blue collar workers. She’s not immediately warm, so it’s easy for the (now nonexistent) unaware viewer to guess that she’ll be among the first to go. That’s also what makes her survival so heartening: it’s not because she’s a type who’s been designated for survival, but because she’s the smartest and most resilient of the crew, the one everyone should have listened to in the first place.
That’s just one of the greatest strengths of Scott’s masterpiece. Some of the film’s most memorable moments have been parodied or referenced into oblivion, from an alien egg opening and shooting out something that latches onto Hurt’s face to the famous chestburster scene. But the scenes are still potent in spite of overexposure because the buildup is so assured (and, in the latter case, because the other cast members didn’t know it was going to happen). Scott’s use of quiet is as unnerving as any of H.R. Giger’s beautifully hideous designs because it makes us lean in and listen, take in the surroundings, and be truly stunned by the quick bursts of violence and noise, even if we know that it’s about to happen.
That violence is also effective here because it has real weight. Ridley Scott’s filmography has always been uneven, but he’s maintained a consistent thematic interest in mortality and the fear of death, rarely more effectively than in “Alien.” It’s impossible not to be shaken up by Hurt’s chest opening, by the quickening of Dallas’ breath shortly before he runs into the alien, or by Lambert’s (Veronica Cartwright) screams echoing through the corridor as she meets her fate. The mechanics of the slasher movie are there, but as with anything else, Scott knows that the fear of what’s about to come is as frightening, if not more so, than the thing itself, and that showcasing that fear will make death feel all the more inevitable and terrifying. “Alien” is known for that perfect tagline “In space, no one can hear you scream,” but an even better encapsulation of its power comes from an exchange between Dallas and the ship’s computer. “What are my chances?” “Does not compute.”
Serena Donadani, The Cinema Girl
Alien redefines space as an intimate sphere where wisdom is as vital as bravery in creating a hero. No wonder a woman like Ripley rules.
Piers Marchant, Sweet Smell of Success
More thoughts from the web:
Michael Agger, Slate
The dissenting view on “Alien” has always been that it’s just a haunted-house movie in outer space, and Scott couldn’t resist a few manipulative “boo” moments. (A ginger cat jumps out of nowhere; the alien’s hand reaches from the wall to grab Ripley.) But the staying power of “Alien” lies in the way it dredges up primal fears. Scott’s long shots emphasize the vastness of space, the sense of being marooned in a hostile environment. The spaceship interiors were designed for maximum claustrophobia. Read more.
Mike D’Angelo, The Dissolve
Arriving in theaters two years after “Star Wars,” “Alien” is in many ways the antithesis of Lucas’ space opera, substituting inexplicable horror for the mystification of the Force, and oppressive silence for explosions. (“In space no one can hear you scream” remains one of the most evocative taglines ever conceived.) O’Bannon’s characters are mostly one-dimensional types, but a remarkably distinguished cast—in addition to Weaver, there’s John Hurt, Ian Holm, Harry Dean Stanton, Veronica Cartwright, Tom Skerritt, and Yaphet Kotto—succeed in making them more than generic alien chow, conveying a palpable sense of what it’s like to be a spacefaring grunt in this hypothetical future. In the end, though, it’s the combination of Ripley’s fortitude under pressure and Giger’s singularly creepy designs that make “Alien” such a memorable frightfest. Read more.
Roger Ebert, RogerEbert.com
One of the great strengths of “Alien” is its pacing. It takes its time. It waits. It allows silences (the majestic opening shots are underscored by Jerry Goldsmith with scarcely audible, far-off metallic chatterings). It suggests the enormity of the crew’s discovery by building up to it with small steps: The interception of a signal (is it a warning or an SOS?). The descent to the extraterrestrial surface…A recent version of this story would have hurtled toward the part where the alien jumps on the crew members. Today’s slasher movies, in the sci-fi genre and elsewhere, are all pay-off and no buildup. Consider the wretched remake of the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” which cheats its audience out of an explanation, an introduction of the chain-saw family, and even a proper ending. It isn’t the slashing that we enjoy. It’s the waiting for the slashing. Read more.
Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly
In another, simultaneous dimension, the movie’s tantalizingly slow, oozing pace is a heartbeat-tripping reminder that today’s sped-up blockbuster conventions may improve on speed, but not on thrills. Those first 45 minutes before the creature drips the first spiral of goo — that eternity in which the camera tracks across a deserted control room and there’s nothing for an uneasy audience to do but wait and worry — are more unnerving than the most explosive opening-act stunt in the repertoire today. Even the rib-ripping birth scene, a creationist doozy in which monstrous life is hatched from a man, unfolds at a measured tempo more familiar to a waltz than a rupture. Read more.