By contributor Patrick Zabriskie
The nineteen seventies was a dark time for many. The economy was bad, morality was degrading, and the United States had been cursed with a string of sub-par presidents, not to mention several global wars and conflicts. In this dark and grim decade, therefore, it is no surprise to find a string of pioneering horror films, including ‘Jaws’, ‘The Exorcist’, ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’, ‘The Omen’, and ‘Halloween’. These films were darker in tone and more serious than previous horror films, and they are largely responsible for helping to modernize and reinvigorate the horror movie genre. The last entry in this line of horror films is ‘Alien’, in 1979. Despite praise from many a critic, this cosmic odyssey lacks the elements which make it truly great, and more importantly scary.
After the title assimilates across a panorama of outer space, we are shown the Nostromo, a rather gothic looking mining ship slowly drifting through the cosmos. Its seven crew members are suddenly and abruptly awakened from long-term hibernation by the ships computer, dubbed MOTHER, and are ordered to investigate a strange S.O.S. signal from a nearby planet.
Upon landing on this strange, dissident sort of world, they discover the ruins of a gigantic and long crashed alien ship with an enormous chamber of eggs inside. One of the eggs unleashes a strange hand-like creature that attaches itself to a member of the crew, putting him into a coma. After bringing him back to the ship and unsuccessfully attempting to control or even understand this life form, the “hand” all of the sudden falls off, and all is at peace. That is, until another creature bursts out of the man via chest in a now iconic movie scene. The remaining part of the movie chronicles the crew as they attempt to combat and kill “the eighth passenger”.
For what it’s worth, the plot is an intriguing one. It’s sort of a 50’s B movie on steroids. There is also an interesting implied message on workers rights in this movie, as this crew finds its life being compromised by the desires of a company-controlled computer, perhaps a nod to the tough economic years of the seventies. There is also a kind of sexual undertone that is inferable from this movie, as much of the artwork and even the look of the alien are reminiscent of human sexuality.
However this story carries with it an inordinately large amount of shortcomings. The most notable and most important flaw lies with the acting. It is difficult to tell what makes for a bad performance in a movie, whether it be the performance itself or the writing. It seems that a little bit of both is at fault here in ‘Alien’. For the first 45 minutes of the movie or so, nothing anybody utters possesses a trace of emotion. It’s all bland scientific terminology and company policy. This is only worsened by the actors, who evidently were told to deliver every line in a lifeless manner. Unfortunately, this is not good for creating horror. I cannot feel much fear for characters who don’t seem human. When they did start showing real emotion, a whopping hour into the film, I could have cared less if they lived or died.
There are other problems with plot. There are inconsistencies or questions left unanswered at the end of the film. For instance, why show literally thousands and thousands of eggs if only one of them proves to be a threat. Or why show a bizarre alien skeleton in the old ship? Just so the characters can spend one minute examining it before proceeding onward and completely forgetting about it? Or why bother to let the audience know halfway through the movie that MOTHER wants the alien unharmed without telling us why. It feels unfinished, unpolished. Sure, some of these questions are answered in the sequel, too bad it took seven years to make. Lastly, this movie is just too slow going. An early trailer for the movie indicated a rather frantic pacing for this movie, but that’s really not the case. It’s close to 45 minutes before the audience actually sees the eggs and about another 30 minutes before the true Alien makes its appearance. Even after that, the creature just makes short cameos interspersed by boring dialogue.
Other aspects of this film are hit and miss. The set designs are perhaps the most elaborate and well done I’ve ever seen. They don’t feel like gigantic movie sets, they feel like real places, real confined spaces, which is good for making claustrophobia. Also, this movie is notable for its heavy use of handheld camera work, which adds, at times to the lost and confined feeling of this movie. The special effects in general are pretty good for 1979, but they tend to slump in key places. Take the famous “chest burst” scene. From a believability standpoint, it’s absolutely brilliant—until the creature runs across a table, fully revealing that it is being pulled across on a metal track. This sort of flaw is a disaster for this movie, because it so easily undermines credibility, which is not something that this film can afford to lose if it wants to be affective. Another example is the alien suit. It was wise for the filmmakers to cast a 7-foot Kenyan in the role of the creature, because it helps to make him appear less human when in full attire. However, a man in a suit is just that, and at the end of the day it simply is a little too noticeable that this is a stuntman walking around the set. Again, complete and total belief in this creature is crucial to making this film work, but they didn’t quite get it, and it compromises the whole premise.
Lastly there is Jerry Goldsmith’s score. It’s interesting in how unnoticeable it is. There is no real strong theme holding it all together, and it is altogether too sedated to make much impact. Not only that, but often at what are presumably the scariest points in the movie, the music is simply stopped. This is a bad idea, because, coupled with the issues with special effects, it doesn’t quite pull of fear as well as it should. It’s a shame too, because Goldsmith has proven on other occasions how capable of creating a mood he is.
In conclusion, ‘Alien’ simply does not support its own premise well enough. Its not that it couldn’t have, but it doesn’t. A few key rewrites would probably have saved it, but as it stands, it is simply an average film. At times it can scare, but it’s rarely for a better reason than for shock. However, if there is one good thing that came out of ‘Alien’, it’s the other movies it had an influence on. For instance, the sequel, 1986’s ‘Aliens’, was a much more balanced and entertaining affair. Also, Ridley Scott, the director, would go on to refine his bleak-future style with the classic film ‘Blade Runner’, while a group of other filmmakers would create the masterpiece known as ‘The Thing’—a much better update of science-fiction horror—just three years later, borrowing elements from this film. ‘Alien’ serves as an important lesson to filmmakers: Don’t let a film be overshadowed by its legacy.