Classic Review: Alien

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars:  ★★☆☆

Inside that egg theres a facehugger even a mother couldnt love.

Inside that egg there's a facehugger even a mother couldn't love.

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.

Classic Review: Return of the Jedi (Episode VI)

Stars:  **** out of Four

Summary:  A thrilling, angsty finale for a classic trilogy, with the best effects and the best music, to boot.

This is a good poster, for a multitude of reasons...

This is a good poster, for a multitude of reasons...

Review:  Starting with the gleeful innocence and spectacle of ‘Star Wars’, going to the troubling middle chapter of ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, and now into the dark, unexpected finale of ‘Return of the Jedi’, the Original ‘Star Wars’ Trilogy cemented the legacy of George Lucas in modern film.  The blockbuster and the summer tentpole were now the economic foundations of the film industry.

Before ‘Return of the Jedi’ was released, there were high expectations as to how Lucas could possibly wrap up the Trilogy.  After it was released, though it was still highly regarded and was a box office smash, there was some disappointment in the content, with some believing that the spirit of the mature middle chapter had been compromised and that Lucas was pandering to kids.  The reason being the Ewoks, a race of teddy-bear-like aliens, who manage to overwhelm Imperial forces on their home moon.  I find it ironic that this is considered a betrayal, after all, ‘Star Wars’ was intended to be escapist adventure.  There isn’t anything inconsistent in having something that seems ridiculous, as long as it follows the film’s internal logic, which it does.

The film does, in fact, take the darker nature of ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ and continue it, while keeping the spirit balanced.  The film opens with all of the heroes in deep trouble, and keeps that tone all the way to the end.  The Empire, in essence, continues to strike back.

The good guys head to the planet Tatooine, hoping to free Han Solo from the gangster Jabba the Hutt.  All of them fail, including, most famously, Princess Leia, who finds herself forced to become what is essentially a sex slave for Jabba, clad in only a gold bikini.  As revolting and seemingly unnecessary as this is, it does make the ultimate triumph of the heroes over Jabba seem more glorious.  Ironically, Jabba is strangled to death by Leia, using the very chains he used to control her.  The sexual aspects of this whole sequence are not particularly explicit, and it never leaves PG territory.

The Force, it seemed at the time, was fully elaborated on in this film.  The nature of the Light versus the Dark is now shown before us in the ultimate struggle, as Luke is tempted by the Emperor.  Where the real struggle lies, however, is in Darth Vader.  He is the Anti-Hero.  In my interpretation of the final conflict, Luke allows the Emperor to attack him directly, goading him, which triggers the latent hero in Vader.  This seems to make sense, but don’t take it as the definitive explanation.

Also of note is Luke’s dark wardrobe.  The implication seems to be that, although he is now a Jedi Knight, due to the revelation of his father’s identity he has unleashed a dark part of himself.  Aesthetically, it makes Luke appear more mature than the previous films.  Not only is he a Jedi Knight, he is a full-fledged hero, no longer in Han Solo’s shadow.

Dualism is the primary philosophy behind the Force.  Here, though, the Dark Side seems questioned; it is not as strong as Light, it merely thinks it is.  The Emperor claims the whole final battle, allowing the Rebellion to know the way to knock out the new Darth Star, is part of his plan.  This seems to be a defensive reaction to his own failure.  So what is Lucas saying here?  Is the Dark merely under the impression that it is stronger, or is it undone only by human error?  We are never told.

The artistic merits of the film seem the strongest of the Trilogy.  The music is in top form, with fully developed cues, and a new theme for the Emperor to distinguish him from Darth Vader.  The visual effects take us places we’ve never been before.  The battle around and inside the Death Star is no longer depicted with mere trenches, but with super-massive inner workings.  The lightsabers are crisp, and the resonant sound effects make Luke’s lightsaber a reflection of his own maturity.  Ewoks run at the feet of convincingly composited machines, and the sail barges on Tatooine are natural.

Performance wise, Mark Hamill comes out of the gate with his strongest portrayal of Luke.  Now that young Skywalker is a complete hero, it gives the actor playing him a chance to shine.  Ian McDiarmid, who plays the Emperor, was only in his 30s at the time, but you wouldn’t know it.

A rollicking good time with an angsty soul, this is my personal favorite of the Trilogy and the one that is the most unfairly derided, in my view.