Creature Features in Review: Alien (1979)
By now we must have realized, this subgenre, this oddly obscure realm we call “creature features,” that blends science fiction and horror together, is fantastically intelligent as it is perspicacious, understanding the needs of the times, the questions that demand to be (not necessarily answered) dragged out into the light. Questions of ecology, science, naturalism, humanism, and even biology, questions of our own innate taxonomy. Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going? Which ultimately brings us to the chef d’œuvre question of all humanistic endeavor, what else is out there? Today’s movie up for review on Creature Features in Review is one of those rare gems that combined thrilling storytelling and special effects and atmosphere to have the most impact in raising those eerily human questions. While the sequel, Aliens, may have been the bigger blockbuster, some of the thrills had been lost, the question had already been answered. In Aliens, we knew what was out there. In Alien, storyteller Dan O’Bannon, and director Ridley Scott, not only forced us to question our place in the cosmos but also in the cosmos of our own flesh.
Alien: You’ll Get Whatever’s Coming to You…
by William D. Prystauk
In 1979, after much print-based-hype, especially if one was a fan of science fiction and read “Starlog” on a regular basis, Ridley Scott’s ALIEN hit screens that summer. It wasn’t hard for sci-fi and horror geeks to get worked up because many publications ran some of H. R. Giger’s conceptual art, which rocked many readers. Other conceptual drawings, from the look of the Nostromo, to space suits, and even land vehicles, kept those readers intrigued about what was to come.
The late, great Dan O’Bannon penned the script from a story he developed with Ron Shusett. Written with a budget in mind, he never expected the screenplay to get A-list support from 20th Century Fox – but they were hungry. After the unexpected blockbuster success of 1977’s STAR WARS, they wanted something else in a galaxy far, far away. And as the story goes, when O’Bannon said ALIEN was “JAWS in space,” that sealed the deal (O’Callaghan).
Originally entitled STAR BEAST (thank the stars they changed it), the story features the crew of the Nostromo (Italian for “shipmate”), a barge in space hauling megatons of ore across the cosmos, who are in hibernation as they await orders from “Mother,” their onboard computer, to wake them up once they get closer to Earth. Mother picks up a supposed distress signal, and the crew’s awakened prematurely to check it out. Landing on a cold dwarf planet, three members of the seven-person team head out to find the vessel to see if they can save any souls. Instead, they return with an infected crew member, and in short order, their souls need saving.
Although Dan O’Bannon said, “I didn’t steal Alien from anybody. I stole it from everybody!” the film stands as an original (Macek). Many have made comparisons to PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES and even THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, but ALIEN brought audiences many new elements they had never seen before in a science fiction horror.
Here’s why ALIEN (including material from the 1979 theatrical release and 2003’s director’s cut) is one of the greatest films of all time…
A Stellar Cast, an Out of this World Director
It’s hard to find films in any genre where every cast member is a standout. Other than David Mamet’s remarkable GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS, ALIEN ranks at the top: Veronica Cartwright, Ian Holm, John Hurt, Yaphet Kotto, Tom Skerritt, Harry Dean Stanton, and Sigourney Weaver. (Helen Horton gave us the firm and foreboding, yet oddly seductive voice of Mother, and Bolaji Badejo, in his only film role, became Giger’s alien entity). Cartwright, Holm, Skerritt, and Stanton had been building their reputations on the small and silver screen since the fifties, Hurt and Kotto since the sixties, and after a couple of lesser roles, ALIEN proved to be Weaver’s breakout role as Lieutenant Ripley.
This acting foundation alone said much about the script’s value as well as 20th Century Fox’s commitment to the production. Some may say they were taking a chance with Scott, who only had his feature directorial debut two years before with THE DUELLISTS, but the film had received critical acclaim in short order – and all this after Scott had taken an eight-year hiatus from directing television episodes.
If STAR WARS were one of the first science fantasy films to feature a woman who didn’t scream, hide behind a manly-man, or faint thanks to Carrie Fisher’s strong-willed and determined Princess Leia, ALIEN’s Lieutenant Ripley took the liberation to a whole new level.
Third officer Ripley and Cartwright’s Lambert are the only female team members, and they are simply a part of the crew. Lambert’s the co-pilot/navigator, and Ripley’s a communication’s officer, and the third in charge after Captain Dallas (Skerritt) and Kane (Hurt). The women are on equal terrain and respected, other than an innuendo from Parker (Kotto) because he may have been in space without a partner for too damn long.
Although Lambert may come undone in the film, this is because of her character and the traumas she’s experienced, not because she’s a woman. After all, even Parker’s waylaid by the death of his friend Brett (Stanton), and his strong exterior waivers on a couple of occasions regardless of his anger and determination.
Ripley, on the other hand, has several facets to her character: She’s logical and pragmatic, and respects command, even with her role in the officer food chain. When that rank is challenged by Ash, the science officer, she visits him in his lab for a private meeting to lay down the law. Though that turns out to be a wash, Ripley stands her ground and left nothing to the imagination. Later, when the issue of quarantine comes up again, Ripley’s passive-aggressive comment is her version of an “I told you so.” To make certain Parker and Brett are working on ship repairs, she once again walks into that crew member’s domain to make certain she’s heard and understood. When Lambert slaps Ripley for wanting to keep her, Dallas, and Kane in quarantine for 24-hours, Ripley goes to war, and Parker and Brett must break up the pair.
Even with all the hell from an attacked crew member to the whereabouts of the face-hugger, when Ripley’s freaked out, she pulls herself together in short order. When she finally takes command, instead of trying to define her role with a new idea to destroy the alien, her logic and pragmatism shine through. Since Dallas’ plan is a viable one, Ripley goes with it. However, as a leader, she’s comfortable enough to ask if there are any other suggestions. If anyone thinks this represents a lack of confidence on her part, Ripley’s quick and loud in drowning out an overly frustrated Parker, and she has no problem telling Ash that he hasn’t been doing a damn thing to help. (If she hadn’t asked Ash earlier for suggestions about capturing or killing the alien, he may not have done anything at all.)
Ultimately, Ripley has to be her own savior and to do so, she must overcome her fear of an unyielding enemy while under the strictest of deadlines, and even with that pressure and need for self-preservation she has enough humanity to try and save the Nostromo mascot, Jonesy the cat.
Nothing works like isolation in a horror film. ALIEN features a small crew packed into the heart of a smaller ship, which is equivalent to a tug boat. And if that tugboat starts to capsize, there’s a small escape ship – a life raft – that can only fit three.
Even worse, the Nostromo is akin to being lost at sea. Due to the early wake up from Mother, they’re 70 million miles from the Milky Way and would have to go back to the old “freezerinos” for another ten-month sleep. There are no other ships in their part of the void. They are as alone as a group of people can get. And to add an exclamation point to the Nostromo crew’s predicament, ALIEN’s tagline says it all: “In space no one can hear you scream.”
Right from the beginning, from Jerry Goldsmith’s score to Derek Vanlint’s cinematography, as well as Ian Whittaker’s set decoration, it’s clear the Nostromo is an all work and no play environment. Seating’s cramped at the front of the ship. And everything’s cold and dark. There may be light and white in the dining and sleeping quarters, but the remainder of the ship is either cavernous, though still encroaching, and the passageways are reminiscent of catacombs. Due to the small crew and the workload, the Nostromo is far from ship-shape. The equivalent of equipment based debris seems to appear at every turn, the lighting’s questionable in spots, and the nether regions of the vessel are cold and dank.
The only time we truly have any sense of peace and hope is at the very beginning and at the very end. Before ALIEN’s story gets underway, the hibernation area is all white with a center cylinder with each crew member extending from that “stem” to form the petals of a flower that blooms once they awaken. They each wear white undergarments, and they arise as if newborns from the bassinet of a hospital’s maternity ward. And they are born anew on a journey they never saw coming.
At the end, Ripley hibernates with Jonesy. A white glow emanates from her protective pod, another womb to nurture her, and we have the sense that she will awake as a new, stronger, and virtually fearless person. To add an exclamation to Ripley’s rebirth: Upon the annihilation of the Nostromo at her own hand, she bears witness to her own “Big Bang” and recreates herself. She becomes her own mother and gives birth to her new self as both creator, destroyer, and preserver, much like the Hindu goddess, Kali Ma. Once transformed, she not only overrides her fear in strong fashion but quickly forms a solid plan to vanquish her foe.
The status quo continues in ALIEN. Providing a dim look of the future, the white and blue collar mix of the crew remains stuck in the doldrums of working for “the company.” Regardless of the manual Ripley tries to cling onto, Captain Dallas is quick to point out that one does what the company tells one to do. This also means the object of fairness doesn’t hold up either. Both Parker and Brett signed on, but with their contracts, especially when it comes to “the bonus situation,” the pair won’t receive full shares.
Better still to make certain the Nostromo crew checks out that distress beacon, the fine print in their contract has a “full forfeiture of shares” clause if they decide to skip the alarm and head back home. (Mother, acting like Big Brother, would undoubtedly show through report tracking that the crew never left the vessel to check for survivors.)
We understand that as the crew is screwed by their employer, most of us have similar stories where the company that gives us a check every two weeks undermined us in some way, shape, or form. And when it comes to a cafeteria, and according to Parker, the only good thing on the ship is the coffee.
Parker wants to get home and party, but as team leader, Dallas has had it. At different times, he tells both Lambert and Parker to “knock it off” because as middle management, he’s just done. As he sits in the escape ship and tries to relax to classical music, we can imagine him trying to determine how the hell he’s going to write a report about this mess. But he has nothing to fear because a mole is amongst the crew who will help fulfill a different set of obligations for the company.
By not giving “the company” a name, it can be any entity we may work for on our little blue ball. Plus, with Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, we see the trouble of putting sponsors’ names on video phones and space ships, because Pan Am and The Bell System are long gone – though Hilton could build a space station in the next century.
Due to these items, and the wearing of many hats – those mining vehicles aren’t going to move themselves – the crews’ dissatisfaction may mirror our own.
Before ALIEN, most science fiction films were built on the backs of conservative, military-like communication full of boring conversation or scientific mumbo-jumbo or stiff reporting full of salutes. Right from the beginning, we can relate to the crew as “regular people” due to the dialogue and their exchanges. They curse, they rub each other the wrong way like children – “That’s not our system,” says Ripley, and Lambert almost sings her response as if a kid who doesn’t want to be bested, “I know that” – and Parker wants to get back home, with bonus in hand, and “party.”
However, the film goes one step further to make the dialogue and exchanges ring true. When the dead facehugger falls to the lab floor, Ash asks if it came from the overhead. Traumatized by the experience in his own way, Dallas peers down at their deceased guest and says in an annoyed fashion, “It was up there somewhere.”
When four crew members remain, a stressed out and now in command Ripley lays down the plan, which is a continuation of the old one. Parker’s also stressed and angered, and says, “Let’s hear it” as Ripley tries to speak, causing her to raise her voice and yell at Parker. Anxiety and frustration take their toll:
Ripley (to Parker): …We’ll move in pairs. We’ll go step by step and cut off every bulkhead and every vent until we have it cornered, and then we’ll blow it the fuck out into space. Is that acceptable to you?
Parker: If it means killing it then it’s acceptable to me.
Ripley: Obviously it means killing it.
Having characters joke, speak over each other, and go from being ticked off to being accepting, serves as one of the best reflections of genuine dialogue and speaking patterns. This realness allows the audience to better connect with the characters due to this relatable and grounded communication. The crew may reside in the future, may live on a space vessel, but the audience knows exactly where they’re coming from.
The Universal Other
Like John Carpenter’s THE THING, ALIEN not only introduces “the Other,” the alien that must be assimilated or destroyed, but the Nostromo crew is “the Other” as well. Humans are not natural to space and the dwarf planet they land on is as alien to them as it is to the alien. Neither belong. But what Ash calls, “the perfect organism,” the creature’s as fearless as a honey badger and there’s no negotiation or assimilation. It’s kill or be killed. At no point does Parker try to sit down with the monster in a weak attempt to get the alien to help with the bonus situation.
No other monster from another planet in all the early science fiction fair has a life cycle like this one: From a leathery egg comes a spider-like facehugger that unleashes another egg through the mouth and down the throat of a host. Serving its purpose, and after the internal egg is protected and ready to hatch, the facehugger dies. Soon after, the young creature bursts from its host, killing the animal it leaves behind in the process and takes off on its own. In short order, the little monster that bleeds acid becomes a bipedal giant ready to kill, consume, and get the cycle up and running again. This means the Nostromo crew is left to fight an extraterrestrial endoparasitoid, which is an alien parasite that lives inside another creature and kills it. Wow.
Macrocosmos of Mysteries
ALIEN certainly has its mysteries. This doesn’t mean O’Bannon’s writing had flaws or that Scott overlooked things, but what follows are points to consider.
“Better break out the weapons”
Before heading outside to check on the distress beacon, Dallas uses that line before the away party suits up. Inside the Space Jockey’s vessel, Kane holds up a gun-like weapon right before the facehugger greets him with a kiss. The company supplied weapons are never mentioned again, and only primitive ones make from scratch are used. Why? Maybe the weapons were garbage, or more logically since the alien bleeds acid, which could burn through the hull, forcing it into the airlock with a flame thrower to send it into outer space is probably the best solution.
If the company sent up a robot to protect the alien and bring it back to Earth, how did it know about the creature in the first place? Maybe another expedition came along, and unlike Kane, those miners in space suits decided not to break that layer of mist and get up close to those eggs. Then again, maybe they did. Maybe they lost a crew member (or two or three), but won in the end and made it home to give a full report. That report became the catalyst to send out another crew in that general area to unwittingly bring the creature home.
Often forgiven by fans and critics since the movie was made in pre-personal computer 1979, Mother, her special “Eyes Only” room, and the computer graphics raise questions. In 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, regardless of space flight, HAL 2000, and major technological advances, the astronauts still had to use clipboards as they sail towards Jupiter. When it comes to predicting what the hell we might have or create in a future world can prove daunting (follow the haircuts and clothing styles, as well as social interactions to help date films even more). Maybe the best reason one can use is that the Nostromo is an absolute worker bee of a ship, which means it doesn’t have state of the art anything. However, maybe as an homage to Kubrick, Scott created Mother and her room in HAL-esque style. Too bad the crew couldn’t speak to Mother, and she never even sang them a song.
Why would Dallas and company venture out into the unknown when Mother hadn’t deciphered the beacon? If they had waited another hour or two, they would have had a better clue about what was awaiting them. The answer may be Dallas’ grumpiness, which on some level mimicked Parker’s, as well as that old favorite feeling that can bring fortune or failure: curiosity. And maybe due to their ho-hum mining drudgery, no one puts the breaks on the “rescue mission.”
“Why don’t you just freeze him?!”
Curiosity also reigns supreme when Kane and facehugger come on board. Parker says the “freeze him” line on several occasions, but Dallas and Ash take no heed or pay him no mind. The nature of discovery has taken them over.
How did Jonesy end up in that closed locker? Since this is the first time we see the Nostromo mascot, and Brett, Parker, and Ripley certainly didn’t expect to find him there, one of the others must have put him in there, which would have been cruel. Or, he could have been accidentally locked in when someone was working or getting some supplies by the locker.
How old are you now?
Interstellar space travel will either leave aging astronauts to die aboard ship with the next generation to take over the journey, or some sort of hibernation will exist. After returning from the dwarf planet, a ten-month journey remains for the crew. We don’t know how long they’ve been out there or how long their mining assignment has taken, but that had better be some pretty expensive or rare ore to send a crew so far out into the cosmos. Does this mean their families are in hibernation as well? If not, their spouses, partners, and children, if they have any, of course, are going to age every time they head out to gather some ore. Check out “The Long Morrow” from “The Twilight Zone” to see what will happen if you don’t get it right.
This thematic dynamic may not be the reason ALIEN is at the top of the science fiction horror list, but it’s quite notable. In an interview, O’Bannon made this frightening comment:
“One thing that people are all disturbed about is sex… I said ‘That’s how I’m going to attack the audience; I’m going to attack them sexually. And I’m not going to go after the women in the audience, I’m going to attack the men. I am going to put in every image I can think of to make the men in the audience cross their legs. Homosexual oral rape, birth. The thing lays its eggs down your throat, the whole number’” (Dietle).
And O’Bannon does just that. Not only does the facehugger do the above, but the adult alien sports a phallic like head and behind its silvery, dripping teeth exists a phallic juggernaut of a secondary mouth that juts out in erect fashion to tear apart flesh and bone as it penetrates the heads of both Brett and Parker. Its phallic-esque tale rips into Lambert.
When searching for the facehugger, Ash and Dallas do so with long-lighted prods. As Ripley looks about, Ash tells her not to do so without “one of these,” and holds up his prod. Ripley doesn’t grasp one.
But the crew fights phallus with phallus from the cattle prods to give the creature “incentive,” to the pointed motion detector, to the flame throwers, and to the gun and its respective grappling hook. (Both Ripley and Lambert wield the phallic detectors – Ripley does this with ease, but Lambert has issues.)
Feminine imagery exists as well. Dallas, Kane, and Lambert enter the Space Jockey’s ship through a hole. And the Jockey has a hole in its chest, as Kane will soon have. Dallas enters the duct system with his flamethrower, and the round hatches shut him off as he enters the hollow shafts within the ship. Finally, when Ripley squares off against the creature, she uses that phallic grappling hook to propel her foe through the open hatch of her escape craft, and when the creature tries to enter through one of the open engine exhausts, Ripley turns on the afterburners and blows him away once and for all.
The story, acting, direction, music, dialogue, set and setting, make ALIEN a film to be reckoned with. Due to the realism of the characters, their emotions and reactions, Scott’s film transcends genre labels. In this sense, O’Bannon, Shusett, and company created a remarkable tale to capture the imagination – and fear – of any audience.
Dietle, David. “Alien: A Film Franchise Based Entirely on Rape.” Cracked. Cracked, 02 Jan 2011. Web. 06 May 2017.
Macek, J. C., III. “Deconstructing the Star Beast: How the ‘Alien’ Saga Went
Wrong.” PopMatters. PopMatters.com, 04 May 2015. Web. 06 May 2017.
O’Callaghan, Paul. “Ridley Scott: Five Essential Films.” BFI. British Film Institute, 28 Nov 2014. Web. 06 May 2017.
William D. Prystauk (aka Billy Crash) cohosts THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast on iTunes and at http://crashpalaceproductions.com. He’s in pre-production of a dramatic science fiction feature film he’ll shoot in Seattle with his company, Crash Palace Productions. When he’s not listening to punk rock and leaving no sushi behind, he indulges in the food group better known as chocolate. Follow him on Twitter as @crashpalace, and look for him under his real name at LinkedIn, IMDb, Amazon, Behance, and at http://williamdprystauk.com.
You DO NOT want to miss a single episode of his award-winning podcast, The Last Knock!
This entry was posted on May 11, 2017 by Thomas S Flowers. It was filed under Horror, Movies, Reviews and was tagged with 1979, Alien, atmospheric, blockbuster, Bolaji Badejo, Creature Feature, creature features, Creature Features in Review, Dan O'Bannon, dark, film, Guest, Guest author, Harry Dean Stanton, Helen Horton, Horror, horror reviews, Ian Holm, John Hurt, monster movies, monsters, movie reivews, Reviews, Ridley Scott, science fiction, Sigourney Weaver, social commentary, social satire, The Last Knock, Tom Skerritt, top ten movies, Veronica Cartwright, William D. Prystauk, Yaphet Kotto.