An Appreciation – Alien
Along with the art direction, another contributing factor was the casting. While this is a horror film, it is not cast as one would stereotypically be. These are not dumb teenagers frolicking around at summer camp just waiting to be killed. They are older, wiser, and more resourceful individuals. The ages of the actors ranged from 29 (Veronica Cartwright) to 53 (Harry Dean Stanton). Age and experience allowed them to deliver performances with definition and nuance. Characters come with specific traits. Dallas (Tom Skerritt) is set as the leader, Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and Brett (Stanton) are the money-obsessed mechanics, and Ash (Ian Holm) is the scientist. Kane (John Hurt) will unfortunately be targeted as the first victim, and Lambert (Cartwright) represents the thoughts and reactions of the movie audience. Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) – as we come to know – will end up being the star of the franchise, but at first she is only one of the crew, steadfast and logical. While the crew has famously been described as “truckers in space,” they are far more intelligent than that. They think and debate before they proceed, even when their chances of survival are slim to none.
Let’s talk about Sigourney Weaver’s performance as Ellen Ripley. One of the more interesting bits of trivia was that the original script called for the characters to not be gender specific, meaning they could be played by men or women. However, it was always thought that Ripley was going to be male. Whether it was a conscious decision to be more progressive or to simply try something different, the choice of going – not just with a female – but choosing a relative unknown was a big gamble that paid off. Weaver exudes a strong and confident presence for someone tackling such a large role at the very beginning of her career. It’s a performance that is a lot trickier than one would imagine. Not only does she have to portray a leadership position, but also has to believably deliver vulnerability and fear. If she goes too strong, the threat of the alien will dissipate, but if she goes too weak, the audience would never believe her being the “Final Girl.” It’s no surprise that she would be nominated for an Academy Award playing the same character in the sequel, Aliens (1986).
Good movies have good scenes, great movies have iconic ones. This has at least three iconic sequences. The first is the discovery of the dead “space jockey” inside of the alien ship. Enormous in scale and seated in what looks to be the ship’s piloting controls, the space jockey makes an immediate impression on us visually. The nervous feeling we get is a combination of the sheer size of the creature (children where used here to help amplify its magnitude), the exploded chest clueing us in to what will happen later on, and the fact that neither the characters nor the audience have any idea what it is. Scott capitalizes on the unknown here, allowing us to use our imagination to fill in what this thing was like while it was alive, and whether or not it would be a friend or foe. Sadly, Scott would betray his own work with Prometheus (2012), revisiting this universe and changing the vision of the space jockey in a way that creates more questions than answers.
The scene that has always stuck with me was the revelation of Ash being a humanoid robot. Instructed by the crew’s employer (Weyland-Yutani) to capture and return the alien species by any means necessary, Ash is set up as an undercover agent of sorts. Ian Holm does an excellent job of giving the character the look and sound of a regular human, but with an underlying peculiarity that is hard to pinpoint at first. We think he’s just a different kind of person, but his behavior turns increasingly bizarre, even dangerous. When he is finally uncovered, it’s shocking. How Holm violently contorts and spins his body is incredibly realistic. The scene peaks with Parker cracking Ash’s head right off his body, revealing the robotic and milky insides. This leads to the best dialogue of the whole film, with Ash’s head (placed nicely on the dinner table) describing the alien as a “perfect organism,” and even injecting some dark humor as he expresses his sympathies to the remaining crew.
What most people remember is the chest bursting scene, and rightfully so. It is such a striking moment, in its set up and execution. Again, we have the idea of horror melding with the body, as Kane literally “gives birth” to the alien. The scene works because of what happens right before. Kane had the Facehugger stuck on him, but magically it releases its grip. There’s a relieving sigh at this point, as we assume Kane is now out of danger. The feeling of safety is then deceived immediately after, as Kane falls on the table with the crew trying to hold him down, and the alien ripping straight through his chest. It’s a major violation of the human body, highlighted by the emergence this phallic symbol. Many people are aware that the actors weren’t sure what to expect at the time of filming, especially with how bloody the whole scene became. Veronica Cartwright’s reaction was both authentic and perfectly captured. But what I admired most was near the beginning, when blood first splattered Kane’s shirt. Notice how the narrative flow pauses for just a second, with Dallas and Parker freezing in place, looking at Kane speechless. It’s this tiny little “What the hell was that?” moment that made whole thing work so well.
All these years later, and Alien has not aged a single day. It remains a fresh and original piece of storytelling, often imitated, rarely duplicated. Perhaps only James Cameron’s Aliens equaled it in terms of quality, while others have paled in comparison. Alien 3 (1992) would be burdened with production problems, despite being helmed by a future great director himself, David Fincher. And while Alien: Resurrection (1997) has some fun camp to it, by then the series was on its last legs. Yet the original film still stands on its own – as bold and terrifying as ever.