Old-School Movie Review: ‘Alien’ (1979)

Old-School Movie Reviews are reviews written for films 10 years or older.

Science fiction is a genre of film that allows screenwriters to bend the rules of reality as we know them. In science fiction, the impossible becomes reality for a brief moment in time. Ordinary humans can transcend the fabric of space-time and unthinkable phenomenon such as defying the gravity of a black hole can be achieved. Unfortunately, many science fiction movies aren’t able to execute and most end up becoming laughable on-screen depictions of what seem to be a fever-induced dreams. The true sci-fi greats separate themselves from the pack by focusing on basic film fundamentals (such as presentation, drama, and casting) while building upon their plot in a deliberate and methodical way. A shining example of science fiction greatness is 1979 film “Alien” by Ridley Scott. This film serves as a bastion of the science fiction genre by allowing viewers to become engaged in a story that takes them to lands previously unexplored and showing how unexpected circumstances can lead to the demise of a group of rugged survivors. “Alien” by Ridley Scott is a movie that provides a quintessential blueprint for the science fiction genre.

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A Nostromo crew member stumbling upon some alien eggs.

A major element of film is the way the film is presented. Presentation can refer to the climate the film takes place in as well as how the camera decides to capture certain elements of the film. For example, a film might decide to only film during the nighttime in order to create a darker mood. “Alien” excels at using all components of presentation to its advantage. The main characters of the film are contractors who are sent to distant planets to mine minerals, and director Ridley Scott uses a scene at the beginning of the film to capture the immense size of the ship in which the crew is traveling on. The scene lasts the length of the opening credits and is simply a fly-by shot of the ship (which takes up the whole screen) in front of a stationary camera. Film critic Roger Ebert summaries this scene well by mentioning how it sets the mood for the movie by showing the vast ship, completely alone in interstellar space (Ebert). Another strong point of presentation is the way Ridley Scott presents the unique scenery in this film. The crew of the ship is eventually diverted from their path back to earth because of a distress signal being emitted from a nearby planet. Upon landing on the planet, named LV-426, the viewers are treated to extremely detailed visuals of a planetary storm and a rocky landscape which features a seemingly abandoned alien spacecraft. The whole scene reveals itself in muted shades of blue and grey, only illuminated by a dim blue atmospheric glow in the background. The climate of the planet strikes a chord of uneasiness and perfectly sets an ominous tone for the remainder of the film.

The wardrobe and costume selections in a film can augment the plot and increase the overall effectiveness a film has on its viewers. In “Alien”, the wardrobe of the space crew is one that was deliberately designed to look futuristic and accomplishes that look by resorting to free-moving spacesuits, rather than the excessively bulky astronaut suits seen in NASA missions. Also, while lounging in the ship the crew dresses down in t-shirts and tanktops. While other sci-fi movies might want to keep their cast in futuristic looking suits for the entirety of the movie, “Alien” recognizes that the crew in this film are nothing more than contracted miners and uses their normal wardrobe to compliment that fact. The most effective costume choices in this movie are the ones chosen for the alien, in all stages of its evolution. The survivors first encounter the alien in egg form. A crew member referred to as “Kane” descends into a cavern while on LV-426 which is “completely enclosed. And it’s full of leathery objects, like eggs or something” (Alien). The eggs later reveal a menacing, off-white, scorpion-like alien that attaches itself to Kane in order to incubate the alien’s third form. After the incubated alien later bursts through the chest of Kane, it retreats and grows into one of the most unique and intimidating designs for an alien ever depicted on screen; an ergonomically flawless, bipedal, black as night monster which bares steel colored teeth and is covered in a clear and viscous solution. Crew member “Ash” later refers to the alien as a “perfect organism” (Alien).

A grand opening scene will keep viewers in their seats, but a film will quickly lose its luster if it does not provide additional viewer engagement. Ridley Scott understood this while directing “Alien” and continued to impress viewers and critics alike with scenes that immersed all who were watching into moral dilemmas. The first and most obvious situation is when crew member Kane and all others who accompanied him on the expedition into an abandoned alien spacecraft on LV-426 try to re-enter the crew ship, called the USCSS Nostromo. Ripley, a secondary captain of the Nostromo’s space mission, is compelled to deny permission to board the ship to Kane, citing a law regarding the quarantine of anybody who comes in contact with alien life. They remain outside of the ship begging Ripley to open the door and let them inside while the Nostromo’s scientist “Ash” claims that this is an opportunity to examine the alien organism. The scene is incredibly tense and gives viewers a chance to question what they would do if placed in the same situation.  

The Nostromo crewmembers

A movie is done justice when it employs a cast that can effectively carry out the screenplay. The casting staff of “Alien” helped supplement the script and visuals by casting individuals who fit the script, rather than individuals who are casted for their looks or fame. The crew of the Nostromo is presented in different tiers. The first tier are the commanding officers, of which there are three; “Dallas” played by Tom Skerrit, “Kane” played by John Hurt, and lead actress “Ripley” who is played by Sigourney Weaver. The second tier are the supporting members of the crew who are “Ash” played by Ian Holm, and “Lambert” played by Veronica Cartwright. Lastly, the ship engineers are “Brett” played by Harvey Dean Stanton and “Parker” played by Yaphet Kotto. All actors and actresses were casted as mature space miners and engineers. Movie reviewer Roger Ebert also notices this by stating, “A peculiarity of the rest of the actors is that none of them were particularly young. Tom Skerritt, the captain, was 46, Hurt was 39 but looked older, Holm was 48, Harry Dean Stanton was 53, Yaphet Kotto was 42, and only Veronica Cartwright at 29 and Weaver at 30 were in the age range of the usual thriller cast” (Ebert). These casting choices added to the gritty nature of the movie. The mature actors were able to draw a seriousness from the script that might have been subdued if the actors and actresses had been younger.

Additionally, the casting of a woman as the lead role also gave the movie a unique angle. A seemingly low-key officer later becomes the strong-willed hero who later defeats the alien (Lawson). Some might even argue that part of the success of the movie “Alien” can be attributed to the casting of a female lead. Ripley’s character demeanor of a cool, resourceful, courageous problem solver breaks the mould of female roles in action films and can be attributed to the cult following “Alien” still has today (Lawson).

“Alien” by Ridley Scott continues to be a shining example of how a science fiction movie should conduct itself. The presentation is unique and offers visuals that keep viewers interested in what they will see next and the intense plot kept me on the edge of my seat, wondering how main character Ellen Ripley was going to solve the next problem. Movies such as “Alien” have been unofficially enshrined in the hall of fame of major film, and will continue to influence the following generations in the science fiction genre.