April 12, 2011

Alien (1979)
Grade: 74/100

Director: Ridley Scott
Stars: Sigourney Weaver, Ian Holm, Tom Skerritt

What it's about. Set in the indefinite future. A small crew of astronauts (and their pet cat) work for a private company. They are in remote outer space, where they investigate a mysterious beacon.

The crew consists of earnest leader Tom Skerritt, taciturn science officer Ian Holm, grouchy hottie Sigourney Weaver, whiney semi-hottie Veronica Cartwright, token black man Yaphet Kotto, comic relief Harry Dean Stanton, and hapless John Hurt, who gets his first.

In one of horror filmdom's most famous scene, a baby alien, hostile, small, and multi-jawed, emerges from Hurt's stomach and runs away like a banshee. Next thing you know, the alien is seven feet tall, and killing off crew members one by one whenever they make the mistake of hunting for it in the air shafts.

Weaver survives the film to star in sequels. Once she becomes the ranking remaining officer, she learns that Holm has been ordered to fetch and protect the alien, presumably for military purposes. This forces a physical confrontation between Holm and the other crew members, which the latter win because it is a movie.

Once Holm has been decapitated, Weaver decides to blow up the ship to kill the alien. The remaining crew will escape via a shuttle pod. But every horror film has a final reel twist, involving yet one more confrontation between the big scary monster and plucky Sigourney Weaver.

By the way, the cat lives too.

How others will see it. Alien was a box office smash, and also did well in its video release. The film was critically praised as well as commercially successful. It won an Oscar for Best Visual Effects, and was nominated for seven BAFTA awards, including a Best Supporting Actor nod for Hurt.

Alien has always been popular, as has its sequel, Aliens (1986), which is even better. At the time of writing, Alien is ranked #45 in the Top 250, while the first sequel is at #60. The user rating for Alien is remarkably high at 8.6, and only slightly lower among women, who give it 8.2. Undoubtedly, the plum role for too-tough-to-die Weaver helps win over female demographics.

How I felt about it. We wonder how the alien got to be eight feet tall so fast. We also question the judgment of a company that would want to bring such a nasty beastie to Earth. After all, I don't think it will perform tricks at SeaWorld in return for raw fish.

We also would like to recommend to crew members that they not wander off alone in the air shaft, whether the mission is to find the cat, obtain shuttle supplies, or confront the big bad wolf with a flamethrower. It's like none of them have ever seen a horror movie before.

We do wonder why the big grinning alien makes a lengthy pause for dramatic effect before polishing off his next victim. Is he hoping to have his picture taken? Does he want to see if the human will drench his or her shorts?

But we know why all these things happen. Because it makes for a better movie, even if Ridley Scott works in every cliché of the genre. After all, they wouldn't become clichés if they weren't effective at generating suspense and dramatic tension. Alfred Hitchcock films often had formulaic elements, yet he may have been the greatest director of all time. He went with what worked, and so does Scott here.

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