Why Is Alien Such a Good Movie?
So what better way to accompany the release of Alien: Isolation than with a review of the first film in this incredible license? Not much, you might say, and you'd be right. However, I must confess that tackling it fills me with anxiety.
How, indeed, can I pay tribute to one of the greatest masterpieces of genre cinema, one of the pillars of science fiction, the king of interstellar angst, without exposing myself to forgetting the detail that changes everything, to an editorial mediocrity that makes me miss the point? In short, talking about Alien scares me as much as watching it, but I'm going to take the risk, because for one thing: I only have to assume when I choose the subject of my articles, and for another: this film offers so many levels of reading, and sets up so many codes of the "monster movie" that it's always fascinating to analyze it!
So get your favorite tea or coffee, and enjoy our "Why is Alien such a good movie?" article!
In the beginning was the data sheet
Released in 1979, directed by the then-unknown Ridley Scott, and produced by Fox, who just wanted to ride the tsunami unleashed by another Fox-produced sci-fi film, Star Wars. The screenplay was penned by Walter Hill and Dan O'bannon, who also penned the scripts for 3 and 4, while the music was provided by Jerry Goldsmith, just the guy who scored Gremlins, Planet of the Apes, Total Recall, Basic Instinct and many more! Last but not least, the cast includes a bunch of cinema unknowns in roles that would later become cult favorites: Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley (funfact : originally it was supposed to be a man in the role of the film's "hero") John Hurt as Kane; Ian Holm as Ash; Veronica Cartwright as Lambert; Harry Dean Stanton as Brett; Yaphet Kotto as Parker and Tom Skerritt as Captain Dallas, not forgetting Bolaji Badejo in the ugliest role of all, that of the monster!
The film was an immediate success, both commercially and critically, winning the Oscar for Best Visual Effects and totally dominating the Saturn Awards (a ceremony held by the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror to reward the best films in the genre), taking home three awards, including (obviously) Best Science Fiction Film of All Time (or just Best Science Fiction Film, but I think it's the other). With a profit of over $100 million for a film that cost just $11 million, it's fair to say that Fox made a good profit, but why such a success?
In space, no one can match this subtlety
In absolute terms, the film's basic scenario is simple: "a band of cosmonauts emerges from an artificial sleep next to an unknown planet with orders to find the origin of a mysterious signal. There, one of them is infected by a parasite that will turn out to be a monster that will decimate the crew members one by one." What makes such a scenario absolutely fascinating is the finesse with which it is handled: the film's opening scene is a perfect example.
The film begins from the orbit of an unknown planet, total silence reigns, then the music starts, just a few notes that set the theme, and a mysterious bar appears in the center at the top of the screen. A few credits appear, and we continue to orbit this yellow/orange planet tinged with black, while other bars continue to appear at the top of the screen. At last, the camera leaves the planet's orbit and heads out into interstellar nothingness, where we finally understand that the bars are in fact the letters of the film's title. Two minutes have passed and we finally understand what we're looking at, but silence still reigns and the music is as unobtrusive as ever. Suddenly, a strange, immense vessel appears, moving noiselessly and seemingly adrift.
We are now told via text that this spaceship is called the Nostromo, that it is a cargo ship and that its destination is Earth. The camera then plunges us inside the ship, with nothing moving except the two little gadget-birds that swing tirelessly. Time seems to stand still aboard this dark ship. Suddenly, a computer lights up, calculates a series of incomprehensible numbers and then shuts down just as abruptly, but the machine is up and running: the lights come on and, in a strange white room, cocoons open up and, at last, we see men slowly waking up, dragged out of a deep sleep by the mysterious alarm. We have to wait another minute or two for the first dialogue between them, almost a quarter of an hour into the film.
The reason this scene is so masterful is that it immediately sets the mood for the film: the viewer is already completely lost, even denied for a few seconds the possibility of understanding a simple five-letter word, with no spatial cues, no explanation of what we're doing here, and the crew arriving in total isolation and silence. Suffice to say, empathy for the characters won't be hard to establish, since they're just as lost as you are!
The ship of anguish
This sense of disorientation lasts throughout the film, yet the pace is slow: there's not a scene where you can't take the time to observe the scenery without missing any of the action, but no, there's simply no way: the architecture of the Nostromo is too labyrinthine, too strange, you won't be able to find your way around! The living quarters are white, the corridors of the lower decks are black, as are the merchandise warehouses, but the characters, who have mastered this environment, move very quickly from one setting to another, without giving us much time to see where they've entered.
Unfortunately, loss of direction isn't the only anxiety you'll feel as you gaze at this film's marvellous scenery: there's also a strong sense of claustrophobia. It's simple: everything in this film seems to be squeezed together, like in a submarine, there's barely room to pass each other in the ship's corridors, the slightly open rooms are filled with a mess that multiplies hiding places and shadowy areas, you can hardly breathe and the scene in the air ducts a little later finishes us off, you're literally suffocating and you want to escape this labyrinth! Who managed to pull off this tour de force, creating a ship that is the exact opposite of Doctor Who's Tardis, huge on the outside and tiny on the inside?
Well, I'll give you the answer: Jean Giraud, alias Moebius (he's not credited because, unfortunately, following a major disagreement with production, he left the team early on in the shoot), an iconic figure in science-fiction comics: co-creator of Humanoïdes Associés, the publishing house of Métal Hurlant magazine, he wrote a saga called L'Incal, a psychedelic space trip I've never really understood, he also worked on the sets for Tron and even a bit on The Fifth Element! In short, this guy wasn't just starting out when Ridley Scott asked him to design the Nostromo. But this formidable spaceship isn't the only setting in the film: like a Skywalker, there's... another one!
And yes, of course, how can we talk about Alien without mentioning the famous planet from which cinema's most impressive and terrifying monsters originate? Soberly named LV-426 (we don't learn this name until the second film), it could just as easily have been called Hell or the Cradle of Death or any other name in the style so dear to metal bands, so inhospitable is it: the air is filled with methane and is unbreathable, the temperature is close to absolute zero, it's plunged into a permanent blizzard and in the scene where our heroes wander through its devastated lands, the sun is supposed to have risen! And yet, it's in the heart of the island that lies the origin of the signal that led Captain Dallas and his crew to land on this godforsaken rock. A ship of unknown origin has crashed on a corner of this planet and keeps sending out the same signal every 12 seconds. That ship is this one:
Impressive, isn't it?
Atrociously dark, yet empty and gigantic, it's the antithesis of the Nostromo. It's a ship that wasn't built by man that's for sure, the corridors look like piles of bones, there's no trace of technology and the only evidence that there was any life on board is this gigantic, fossilized being, the only witness to whatever precipitated the ship's fall to this planet, perpetually seated in this "cockpit" (?) with its ribcage open from the inside.
->Here is one of the film's most iconic shots...
This is also the fateful moment, the arrival of the antagonist who presents himself to us in the form of an egg. Here, it's another incredible artist who handles the designs for everything alien in the film: Hans Ruedi Giger. Mixing sex, skeleton and mechanics, his work is extremely destabilizing, and for the record, the first time he met the film's scriptwriters, he offered them opium, after they politely declined, he reportedly felt compelled to explain that he was taking it to "stop dreaming." (All's well!) And Giger's work is so extraordinary that he even changes part of the script: indeed, originally, the alien was supposed to behave a bit like Jason in Friday the 13th: He sees, he kills.
Instead, thanks to his distinctive design, the scriptwriters changed the monster's character, giving him the disturbing look he has today.
One monster to rule them all
At last we come to my favorite part of this review, the part where I explain in all seriousness why Alien is not only a very successful scary movie, with crazy sets and designs, but also the weirdest, most disturbing sex movie you've ever seen. It's all about design and behavior.
Let's start at the beginning: the egg, and more precisely its top. Giger's design was quite explicit, but you can clearly make out two intersecting vaginas that open up and invite people to tilt their heads and look inside. Then you'll tell me, you're the one with the misplaced mind, it opens like a flower!... in skin... with liquid dripping from the openings... Anyway, let's not stop there because it gets worse afterwards!
The second form of Alien, the aptly named "facehugger", is what lies inside the egg and jumps up in the face of the unwary who lean over to look.
Here again, the creature can be broken down into two hands glued together palm to palm, with a tail that strangles the prey and, once again, a shape reminiscent of a woman's sex in the middle, from which a proboscis emerges and forcibly inserts itself into the victim's throat to inject a foetus! This chronicle is becoming more and more cheerful...
The third form: the cutest? (Well, except for the host...) The chestbuster is simply when the fetus has reached maturity, it comes out. Except that it comes out like a big, fat bastard, because it hits so hard that it bursts the ribcage of its mom or dad from the inside! (Yippee!) So why the cutest shape? Simply because it's a baby alien, so it looks a bit cute, except that with the shape of its head (because it's the head that comes out first), it looks a bit like a big penis that explodes a person's chest before running away... Aliens don't have much of a family instinct, it's not something they're used to.
Finally, the last form, the one you simply can't forget once you've seen it: the adult xenomorph (yes, it goes from baby to adult in like 3 hours... you really don't stand a chance).
A creature some 2.50 m tall, with six fingers on each hand and a tail armed with a spike, it is vaguely humanoid, with a second small jaw for a tongue, but no face, no eyes, no nose, no ears, yet it doesn't seem to have the slightest difficulty in finding its way in space and stalking its prey. In terms of design reminiscent of sexual themes, it's simply covered in them: its tail, its head, the funny tubes it has on its back, its tongue, its drool etc. But what's really interesting is its behavior.
The xenomorph is a hunter who likes to take his time, often with terrifying results. In fact, it takes pleasure in pinning down its prey, then looks at it without moving and gloats: its head shakes harder and harder, it drools more and more, and *SHLACK* its little mouth suddenly shoots out and pierces the prey. We wonder whether he really wants to kill or just assault his victim, because he doesn't behave like a predator looking to feed and therefore trying to be as efficient as possible, but more like a sexual predator: he stalks, isolates and penetrates with the utmost violence the person on whom he has set his sights.
The scene in which he attacks Lambert (the only other woman with Ripley) is particularly explicit: he's not brutal with her, he goes very slowly, first positioning himself so that she can no longer flee, then slipping his cock between her legs and moving up as far as he can to place the spike just behind her neck so that she can't pull back either. He slowly places his hands on her and kills her, once again, with his little mouth that so closely resembles the male sex. This isn't a predatory attack, it's rape, and that's why Alien is so scary. We're shown a monster who doesn't behave like a monster, he's not bloodthirsty, he's a rapist. His design is as far from human as possible, but his behavior brings out the worst in human beings, their darkest impulses, without the slightest hint of empathy or remorse, symbolized by the absence of a face. That's why the protagonists find it so hard to fight against him, seeing him as an animal when in fact they're dealing with an intelligent being, and that's also the mistake viewers make when they think they're watching a film about an imaginary monster when in fact it's about a very real and profound threat.
Alien is truly a cult movie
Indestructible, often imitated: it inspired all the concepts of "the less you show the antagonist the scarier he is." Alien is visceral, disturbing, its monster fascinating and elegant, but at the same time ugly and terrifying: you can't help looking at it when you should be running away. The characters, these space truckers who don't get paid enough for their bullshit, are really endearing, and the ordeal to which they are subjected is totally undeserved! We tremble with them, we cry in terror with them, and we want to beat the shit out of that stupid cat, the empathy is total. Incredible designs, millimeter-perfect angst management, and a score that keeps the tension at its peak throughout the film with as much discretion as brilliance. I'll never stop saying that Alien the Eighth Passenger is a masterpiece. Watch it and you'll be transcended (and you'll never look at air ducts in the same way again)! Well, I haven't mentioned a few details such as "Maman", the Nostromo's onboard computer, a disembodied figure of a dehumanized and oppressive multinational corporation, the alien's blood, Ash, but all that's pretty explicit in the film, so I'll leave you with the pleasure of (re)discovering it, inviting you once again to settle down at the back of the sofa in the dark and put on Alien to spend, of course, an excellent evening!
That's it for today, we hope you enjoyed our "Why is Alien such a good movie?" article!