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ALIEN (1979)

"Priority one. Insure return of any organism for analysis. All other considerations secondary. Crew expendable."

Director:   Ridley Scott

Starring:  Sigourney Weaver, Ian Holm, Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, John Hurt, Yaphet Kotto, Harry Dean Stanton, Helen Horton, Bolaji Badejo

Screenplay:  Dan O’Bannon, Walter Hill (uncredited) and David Giler (uncredited), based upon a story by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett

Synopsis: The crew of the commercial towing vehicle, The Nostromo, wakes from suspended animation. After they eat, Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt), is summoned to the control room by "Mother", the ship’s computer, while the others resume their duties. Navigation Officer Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) discovers that the ship is far off-course. Dallas explains that Mother altered the ship’s course upon intercepting a transmission of unknown origin. When technician Parker (Yaphet Kotto) objects that The Nostromo is not a rescue ship, Science Officer Ash (Ian Holm) points out that the crew’s contracts oblige them to investigate any such signals, under penalty of forfeiture of pay. Boarding their shuttle, the crew travels to the planet from which the signal is being sent. Due to turbulence, they make a rough landing, and the shuttle is damaged. While Parker and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) begin repairs, Second Officer Kane (John Hurt) volunteers to investigate the transmission. Dallas and Lambert go with him. Some distance away, the three find a huge, derelict spaceship. Inside are the fossilised remains of an alien creature. Dallas notices a rupture in the creature’s bones which bends outwards, as if something exploded out of it. On board The Nostromo, Third Officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) partially translates the signal: it is not an SOS; it is a warning…. Kane finds a shaft leading to the cargo hold. After being lowered down, he sees a strange blue glow, and discovers a clutch of leathery, egg-like objects covered by an electrically-charged mist. Testing the mist’s reactions, Kane slips into the enclosure in which the eggs nestle. To his astonishment, he sees movement within one of them. The next moment, the egg opens via three fleshy flaps. As Kane leans in to inspect the pulsating creature within, it suddenly launches from its shell, smashing its way through Kane’s face-plate. Dallas and Lambert carry Kane back to the shuttle but Ripley, now in charge, follows quarantine procedure and refuses to let them out of the decontamination chamber. Ash ignores her orders and admits the three into the infirmary. He then cuts off Kane’s helmet. The creature is wrapped around Kane’s face, gripping his face with finger-like claws and with its tail wrapped about his neck. Incredibly, Kane is still alive. Ash puts him through a scanner, and discovers that the creature has inserted a probe down his throat. Dallas orders Ash to cut the creature off, despite the potential danger to Kane. Ash cuts one of the creature’s claws, releasing a stream of blood that is also an intensely corrosive acid. To the horror of the panic-stricken crew, the fluid eats its way almost through the entire ship. Ripley confronts Ash over his ignoring of her orders. He is unapologetic. Later, Ash summons Dallas and Ripley to the infirmary. The creature has vanished. Cautiously, the three search for it, and finally it drops to the ground, dead. Ripley wants it destroyed but Dallas leaves the decision to Ash, who wants it preserved as a valuable specimen. Dallas orders the shuttle to take off, despite the repairs not being complete. Back on The Nostromo, Lambert breaks it to the others that they are ten months from Earth. Ash calls the crew to the infirmary. To their astonishment, Kane is awake and apparently healthy, although he has no memory of what happened. He is, however, ravenously hungry, and a celebratory meal is prepared. During the meal, Kane suddenly collapses, stricken by agonising convulsions. As the others watch in disbelieving horror, Kane’s chest bursts open, and a hideous, razor-toothed creature emerges….

Comments: Uh, hello? Hello? Is there anyone out there? Hello? Is this thing on…? [*taptaptaptap*]

Well, you’ve all been very patient through my ghastly sequels binge – at least, those of you who are still out there – and I hope that over the next few weeks you’ll be rewarded for it. For my next binge, I will be taking a close look at a clutch of comparatively recent horror and science fiction films; films that, while not necessarily completely original themselves, deployed their various elements so very effectively that over time they have proven to be some of the most influential movies ever made.

Or to put it another way – I’ll be reviewing half a dozen films or so that have probably been copied, ripped-off and [*cough*] re-imagined more than just about all the other films ever made put together. And as well as reviewing the films themselves, I’ll be taking a look at just what it was about them that appealed so much to their imitators. In doing so, I’ll be assuming that everyone in the known universe has seen these films. On the off chance that you haven’t, be warned: these reviews will be spoiler-rich.

(The other thing that you will notice about these films is that, not surprisingly – they all spawned sequels!! No, no, no, no, no! Don’t panic! Believe me, it is going to be some considerable time before I wade into those murky waters again, for my own sake even more than yours!)

So----

One of the first questions that has to be asked about Alien is – is it science fiction or horror? You may have noticed that I have classified as the former. This is because, early on in the site’s existence, I settled it in my own mind that any film set "in space" or "in the future" would be automatically designated as "science fiction" regardless of its content. That we are forced to make this kind of decision so often these days is due primarily to the existence of Alien. The film is often referred to as a hybrid – which is a polite way of saying that it is a monster movie with a more than usually snazzy setting. Let’s face it: by any of the classic definitions, Alien is not science fiction. It certainly doesn’t exist to make us think. It doesn’t want us to contemplate the wonders of the universe, or ponder mankind’s future, or take heed of grim warnings. Au contraire. All this film is interested in doing is scaring the living guacamole out of us.

(Apropos, I sincerely hope that whoever came up with the simply glorious tagline, In space, no-one can hear you scream, is now lying in the sun somewhere sipping margaritas and living comfortably off their residuals, because they deserve it!)

Much has been made of the origins of this film. Many people consider it to be a fairly blatant cross between Mario Bava’s Terrore Nello Spazio and the seminal something-nasty-on-the-loose-in-a-spaceship movie, It! The Terror From Beyond Space - which was itself derived from The Thing. (Queen Of Blood is another obvious candidate progenitor.) Regardless of the specific influences that operated on the film’s writers, the bottom line is, Alien is not a particularly original movie. Nor is it above using scare tactics that were old when the Brothers Grimm first put pen to paper. It had been some considerable since I last watched this film, and upon re-watching it, I was taken aback at realising just how many really cheap scares it utilises – such as Dallas knocking something over while he, Ash and Ripley are searching for the face-hugger. (I jumped, but I resented jumping.) This is not the film’s biggest flaw, however; not by a long shot. The biggest problem with Alien – a problem that at times threatens to derail the entire movie – is the presence on The Nostromo of – That Darn Cat.

Sigh….

From what we learn of "The Company" in this film, it hardly seems likely that they would be sufficiently concerned over the emotional welfare of their employees to allow pets onboard. So what, exactly, is Jones doing there? The short answer would be, acting as one of the most shameless and irritating plot contrivances I've ever come across. Four people – possibly more – worked on the screenplay of this movie. Are we honestly to assume that not one of them could think of a better way of separating Brett from his fellow searchers, or Ripley from the other potential survivors, than by putting a goddamn cat on board the ship!? And what are we to make of Ripley’s actions in the final section of the story? The cat business can’t possible be to demonstrate her "feminine side", since as the story stands there’s no need for her to have one. Moreover, up to that point, Ripley is the one crew member whose actions have been strictly professional (more on this later). And yet suddenly, she’s risking her colleagues’ lives, risking her own life, in order to rescue a cat!!?? Now, I yield to absolutely no-one in my passion for cats. I can even imagine certain situations where I might be tempted to risk myself (I hope not anybody else) in order to save one. But this would not – repeat, NOT – be on a spaceship that is about to explode, on which an unstoppable, acid-spewing, alien killing machine was running around loose! And besides, this whole sequence shows a complete lack of understanding of feline psychology. That cat knows the alien is on board. It would, therefore, without any doubt, be holed up in the smallest, tightest, least accessible point on the entire ship, not out in the open where it can be re-captured. That the cat is involved in two of the film’s most interesting moments – the animal’s crouching, hissing response to the alien’s presence, followed by its calm contemplation of Brett’s demise; the endplay confrontation between cat and alien when, intriguingly, the alien lets it live – does nothing to excuse this particular subplot. (Nor, cat-lover though I am, does the fact that this is about the only film I can think of where a cat is given the kind of Death Battle Exemption usually reserved for dogs.) This whole storyline is dumb, dumb, dumb – unforgivably dumb. And worse still – we are left to the horrifying realisation (not the least of Alien’s pernicious aftereffects) that it was this film above all others that was responsible for inflicting upon the film-watching public, seemingly in perpetuity, the Spring-Loaded Cat….

Okay. I’ve lambasted Alien for the cat subplot. I’ve criticised it for an overabundance of cheap scares. I don’t like the film, right? Wrong! The truly remarkable thing about Alien is just how well it rises above these two potentially crippling flaws. The film does work, there’s no question about that; and one of the main reasons is that it is a technical triumph. I doubt that even Ridley Scott would dispute the fact that the real stars of Alien are its production and sound design, particularly the former. The Nostromo is simply a wonderful setting. It is one of the few convincing spaceships in the history of science fiction, being neither overly simplistic, nor ridiculously "futuristic". Most movie vessels look untouched by the hand of man; The Nostromo, in contrast, is gritty, lived-in, worked-in. It’s functional. Alien opens with an extended visual prowl around the ship, which serves to orientate the viewer, and to ground the film in a tangible reality; both essential functions, in view of the events to come. (It also allows a deep appreciation of the exquisite detail in the design.) The atmospheric alien planet, with its derelict spacecraft and its fossilised resident, and the deadly cargo down below, is beautifully executed as well. The end result of all this is a persuasively alien milieu.

And that, of course, brings us to the film’s other "star": H. R. Giger’s wonderful, terrifying, xenomorphic creature – or rather, creatures. Ahhh…. You know, I’m with Ash on this one: the alien is beautiful in its purity (although not because of its lack of emotion – well, Ash would say that, wouldn’t he?); beautiful in its design; beautiful in its biology. Each stage in its life cycle is just superb, from the embryo within the egg (its flutterings mimicking the movements of many larval marine animals); to the razor-toothed intermediate stage, with its suggestively umbilical-like tail; to the streamlined savagery of the adult form. This creature is the composite of every monster we ever worried was lurking in our closet, or under our bed, or just outside the window on a dark and stormy night…. I mean, let’s be honest here: how many films are there where the monster is actually scary? Or scary once you got a good look at it? This one is – and miracle of miracles, the more you see of it, the scarier it gets. Alien succeeds as a film simply by making the threat to its characters so utterly, horrifyingly real. We believe in the crew’s danger. We believe in their fear. We believe that this creature is a threat not only to the humans in its vicinity, but to any form of life that it might encounter. This one point gives not just this film, but the whole Alien series, the kind of legs that its rivals can only dream about.

And it is, naturally enough, the alien that gives the film all of its indelible moments. If the film does have too many cheap scares, it also has some magnificent, unforgettably genuine ones, from Kane’s initial "face-hug" to (perhaps most sublime of all) Dallas’s close encounter in the air-duct. And then there’s the big one, the scene that put Alien into the collective unconscious: the chest-burster scene. Even though we have, in effect, been told what’s going to happen ("Paralyses him, puts him in a coma, then keeps him alive. What the hell is that?" ponders Dallas. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one yelling, "Wasp! Wasp!"), it is still an immense shock when it does. And this is one of those rare shock scenes that retains its power no matter how many times you watch it (or how often it’s been copied – and parodied). It is not just the visceral nature of the imagery that makes this episode so compelling, however; it is also the unmistakable air of complete physical revulsion that accompanies it. As a number of commentators have pointed out, this whole sequence has some pretty disturbing things to say about our attitudes to pregnancy and childbirth. In this context, it is doubly fascinating that the victim of the alien’s reproductive cycle is a man. This is another of those touches that lifts Alien out of the realm of the mere exploitation film: it avoids the obvious. I’ve seen the chest-burster scene replicated more times than I care to remember, and in every other instance the victim is a woman – who, more often than not, has not been impregnated via her throat. It would have been easy enough, after all, to make Lambert the first victim. By instead choosing Kane, the threat of the creature is instantly broadened; everyone is equally at risk, the threat being not just death, but the total corruption and abuse of the human body; the reduction of mankind to the level of the insect. (It is an immense pity, I think, that the "cocoon" sequence was cut. Not only does it contain some fascinating character touches, it adds a whole extra dimension to this aspect of the story.) Kane’s fate serves as a focal point for Alien’s all-encompassing sexual and biological imagery. Numerous reviewers have gone completely Freudian with their interpretations of this film, and it is not difficult to see why. With its near-organic design, its endless winding corridors and pipes and ducts, its dripping cooling towers, The Nostromo itself ultimately feels like some kind of mysterious organism; or perhaps just that organism’s reproductive system. Much of the power of Alien lies in the fact that the fears it conjures up are (like those found in many of David Cronenberg’s films) of a distinctly venereal nature.

While Alien’s screenplay shows rather too many obvious influences in its main plot points, on another level it contains some remarkably subtle and interesting writing. We are never told anything outright about the world, the universe, in which the story takes place, but the hints are many and fascinating. Before realising how far from home The Nostromo is, Lambert puts out a call, identifying the ship as being "out of The Solomons" and trying to make contact with "Antarctica traffic control". This in itself is enough to sketch a picture of the world – our world – turned upside-down. We know too that The Nostromo is towing "20,000,000 tons of mineral ore" – indicating an Earth with its resources utterly exhausted. Space has not merely been conquered, but space travel itself has become mundane enough to be relegated to a bunch of ordinary working joes. And what of the crew? You kind of get the feeling that these guys do the work they do in order to avoid military service. Or perhaps, more likely still, because they didn’t qualify for military service. Then we have The Company – The Company. An organisation big enough, rich enough – possibly desperate enough – to send its ships across half the universe to obtain the materials it needs. An organisation with its very own "Weapons Division"; one that is perfectly prepared to sacrifice its employees in order to bolster that Division. And in order to facilitate this still further, The Company replaces one of those employees with a robot, one programmed to assist its cause at all cost. When Ash’s true identity is revealed, the others are shocked by the realisation that he is a robot, but not that such a thing is possible. More "assumed knowledge" is evident when the crew discusses investigating the intercepted signal. At no point do they take for granted that it is of human origin. When Dallas, Kane and Lambert approach the abandoned spaceship, they are awestruck by its size and design, not by its existence. Nor does the fossilised creature inside cause then anything but mild surprise. Furthermore, when the face-hugger is being examined, the comment is not that they’ve never seen anything like it, merely that they’ve never seen anything specifically like it. Taken all together, these lightly sketched details paint an intriguing and yet quite disturbing picture of man’s future. (And yes, upon reflection, I guess this does qualify Alien as science fiction.)

Even granting the supreme importance and effectiveness of the film’s settings, it would not work as well as it does without the cast it has, the characters it has. Not merely thematically is Alien an old-fashioned movie, but also (and very gratifyingly) in its use of an ensemble cast. This is the kind of grouping you just don’t see these days – primarily, I guess, because films are "packaged" with "stars" attached; and once you’ve paid for a "star" there isn’t much money left over to hire anyone else. The closest person Alien has to a "star" is John Hurt – and even so, he’s the first one killed off. (Couldn’t afford to keep him any longer, perhaps?) By peopling The Nostromo with character actors, the film-makers make it simply impossible for the audience to guess in advance who is going to live and who is going to die – and this adds immeasurably to the tension generated. (Not content with this, the script whittles its players down in a most unexpected fashion. When we enter endgame, our choice of survivors is from amongst a robot, a black man, and two women. Name me one other movie where anything like that is the case.) At the same time, the actual characters are not always as satisfactory as we might wish, particularly in their responses to the threat confronting them. Granted, as mentioned previously, the crew members are not military personnel, trained to deal with crisis situations. Nevertheless, much of their behaviour is (usually quite literally) suicidally stupid, from Kane sticking his face over the open egg, to Brett wandering around by himself in the dark, to Ripley going after Jones. As individuals, we don’t learn much about most of our characters beyond a script touch or two; only Dallas, Ripley and (ironically) Ash really linger in the mind as people. Of Kane and Brett we know next to nothing; Parker’s role is bigger, but we still don’t know him. Lambert--- Who was it I once dubbed Whiny Girl? Lambert is just plain irritating, particularly in her death scene, when she just sits there whimpering and waiting for the alien to kill her. (Man, I hate that! In fairness, though, I suspect that the character of Lambert may have suffered from the unanticipated developments in the character of Ripley. You get the feeling that as Ripley became stronger, the film-makers felt that Lambert had to become weaker, just to balance the ledger - because, you know, the notion of two competent women in the one film is just ridiculous.) Dallas we do get a good look at, and it isn’t always a pleasant sight. (There is a tendency these days to discuss Dallas in terms of his "relationship" with Ripley. However, those comments are based purely on external evidence, not on anything in the completed film. As things stand, the only vague hint we get is the pair’s instinctive clutch of each other after Ripley’s encounter with the dead face-hugger.) The captain comes across as rather weak and vacillating, happy to delegate the decision-making to Ash whenever he can; happy also to "take responsibility" when it’s someone else’s life at stake (removing the creature from Kane), but less so when it’s his own (trying against procedure to induce Ripley to admit himself, Lambert and the infected Kane). Perhaps coming to terms with the fact that it is at least partially his own fault that the alien is loose, Dallas does finally redeem himself by volunteering to enter the air ducts in search of the creature – one of the film’s unforgettable sequences.

And then there’s Ash. Hmm, yes, Ash…. You know, I’m rather ambivalent about Ash. Yes, he’s the film’s villain (naturally – because he’s a scientist. Or, he’s a scientist because he’s the film’s villain. However you prefer to put it). Yes, he protects the creature at the expense of the crew. Yes, he tries to kill Ripley and Parker. But – these, ah, character quirks aside, he’s also one of the more interesting movie scientists I’ve come across. For me, Alien contains an irony both beautiful and frustrating. In film after film after film, no-one listens to the scientist until it’s too late (even after having called him or her in and asked for their advice); here, they listen to every single thing that the Science Officer says – at the cost of almost all of their lives. The other weird thing – and perhaps this is intended as evidence of Ash’s robotic nature, who knows? – Ash behaves like a scientist. His conduct in handling Kane and investigating the alien, even the fact that – Good Lord! – he wears gloves, is straight out of the textbook. Even his evident admiration of the alien is credible. But of course, all of these things turn out to have a sinister meaning; as does Ash’s general behaviour. The audience (weirdos like me excepted, of course) is not encouraged to like Ash. His coolness, his rationality, and his attitude to the alien are presented as negative qualities. His very professionalism condemns him. You can practically hear the disgusted chorus of, Well, what do you expect? – he’s a scientist. When the revelation scene finally comes (another of the film’s great shocks), the upshot is that the viewer is left with the suggestion that scientist and robot are interchangeable terms. Of course, this is hardly unprecedented. In choosing to champion the emotional over the rational, Alien simply follows the lead of more science fiction films than I care to remember. Personally, I can’t bring myself to entirely condemn Ash (not just because of my professional prejudices, but also because of the wonderfully nuanced performance of Ian Holm). After all – to paraphrase Jessica Rabbit – he’s not really evil, he’s just programmed that way. And to be perfectly honest – I find Ash’s demise and its aftermath more disturbing than anything else that happens in this film. What that says about me, I don’t know.

Which brings us to Ripley.

It is difficult – almost impossible, in fact – to discuss Ripley’s role in Alien without your reactions being coloured by the legendary status that the character has since achieved. Undoubtedly, Ellen Ripley is one of modern science fiction’s great icons – I’d go so far as to say the greatest. Who could have imagined such a thing when this film was in production? Not its original writers, that’s for sure, since, as is well-known, the role was written for a man. The gender switch is one of Alien’s masterstrokes. (Disheartening, though. Why is it not possible to write a role for an actress and yet have it turn out like this…?) It is not immediately apparent that Ripley will rise to be the film’s hero; at the outset she is merely – so to speak – one of the boys. Over time, however, something intriguing happens – not just in terms of this story, but of films in general. Ripley is the only one of the crew who, regardless of the specific circumstances, consistently goes by the book. Let’s think about that, shall we? How many movies can you name where the "hero" is a renegade, a lone wolf, the one that refuses to take orders? Conversely, how many films are there where "following orders" is somehow interpreted as a sign of limited brainpower? Alien is different. Throughout, Ripley tries to do her job properly, to follow procedure, despite being thwarted at nearly every turn by either Ash’s ulterior motives or Dallas’s spinelessness. She is first distinguished from the other crew members, and gets to display the steel in her character, when she refuses to override quarantine protocol and admit Dallas, Lambert and Kane into the ship. Later, when Dallas and Kane, the two senior officers, are gone, Ripley takes command, as is her right. Refreshingly, none of the others dispute her authority. Ripley continues to go by the book until the book no longer applies – at which point, she relies upon her own initiative and intelligence, and is allowed to triumph.

The final scenes of Alien work because of Sigourney Weaver’s intensity and conviction, which are sufficient to carry us over the various plot contrivances, and even to get us over that whole ridiculous "cat" business. (Well – almost.) One of the most entertaining aspects of this section of the film is the way it plays with the audience’s expectations regarding the self-destruct countdown. Has there ever been another film where the hero’s attempt to diffuse a bomb failed? I can’t think of one. Here it happens, most unexpectedly (as the countdown dropped below ten, I’m sure every first time viewer was waiting for the seemingly inevitable last-moment "self-destruct aborted" announcement; I know I was), and throws a whole new level of tension into the story. When Ripley makes her escape in the shuttle (ironic, given the film’s tagline, that it cannot resist noises and flames in outer space), we are hardly as certain as she is of the alien’s destruction. We know it must be somewhere on board, and yet despite this, the revelation of its whereabouts is yet another great jump scene. Terrified, and rightly, yet not paralysed by her fears (Weaver’s performance here is just marvellous, particularly the shake in her voice when Ripley sings "You Are My Lucky Star" to herself in order to keep her nerve up), Ripley’s final disposal of the creature is via a wonderfully intelligent sequence of events. Lots of science fiction films try to demonstrate mankind’s "superiority"; Alien gets close to doing it. In the final battle, imagination wins over pure biology. Ripley’s victory is not one of luck (at least, not pure luck), or an accident; it is the outcome of a combination of brains, courage and ingenuity. Without any grandstanding, we are made aware of what a human being can be capable of when faced with a crisis. It is a remarkably satisfying experience.

Another pleasing aspect of Alien, at least as far as it goes, is that gender is rarely an issue. No-one is ever ordered to do something – or not to do something – because they’re a woman, or because they’re a man. Everyone just does their job. On the other hand, when gender does intrude, it really intrudes. First of all (and irritating enough), we have Lambert’s continual teariness and snivelling. In addition, there are two notable incidents involving Ripley, one astonishing, the other simply inexcusable. The first occurs after Ripley has discovered the truth about the mission, and attacks Ash out of fury and terror. He then attacks her, savagely. He throws her down on a bunk (whose? - we don’t know) and we see that she is surrounded by girlie pictures. Ash then picks up a men’s magazine, rolls it up, and forces it into Ripley’s mouth, almost choking her to death. At one moment, this ugly scene seems blatant enough in its meaning; the next, Ash is revealed to be a robot and the scene is stripped of all obvious interpretations – and is left all the more disturbing for it. The other scene that forces gender issues upon us is perhaps the film’s most notorious sequence ("notorious" in a bad way, I mean, not like the chest-burster), when Ripley prepares for her final confrontation with the alien while running around in the skimpiest of underwear.

You know – I wish I didn’t have to talk about this. I wish it didn’t exist. It is unnecessary, it is tasteless, it is utterly infuriating! Why, oh why, oh why, after doing so much right with respect to the characters all through the film, did they suddenly insist on doing something as tacky and exploitative as this?

What really bothers me about this scene is not just that it’s there, but that the script was so obviously structured to accommodate it. Perhaps we don’t realise it at first, as we watch the crew of The Nostromo wake from suspended animation in the film’s opening scene (significantly, Ripley and Lambert are both out of shot), but eventually the question does occur: why in the world would the crewmembers have to take their clothes off in order to be frozen? I can’t think of a reason, and the screenplay certainly never offers one. But by establishing early on that, for whatever reason, it is necessary, the film-makers set up one of the most gratuitous scenes in film history. Like everyone else on board, Ripley has been dressed throughout in sensible work clothes. When she prepares for freezing, however, she peels those off and strips right down to the flimsiest of sleeveless undertops (no bra, of course) and a pair of panties so small and ill-fitting that you get the impression that she must have prepared for the mission in an awful hurry and packed her kid sister’s knickers by mistake. And it is dressed like that (if "dressed" isn’t rather too strong a word for it) that Ripley realises that the alien has not been blown up with The Nostromo – which naturally provokes a bout of agitated running around, all of it captured by the camera in loving detail. And you know what pisses me off the most about this? Even more than the very fact of it? It is that as soon as Ripley is in her underwear, the camera drops to crotch-level – and stays there until she slips into the spacesuit; at which time it lifts back to the normal height.

I don’t know, maybe I’m overreacting. Probably I am. But to have that scene come so completely out of the blue, to force this film’s strong and resourceful heroine into such a demeaning situation when it is so patently unnecessary is not merely offensive, it’s bitterly disappointing. And – it is extremely unwise. Alien’s setting and design might conspire to distract us from the fact, but the truth of the matter is that at heart there is not really all that much difference between this film and any old slasher movie you might care to mention. It’s set in a spaceship rather than a summer camp, and the killer is an alien rather than a knife-wielding maniac, but those two factors aside, there’s not as much distance between Alien and some of the more disreputable horror films as its makers would like you to believe. And when we find ourselves watching the classic slasher film situation of Final Girl heroine versus seemingly unstoppable killer, having that heroine stripped to her underwear makes Alien seem considerably less like great science fiction, and rather more like second-rate horror.

Alien was a huge success, of course, and still more hugely influential – perhaps the most influential of the films I’ll cover over the next few weeks. Unfortunately, most of that influence has been exerted in the most dismal of ways. With the single possible exception of Halloween, Alien has been responsible for inspiring the production of more Idiot Pictures than any other film in history. And it isn’t difficult to see why. Exactly as with Halloween, the imitators stole just the bare bones of their model, then used them as the basis of a seemingly endless stream of weak, obvious, yawningly predictable knock-offs. It doesn’t take much effort to imagine the reasoning behind all of this. "Hey, let’s make a film like Alien! Dark corridors! We need dark corridors! Nah, they don’t have to have anything in them. And a monster! We won’t show it, so it’ll be cheap. And all the cast will have to do is run around in the dark screaming and swearing, so they won’t have to be good actors. And, hell! – we don’t need to waste money on a screenplay at all!" Sigh…. What these people don’t seem to realise – or maybe they don’t care – is that the things that made Alien work are completely out of their grasp. It worked because of its monster; it worked because of its setting; it worked because of the care put into its casting. And above all, perhaps, it worked because of Ripley. Ironically, what should have been the most influential aspect of Alien has been the least. Oh sure, we’ve got Ripley clones by the dozen; that’s not what I mean. What Alien does so successfully is what producers nowadays keep trying to tell us that you cannot do: base your story around a female character and still have it appeal to both sexes and all (or most) ages. There isn’t much doubt that Sigourney Weaver really lucked out when she landed the role of Ripley. Alien was not, as is frequently asserted, Weaver’s film debut. It was her first starring role, however, and she seized the opportunity (one that most actresses these days would probably kill for) with both hands. Looking back with twenty years of hindsight, it is startling, even astonishing, to realise that Sigourney Weaver isn’t top-billed in this film, but listed after Tom Skerritt! How on earth did they justify that? By any possible definition Weaver is the film’s star, even if she was comparatively unknown at the time it was made. Were the bean-counters worried that if they let on that the film starred a woman, the teenaged boys wouldn’t pay to see it? Unbelievable…. Thankfully, when Aliens finally rolled around (an incredible seven years later), this injustice was thoroughly rectified, with Sigourney Weaver achieving science fiction superstardom, and her creation an indelible place in the modern mythology.

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