Writer Matt Dawson looks back at one of sci-fi’s greatest achievements, Alien.
Considering the success of recent sci-fi films such as Interstellar and Gravity, it’s clear to see how they were inspired by earlier classics. One such film is Alien, which sees the crew of the Nostromo led by Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt, Top Gun, MASH), a mining ship in the far future, encounter a mysterious extra-terrestrial life form and struggle to survive as it picks them off whilst drifting in space.
It’s bizarre to see how different Alien is to its subsequent sequels. Instead of going down the high-octane action route, the film establishes itself as more of a horror, with director Ridley Scott providing a clear emphasis on tone and style. He effectively creates an ambience of suspense, which coupled with a chilling soundtrack and perfectly timed (but never overused) ‘jump scares’, leaves the audience on the edge of their seats. However, this means that the build up to this is quite slow, and the first 30 minutes can be a bit dull, especially as sections like the opening sequence drag on for longer than needed. Even after the film has picked up, it still felt as if there were periods where the plot slowed unnecessarily.
This slow pace does mean that we can spend some time getting to know the crew properly, which is better than most modern horror casts. Skerritt plays a typical, self-sacrificing leader, but it’s the other members of the cast that shine through. Ian Holm (Lord of the Rings, The Fifth Element) gives a brilliantly nuanced and understated performance as Ash the Science Officer, and Sigourney Weaver (Ghostbusters, Avatar) particularly stands out as Ripley, a fantastically independent heroine. Ripley proved that she could hold her own amongst a male dominated cast and created what could be one of the most famous female characters in film, going on to star in most of the franchise. Unfortunately, there are some weak links, specifically Lambert (Veronica Cartwright, Invasion of the Body Snatchers), a whiny and irritating counterpoint to Ripley. John Hurt (V for Vendetta), while giving a solid performance, was under-utilised and deserved more screen time.
Considering it is a product of its time, Alien’s heavy use of practical effects mean that they have lost none of their impact 35 years later. The infamous “chestburster” scene remains terrifying, and the prosthetics and design of the creature are so iconic that they have become integrated into modern cinematic culture.
Despite its pacing issues and some minor casting mishaps, Alien is still a thoroughly enjoyable sci-fi film with horror elements, some brilliant practical effects and introduced the world to one of cinemas greatest action heroines in Ripley. Just try not to let any sub-standard sequels dilute it.