Alien

*****

Reviewed by: Scott Macdonald

"Scott wrings out every last drop of suspense from the film."

"Here kitty, kitty...." - yikes!

Ridley Scott has obvious gifts in getting the right visual talent together - his great films are prime examples of "cinema du look". Alien boasts grimy, dirty spaceships the size of cathedrals, astonishing sets, wonderful visual effects and camerawork which when combined with the central creature's brilliant design work to evoke a gnawing atmosphere. The only way to get the most out of Alien at home is to grab a letterboxed widescreen copy. The film's superb visuals inspired 20th Century Fox to begin releasing letterboxed VHS tapes in the late Eighties, and inspired many into laserdisc. The current DVDs look great! But the full visual impact of Alien hits best in the cinema. Miss it at your peril.

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Seven tug vessel crewmembers are awoken from suspended animation to look into an alien signal's point of origin. A malevolent creature attacks one of the crew, Kane (John Hurt) and incapacitates him, keeping him unconscious but alive. The crew take him back to the spaceship to treat him, and the alien wreaks terrifying havoc - including Kane's spectacular and gruesome death - onboard.

Essentially, it's a few people stranded far from home, in a set of circumstances making it near-impossible to run away, who are facing "the perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility". It's a classical haunted house film, matched superbly by its dirty futuristic setting. There's nothing especially new about Alien, but the film is every bit as structurally perfect as its chosen antagonist.

Blade Runner suffers greatly from its thin story and characterisation. Alien shares these problems, but a great horror movie does not need a strong story - choosing to prey effectively on timing and execution. Even so, let us take the crew members, each of which has their own traits, and develop through their actions with one another for the attentive viewer. The superb nightmarish designs of the alien's forms by H.R. Giger work masterfully, like the facehugger, which managed to combine the fear of spiders, snakes, smothering, strangulation, asexual rape, and claustrophobia in a single entity.

To discuss the alien's future forms would be tantamount to blasphemy for those who have never seen it. Even so, the editing and lighting rarely lets you get a good look at it. This, with the superb visual atmosphere claws away at the viewer. While viewing the film theatrically, the self-destruct finale is a tour de force of terror. The smoke and steam, the sweat and strobe lighting illuminating and hiding crucial - and critical - detail from us. Where or when will the beast emerge?!

Look through the credits, they last around two minutes - an incredibly short length. This is a result of Ridley Scott's tight-knit British crew, assembling great visual minds together from his television commercial background. The small number of credits means less abstraction, and every design decision filters through the director without going through committee. The real beauty of Alien is its beauty.

The new "director's cut" of Alien isn't strictly Ridley Scott's preferred version of the film. The main addition is the discovery of the cocooned captain. Right at the tension-packed climax, the film's clammy fear is of paramount concern - and all this scene does is remove you from it.

So, sticking with the theatrical cut, Scott wrings out every last drop of suspense from the film. The best horror films work to create a sense of genuine fear and dread, and Alien deserves to be remembered as one of the greatest of them all.

Reviewed on: 07 Sep 2006
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Ridley Scott's fabulously frightening grimy spaceship classic.
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Director: Ridley Scott

Writer: Dan O'Bannon, Ronald Shusett

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

Year: 1979

Runtime: 117 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: UK

Festivals:

Sci-Fi 2008
BIFF 2017

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