by: Ian Blaylock
This week I watched 1979’s Alien, directed by Ridley Scott. Although it was my first time viewing the film, I was aware of the general premise. At some point an alien would show up, and things were going to get bad.
At film school, one of my professors, Dennis Brown, says that when a movie is good, it is because the elements that make up a movie: script, acting, directing, music, sound, production design, effects, etc. all work together in a cohesive way. Alien is a really good example of a film that achieves a high level of cohesion. This cohesion begins as soon as the film begins. The opening sequence shows off both the artwork (matte paintings), as well as the music of Jerry Goldsmith. The matte painting shows the setting, space, and the foreboding music sets the tone for what is to come.
What struck me about the following sequence was definitely the production design. The interiors of the ship were very beautiful. The art department did an exceptional job at making the ship look rugged, industrial, futuristic, but also modern. While some of the computer concepts come off as dated today, the general dated aesthetic of the ship helps keep this dated technology believable.
The characters in this film are interesting too. Around this time, popular on-screen science fiction had been dealing with ideas of exploration and war as seen in Star Wars, Star Trek, and Battlestar Galactica. What Alien does that is different from these other three works is that Alien takes the modern worker from 1979, and places them in a science fiction future. The crew of the Nostromo is largely concerned with being paid for their time, and getting home. Most of them balk at the idea of stopping to check out the unknown transmission. They have very little desire to explore space, and they are also largely irresponsible. They bend and break the rules they don’t like, and are really only looking out for themselves. They rely on technology, but with the exception of Mother, the ship’s computer, they don’t really seem to care all that much for it. It’s a really refreshing take on the science fiction genre, because so much of what was in the public perception in terms of science fiction had to do with themes of “higher duty.” Alien really strays away from the good of the universe, and focuses on the survival of the crew. Our protagonist, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), is a really organic character. She’s also a bit of an “every-man” too. She cares about her job, her crew, her pet, etc. which I think helps the audience relate to her. Blake Snyder wrote that one way to get the audience to support the protagonist in a movie is for the protagonist to “save the cat,” or do something that shows that they are a good and sympathetic character. In Alien, Ripley takes care of, and (spoiler) saves the cat, which I think is a little funny.
I think the filmmakers really utilize their characters well. They each have a purpose to fill in the story. Dallas (Tom Skerritt) commands the ship. When the alien is on board, he has to be the first one to go to stop it. Kane (John Hurt) is essentially the catalyst of the film. He brings the alien into the story. Ripley is our protagonist, but she also is capable, and flexible. She’s not just able to do one job, but can adapt in a tough situation. Parker (Yaphet Kotto) may be mostly concerned with getting paid, but he also is pivotal in trying to get the crew to safety, and protects Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) when the alien is on the prowl. Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) banters with Parker, and during the hunt for the alien, goes after the cat. Ash (Ian Holm) provides information about the alien.
From a social commentary perspective, it is interesting to note that the men are responsible for the arrival of the alien. Kane goes too far when he explores, and Ash breaks protocol by opening the airlock, allowing Kane back on board. What is also interesting is that all the white guys (Spoiler) die first. The two women, and Parker are the last three humans alive on the ship. While Lambert gets hysterical from the stress, the remaining crew rally around her so that she can continue. Parker is instrumental in providing resources for the escape from the ship. He also defends Lambert when they go to get coolant. What is really important about Ripley’s character is that she shows that women can perform well under intense pressure, and can achieve despite great odds. She goes toe-to-toe with the male characters in the film, especially Ash and Dallas, and proves that she is a good leader.
Back to the other elements of the film, sound and music work together to set the tone throughout the movie. Scenes with high tension may have no music or extra sound at all, but once something suddenly happens, the sound roars back into the scene. It is a classic way to build suspense, and the filmmakers use it well.
Although I’ve touched on it a little already, the visuals are really strong in this movie. The filmmakers use lighting and color effectively. In the opening scene on the ship, there is a lot of light as the ship wakes up, but as the story turns dark, the ship becomes increasingly dark. At first there is a lot of white and light grey visible, but as things get worse, the colors get darker too. Once things get really bad, all sorts of lights, strobe effects, and steam effects start on board the ship. These elements really add to the chaos of the film.
It’s also important to note that the creature designs, and prosthetics for the creatures are incredibly creative, and are extremely well done. In a monster movie, the execution of the monster is always pivotal to the film’s success. Alien is renowned for its monster, the titular alien, and it does not disappoint. The creatures are frightening, and very unique.
I really enjoyed this movie, and it stands as a testament to the hard work put in by the cast and crew. The filmmaking elements work together flawlessly, and the film still packs a punch 36 years after its creation.