Movie Review: Alien

Two movies in one week! I finally got a chance to watch Ridley Scott’s classic sci-fi movie Alien. In the context of books I’ve spoken out against “classics” (okay, a blog post is not “speaking out”). So how does Alien measure up? Does it stand on its own two feet?

Well, to be honest, Alien feels like the movie equivalent of a science fiction short story. I could point to certain similar traits—minimal background and explication, “business-as-usual” atmosphere to start, and the restriction of the movie to one problem followed through from start to finish—but there’s more than that. I think anyone who’s read short stories by Asimov or Dick (or the wonderful The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Vol 1) will know what I mean when they see Alien.

Okay, so what does that actually mean? Do I recommend the movie? Well, actually, I’m willing to put forward the proposition that if you like spacebound sci-fi short stories (in the style of Asimov, i.e. not trying to be exciting), you will probably like Alien. If you’re not a hard-sci-fi person, though, the movie’s flaws may drag you down. For more detail, read on…

Alien is not like modern mainstream movies in that it doesn’t worry about keeping you focused. There are few shots just showing emotion, and the characters are all here for professional reasons. There is nothing exciting like an action movie, and there’s actually not a constant sense of foreboding, like in modern horror movies. There are scenes that could have been tense, but because there’s no music cue or whatever, they aren’t.

None of that is bad, just different enough that if you’re looking for an action movie or a horror movie, Alien isn’t it. If anything, I’d say Alien’s goal is to be an atmospheric movie, at least in the first half, and at that Scott does fairly well. The interiors of both ships are great, and I’ll add that I appreciate the Star-Wars-style ship hulls (sort of patchwork and bolted together, rather than Star Trek’s smooth unibody surfaces). I’m pretty sure Cloud City’s underlevels in The Empire Strikes Back, are in turn at least partly an homage to Alien.

The place where Alien really falls down is in the actions of the crew during the second half of the movie. One of the characters calls the eponymous alien “a perfect killing machine”, but we never get to see that because of how stupid everyone acts. To give just one example, Lt. Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) cautions everyone to stay in pairs, and immediately after that two of the characters go off on their own, separately. Now, nothing happens to them this time, cause they’re in the safe part of the ship, but SERIOUSLY? ARE YOU KIDDING [US]‽

The science babble is mediocre…not as bad as Source Code, but still. (That’s not how “T-minus” works!) The computer systems are kind of funny to see, too – the tiny little screens people from my generation remember from Apple IIs back in elementary school. I guess they were using real computers as set pieces here. Still, it’s funny that in almost all old sci-fi movies they never thought that screens would get bigger, or show color, or anything. (Also, when Ripley is “analyzing the signal” it shows up in zeroes and ones…and spaces. There are a number of things wrong with that…)

There is one good twist in the movie that I didn’t see coming at all. Even with the minor foreshadowing, the exact nature of the reveal was still a surprise.

I will mention that Scott often cuts from one scene or perspective to another without much of an “establishing shot” beforehand or response to what happened, the two common ways for filmmakers to explain cuts to your subconscious. Because of this, my grandma did have trouble following what was going on sometimes (to the point of complaining about it), though I only had issues once or twice. It’s the sort of “rough edges” like this that makes it feel like a matter-of-fact sci-fi short story, but make the movie less accessible and more difficult at the same time.

(but this was still eclipsed for both of us by the stupidity of the crew during the second half)

So…yeah. It’s got great atmosphere. It’s got some unique alien design features that have made it into sci-fi canon. It’s not a bad movie…just one with a number of holes.

Apparently Aliens (the sequel) is better.

P.S. Perhaps my enjoyment of this as a sci-fi person is somewhat comparable to a Tarantino fan’s enjoyment of Kill Bill.

Would you like spoilers with that?

Again, not really well-organized comments here, just a bunch of things to write down.

  • As my brother has pointed out on multiple occasions, the entire “Battle on the Amerigo” sequence from the original StarCraft is basically a tribute to Alien. Hydralisks even have the same sort of design.
  • Sadly, the chest-explosion wasn’t a surprise to me, since it’s so famous in SF movie canon. But it was still well-done – not overly shocking and still fairly horrifying.
  • There’s one horrible cut when Ripley reconnects Ash’s power, from dummy head to actor-with-head-through-table. It wouldn’t have been so bad if there had just been an intermediate shot! Come on, Scott, I’m just an amateur and even I know how to fix this.
  • Even though they didn’t do the thing where the lead female’s clothes get more and more shredded (for some reason Parker got that role), they still had to show Ripley in her underwear. Small underwear, too. *sigh*
  • Both my grandma and I knew Ripley’s final escape was too easy, even without looking at how much time was left in the movie. We had different theories about what was going to happen, though. She was convinced it would all be a hibernation dream, since it showed them waking up from the pods in the beginning. I was pretty sure the alien would turn out to be space-proof (like some Zerg) and crawl down onto the windshield.