When you say science fiction and Ridley Scott, most people (certainly most sci-fi fans) will instantly think of Blade Runner; and with good reason. It shocks me that most people forget about a little sci-fi movie that he did 3 years earlier called Alien. Scott has recently returned to this narrative in the theaters with Prometheus on June 8, 2012.
Released in 1979 with an amazing cast including Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, John Hurt, and Ian Holm (or Bilbo Baggins, as you might know him), Alien follows in Jaws’ footsteps and really builds tension along with horror. This movie is well worth remembering and has one of the best tag lines ever, “In space no one can hear you scream.” Most importantly, this seminal film was released in the time when movies set in space were really starting to gain critical and fan fame.
The majority of the story takes place aboard the Nostromo, a commercial towing vehicle for deep space mining. On a return trip to Earth the crew is redirected by the ship once it receives what it classifies as a distress signal, forcing the crew to postpone some much needed R&R to investigate the source of the signal. Now it’s probably not too much of a spoiler to suggest in true horror and sci-fi film fashion that this is where things start to go wrong for the crew. As we move through the story we get our first look at H.R. Giger’s amazing alien. Even watching this now, the graphics and aliens featured in the film are convincing; the cinematography is stunning, even by 21st century standards.
What Ridley Scott does so well is create an amazing setting for this story. You spend the beginning of the movie getting to know the crew, made easier by some expected archetypes, and the second half of the movie white-knuckled and unblinkingly transfixed. The small environment of the space ship helps build the tension. The acting is very good, as you would expect from the cast, and Scott does a great job of getting them in the right place at the right time. The plot and setting are quite dynamic throughout the movie, and really helps to create a movie-watching experience that facilitates amazing suspension of disbelief.
This is clearly the movie that got the entire Alien series rolling. The story has been picked up by great directors along the way, including James Cameron and David Fincher, and taken to great heights. However, it would be remiss not to mention certain disappointments among the Alien series - the Alien Vs. Predator movies. In the end, due to its focus on story and characters, Alien survives the passage of time, particularly the effects, which won an Academy Award. The time and pacing of the movie are ideal for suspense and adventure; it’s slow when it needs to increase anticipation and fast paced when the action starts coming thick and fast.
Both the 1979 theatrical release of Alien and the 2003 Director’s Cut were put out with MPEG4-AVC 1080p video and a DTS-HD 5.1 surround sound track. They were very good transfers and really allow you to enjoy the movie's picture and sound to its fullest potential.
I was really impressed with the presentation of Alien. The environment that Scott uses does great job contrasting the bright and open upper decks with the dark and confined spaces of the lower decks. You have very light colors in the beginning and dark colors in the second half and still nowhere in the movie do you feel that you lose anything. There's nothing amazing about the video, but it certainly isn’t a distraction.
As the amazing tagline might imply, Scott does a great job using the sound to contrast the beginning and end of Alien. Soft sounds and dialogue drive the beginning of the movie and the screams and harsh mechanical sounds dominate the end. In my opinion, the use of sounds really pulls you into the action; specifically, the film uses both sound and silence to keep you terrified in outer space.
Even with a nearly 25 year-old movie, the extras on Alien are enough to keep most people entertained. If you’re looking for something along the lines of Lord of the Rings you might be disappointed but otherwise you should be all right.
“You still don't understand what you're dealing with, do you? Perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.”
Alien is an incredible adventure for sci-fi and horror fans alike, and has set the stage for other films that seek to marry futuristic themes and mind-bending apprehension. Like any good sci-fi film should, Alien forces us to ponder who we are, where we came from, and why we’re here. And, like any horror film worth its salt, Alien convinces us that we are standing side-by-side with those company employees, light-years away from everything we know, and that we may not make it back alive.