(Ridley Scott, US, 1979)
Alien introduces two major European talents to mainstream American cinema: English director Ridley Scott, and Swiss surrealist artist H.R. Giger. Giger's violent, sexual designs touch a deep Freudian weak spot. From the curved, embracing arms of the derelict spaceship, with its orifice portals, the meaty vaginal interior of the egg, and most of all, the three different visualisations of the Alien: spider, phallus, and man monster, the frankness of Giger's imagination is more threatening than the confused goals of the Alien, and is the equivalent of sexual secrets being yelled across a quiet room. Scott's direction presents Giger's designs simply, but very effectively. By partially obscuring the Alien in shadow, or using strobes and back lighting, Scott places Giger's monster in just the right atmosphere, never breaks the films spell, and never lets the creature look like the man in a suit that it is, creating the first and only convincing cinematic space monster.
But if Scott and Giger give Alien such visual force that it initially seems ground-breaking, the weak, derivative script by Dan O'Bannon could never work without such talents to flatter it. The so-called chestburster alien was simply a variation on the parasitic worms in David Cronenberg's Shivers (1976), while the structure of crew members being picked off one by one was simply lifted from an Agatha Christie mystery, and transplanted to outer space. Although the opening is relentlessly surprising, and the ending nail-biting, the middle section is shoddy. Characters act without logic or reason, offering themselves up to the Alien simply to keep the body count rising. There is a lack of basic common sense amongst the characters. Dallas decision to look for the monster unaided in a system of pipes is silly. Brett's solo quest for Jones the cat in the darkest corners of the ship marks his character out as denser than the thickest slasher movie teen. Incredibly, Scott uses every trick he knows, and makes the scene work. The stillness, the shadows, the illogical hanging chains, Brett's dawdling, all give the scene the logic of a nightmare, and makes it powerfully compelling.
H.R. Giger was never again so well served, and his other collaborations in the world of cinema have been uniformly disappointing. O'Bannon has provided two woeful Philip K Dick adaptations in Total Recall (1990) and Screamers. Meanwhile, Scott has continued to prove his talent for using visual sleight of hand to bolster nonsensical scripts, most recently with Gladiator and Hannibal. Alien stands alone, a film that combines the talents of all three, and makes something more than the sum of its parts, a cold classic that is deadly serious in its intention to scare, and plays like a fiercely original rollercoaster that never gives you chance to catch a breath, much less realize the weakness of the story.
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