Directed By: Ridley Scott
In the late '70s, there was a sci-fi revolution of sorts as the genre suddenly became something other than bad-looking special effects veiling scant plots as guys in tinfoil suits ran around protecting women with tinfoil clothing as skimpy as the dialogue. Sure, 2001: A Space Odyssey had kicked off the transition 10 years prior, but after everyone's collective acid trip wore off in 1973 they realized Kubrick's famous space epic was tremendously boring without the benefit of chemical enhancement.
It wasn't until Star Wars and its Joseph-Campbell-in-space themes and pretty-models-against-a-blue-screen visuals hit the theatres that people could begin respecting sci-fi without taking a head trip first. But Star Wars wasn't alone; two years later, the movie Alien appeared with more tension, more atmosphere and more of Sigourney Weaver in teeny-tiny briefs than Star Wars ever dreamed. And the sci-fi horror genre was born. Too bad everything since then has been crap.
Alien's dark ambience was due in part to the menacing visual design crafted by utterly psychotic Swiss artist H.R. Giger. The creepily insectoid xenomorph was a far cry from the cuddly little jawas and tribbles of sci-fi past; the fact that it burst out of peoples' chests set it apart that much further. Unfortunately, the technology wasn't quite up to the task demanded by the visual design. Sure, the alien doesn't always look like a guy in a rubber suit, but when it does it's hard not to slap your head in dismay. And when the crew of the Nostromo descends into the derelict spacecraft, you'd be forgiven for thinking they were dangling in front of a giant Emerson Lake and Palmer album cover. But it's the thought that counts, right?
One of the real luxuries when dealing with movies about heretofore unknown and mysterious alien species is that any breach in logic or continuity can be dismissed with a shrug. "If the alien was constantly dripping ooze, where did it get the biomass to grow to full size in just a few hours?" "Why did it decide to take a nap after killing everyone but Ripley? Shouldn't it have finished her off too?" "Er, how exactly does acid function as blood, anyway?" The answer to these and other questions about silly things that make no sense is simply, "No one knows - the alien xenomorphs are a new and strange creature! We have no way to explain them!" Which is a polite way of saying, "Shut up and enjoy the suspense, idiot."
The DVD edition of Alien has a number of nifty-keen features, but the most compelling among them is the addition of cutting-room-floor footage that never made it into the final movie. Sometimes, there's a good reason excised footage doesn't quite make it into the theater... but in cases like this, it seems rather a shame. For instance, the most significant cut scene shows Dallas after his disappearance in the air shafts and paves the way for the concept of the xenomorphic nesting habits shown in the sequel. But again, it makes you wonder, how is the alien creating all this biomass to create nests!? Wait, ignore logic - forget I asked. Anyway, you could probably read about the extras on this disc somewhere on the Internet and get the same effect as watching them but without the expense; however, if you're trying to convince someone (like a spouse, parent, etc.) that your widescreen THX remaster videotape of the movie just isn't cutting it, the little extras are probably your best tactic.
One of the more interesting features of Alien is that much of the dialogue is improvisational - something popular in the dying days of disco, but which you rarely see in movies these days. Well, except for The Blair Witch Project, but luckily Sigourney Weaver never screams shrilly into a clumsily-handled camera. The spontaneous dialogue can be interesting, but it can also seem sort of goofy. But isn't that the way it always is? I'll take people puttering around on-camera trying their best to act naturally over contrived, artifical, forced attempts at crafting a character like Jar Jar Binks. Although I certainly wouldn't mind an Aliens vs. Jar Jar crossover sometime, provided the aliens were allowed to win.
Giving credit where it's due, Alien manages to be one of those movies that kicks you in the head and makes you beg for more. There's something unsettling about a bunch of grumpy space truckers being trapped in small living quarters with a giant man-bug that wants to rip them apart and an andoid who tries to kill them while spitting milk. Actually, that sounds stupid, but don't let my description fool you - the movie's interesting.
Unfortunately, it does such a good job of mixing sci-fi and horror and drama that everything in the same genre seems more like a tribute to Alien than a movie in its own right. Of course, it's always possible that I've just been watching bad movies, but Alien will always be number one in my book.