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Xeno-Phobia Part 1: Alien

One man’s quest to watch and review all 5 movies in the Alien franchise….

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This was my third time watching 1979’s Alien. I have admiration for Ridley Scott’s Sci-Fi suspense thriller; it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. I’ve heard some people refer to it as a horror movie in space, but to call Alien a horror movie is missing the point. It would be like calling Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho a horror movie. Hitchcock is a good point of reference for this movie because the element that makes it work is suspense and this is where Hitchcock excelled. I always loved the idea that you’re trapped in an isolated area and you’re being hunted. Alien takes that equation and presents it in the extreme. Not only are you trapped in a confined area (spaceship) you have no way to communicate outside of your ship and your literally in the middle of nowhere floating in space. This helps to make the spaceship as important of a character as the rest of the cast.

The movie unfolds very slowly and deliberately which creates a hypnotic effect on the viewer and is exemplified with the movie’s title fade in at the beginning. Alien starts by getting you acquainted by the crew’s spaceship, the Nostromo. In fact, for the first 6 minutes there is no dialogue at all, just exterior shots of space and interior shots of the ship. For modern audiences people may take issue with the fact that things happen so slowly, it takes about half the movie for it to really begin to “heat up”. But in my eyes it makes you more emotionally invested in the crew and the story. The movie is truly split into two parts, the first being a tense Sci-Fi movie and the second being the more traditional thriller/suspense movie.

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In the distant future, the crew of the Nostromo wake up from being put into temporary stasis (while traveling home) by the computer onboard the ship after receiving a strange transmission from a planet they are passing by. The ship is a mining vessel owned by the Weyland-Yutani Corporation who has an outstanding clause built into the employee’s contract that if they receive a transmission that presents the possibility of intelligent life they are required to investigate it.  Begrudgingly, the crew land on the nearby planet to explore and damage their ship in the process.

Captain Dallas, Executive Officer Kane and Navigator Lambert head to the source of the transmission which is an alien ship. The engineers Parker and Brett as well as the Science Officer Ash (Ian Holm) and Warrant Officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) stay back to make repairs on the ship. Inside this very strange crescent moon shaped alien ship they find the fossilized remains of a massive alien life form whose chest was collapsed from the inside. In a different corridor Kane finds a whole chamber full of eggs and one hatches (?) and a very strange small creature attaches itself to his face, knocking him out. Meanwhile, back on the ship Ripley working with the Nostromo’s computer is able to deduce that the transmission wasn’t necessarily an SOS as they had previously suspected but some kind of warning.

Alien SpaceJockey

Dallas and Lambert find Kane and bring him back to the Nostromo with this alien creature still attached to his face. Protocol is in place where you can’t bring in any foreign organism onto the spaceship for 24 hours until decontamination takes place. Dallas makes it an order to open up the doors and let them in, but Ripley denies them. It’s only when Ash forcibly opens the doors that they are allowed in. Amazed that Kane is somehow alive, Ash attempts to perform surgery on the creature, one incision later and we find that it bleeds corrosive acid (yikes!).

The next day Ash and Dallas return to check on Kane’s condition and find that the alien is gone from his face. Kane is a little worse for wear but otherwise seems fine. The audience knows that with the kind of movie Alien is, this seems too good to be true. This of course is the case because it brings us to the infamous chest buster scene. Most people are familiar with this, either through the movie, pop culture or hell even the end of Spaceballs. At dinner a small version of the alien (dubbed a Xenomorph) bursts out of Kane’s stomach mid meal. Turns out that creature on his face was laying eggs via his mouth and gestating in his stomach. Yea…

Alien ChestBurster

I’ll tell you what. This scene to this day is STILL horrifying. It catches you off guard because you’re disarmed at this nice pleasant scene thinking Kane is ok. It’s a little low budget only by today’s standards, but knowing its all handmade and organic rather than computers make it a hell of a lot cooler in my book. It’s a fantastic cinematic moment, I’m not one for gross out scenes, but man is it ever sweet. The soundtrack is a pulsating heart beat rhythm. See it once and you won’t be able to shake it from your memory for the rest of your life. Now there’s an evolving alien creature stuck in the ship, whom they can’t kill or else its acid blood will destroy their ship.

I won’t continue on with plot too much since this is the half way point and for those of you who haven’t seen it, I’d like to leave some mystery for you still. I will however like to single out some of the cast’s work on the movie. This is a movie about a group of blue collar workers which doesn’t seem to happen very often in typical Sci-Fi movies. Everyone gets their job done adequately enough, but Ian Holm as Ash and Yaphet Kotto as Parker respectively turn in great performances. No surprise it’s Sigourney Weaver as Ripley that leaves the biggest impression. This movie begins as an ensemble cast, but ends with a definitive lead character. Weaver’s portrayal here seems real, the character feels lived in and correspondingly acts logically given the circumstances she’s faced with.

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Enough can’t be said about the atmosphere of this movie and the set designs. It’s easy to immerse yourself in a movie when they present a whole different fully fleshed out world for you. Ridley Scott excels in working with people at this (see: Blade Runner) and in this case it’s Ron Cobb. Cobb worked on the interior of the Nostromo which alternates between being clean, white and sterile in the rooms or mechanical and exposed in the hallways (not unlike the halls of the Millennium Falcon). I often wondered what the inside a bigger more grandiose ship would look like in this universe. I love that they were able to predict computer’s omni-presence in the future, but it strikes me funny that they are the simple early 80’s DOS text heavy computers. I guess predicting the future isn’t always easy.

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The real star here though is H.R. Giger, the surreal artist who created not just the visual aspect of the Xenomorph but everything relating to it. This means the entire exterior and interior of the crash landed ship (known as the derelict) that the crew explores. The first time I saw this movie I couldn’t believe what I was looking at. It’s truly fantastical but also unsettling and almost darkly psychedelic.  The bone (?) lined interior is amazing and the fossilized Space Jockey (as he’s been named by fans) pilot with his chest caved in is frighteningly gorgeous in such a strange way. It’s unlike anything we had ever seen before and helps to create a sense of other worldliness. I don’t know what goes on in the mind of H.R. Giger, it seems as dark and murky as the surface of the planet the crew of the Nostromo explores but I love him for it. The film really benefits from having two different set designers, allowing this to be appropriately non cohesive and giving the planet a foreign feel.

As great as said fossilized Space Jockey may be, what easily stands out in general public’s mind about this movie is the alien. The look mainly but also the mechanics of it, its life cycle, the way it moves, etc. Ridley Scott embraces the age old “less is more” attitude when it comes to the Xenomorph. Any thriller/suspense/horror movie that doesn’t show the menace is infinitely scarier to me. I realize that today’s audiences feel cheated if they don’t see said creature, but let’s be serious what you can conjure up in your own mind will be more terrifying than a cgi monster. So many recent movies fall victim to this. M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs has a nice, creepy slow build but when you finally see the aliens it’s laughable (that’s not the only thing that makes Signs not a good movie, but that’s best saved for another post). Super 8 while largely an excellent movie in my opinion suffers the same fate. It’s a genuinely creepy movie, but show me the alien excessively and I lose interest. Ridley Scott over comes this a few ways, showing us the Xenomorph briefly and fleetingly and doing most of the killing off camera so our mind fills in the blanks. The fact that it’s a man in a costume also helps. You know you’re not looking at blatantly fake computer wizardry.

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To me this movie is a rare breed, a perfect storm of many disparate elements brought together to make an excellent movie. I won’t get into the back story of how the project came to be made, but it’s a really interesting read should you desire to investigate. It may not be flawless, but I think it comes pretty damn close especially in the context of its genre. It’s a superb way to kick off the series but also functions just as well as a stand alone movie. I honestly can’t say enough about it and while it may not be for everybody, old Biff gives it 5 out 5 Vinomorphs.

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Next up, James Cameron’s Aliens.

All images and characters depicted are copyright of their respective owners

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About Biff Tannen

Film Noir, Pulp, Comic Books and Hitchcock.

Posted on July 19, 2013, in Geekology, Movies, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Remember those films stereotype us aliens. We are not all evil killers!! Sme of us are darn cute too, not the drooling messes you see on screen. We get good dental care and don’t drool as much.

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  2. So far pretty good and I assume the 5th movie is Prometheus. When you do finally get there I hope you will notice the one particular flaw of how it connects, or doesn’t connect, back to Alien the first movie that I noticed. I also was wondering if you have any plans to follow up with the AVP series and/or Predator series? Other than that great job I look forward to reading more.

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    • Hey Dave – Thanks for your kind words. Prometheus is actually one of the movies in the franchise I’ve seen before and look forward to reviewing it. As of now, no plans to continue onto the Alien vs. Predator movies when this is done, but you never know.

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