(1979, SciFi/Horror, color)
Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy
It seems friendly enough. I’m going to stick my face in its mouth.
In a nutshell:
A spaceship crew does its best to deal with a man-eating alien in the air ducts.
The spaceship Nostromo automatically wakes her seven-person crew out of cryogenic hibernation early when it receives an unknown signal from a nearby planet. Since they’re required by contract to investigate unknown signals, the crew alters course and lands on the planet in question. Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt) along with crew members Lambert and Kane (John Hurt) head out along the planet’s surface towards the signal’s source while the rest of the crew works to repair the damage caused by the rough landing.
A short distance away, Dallas and company come across an alien spaceship, filled with pipes and mummified aliens. Kane descends to the ship’s lower level where he finds row after row of leathery pods. One of them pops open when he investigates further, disgorging a small crab-like alien. It breaks through his helmet and attaches itself to his face. Dallas and Lambert drag him back to the ship.
Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) doesn’t want to risk contamination by letting them in, but Ash (Ian Holm) overrides her and admits them anyway. They take Kane to the medical bay to poke and prod at the creature, but it won’t let go. Cutting it doesn’t work either; as soon as the blood comes in contact with the outside air, it becomes highly acidic. Eventually the creatures lets go on its own and climbs up into the rafters to expire.
They finish fixing the ship and lift off. In the midst of this, Kane wakes up and demands breakfast. The rest of the crew is happy to oblige. The relieved attitude during the meal turns to panic when a small alien parasite bursts out of Kane’s chest and escapes into the air ducts. They jettison Kane’s body into space and rig alien detectors and electric prods to hunt the creature down.
The group consisting of Ripley, Parker and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) picks up a trail almost immediately. They follow it to a set of storage lockers. False alarm; it’s Jones the cat. Brett chases the cat into a warehouse-ish room and finds the little alien’s shed skin just before the now-enormous creature grabs him.
The five remaining crew members meet to discuss their options. They formulate a plan in which the crew will shut down all exits from the air ducts except the one that leads into the airlock. Then Dallas will drive it into the airlock with the flamethrower and let the pressure suck it into space. In practice, the alien comes up behind and grabs Dallas before he can flame it.
With her superior officers dead, Ripley asks the ship’s central computer for help. The computer tells her that all orders are now restricted to the ship’s science officer, Ash. She overrides the restriction and sees Ash’s instructions to save the alien for further study, even if he has to sacrifice the crew. Ash appears next to her in the control room to apologize and then attempt to kill her. Parker and Lambert arrive to help her. A well-placed blow to the head reveals Ash to be an android. They take him apart and then reactivate the head to ask him for advice on defeating the creature. Ash’s head is more condescending than helpful, so Parker roasts it with his flamethrower.
The three survivors determine to destroy the ship and flee in the shuttle. Ripley sets the self-destruct while Parker and Lambert gather supplies. The alien surprises Parker and Lambert, leaving Ripley as the last survivor. She catches Jones the cat and blasts off in the shuttle just moments before the rest of the ship explodes. Moments after that, she discovers the alien riding in the shuttle with her. She uses compressed air, a harpoon gun, and the airlock to blast it into space. It tries to climb back in through the rocket booster, but Ripley turns the booster on, incinerating it. She and the cat climb into cryogenic hibernation pods for the long journey home.
Now this is the kind of horror I enjoy. I can take or leave gore, and titillation is okay in its place, but nothing compares to the genuine tension generated by realistic characters in a fatally bad situation. The crew of the Nostromo isn’t lovable. They aren’t trying to be. They’re just trying to fulfill the obligations of their contract and go home. This is evident in every action they take. It is to the movie’s credit that it never forces its characters to act in a way that’s implausible for their situation.
Another large portion of the movie’s success is the way it uses its monster so sparingly. Let’s face it, without CGI to help it along, Alien looks less like a murderous extraterrestrial and more like a Masai in a clumsy rubber suit. No doubt well aware of this, director Ridley Scott doesn’t let us see the whole thing in action until the end, and even then it’s bathed in steam and strobe lighting.
Alien isn’t the star of Alien anyway. Neither is Ripley, Ash or Dallas. (The former is the movie’s punctuation, the latter its delicious filling.) The main part of this movie’s success is due to the sets. The Nostromo looks lived-in, like a working spaceship. It leaks, drips and clanks. It has narrow corridors and vast storage bays that make it seem both claustrophobic and enormous at once. In a way, it feels more alien than Alien, contributing far more to the movie’s sense of dread than the eponymous creature. I admit, as a lover of all things SciFi, this weird and fascinating place probably has more to do with my enjoyment of the film than any other element.
Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy tackle this one, and Kevin leads off with a hilarious Randy Newman impression that goes, “I got an alien in me.” When the characters remark about how they’ve landed in a desolate and isolated place, Bill says, “Just as I suspected, Winnemucca.” As the crew hunts Alien throughout the ship, Kevin says, “This is just like an Easter Egg hunt, except that the Easter eggs can kill you.” For a movie so genuinely terrifying on its own terms, with so many long spans of silent tension to fill, they do a pretty good job. Bill and Kevin have probably riffed Alien as expertly as it could possibly be riffed, but it’s not a film that bears riffing well.
(1979, SciFi/Horror, color)