April 12, 2011

Alien (1979)

"A mining ship, investigating a suspected SOS, lands on a distant planet. The crew discovers some strange creatures and investigates."

If someone ever told me that they had never seen the original "Alien", not only would I not believe them, but I'd probably laugh at them too. This sci-fi slasher movie has been available in so many formats, shown on TV thousands of times all over the world, and has so much merchandise available for it that, even if you haven't ever watched it, you'd still know exactly what it was all about and who was in it just through hearsay.

When VHS tapes started to get replaced by DVDs, "Alien" was actually the first DVD that I ever bought although I had to return it several times to get one that worked properly. It seems that DVD authoring errors have plagued this movie right up to the famous HMV recall of the "Alien Quadrilogy" box set which is a shame.

I now own three different DVD versions of "Alien" due to changing countries and because I'm greedy. I chose to rewatch the "Director's Cut", and without Googling, I really can't tell you the differences between it and the original theatrical release. Any additions or cuts are either so subtle that I missed them, or I've seen "Alien" so many times that I just wasn't paying enough attention. I think Veronica Cartwright slaps Sigourney Weaver in the "Director's Cut" but not in the original although, as far as I care, it might be the other way around. Whatever version of "Alien" you watch, it's still the same story.

Now I may well be a bit of an expert when it comes to horror movies purely due to the sheer number of them that I've watched over the years, but when it comes to science fiction, I usually couldn't care less about it. Yes, I know that the space ship in "Alien" is called the Nostromo and its crew are made up of some kind of "space truckers", but as for the little technical details about who they are working for or what happened between now and the future that the whole thing is set in, I have no idea. "Alien" is just a horror movie set in space as much as it matters to me. It could be the same scenario on a plane, a boat or set in a cabin in the woods, but it's still a slasher film with a big predatory monster doing all the killing rather than some deranged guy in a mask.

I also know that the alien itself was designed by H.R Giger, and although I'm not consciously familiar with anything else that the Swiss surrealist artist has done, I'd bet a ton of money on the fact that it was probably the best work he ever did. Giger's alien is now such a ridiculously iconic figure that the few glimpses that you actually have of it in "Alien" don't really matter. You know that it's something big and nasty with several sets of teeth and claws which is going to hurt you severely if you are stupid enough to get yourself caught by it.

If "Alien" has any flaws at all as a movie then it's simply the cliché of a group of people who should know better deciding to split up into smaller groups to try and track the monster down and kill it. That scenario had been done to death even before Ridley Scott had the genius idea to set the whole thing in space where "no one can hear you scream".

Of course, only a few years earlier, Steven Spielberg did much the same thing with "Jaws", but whereas his shark put people off going into the water, I've never had any yearning to become an astronaut and go alien hunting anyway. Therein lies a subtle distancing that might put a lot of people who hate science fiction off wanting to watch "Alien" in the first place. Since it's hardly another "Star Wars" or "Star Trek" filled with funny looking people with weird heads, you'd really be missing out on one of the scariest and most adrenaline pumping horror movies of all time if you dismissed this film so easily.

Some of the jump scares which worked for me initially have become almost comical over the years especially John Hurt's famous chestburster scene. It seems that when it was filmed, Veronica Cartwright had no idea what was going to happen and her response is as real as it gets. Personally, I hate spidery things so I was already quite anxious from the previous facehugger stuff, and it made me jump when I first saw it too. I was, however, quite relieved that it was a snaky thing and not another spider.

Here's an autographed picture I have of one of the most memorable moments in film:

I remember, back in the '80s, loads of people buying t-shirts with latex chestbursters hanging out of the front of them as what used to be one of the most frightening movie moments began to lose its impact somewhat. Darlene's choice of Hallowe'en costume from one of the "Roseanne" TV shows sums up exactly how most kids felt about it. Watching the chestburster scene now just has me on titter alert and I actually find the baby alien that pops out to be quite cute. How it shrieks and scuttles off now has quite the opposite effect on me to what was originally intended.

Other notable memories for me were obviously based round Sigourney Weaver's extremely ugly and far too small knickers. Watching "Alien" again as a fully grown adult doesn't really do the same things to me that it did when I was going through puberty. I still don't really like Ripley as a character until "Aliens" but can appreciate Veronica Cartwright in a much more sexual way instead.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. All the claustrophobic stalking and killing is what makes "Alien" special, and it's that which you really want to know about. Well, I'm not going to tell you about it because you just have to see it all for yourself and experience it. If the action scenes don't get your heart beating faster then you've simply been spoiled and burnt out by too many torture porn movies.

"Alien" is over 30 years old now, but I still recommend it as a horror movie that everyone should have in their collection. Try to forget all the sequels (except "Aliens") and wish that all the "AVP" nonsense had never happened because the original "Alien" is still one of the best horror films you will ever see.

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