At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Alien: A 40th Anniversary Retrospective.

MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Sci-Fi-Horror/ Stars: Tom Skerritt, Sigourney Weaver, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto/ Runtime: 116 minutes

As the credits of “Alien” open, the slowly paced opening titles and soft, eerie score give off a subtle hint of just what exactly the viewer is about to experience while watching this film. Indeed, it starts off so unassumingly that the first-time viewer is very unlikely to be moved by the story or inspired by the slight character development in the film’s first half. Yet it is this very lack of certainty that I feel makes “Alien” work so well, for as the film hits its second half the film decides to shift from a semi-slow space road movie and go into what can best be described as a galactic fright show. A flip that I feel not only makes for a frightening ride into the unknown, but also is ultimately what produces for your viewing pleasure one of the best-sci-fi horror films ever made.

The plot is as follows: in this true classic of the sci-fi horror genre, a seven person crew en-route home to Earth onboard the huge space freighter Nostromo finds their journey disrupted when the on board computer picks up a foreign radio signal originating from an uninhabited planet. Unfortunately when the crew lands to investigate they unwittingly make contact with an alien life-form and thus the seeds are planted for true and unyielding horror to be unleashed as the crew soon finds itself engaged in a deadly match of Hide and Seek with a life form that’s only desire is their complete and total annihilation…

Now what makes Alien so great is the constant feel of uneasiness and tension that runs throughout the course of the entire film. I mean right from the beginning you have a sense that something is wrong with the crew being not particularly friendly towards each other, and you truly feel all the in-group tension. Plus that’s not even mentioning that their ship itself truly is on the inside a huge worn out industrial-style maze of halls and corridors, and it feels more like a prison than a place to live and you get the feeling that it is as if not only the alien but also the ship is against the human characters in this film.

Speaking of the Alien…..the Alien itself is one of the scariest movie monsters ever imagined. This is because here is a ruthless, soul-less parasite that is just completely devoid of any human or civilized traits, and above all just wants one thing: the humans dead. Plain and simple. Plus the design of this monster is a true stroke of genius because sure it has a humanoid form to an extent, but it has no facial traits or anything else which could give away emotions or intentions, and even its actions reveal no weaknesses nor civilized intelligence. So in a psychological aspect The Alien is more or less the opposite of everything human and civilized, yet oddly enough it’s better adapted to the inhuman interior of the ship than even the freaking humans who are living/working in it.

So to sum up, you have a setting where the humans are caught in a web of in-group tensions, an inhospitable ship and the perfect killer which thrives in the ships intestines and loves picking them off plus you almost get the feel that the humans are the ones who are alienated to each other and to their own ship, and to add to this “perfect storm” Ridley Scott adds a perfectly synchronized blend of visuals and sounds to heighten the tension even further. In addition, all the actors also do a superb job with their respective characters because, unlike other sci-fi horror films which rely on caricature and stereotype, these actors wisely choose instead to portray their characters in a subtle but very realistic way. Indeed it should go without saying, but the seven person crew of the Nostromo is not a bunch of Hollywood heroes. Instead they are ordinary people with strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes just like you and me, and in this way they also all seem naturally fragile when confronted with this seemingly unstoppable enemy.

As mentioned the ship is very claustrophobic and Ridley Scott adds to the eeriness by using camera movement, lights and shadows in a remarkable, terrific, and very effective way plus the music by Jerry Goldsmith underlines the eeriness as well, and the movie wouldn’t have even begun to work without his score and combined with the sounds of the ship it all adds to the uneasiness. Indeed Alien is not a story about heroic people who boldly team up against evil. It’s a story about ordinary people facing true fear, which is the fear without a face, the fear we can’t understand and can’t negotiate with because its only goal is to survive on the expense of us. It’s a story where some people bravely fight back whilst others are destroyed by the terror. It’s a story where people are killed in a completely random way with there being no higher-order justice behind who gets to live and who dies and it literally seems that all seven characters are just part of a race where the fittest and not necessarily the most righteous will prevail, and all seven characters truly start the race on an equal footing because none of them are true heroes, and yet none of them are true villains either.

All in all it truly is all of the above that makes Alien a terrific sci-fi horror movie because the terror isn’t just caused by the Alien itself; it’s the entire atmosphere which gets so effectively under your skin that you just can’t shrug it off even after the end credits like you can with so many other Hollywood horror movies. Indeed the title “Alien” in my opinion doesn’t just refer to the monster, but rather it is the theme of the movie and it is above all the feeling you have during the movie and long after the movie is done. On a scale of 1-5 I give Alien a 5 out of 5.