"In space, no-one can hear you scream"
Ridley Scott's Alien can be surmised in the simplest of ways - it's basically Jaws, but in space. Eerie, atmospheric and terrifying, it's a film that continues to instil fear in the hearts of many to this day.
The year is 1979 and every filmmaker on the block is racing to capitalise on the success of George Lucas' runaway success, Star Wars. Dashing heroes, colourful planets and elaborate extra-terrestrials are the flavour of the day, but one director, the youthful Ridley Scott, swims against the current. He goes into bat on a film called Alien, a bloody, dark and terrifying horror than forges its own legacy.
After one of their crew - Kane (John Hurt) - is knocked unconscious by a strange spider-like creature that latches itself to his face, things begin to unravel rather quickly. The strange alien plants something sinister inside Kane, killing him by violently bursting from his chest. One by one, the crew are picked off by the creature as it grows at a frightening rate and learns more about its prey. Our eventual hero, Warrant Officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), must devise a plan to outwit the creature and salvage what is left from the doomed expedition.
It may be nearly 40 years old, but damn - the practical effects on the sinister alien itself are still chilling enough to strike fear into my very soul to this day. Seriously, even at the age of 23 where I KNOW that it's just a man in a rubber suit awkwardly stumbling through corridors on a sound stage, the silhouette alone is enough to make the hairs on my neck shoot upward.
Take the initial chestburster scene for example. The story behind it is etched into cinema history; unaware that the blood splatter would be as copious or as violent as it was, poor Veronica Cartwright (who plays Lambert) gives a horrified shriek as genuine as they come. Filmed in just one take using multiple cameras, the cast are just as terrified as the audience as they reel in terror at the grotesque monster erupting from Kane's chest. And who wouldn't be terrified? That little bugger may look a little goofy by 2016 standards, but when you throw in some high-pitched squeals and buckets of fake blood the end result is nothing short of monstrous.
Sigourney Weaver, in her first lead role on a movie, gives one her best career performances. Not yet the fierce warrior that we see in James Cameron's equally brilliant Aliens or the toughened survivor we see in David Fincher's misguided Alien 3, Weaver's first outing as Ellen Ripley contains strokes of that same authority, defiance and will to survive that we see later on. It establishes her as the iconic film heroine we know Ripley as today, whilst simultaneously keeping her grounded and relatable to the audience.
The supporting cast are all excellent as well, but I'm going to single out John Hurt as Kane, the unfortunate crew member who first comes into contact with the xenomorph and Veronica Cartwright as Lambert, the frail and much more frightened female crew member who serves as Ripley's polar opposite.
Scott's direction is also superb; going back to the comparison to Jaws, Scott was limited on how much he could show the actual alien by the rubbery design and clunkiness of the suit, much like Spielberg was on the set of Jaws with the animatronic shark. As a result, Alien is an exercise in restraint as Scott finds new and exciting ways to build tension and create fear.
Can't animate your villain crawling through an air duct? Just show him creeping along through a movement tracker. Unable to show his rapid growth and transformation? Just have the characters discover peels of skin. The mystery surrounding what the crew face helps build the tension, and we never get an elongated glance at the monster itself. With just four minutes of screen-time and almost never shot from the front, the xenomorph remains a mysterious beast that allows our imaginations to run wild.
Alien earns itself entry into my Classic Movie Vault. To read about more the films it sits alongside, check out my list of past posts in this series. Leave me a comment below with more films that you would like to see given the Classic Movie Vault treatment.