What qualifies as a masterpiece? To me, it is a movie that has a perfect amalgamation of every element (direction, acting, cinematography, effects, editing, sound), a movie that is innovative, and that manages to both stand the test of time and be a time capsule of the past. Alien perfectly qualifies as a masterpiece.
Released in 1979, Alien is a sci-fi horror movie directed by Ridley Scott and starring Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Ian Holm, John Hurt, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton and Yapeth Kotto. The film stands as the most influential sci-fi horror movie to date, inspiring other films such as The Thing, Event Horizon and Pandorum.
The classic story follows the crew of the commercial spacecraft Nostromo as they detect a transmission from a nearby planet. Once they stop to explore the planet and where the signal is coming from, one of the members, Kane (John Hurt), gets his face covered by an organism that jumped at him from an egg. He is brought back on the ship even though Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is against it due to the lack of quarantine. After a while, Kane seems fine, and the crew is ready to go again in stasis; however, during their final meal, Kane’s chest bursts open, giving birth to an alien creature. Now the members of the crew are starting to get picked off one by one, and the survivors must do whatever they can to escape and fend off this creature.
Nowadays, whenever I watch a horror movies (both that I enjoy and dislike), the first act is usually the weakest point, for everything feels rushed because the director cannot keep himself from getting to the scares. But back in the 70s, directors did everything in their power to actually make the audience invested in these characters. In this case, the first act is entirely devoted to the set-up: we first get to explore the Nostromo before everyone wakes up, and then we meet the characters and we get to know them through their dialogue and actions rather than exposition. Excluding the annoying character of Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), everyone else is very entertaining to watch, and these actors give nuanced performances that make these characters feel real.
Instead of going with the modern trend of CG-heavy backdrops and effects, production designer Michael Seymour uses plenty of practical effects and matte paintings to create some of the most eerie locations that you can find in a horror movie. The planet of the alien (with designs from the masterful H.R. Giger) looks hostile, dark and barren, as if something terrible has happened a long time ago and we are just seeing the aftermath, while the Nostromo is an industrial claustrophobic maze of narrow corridors and dark vents in which the Xenomorph can blend in perfectly, making every corner a possible death threat.
The design of the Xenomorph is truly something to behold: portrayed by the late Bolaji Badejo (who was 2,08m/6’ 10” long), the alien creature is barely shown in its entirety, instead using low-angle shots and dark environments to conceal the fact that it is just a man in a costume. This creature is a true beast, with no rationality or conscience, only wanting to kill everything in its path.
There are a multitude of themes that have been analysed to death in the past 38 years, most notably the one of rape: it is no secret that screenwriter Dan O’Bannon’s goal with the chestburster was to create a metaphor of male penetration, as well as unwanted pregnancies. Another theme is also man’s overreliance on technology: some of the downfalls of the team are direct consequences of their tech not working properly, and how the android is emotionless in the face of fear and death.
The other theme that really resonated with me was the contrast between emotional and rational reactions. Of all the crew members (excluding Ash), Ripley is the only one that is truly rational: she did not follow her instincts and did not give in to her emotions during the whole ordeal, instead focusing on following the rules and not reacting impulsively. The main reason why the alien enters the ship is because Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt) and Lambert do not want to put themselves and Kane into quarantine. Later on, other members die because they give in to fear when faced by the Xenomorph, while Ripley manages to maintain her wits, thus defeating him in the end.
After almost 40 years, Alien remains one of the most intense and perfect horror movies of all time, influencing a long list of imitators and being parodied to death. With a great cast, tight pacing, impressive special effects, memorable moments and a thrilling atmosphere, it is a must-watch for all fans of cinema.
Visual Effects: 9.5
Violence & Gore: 8
Sex & Nudity: 3
Drugs & Profanity: 4
Intensity & Horror: 8.5