The crew of the merchant space vessel Nostromo lands on a moon to investigate a distress call, only to find something they weren’t ready for waiting for them.
This film is both beautiful and terrifying. It’s a film that starts like a dream, slowly easing you into the claustrophobic, shadowy halls of the Nostromo and then the landscapes of the stormy moon LV-426, before thrusting you into the hellish nightmare that comes at the end. It’s a film that, no matter how many times I’ve seen it, it always succeeds in making me jump at certain parts, and it always impresses me with the intricate details of the production design. Though this film is almost forty years old, it still succeeds in being one of the most atmospheric and visceral science fiction thrillers to ever have been brought to the silver screen. This is a movie that’s impact still resonates through the box office today. Heck, the latest (dismal) sequel came out last year, and Scott directed that one as well. So what is that makes this movie so special that it spawned three sequels, two prequels, a crossover series with the Predator franchise, and dozens of toys, action figures, collectables, comics, and video games? Well, that’s probably because of the titular creature itself: the horrifying design of the alien; the Xenomorph.
“I can’t lie to you about your chances, but you have my sympathies.”
Our film starts with the ship Nostromo floating through space towards Earth, the crewmembers are all in cryosleep, and the computer onboard is controlling the ship itself, nicknamed Mother. Mother picks up a distress signal and awakens the crew: Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt, “Contact”), Kane (John Hurt, “Hellboy”), Ripley (Sigourney Weaver, The Cabin in the Woods), Lambert (Veronica Cartwright, “Witches of Eastwick”), Ash (Ian Holm, Brazil), Parker (Yaphet Kotto, “Midnight Run”), and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton, “Repo Man”). The crew lands on the moon LV-426 and a few of the members head towards the signal, which happens to be coming from a large abandoned spaceship perched at the top of a rocky ridge. While exploring the ship, a creature attacks Kane and wraps itself around his head. The other exploring members bring Kane back to the Nostromo for evaluation, but the creature that attacked Kane has secrets in store.
So, the real star of the show here is the production design. This film takes elements of bigger sci fi films like “Star Wars” or “Star Trek” and removes the polish of those worlds. The Nostromo is not a good-looking ship; it’s ugly, dirty, and cramped, industrial and slightly creepy (even before the Xenomorph gets on board). The sets are elaborate constructed and richly detailed, and it sets the tone of the film immediately. The opening scene of this film doesn’t even feature any characters, it’s just the camera slowly moving through the ship, showing us the tranquil yet disquieting halls that will soon become invested with a hellish nightmare. Beyond the design of the ship is the creature design itself. The Xenomorph might be the most original design for an alien I’ve ever seen. It’s a creature that requires a host in order to reproduce, which is a terrifying concept there in of itself. The way the facehugger looks, with its ribbed flesh-colored tail and spiderlike legs, looks like something out of a different dimension. The fully evolved Xenomorph is even more terrifying; a curved head and double mouth that juts out whenever it needs to eat is the stuff of nightmares. The best part about this design is that for 90% of the shots, the Xenomorph design still holds up and looks incredibly realistic and unsettling. The only time that I really feel look dated are when we see the alien in a wide shot. Surprisingly, that doesn’t happen that often- a lot of the time the Xenomorph is shrouded in shadow and only appears right before it strikes. The technique of keeping the Xenomorph hidden in shadow is brilliant, not only because it makes the creature that much scarier, but also because when Scott shows the alien in a wide shot we can tell the creature is just a guy in a rubber suit. Really, though, that is my only complaint about this film; the rest of the film looks incredible.
Another thing I really like about this movie is the added level of realism that Scott took to create. The crew members feel like they all know each other, they have little quirks, you can tell who is closer with whom; it’s not hard to believe that these people have spent years traveling and working together. One good example of this is when Parker and Brett, the engineers, are instructed to inspect the damage the ship took as it landed on the moon. Parker and Brett’s relationship is rather playful, and they add an eight hour buffer to the time they report it would take to fix the ship entirely. The two go on to sort of play a prank on Ripley when she visits them; they turn on steam so that it looks like the ship is falling apart, and they say that unless they get a full share of whatever they find, they don’t want to work on the ship. Ripley ensures that they will get a full share and then leaves, the engineers then turn off the steam, showing that there wasn’t much work to be done in the first place. That sort of relationship adds a kind of realistic workers divide between upper management and the lower workers- Scott didn’t need to put that element into the film, but doing so made the character more relatable. These aren’t’ superheroes facing off against Thanos; these are just glorified miners/delivery drivers that get sucked into a horrifying situation. Taking that realism even further, Scott is sure to show that there are procedures and protocol for almost every situation that they find themselves in. Ripley refuses to let the three members of the crew back into the Nostromos at first, simply because she is following protocol. She references procedure multiple times throughout the film, and she’s the only one that seems to be making rational- though maybe heartless- decisions for the first half. It gives us deeper insight into her character, and it also makes her a sort of harbinger or like a kind of Cassandra figure.
The settings in this film are exhilarating and claustrophobic, the characters are funny and likeable and we want them to survive, the creature is horrifying and vile, and the storyline is tense and exciting. This might be the most popular alien franchise ever made (there are more sequels for this than there are for “Predator”), and that’s a well-deserved title. Personally, this is in my top ten science fiction films (and maybe in my top ten horror films as well); it’s a movie I’ll return to multiple times over the course of my life, and its one I doubt I’ll ever grow tired.
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