There are many good reasons why film fans worldwide are salivating over their Nostromo emblazoned tees in anticipation of Ridley Scott’s venture back into space for this Friday’s Prometheus; a fine cast, an intense publicity campaign and the possibility of a number of unanswered questions finally being answered are just a few of them.
In the end, all anyone wants is a film to rival the first Alien. In honour of Alien‘s cousin landing on screen in but a few days we’ve taken the opportunity to look back at what made the 1979 film so important and why, even 33 years on, it’s still the benchmark for many when it comes to both science fiction and horror.
Line by thick white line, text fills the screen. A mining crew are bound for Earth, currently sleeping in stasis. As the camera guides us across the exterior and then intog the ship we settle on its just wakening inhabitants, Ash, Brett, Dallas, Kane, Lambert, Parker and Ripley. After six dialogue free minutes we meet the crew and the reason for their interrupted slumber. A transmission of unknown origin means that before they can return home, they have to make an unscheduled stop. A stop that will change the face of cinema forever.
With each scene and sequence deeply instilled in the frontal lobe of audiences it’s hard to make a big deal of the number of shocks and twists inherent in Dan O’Bannon’s screenplay. But by Christ they’re in abundance. The face hugger first attaching itself to Kane and the subsequent horror of why, the creatures first showing and inordinate growth, Ash’s true motives (which upon repeated viewings seem impossible not to notice) and the reveal of the extra passenger on the once safe shuttle. In lesser movies each of these would deem the film worthy for praise. In Alien you get all these, plus acid blood, cat attack and internal conflict. That these factors didn’t over egg the pudding is testament to Sir Ridley’s skill as a filmmaker. The pace of events is perfect.
Then there’s Ripley. Arguably one of, if not, the most iconic science fiction character in movie history. Too often defined by her sex, Ripley’s strength lies not in the fact that she’s wangless but rather in that she’s the perfect person for the situation. Making the right decision in opting for quarantine, having the brains and guts to face the beast in the final confrontation, she kept a level head when all around were (sometimes literally) losing theirs.
Except for perhaps her blood relatives there weren’t many in the original audience queuing to see one Ms. Sigourney Weaver. By the time the credits rolled she was a bona fide star, soon to become the face and voice of interstellar travel for decades to come (Wall-E, Futurama, Galaxy Quest, Paul). That Weaver gained an Oscar nomination for her return as Ripley is nothing short of astounding taking into account the Academy’s stuffiness in regards to all things otherworldy. One of the biggest challenges of making Prometheus work will be in giving us a heroine a fraction as iconic as Lt. Ellen. We wish Noomi Rapace all the best. She’ll need it.
It’s a rare beast that can grace the front of movie magazines across the globe and still be revered and respected in academic circles. Alien is that beast. Any student of a media or film class from 1980 on would do well not to be subjected to class upon class on the subject of “sexual imagery in Alien” or “female empowerment in relation to Ripley”, such was the power of the subtext. Yet it was able to work just as well for those wanting a ‘fun ride’, shovelling popcorn into their open mouths, staring at the Xenomorph through barely open fingers as it was for those dissecting every frame, picking each strand apart like a Chief Science Officer in possession of a recently deceased facehugger. Alien was, and always will be, both a movie and a film.
Ultimately, the success of Alien is proved by its longevity. A film that created unimaginable nightmares, gave birth to one of the finest characters (and actresses) of our time and changed the shape of science fiction forever. Not too much for Prometheus to live up to then. But whatever level of success – or lack of – Scott manages with his prequel/cousin/DNA sharer we’ll always have Alien. And for that we should always be grateful.