ALIEN: 40th Anniversary

“It’s full of leathery objects, like… eggs or something.”

40 years ago, the Nostromo slowly eclipses the star-dotted void as the onboard AI rouses the crew from their slumbers for a mission that would ultimately spell doom for the interstellar freighter and most of her crew.

The crew in hypersleep. – source: 20th Century Fox

On the eve of Alien’s 40th anniversary, I finally watched the Ridley Scott directed, Dan O’Bannon scripted 1979 sci-fi-horror for the first time in my life. The iconic Xenomorph successfully embedded itself in the popular culture and thrived—Alien had spawned many offsprings bearing the Alien name (and many more that don’t) across the media in the following decades. It is a miracle that I managed to miss out on the bulk of the prolific franchise for so long, and what is a better way to right my wrongs than with a 4K HDR re-release of this classic?

And Alien is a classic indeed! The film’s production design is simply out of this world (get it?), and the 4K restoration offers a clean and detailed presentation, making Alien look quite positively modern. It is impossible not to be awed by Alien’s power of immersion when the film effortlessly transports its audience to the dark corridors of Nostromo, and that power is entirely undulled by the passage of time. In my attempt to give shapes to my raw, immediate impressions of Alien, I kept returning to Ash’s death rattle. “I admire its purity,” the Synthetic science officer slurred, his dismembered body lying in a pool of white circulation fluid. Such a simple statement, yet it superbly encapsulates what Alien is—a refined, efficient, and powerful piece of filmmaking.

“That’s not our system.”  “I know that.”

Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt) sits the crew down in the mess hall and explains the situation. They aren’t going back to Earth anytime soon, MOTHER (ship AI) has rerouted the ship to investigate a mysterious signal. Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) grumble, but what else can they do? Ash cooly points out that the penalty is “forfeiture of all shares”. Do this, or you don’t get paid.

Jolly mealtime – source: 20th Century Fox

Alien is dedicated in the pursuit of that “purity”, and you can feel it in every part of the movie. Within minutes of the film, Alien demonstrates its eerily natural ease in acquainting the audience with the cast. Horror stereotypes the characters are not; the crew feels like real people with real concerns; they worry about pay, they argue about protocols. Alien masterfully establishes and characterizes them with banter, presenting a slice of deep space mining life. Within minutes, I feel as if I’ve known them for years. 

Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) is a pessimist, Ash (Ian Holm) is a company man through and through, and Dallas is too tired to deal with any of this. Parker and Brett view themselves as the backbone of the operation, after all, they are the ones that keep the ship running. It puts a smile on my face when the glib technician duo inflates the estimated repair time to get pressure off their back while boosting their importance, because it sounds exactly the kind of thing they do.

And then there is Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), our final girl. Ripley is harder to pin down at first, but as you spend more time with her, you’ll find that she is whatever the situation demands of her. Ripley is duty and resilience personified, but she is not without a more vulnerable side. She is flesh and blood just like the rest of her crew.

“Something has attached itself to him. We have to get him to the infirmary right away.”

Dallas, Lambert, and Kane (John Hurt) trace the signal to a derelict alien spaceship. In a dark chamber, Kane discovers hundred of eggs. Kane’s clumsiness wakes one of the eggs and the Facehugger within launches itself at Kane’s face, and that is the beginning of the end for the Nostromo. 

The Xenomorph – source: 20th Century Fox

There are probably a million essays already written in praise of H.R. Giger’s (and other special effect maestros’) legendary design—mine would just be a droplet in a sea. But what am I to do? Not gush about one of the most iconic horror creatures of all time? The imageries of the derelict spaceship and the horrors within are seemingly born from a feverish nightmare, in which bones and sinews are the building blocks of all things. Every stage of a Xenomorph’s life cycle—from the fleshy spider that impregnates its victim, to the unholy union of skeletal carapace and man—flirts with the primordial fear rooted in the recess of our minds: bodily violation in the most gruesome fashion. 

To be perfectly honest, I actually have seen a Xenomorph before, with all the gory business that entails. I’m sorry to say that AVP: Alien vs. Predator and bits and pieces of Alien: Resurrection on cable television served as my initiation to the Alien franchise; it deserves a much stronger first introduction (in fact, I liked Alien so much that I followed up with Aliens the next day). One may think my previous encounters would soften the fear of the unknown, but that was not the case. 

Nostromo interior – source: 20th Century Fox

Alien remains a tense cinematic experience despite its age and my prior exposures, and its secret lies in the rich atmosphere of the Nostromo, where most of the film takes place. The Nostromo is almost a character of her own. Built with maximizing profit in mind, rather than the comfort of her crew, the Nostromo’s spartan, claustrophobic corridors channel the perfect ambiance as the abattoir of workers under late stage capitalism. Every button press, every swoosh of a sliding door reinforces her gritty texture. The ship feels real; the stress and panic that her crew experiences, is almost palpable. Trying not to get swept up in the struggle is a hopeless endeavor.

There are not many movies in my life that I dare say are perfect, but Alien is one of them. The ship, the crew, the monster, each element is succinctly produced, and they elegantly complement each other to form one of the most well-paced, well-directed horror movies of all time. The power of Alien is unageing, frozen in time, like the eggs in the spaceship – waiting to pounce on the next unsuspecting cinephile who chances upon it.

Published by Jack Chang

I watch films and I write stuff. Follow me @AtravellerTW on twitter

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