I begin this review with an announcement: I have seen Alien about 82 times. Alien is one of my favorite horror movies, but at this point I’m a wee bit sick of it, so I will try a different format for this review. There will be almost no plot summary at all.
Announcement #2: it’s snowing today, and I’m stuck in my apartment, so I had the wonderful idea to watch Alien, An American Werewolf in London and The Thing all at once. A Triple Feature of Terror! Later in this review I will discuss the mystical ties that bind these movies together. I call these ties the Web of Nostradamus™, but that’s another story.
The first thing that struck me on my 83rd rewatch of Alien was how tight the screenplay is in places. This movie was written by Dan O’Bannon, who wrote the screenplay for the underrated Dead and Buried. He also wrote and directed The Return of the Living Dead, THE GREATEST ZOMBIE MOVIE OF ALL TIME. If you want to know the origin of the belief that zombies crave brains, watch this movie.
What do I mean about a tight screenplay? When the crewmembers of the Nostromo check out the SOS, which is actually a warning, Dallas (the Captain) needs three crewmembers to investigate the signal. He can’t use the engineering crew, who normally get all the shit jobs, because they are busy repairing the landing ship. He also can’t use the Science Officer (Ash), because the movie later makes it clear that the science officer is the most important member of the crew. That leaves him, the second in command (Kane), the third in the command (Ripley) and the navigator (Lambert).
Dallas should have sent Ripley with Kane and Lambert; instead he pulls a Captain Kirk and goes himself. This is a good character moment for a minor player, showing us that Dallas isn’t a very good captain and foreshadowing his decision to send himself crawling through the air ducts. The screenplay hints that maybe Dallas has an unspoken thing for Ripley, who offers to go crawling through the air ducts. Dallas goes in her place.
But there’s more! O’Bannon damages the landing ship so that the two crewmembers most likely to be sent on the rescue mission will be unavailable. He also sets up the Ash/Ripley conflict; when Ash overrides Ripley’s decision to not let the crewmembers back into the landing ship, it creates tension between these two characters that pays off later in the movie. All of this is set up by the composition of a simple scouting party. I have a ton of respect for the level of thought that went behind this scene.
Of course, the second half of Alien plays things a lot looser. That’s because this movie starts as a science fiction movie and ends up as horror movie, and the final hour plays by horror tropes. I particularly enjoyed the sequence when Ripley, who earlier refused to let her fellow crewmembers onto the ship because it violated quarantine, risks her life to hunt down her cat Jonesy, who spends most of the movie scaring the shit out of the crew. Knowing cats as I do, I think it’s possible that Jonesy and the alien were working together.
I watched Alien with my own cat, and sensed his approval during the feline rescue sequence. When Jonesy appeared onscreen he pawed at the screen and then peered behind the television, searching for the interloper. I have friends who assure me this is a sign of great intelligence in felines, although I have my doubts. I once had to stop my cat from eating a garbage bag.
Speaking of stupid: people sure do stupid things in the second half of this movie. Besides cat chasing, we have characters splitting up, Dallas confronting the alien in the air ducts (he wins a Darwin Award!) and the crewmembers leaving the door to the medical facilities wide open when the face-hugger vanishes.
One of the most problematic scenes in Alien is when Ripley – who is portrayed as a strong, tough-minded woman (weakness for cats aside) – strips down to her underwear. I’m sure director Ridley Scott would tell you he needed this scene because it sets up the sequence when Ripley dons the spacesuit (which wouldn’t fit with her clothes on, I guess) and ejects the alien into space. Yeah, right.
Alien is a visually striking movie. Yes, there are the H.R. Giger call-outs, but this film also contains all sorts of weird phallic imagery, from Ash’s white blood to the alien itself, which is a walking phallus. One of the movie’s more bizarre scenes is when Ash tries to kill Ripley by jamming a pornographic magazine down her throat. Perhaps he’s imitating the face-hugger, which shoves a tube down its victim’s throat. Or maybe there’s an even stranger reason. I don’t want to know.
I know you’ve all been waiting for this, so here is the first Web of Nostradamus™ that mystically binds all these movies together. The novelizations for Alien and The Thing were both written by Alan Dean Foster, who has the same middle name as actor Harry Dean Stanton, who spends most of Alien smoking unidentified substances and looking like he doesn’t know where the hell he is.