As the spooky season raises its sharpened axe to soon fall upon us, the ghouls and goblins of Film Ireland wallow in the terror of the films that embrace the nutty freaks, bloody psychos and raging spoonatics with our ‘Bloody Countdown to Halloween’ – cue Vincent Price laugh…
(Ridley Scott, 1979)
In space no one can hear you scream. I can say that over and over and it never loses its power. Much like the film itself, Alien‘s tagline is hypnotic, terrifying and utterly memorable. Sitting down to watch this bona fide classic again this week, I struggled to approach it with anything but wide-eyed wonder. I had to remind myself that Sigourney Weaver’s character, Ripley, hasn’t always been around. That in 1979 people sat down to watch this film and fully expected the ship’s captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt), with his roguish good looks and manly beard, to save the helpless lady astronauts. Despite my best efforts I couldn’t remove the facehugger from my psyche or the residue of the exploding-chest xenomorph which coated Alien‘s innards all over the face of modern cinema.
Having discarded my attempts at an unbiased reading of Alien, I settled in with the crew of the Nostromo and we screamed our silent screams together. What struck me over and over was how well the visual design of Alien has held up. For a modest budget of $11 million, Ridley Scott and his crew created an environment which remains absolutely believable today. The sets for the interior of the spaceship have a solidity to them which computer effects and green screens fall far short of today. The familiarity of the Nostromo’s design with its recognisable cockpit and mess room amidst airlocks and hibernation stations adds enormously to the film’s believability; fuelling the terror of the whole messy situation.
As impressive as the set design is, the iconic design of the film’s titular enemy remains Alien’s strongest asset. The perfection of the xenomorph’s biology combined with its demonic appearance makes it one of cinema’s greatest creations. Watching the ship’s crew initially chase the creature with a net is, from our vantage point thirty years later, sadistically hilarious. How quickly they run out of ideas and go from hunter to hunted, being outsmarted at every turn, is terrifying and testament to the dazzling design of the alien.
While the alien does indeed look like a man in a suit when we see it briefly in its entirety, I would still take this over the more recent swimming, computer-animated incarnations. The animatronic close-ups of the alien have lost none of their impact. Similarly, the face-hugger remains skin-crawlingly effective. Watching it tighten it’s grip when the crew attempt to remove it from John Hurt’s face before it bleeds acid through the floor is as much nightmare territory now as it would have been thirty years ago.
If the mask fits…
To appreciate Alien is to appreciate cinema. While it is an excellent story in its own right, it is the design of Alien which makes it so memorable. It has lost none of its aesthetic pleasure and still looks more realistic than most special effects oriented films today. For a sci-fi film to retain its impact after so many years places Alien within a very exclusive echelon of cinema. Treat yourself this Hallowe’en to a face-hugging film you won’t soon forget.