Alien (1979)

Alien is Ridley Scott's 1979 horror / sci-fi classic. It's about an Alien. At this point, we're embarrassed to tell you to go watch it and that there are spoilers below because you really should have seen it. But you know what? This here's a judgment-free zone, and this movie has some great stuff that if you're lucky enough not to have seen or heard about yet, then for the love of Lovecraft, go watch it. Do it now, and do it right. Are you normal and have seen this before? Then continue on down for the trailer and our review. 

 
 

Mark: Alien. One of the best horror movies of all time. The movie that launched Sigourney Weaver’s career. Ever heard the phrase “In space, no one can hear you scream?” That came from this movie. This thing is parodied all over the place, so even if you have unfathomably not seen this movie, I’m guessing it’s still going to be somewhat familiar to you. Also important to note the original working title was Star Beast. Badass. Also also important to note is the movie title in Hungarian is “The 8th Passenger is Death.” This movie has so much fun trivia.

Jack: Woof. Review spoilers man. Now that you’ve prematurely told our reader how you’re going to rate, what do you expect her to keep reading for? Plus, it really could have gone any number of different directions. We have a proven track record of objectively analyzing old classics and coming at them with a critical eye rather than with the fervent lunacy of a drunk fanboy.

Mark: Is this really our first actual honest-to-goodness no-bones-about-it Alien movie? I mean Pod coulda been a secret government project. Cloverfield is about a billion times better if it’s not an alien. 10 Cloverfield Lane had aliens, but they were kinda the secondary money-grabby part of the movie. You can’t really argue with this one. Oh shit. Signs. Okay so it’s the second alien movie we’ve reviewed, but it’s the first one in space. That’s what I’ll go with.

 
 

Jack: Yeah . . . I mean it is right there in the title. Although Jake would still find a way to give its “Alien Factor” a 9 / 10. Fucking goof. But yeah, this is our second full-fledged alien movie. And a slasher.

Mark: It’s not a slasher. God dammit. Let’s put a pin in that one for now. The movie opens slowly with a long sequence of the crew waking up. Almost immediately you realize that despite the whole “no one can hear you scream” thing, this is a movie about sounds. The sound design in this thing is absurdly good. There’s a lot of mechanical pings, and beeps, and whirrs. It sets a cold and businesslike tone for the backdrop. I would say this movie has the best sound design of any horror film, especially if you prorate it out for it being made in 1979.

 

But not as cold as Peter, Paul, and Mary. Nothing is as cold as that gang.

 

Jack: Man, it’s not just the sounds, which are terrific, I’ll grant you. These motherfuckers know how to build a fucking world. Every detail of this ship feels real. The layout of the equipment, the details on the walls and ceilings, the way all of their personal shit is placed - and then the sound comes in and brings it home. You instantly feel like this ship is a real place where real people live. And the first chunk of the movie is pretty much all spent just building this world.

Mark: Word on the street is that the set designers actually wired up switches on the ship to turn on switches elsewhere on the ship, so any action that the crew took would light up a panel elsewhere for someone to flip. Makes that shit feel alive. Also, there’s a lot switch flipping. Like I said, the movie starts out pretty slow. It’s your standard “sent to investigate a distress signal” storyline. There’s some commentary on faceless corporations ruining people’s lives sewn in here, but we probably don’t really need much of that. You’ve heard it before. Every corporation is trying to kill us all. Especially Weylan-Yutani. They’re all about that evil company schtick.  

Jack: So the crew wakes up from cryo-slumber to find that MOTHER, the onboard computer, has dictated that they’re going to check out a planet for a distress signal. Side-note, that cat’s name is Jones, and it wasn’t in cryo-sleep. Do they not care at all about Jones? I mean, fair enough if they don’t because it’s a fucking cat, but still, give him a cryo-tube. The only thing worse than a cat is a geriatric cat. In any case, some of the crew go to check out the distress signal, but Ripley, Sigourney Weaver, the senior crew whatever, decides that the signal was a warning rather than a distress call. Ominous.

Mark: You get to a point where the movie just jump-stops for a second for you to take in the scene that these space-’splorers stumble upon. There’s a fucking enormous dead alien sitting in the center of this room who musta been too busy navigating or flying or something to notice that his “chest” was about to “burst.” I wonder if there is a creative name for a creature that might perform that sort of action? Anyway, this shot is one of the most famous of the movie, cost a shit load of money, and introduced us to the race that fans refer to as “space jockeys.” IMDB trivia tells me that Ridley Scott actually used his own kids in miniature space suits to make the set look bigger than it was. Solid move.

Jack: One of the ‘splorers, Kane, finds a friggin huge room with a fuck-ton of alien eggs in it. He goes in to look up close at one of the eggs, and like Elmer Fudd looking down the barrel of his shotgun, BAM!! The egg opens up and the alien (I see what they did there) inside melts through his helmet with acid-spit and starts aggressively hugging Kane’s face. Incidentally, the fan-base has deemed this little guy a “face-hugger.” Real creative bunch, these Alien fans.

 

They're the pre-historic Elmer Fudds of naming things.

 

Mark:They get the guy back inside due to Bilbo Baggins going all “science officer override” on the chain of command. Ripley (Weaver) is pissed, but I mean who put a chick in charge anyway, amirite? On a more serious note this movie did lot for women in movies. It was one of the first action movies, let alone the genre of horror, to cast a leading woman and not make her utterly useless. Seriously, Ripley is a goddamn badass. There’s some interesting trivia on that, but we’ll get to it later. Foreshadowing. Bam.

Jack: I think you’ll find that the best foreshadowing is announced as it’s happening. So they bring Kane to the medical bay. They can’t get the damn face-hugger to stop hugging the damn face. Not only is it the thing on there tight, but it’s revealed at this point that its blood is a super strong acid that can burn through the ship. That’s a dumb thing to hit us with, but then Dallas says that he hasn’t seen anything as strong as the blood “except molecular acid.” Molecular acid. What the actual fuck? As in, acid made of molecules? That’s just fucking acid! And if that weren’t stupid enough, Brett then says “it must be using it for blood.” Using it for blood? What does that mean? It woke up this morning, wandered over to its blood-pantry, and decided “Hmm, I think I’ll go with the molecular acid today; sure it has a stupid and meaningless name, but it’ll really fuck with that Ripley rapscallion.”

Mark: Yeah. Acid blood. Right. There’s a few parts to this one so let’s break it down. Is there an acid that could potentially fit that category? Well, actually yeah. I mean not “molecular acid” because that’s a ridiculous thing to call an acid, but a superacid that could burn through several layers of metal. There’s a few concoctions that could fit the bill. Carborane Acids are the strongest “acids” currently known to man. They’re like a thousand times stronger than the previously known strongest acid. I use quotes around acid there because it is slightly different than a standard acid, and also because I’m basically only tenuously aware of what an acid actually is. Anyway, don’t ever say A-Z never taught you nothing.

Jack: We teach these ya-hoos so much man. I’d go more into that, but I’m still mad about this acid blood thing. The movie tells us that it’s a defense mechanism so that things don’t kill it. But fuck, what meandering oxbow lake of an evolutionary path led the xenomorphs to develop needing the power generated (also what?!) from the acid in its veins also requiring veins and skin and shit strong enough to withstand ‘molecular acid’? For a world this well-built, they should have talked to like at least 2 biologists. And not those “people rode on dinosaurs” biologists the Mormons hired to “fact check” their lunatic church museum in Florida. Real biologists with real educations and real degrees.

 
Pictured: A 'real' education.

Pictured: A 'real' education.

 

Mark: You nailed it, buddy. Also, how good is a defense mechanism if you have to bleed all over your enemies in order for it to work? In any case, this thing is clearly a godless killing machine. Or maybe not, because it basically immediately falls off the guy’s face and dies. Oooooooh. Real intimidating, alien species. You’re gonna basically face-sit us into a coma and then die? I know people who would pay good money for that.

Jack: Once again, Mark, you can’t call yourself “people.” In any case, Kane wakes up, happy as a clam, and they all decide to pal around and have another bite before heading back off to cryosleep. And the meal scene is a great example of how alone this thing makes you feel. This is such good storytelling and subtle writing (molecular acids aside), that they don’t need to keep reminding you how fucking alone they are. You just feel it. And that’s a shame for them, because Kane starts to not feel well.

Mark: Remember how earlier I asked about what one might call something that would burst forth from something’s chest? Yeah. Well, meet the “chest-burster”. It’s a great way to fuck up your spaghetti dinner. It zips around like some cross between an eel and a fetus, and finds a nice safe air conditioning shaft to play in. Man, kids back in the 70’s got to play on all the cool shit.

Jack:This scene is one of the all time greats of horror. Anything we write about it cannot do it justice from that first time seeing. There’s nothing like seeing this not knowing what’s coming. So if you haven’t seen it, then fuck. It’s ruined for you. Most of the energy from this scene comes from the terrific acting, though I don’t think you can really call it acting. Ridley Scott didn’t tell any of the cast, except the guy playing Kane, that a chest-burster was going to happen. So that was genuine shock on the part of the actors. So cool.

Mark: I kinda can’t really remember how exactly the next part goes, but I feel like we can basically just start breezing through shit. I mean basically the punchline is “let’s split up gang” and then they all get dead. It’s Scooby Doo, but with a bloodthirsty alien instead of a crooked real estate agent.

Jack: You never go full Scooby Doo man, that shit’ll fuck you up. But yeah, you’re not wrong. Which isn’t to say that the scenes aren’t effective, because the isolation they experience as they get separated is scary. Oh yeah, we also get some good exposition about why they’re not using real weapons because the Xenomorph’s blood could spill and melt a hole in the ship. So they set off with a rag-tag mess of non “class 1” weapons, or whatever they called them, and get killed off one by one by the now much bigger alien.

Mark: Once Dallas dies off Ripley becomes the acting captain. In a scene that basically perfectly foreshadows how fucking useless computers generally are in the workplace she consistently gets something on par with an error 404. After some technological cajoling she discovers that Bilbo is actually kinda sorta on a mission which lists one of the objectives as “crew expendable.” After some additional technological cajoling Bilbo gets his head knocked off by the token giant black guy on the crew. Literally knocked right off. Turns out he’s an android. Boom, twisted.

 
 

Jack: It was genuinely unexpected that first time you see it. It’s pretty great, and introduces a whole new villain into the thing, but in a way that doesn’t feel forced and like it’s just there to pad the runtime (looking at you The Dark Knight).

Mark: That movie didn’t need any runtime padding. It was two and half hours long like I’m some schlemiel who doesn’t have other things to do? In any case this is the first of many asshole moves by Weylan-Yutani throughout the series. Like I said, they’re all about the the evil corporation schtick. For whatever reason this future android is made entirely of milk and foley catheters. You can tell they basically just raided the props department of some medical show and threw everything into the shell of this dude’s neck.

Jack: Then a lot of things happen all at once. The 3 remaining crew members decide to set the ship to self-destruct and then cheese it in a shuttle. As soon as they try to execute that plan, blam-o! The alien kills all of the non-Sigourney-Weaver crew members left. Ripley initiates the self-destruct, but then the Alien blocks her path to the shuttle. And then it turns out that bitch computer MOTHER won’t let her abandon the self-destruct. Not a good day for Ripley.

 
Not only were there several jackers in sight, but she didn't even get a beep from Kim regarding fucking all night. Unbelievable.

Not only were there several jackers in sight, but she didn't even get a beep from Kim regarding fucking all night. Unbelievable.

 

Jack: Anyway, Ripley and that darn cat manage to narrowly outsmart the alien and get into the shuttle. And that’s when the movie takes the badass feminist hero thing Ripley had going and kind of takes all of the feminist out of it.

Mark: Interesting that you say that, because the original writers specifically made all of the characters unisex and let the casting department make the decisions on what characters would be. That’s actually one of the reasons, presumably, that Ripley is such a badass. It’s also probably the reason why the black guy doesn’t die first. Anyway, supposedly they adapted very little from the original script to the final one to accommodate the gender changes.

 
What this? No, this is standard issue for astronauts. The captain was actually wearing this same thing before he died.

What this? No, this is standard issue for astronauts. The captain was actually wearing this same thing before he died.

 

Jack: Now look, I’m not complaining. Ripley’s still a giant badass, and then also really sexy too. I can just see why my wife might quibble a bit with my argument that she’s quite a feminist character. Regardless, I enjoyed it.

Mark: Yeah, okay. So they may have adapted that slightly. In fairness, they probably had something like this originally planned...

 
Patrick Swayze is the Xenomorph.

Patrick Swayze is the Xenomorph.

 

Jack: And then another twist! Just when Ripley gets all comfy in her underwear, the alien sticks its claws out from behind some weird hidey-hole it was in. That damn thing stowed away, the scally-wag! Anyway, one final fight, yadda yadda yadda, Ripley kicks the fucker into the creek. And by creek, I mean shuttle exhaust followed by cold unfeeling blackness of space. Ripley and the cat go back into cryosleep (this time it gets cryosleep apparently), and the movie ends.

Mark: Okay, one last quick thing, because I’m sure we’re going to disagree on it. Is this thing the space slasher that you guys insist that it is? What the hell is wrong with you. This isn’t a slasher movie. The final girl thing is purely by accident and was actually originally written specifically to avoid the final girl trope. Also, unlike other final girls Ripley is decidedly not useless. You have a slowly incrementing body count, but is that the only bar to get over for it to be a slasher. There’s no mask. The alien isn’t driven by revenge. The victims aren’t teenagers. There is exactly zero slashing performed on the part of the xenomorph. Isn’t this just a monster movie? My most damning point? There’s no mention of the movie in TVTropes’s slasher movie page. Also, neither the Alien film page or the Alien franchise page mentions anything about slashers. I know, I ctrl+F’d. Fuck you, let's just rate this thing.

RATINGS (1-10):

For 1, think of how Mitt Romney would rate his ability to tell if someone is in sport:

 
 

For 10, think of how much you want to watch the original draft of this movie with dogs playing the alien:

STORY:

Jack: 8 - This thing is great. Pretty simple stuff. Something unexpected happens, survivors get picked off one by one, etc. But then there’s a couple of great twists in here too with the android and stuff. All around just really good.

Mark: 10 - From a story standpoint the movie is both simple but also groundbreaking. At its surface it’s just a movie about people being caught in between an evil corporate plot and a godless killing machine, but beyond that you have a few noticeably different riffs like the facehugger and chestburster that had this thing listed as the 3rd scariest movie of all time. Also, I would be remiss to not mention how Ripley is not only a leading lady but also a pretty badass one. We don’t see a lot of strong female characters in horror, let alone horror from the 70’s, so to see one so well written is a huge boon to the score. This was a genre defining script.

WORLD-BUILDING / IMMERSION:

Jack: 7 - I wanted to give this a 9. Ridley Scott paid so much attention to the world and did such a careful job building it. Then he perfectly used little music and relied heavily on native noises. . . . And then he used the phrase “molecular acid.” A lot. That and a couple other exposition-heavy lines drop this thing a couple of points. Still really really good, but damn, it’s too bad.

Mark: 7 - I’m just gonna wuss out and agree with Jack on this one. This movie could easily swing anywhere between about a 4 and a 10. If you want to sell the 10 angle just play up how much shit is hidden in the background of every scene, or talk about how all the switches in the ship were wired to other switches so the set felt alive, or just read the Alien wiki for like 5 minutes to see the breadth of content that has been spawned from the original film mythos. If you want to sell the 4 angle look at “molecular acid,” the foley catheters hanging out of Ash’s head, and everyone’s incredible willingness to get murdered to save a cat.

SCARE-FACTOR:

Jack: 7 - This one, as with all old classics, is tricky. You absolutely have to give it credit for how much it scared you on that first unspoiled viewing. But then you have to temper that with remembering that you were a kid, and that it should be able to hold a scary atmosphere even after repeated viewings, and even if the jumpscares will lose their luster. This thing does that. The isolation and raw terror of being alone in space still come through. High marks.

Mark: 7 - The pacing and editing hurt this one a bit. A lot of the deaths are pretty quick cut and you can’t really see what’s going on. Supposedly the original script was a lot more graphic, but the studio dialed it back. Can’t say it was a bad decision because the film was a massive hit and remains relevant to this day, but still you gotta wonder what they could’ve done. That being said the scene where Captain Dallas dies haunted me for years after I saw this movie the first time, and the chestbursting scene is usually in the top 10 of most “Scariest Moments in Film” lists. I think I’ve seen this one too many times to properly rate this category.

EFFECTS (OR JUDICIOUS LACK THEREOF:

Jack: 7 - I am unfairly maligning this movie for one weak spot of effects. But I’m admitting it, so that makes it okay right? Look, the effects in this thing were groundbreaking and incredible for the time. Hell, they hold up and even look better than many movies made today. But then there’s that scene where Ripley slaps the android’s head and it changes mid-slap from a real and great-looking head, to an obvious rubber mask stuck on a some balled up newspaper. Not great.

Mark: 9 - Damn near perfect. The Alien still looks phenomenal. The ship design is great. The sound design, Haley. Oh my god. The sound design. Oh my god. The set with the space jockey? Hot damn. They used The Who’s lasers to make the effect over the eggs. How cool is that? I really can only knock it for a few minor things, chiefly the scenes when their landing on the planet and you see the ship touchdown. Granted technical limitations and all, but still not quite perfect.

OVERALL:

Jack: 8 - Alien is awesome. End of story. A must watch. Super fun. Super scary. Super awesome.

Mark: 9.5 - It’s pacing is just a shade too slow for me give it a perfect 10. Also the phrase “molecular acid.” One thing I gotta say about this movie that makes it infinitely cooler, and also is a good benchmark for how much the industry has changed, is that prior to release there was essentially no media (no trailers, no posters, no promotional images) released showing the fully grown alien. That shit was a total surprise. Could you imagine that now? Take note, movie marketers (also Netflix banner makers) of today. Do it like that.