A Trip (Back) To The Movies: Review – “Alien” (1979)

It is very difficult to talk “fact” when it comes to film. However when it comes to Science Fiction, one could say the closest thing to being fact is that Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968), Ridley Scott’s “Alien” (1979), and Scott’s “Blade Runner” (1982) are the three most influential films to have come out of the genre of all time. And I would argue that all three of them are also the best. But when it comes to using the term best in relation to film, well, that’s a matter of opinion of course. What I will say is this – the fact that I got to see James Cameron’s “Aliens” (1986) and its predecessor within the same month, on the big screen no less, is maybe by a mere act of god. But even more importantly, that I came to the realization after seeing both screenings, of how incredibly influential both films are. Not just in terms of their importance in film history, but in how much of an impact the “Alien” franchise has had on our culture and society as a whole. When I saw “Aliens” (1986) a little under a month ago now, I was awestruck by the vast number of people who came out to see a movie that was made almost 30 years ago now. I remember casually getting to the 750-person capacity theater 45 minutes early thinking that I would be one of the first in line. It turned out there were probably 100+ people in front of me. The movie eventually sold out, mind you again this is for a theater that seats 750 for a film that was made almost 30 years ago. It was an experience that’s difficult for me to put into words. It all felt so all inclusive. Like I was an integral part of something special. Which is truly one of the main reasons why I enjoy going to the movies so much, to be a part of that kind of experience.

As was the case with tonight’s screening of “Alien” (1979). Granted I showed up late (if you want to call a half an hour “late”) and was more shocked this time than I was the previous time to see the sheer amount of people in line to see it. This time being at a much larger venue, at Portland’s Empirical Theater which is within our city’s science museum, and seats about a 1,000. Well even arriving a half an hour early I was a few hundred people back. The scene there looked like something more akin to a big rock concert than it did to see a film that was made 36 years ago now. But what struck me even more about it was the age range by the looks of the people waiting in line. Everyone from teenagers to people my age to older adults stood in line at their chance to catch this film live on the big screen. Many of whom like me, were experiencing it for the first time. What’s so significant about this and why I feel the need to point it out is that movies really are timeless, and to see such a film with such a large audience that has made such a lasting imprint on our culture was nothing short of amazing. It finally came time to pile in when the usher announced by megaphone (there really were that many people in line) it was time to be let in. People scrambled in like cattle and to be honest, I just felt lucky enough to have gotten a seat. I buckled myself in as the house lights went down, which conjured up a sense of excitement that only a film of this caliber could possibly summon.

“Alien” is such a landmark achievement in terms of its impact on the film (as previously mentioned in my “Aliens” review – the original “Alien” is both my favorite Sci Fi and Horror film of all time). And to sum up why I love this film so much in a single paragraph is almost next to impossible. What I will say is that Ridley Scott’s film revolutionized the Science Fiction format. A genre which, up to that point, was mostly reserved for cheesy B movies and disaster flicks that came out of the 1950’s and 60’s. What Scott was able to do was resurrect a genre by first adding a high production value, which allowed for big-budget visuals, a breathtaking set design, and one of the most realistic creatures that still to this day, ranks up their with the best (and certainly one of the scariest). The first entry is essentially a meta exercise, perfectly blending and executing both equal parts horror and Sci Fi. The way in which Scott establishes tone and setting is simply a marvel of a feat. He creates a sense of isolation (hence the film’s tagline – “in space no one will hear you scream”) and a foreboding sense of dread and nerve-wracking suspense as the space crew Nostromo encounters some sort of unfamiliar space craft and its subsequent scenes, are all nail-bitingly tense in their execution. Scott rather deftly tracks the camera through every inch of the space craft’s corridor which feels like that of a stretching rubber band. The crew then explores the suspicious space craft. Which is where it really grabs a hold of you about a third of the way in and never lets up. It all starts with John Hurt’s character falling into what appears to be a womb of some sort, filled with egg-like pods. A face-hugging parasite latches on to his helmet, which at that point you get the sense that something is seriously about to go wrong. And it does. Much to the chagrin of Lt. Ripley (played by the first real female action hero in cinema – Sigourney Weaver) Ian Holm’s character forgoes protocol to quarantine the victim and lets him back on board. The scenes following, or shall I say “the scene”, is just as incredibly terrifying, if not more, every single time I see it. You could literally hear the audience gasp as many people like myself, seemed to know and prepared themselves for what was to come…

It’s at this pivotal moment and iconic scene that virtually the rest of the film takes off. Scott produces genuine thrills and scares as the film essentially becomes a game of cat and mouse, with the alien preying on the rest of the crew. And each time we see the beast’s double set of extending jaws, the movie becomes more and more terrifying as each unfortunate victim befalls resulting in one of the more fulfilling climaxes in cinema history.

The film’s true greatness lies within its ability to be both undeniably scary, nerve-wracking, but even more importantly, as a piece of thought-provoking art. The Oscar nominated visual effects by the late H.R. Giger are both highly original and unique. That and unlike its sequel, we hardly ever get to see the actual alien, except only for a few brief moments at a time, and it’s both terrible and beautiful when we finally get to see it in its full form. Another key important thing to note is that is was solely responsible for launching its then unknown actress Sigourney Weaver into an overnight star and film icon. I could go on and on and on about the many things I love about this film, but I don’t think I could possibly do it justice. What I will say is with each viewing, especially this one, given that it was on the big screen with a house full of “Alien” fans like myself, it acted as a reminder of why I hold this film in such a high regard. But even more so, it’s a glimpse into the past at one of the most seminal and important works that would go on to influence generations to come.

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