by Brian McFarlane
Two years ago, Ridley Scott made one of the most striking directorial debuts of the 1970s with his film of Joseph Conrad’s novella The Duellists, a sharply observed study in destructive obsession, set in a variety of handsomely composed tableaux of the Napoleonic Wars.
Alien, his first film since then, is a distinct let-down. The visual flair persists with marvellous shots of spacecraft taking off, or landing bumpily on giant claws, and the art direction from the Star Wars team of Les Dilley and Roger Christian is predictably brilliant in its detail and look of authenticity. But at heart Alien is no more than a semi-adult horror comic that sometimes ravishes the eye and twists the gut, but leaves the heart and mind alone. It certainly does not come within light years of the complex beauties of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
A commercial space-tug, Nostromo (Conrad, thou shouldst be living at this hour!), is towing three oil refineries through distant time and space when it meets up with a metamorphosing galactic horror deep inside a wrecked spaceship. The rest of the film shows the attempts of the Nostromo crew to deal with this remarkably ubiquitous menace, as, one by one, they come to their grisly ends.
The reference to Conrad leads one irresistibly to ponder what he might have made — and Scott does not — of the opportunities for observing human behaviour under horrifying stress. Initially, there is a pleasing sense of everyday lives that just happen to be lived in a space-tug, with sly fun about eating and sleeping arrangements; but the film quickly loses interest in building tension among its confined characters.
From the moment Kane (John Hurt), the first crew member to be infected by the alien presence, is taken back on board the Nostromo, Scott’s chief concern seems to be to scare hell out of the audience with each new manifestation of the presence. But there is a limit to how far the audience can be shocked by special effects directed at human beings they have not been persuaded to care much about.
The effects, by Brian Johnson and Nick Allder, are indeed nastily imaginative as they present the alien creature erupting from the bodies it has possessed. But there is nothing in Alien as genuinely alarming as Val Lewton’s suggested terrors, some 30 years ago, in Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie. Those modest triumphs scared us by what they implied about terrifying forces, whereas Alien insists on showing us everything.
The first manifestation of the presence, as it emerges from a sealed ‘egg’ on the wrecked spacecraft, looks like a lump of heaving veal. This is repulsive enough, but Scott and his team have set themselves the task of ensuring that each new appearance will be more horrific than those before. And they don’t quite succeed because we are too busy admiring the cleverness of it all without being much interested in where the alien will strike next.
Apart from the engagingly sulky-faced Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), the carefully idiosyncratic cast remains curiously anonymous. This would matter less if the film had fewer pretensions.
One doesn’t necessarily expect detailed characterization in a lark like this, but those less interested in intricate model work and nasty creatures may have felt compensated by a more charismatic crew. As it is, they neither dazzle as stars nor interest as people.
The pretentiousness of Alien is most apparent in its spasmodic references to the “Company” in the background. The “Company”, which transmits orders that ‘priority one’ is the return of the organism and that the crew is expendable, seems to suggest a heartless capitalist menace, but the film never makes anything coherent of this. Nor does it develop the sort of moral choices it hints at in the clash between Ripley and Ash (Ian Holm), the science officer, about whether Kane should be allowed to reboard the Nostromo. Kane will die if he is not allowed back; they may all die if he is.
The tensions hinted at here could have been worked to give the film a richer psychological texture. However its affiliations are not with Conrad, but with tatty old horror films in which much of the dialogue (apart from the odd fashionable expletive) would be perfectly at home.
“Let’s not be too hasty,” says Ash as they observe the creature plastered over Kane’s lace. “It’s amazing. What is it?” asks Ripley. “I don’t know yet”, says Ash, noting that it has “prolonged resistance to adverse environmental conditions”. “You do your job… and let me do mine,” he warns her, and someone in fact says, “This place gives me the creeps.’’
None of this would matter at all if the film respected the limits of its genre, or if it subverted these with sustained intelligence. Instead it simply suffers from intermittent delusions of significance.
If it is not going to pursue the political and/or moral issues it adverts to, it would be better occupied with devoting itself to scaring us silly. Again, it hints at real fears — of worlds frighteningly different from ours: of a creature that is perhaps indestructible, that belongs to a nightmare that just may turn out to be true. But mostly it settles for short-term visceral effects.
Alien certainly builds some persuasive suspense and achieves some lively shocks. The sequence in which Brett (Harry Dean Stanton), the oldest crew member, stalks the alien is a good example of the way Scott uses his ominous sets, lighting and sound, to create a tension that grows out of man’s vulnerability in the face of the unknown.
In the end, though, the film seems overwhelmed by its own technical ingenuity as if its makers were having the time of their lives and hoped this would be enough for ours.
Cinema Papers, December 1979 – January 1980, p. 667