This article originally appeared in the May 29, 1979 Issue of the Boston Phoenix.
Be forewarned: sleep won't come easily the night you see Alien. There hasn't been a monster movie this scary since Jaws, and nothing else in the science-fiction genre can touch it; it turns your muscles into cole slaw. It's also kind of dumb. In the last few years, film technology has caught up with the demands of science fiction, and the result has been a kind of mindless cinematic magic. Forget Plot and characters, nuance and social signifiicance; the new sci-fi movies overwhelm you with production values alone -- sets, props, lighting and photography: the spectacle of the fanciful turned convincing. By itself, production design can't lend a movie meaning, but it can, unaided, do a number on your emotions. In Star Wars, it created a comic-book hilarity; in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a sensation of childlike wonder and religiosity. Alien completes the set. Here the most realistic special effects ever employed in a monster movie dig straight into your subconscious, and the result is a terror that's out of this world.
I hasten to add that this is not everybody's idea of a good time. Some will find Alien too harrowing to be much fun, and the film doesn't always play fair. The editing is often so fast and the fore so profuse (at least in the first hour) that many audiences will feel as though they've had the wind punched out of them. Director Ridley Scott even throws in some strobe-light effects at the climax -- a shameless way of breaking down an audience's defenses. Moreover, the movie's very structure embodies a sort of betrayal. It begins gently, tongue-in-cheek, like many another sci-fi picture, and then it turns vicious. It's as if Scott were sneering at the sci-fi and horror-movie buffs ("I'm not usually impressed by horror or science fiction," he told American Film magazine) who will come expecting trippy fun and pop-metaphysics from a creature-feature. They may wind up feeling as though they're on a merry-go-round gone berserk.
In outline, this tale of a space ship haunted by a ferocious alien stowaway sounds just plain silly, and the story line here is no more sophisticated than it was when it appeared in The Thing or Planet of the Vampires or It: The Terror From Beyond Space -- let alone dozens of Star Trek and Outer Limits TV shows. Yet Aliens doesn't feel shallow, because its images have the resonance its plot lacks; they plug into the current of our nightmares. The film begins on board the Nostromo, a sort of intergalactic tugboat towing mineral ore through deep space. When we meet the crew over breakfast, we can't help but notice how contemporary the characters seem -- and how utterly ordinary. These space men don't even carry ray guns; indeed, when the time comes for them to defend themselves, they resort to such decidedly un-futuristic weapons as cattle prods and flamethrowers. Scott is building our identification with his heroes by making them as much like us as he can; we can almost guess what city they're from. Engineer Yaphet Kotto wears a headband and talks '70s street jive to his pal Harry Dean Stanton. Bearded Tom Skerritt, the ship's captain, shambles and shrugs and mumbles like Kris Kristofferson; you half expect him to pull a guitar from under his hyper-sleep capsule. The two women in the crew, Veronica Cartwright and Sigourney Weaver, complain about the regulations and their pay and how cold it is, and the two Britishers, Ian Holm and John Hurt, sit around looking phlegmatic. Ho hum, another day in outer space. Screenwriter Dan O'Bannon is (with John Carpenter, of Halloween fame) the creator of Dark Star (1974), a low-budget comedy about a crew of ordinary schlubs drifting through the stars in a decrepit ship. He's brought a lot of the enjoyable grungy texture of that film into this one; there are Playboy pin-ups on the ship's walls, beer cans on the floors and rust on the pipes; the space suits look slept-in. Although bits of affable humor pop up in the dialogue, most of it is drowned out in an Altmanesque wash. Scott isn't trying for laughs here. He wants to bring his astronauts down to earth, to better launch us out of our seats when they encounter something truly otherworldy.