When he board the Nostromo, the very look of the film changes. The ship grows claustrophobic and airless, and Scott begins to play with muted, creepy light effects. Here, as in his first feature, The Duellists (1978), Scott uses incense smoke as a filter. You can't see it, but it makes the light move strangely, almost purposefully, in sheets. The ship's blue tones begin to go purple; its browns veer toward black and the edges of things seem to breathe. During a series of suspense sequences that tie your guts in knots, Scott places his characters in close-ups at the edges of the huge 70-mm frame, and we find ourselves peering into the undifferentiated, tenebrous colors at the center of the screen. Indeed, the actors often seem to be there merely as bait. Yet, they manage relaxed, sympathetic performances. And two even shine -- a difficult thing to do in any horror picture. Ian Holm, as an aloof, rather suspicious science officer, throws off glimmers of emotion that are so fast that we're never sure what we've just seen -- which is exactly the right way to handle a character whose coldness may be either sinister or merely the result of a bad case of scientific detachment. And Sigourney Weaver, in her first screen role, does wonders with the part of an officer forced to take command. With her cool, dark eyes and Jane Fonda-like seriousness, she turns the traditional screaming-female role into something heroic. Not the least of Alien's feats is that it is our first feminist sci-fi thriller.
Alien's gruesome efficiency almost ensures that it won't rival Star Wars at the box office. And yet, I'm impressed by the film's restraint. Once the first outbursts of horror are past, Scott concentrates on suspense, and, though not all the characters survive, the ones with whom we've developed some empathy are dispatched without sadism or bloodshed. Still, a lot of people are going to resent being put through the mill for a silly monster movie. And in a way, I agree with them. If only Alien were as sophisticated as it looks. I'm getting a little tired of movies that honor genre conventions with such humility that they're unwilling to expand upon them. Couldn't Alien have stretched a little? Couldn't it have explored the psychology of its characters or maybe nosed into their relationships? The worst of it is that Alien keeps falling back on the hoariest monster-movie cliches, for no apparent reason other than to do them homage. When, in the midst of some of the most jolting horror footage ever filmed, Yaphet Kotto mumbles, "This place gives me the creeps," you don't know whether to laugh or throw popcorn at the screen; it's said without a trace of irony. And when the monster is pursuing Sigourney Weaver and she suddenly decides she's got to go look for her precious little pussycat, you wonder if the director's lost his mind. I think I detect the heavy hand of producer Walter Hill in these scenes; his dead-serious genre-worship weighed down his last two films, The Warriors and The Driver. What Alien needs most is a touch of levity. And what's so great about the majority of those old monster movies anyway? Alien is the most authentic-looking sci-fi scare picture ever made. But how can you believe a word of any movie whose characters talk like Richard Carlson in It Came From Outer Space?