Catching Up with Classics: Alien (1979)

In January (remember a time before coronavirus?!) I admitted to the world I’d never seen Raiders of the Lost Ark. Then, in February, I hung my head in shame as I finally watched The Fellowship of the Ring for the first time.

This second installment in my Catching Up with Classics series was a little ironic, as I watched the longest film on my (long) list during the shortest month of the year. Now, I’m not saying that the COVID-19 outbreak is my fault, but March’s choice is Alien, the 1979 science fiction favourite about what happens when a quarantine goes badly wrong.

If you’re new to my Catching Up… series, stumbling across it during a fluey internet search, welcome and let me bring you up to speed. Over the next 12 months I’ll be watching 12 seminal films I seem to have missed, then exploring my thoughts and sharing my humble opinion on whether they’re really, technically, ‘classics’. Included on the list (that runs far beyond 12 titles, embarrassingly) is Die Hard, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Halloween to name but a few, with this month’s selection being Alien.

March’s pick: Alien

You’ve not seen Alien either?! Well, boy, haven’t we both been missing out! You’ve seen it but need a narrative refresher? Perfect – here’s some backstory.

Set in the not-so distant future, we meet the team aboard spaceship Nostromo as they float in stasis, waiting to reach Earth after completing their mission. But when the ship’s computer, fondly named Mother, wakes the crew to alert them to a distress call, warrant officer Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is suspicious of what this may really mean.

When Dallas (Tom Skerritt), Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) and Kane (John Hurt) go off to investigate the moon that sent out the call, and Kane returns with an alien suckered to his face, things don’t look good for the rest of the team. Believing they’ve successfully removed the facehugger, they’re surprised to see it make a reappearance over their lunch when Kane’s chest explodes, exposing the alien within. It then jumps out from beneath his ribcage and scuttles off into the depths of the ship, leading the crew on a new mission – find and destroy whatever that was before it kills them all. Co-starring Harry Dean Stanton, Yaphet Kotto, and Bolaji Badejo as the Alien, the cast were also joined by Jones, a ginger cat played by four different feline actors.

Written by Dan O’Bannon (the man behind The Return of the Living Dead) and directed by Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise, Gladiator and many more), Alien spawned a franchise of films, books, video games and toys, and regularly appears in Top 10 lists from outlets across the globe. It launched Weaver’s career as a lead actor and set a high standard for the sci-fi genre for years to come.

When researching my monthly choices, I thoroughly enjoy reading through the Trivia thread on IMDb, so here’s some of my favourite mentions for Alien:

  • The production team used KY Jelly and shredded condoms to create the slime and tendons within the alien’s ferocious jaws.
  • SPOILER: According to Ian Holm, who plays science officer Ash, his prosthetic head was filled with cheap caviar, cooked spaghetti and onion rings.
  • A simple egg was used for the lobby poster to advertise the film.

Has it aged well?

Yes, definitely. Much like Raiders of the Lost Ark – and unlike Lord of the RingsAlien stays away from computer generated imagery, meaning that over 40 years later it doesn’t look half bad.

With the more industrial-style design rights for sets and props (including the concepts for Badjeo’s costume) falling to biomechanical artist H. R. Giger, the film maintains its cold, creepy, gothic vibe throughout, providing plenty of dark corners for the menace to hide in. Badjeo, playing the alien, was a 6ft 10in design student spotted in a bar one night and cast to play the monster, towering at 7ft tall once inside the costume. Created from a variety of materials – including car parts and Plasticine – it doesn’t look ‘old’ or ‘out of date’; it would fit comfortably in any 21st century sci-fi or thriller, and definitely made my skin crawl when it appeared.

Much like Scott’s Blade Runner, there are moments when we’re reminded of the original release date of the film, including the use of 1970s computer technology within the spaceship. Despite this, I was completely onboard with the story being set in the mid-2100s, located in a galaxy far away. So absorbed was I that I forgot I was supposed to be wearing my ‘critic cap’ and gripped my face in horror as Kane’s chest split open – fantastically entertaining!

Hindsight is 2020

Scott has spoken before on the moment execs approached him about changing Ripley from an originally-written male role to a woman, and he had no qualms over it: ‘I thought, fine. It wasn’t a big deal to me. I never thought once about it. I never had a problem.’ Ripley seems to have paved the way for strong female characters in Scott’s following features, and rightly so. We cheer for her from the moment she says ‘no’ to letting Kane and crew back on-board after his contamination (because we all know how that’s going to end), and when she flies herself home after her terrifying ordeal.

What Alien does suffer from is a lack of diversity. With a team of seven people, Kotto as Parker is the only crew member of colour, and it has been acknowledged that he was picked to give the cast some ‘diversity’. If it were to be made (or remade – please no!) today, the list of potential crew members would be endless, with so many names to choose from. I’d have Riz Ahmed as Captain Dallas, for sure.

Classy or classless classic?

Totally, 100% a classic. I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to watch this. I loved every minute of it. The tension! The action! The design work!

If you’ve never seen Alien and are currently self-isolating, do yourself a favour – obey Ripley’s orders for quarantine and pop this on.

My Catching Up with Classics series returns in April with The Princess Bride

5 thoughts on “Catching Up with Classics: Alien (1979)

  1. Pingback: Catching Up with Classics: The Princess Bride (1987) | critical popcorn

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  4. Pingback: Catching Up with Classics: The Truman Show (1998) | critical popcorn

  5. Pingback: Catching Up with Classics: The Shawshank Redemption (1994) | critical popcorn

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