There will never be a shortage of space films. Our natural fascination with the vast unknown has been explored in countless ways, from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Star Wars. Thanks to the ever-growing information we learn about space, it’s certain that we’ll never run out of ideas for movies that can take place amongst the stars. Yet, despite how many ways you can make a space film, the genre has grown rather bland at times. In fact, going to space doesn’t seem all that interesting anymore now that we’re used to seeing it on screen. In the sea of space exploration films, few stand out above the rest, and Ridley Scott’s 1979 film Alien is one of them. With this retro review of Alien we’ll look at how the film changed the genre, evolved expectations for women on the screen, and why we’ll always go back to watching.
Alien Retro Review – A Film To Remember
Science-fiction films that take place in space are easy to get stuck. That is, they’re easy to feel trapped within the confinements of a genre that has set expectations. You think space and think about little green aliens. Or, perhaps, about people marveling at the beauty of seeing Earth for the first time. But Alien doesn’t do that. Yeah, we know that they’re on a mission. But unlike many films that came before (and after) it, space is only there to add to the terror, not force it. It continues to subvert expectations from the genre by the way that it uses its plot elements, while also remaining a perfect example of a great space film.
Take the thoughts of the crew for example. As a refresher (or lesson if you’ve yet to see the film), Alien follows the crew of a commercial space tug, Nostromo. They’re on their way back to Earth when they’re awakened so that they can check out a nearby transmission. These are folks who just want to return home to their families. They have natural chemistry, and you can believe that they are a group of people who have been trapped on a ship together for far too long. The crew bickers about workplace things like contracts and salaries. They make us remember that this is their job. They aren’t up there to gaze at the magnificence of space; they’re there to get a paycheque by using their skills.
We’re instantly made to believe that this crew of seven (eight, if you count Jones the cat, which I do) are just out there doing their best. We don’t need to see how cool it is that they’re up there, because we know what space is supposed to look like. Space isn’t there to feel like some majestic and beautiful thing. Instead, it’s there to trap them. And that feeling of being trapped is what makes this film go from a fun science fiction story to a nightmare-inducing horror film.
The bravest kitty out there. Image via 20th Century Fox.
Setting The Spooky – A Review of How Alien Terrifies Us All
Now, I’ve seen Alien twice. The first time, years ago, I fell asleep almost immediately and woke up to the crew letting Kane back on the ship. My friend told me that nothing important happened. I accepted this as an answer and continued to enjoy the movie. I thought it was exhilarating, spooky, and entertaining. But when I re-watched it for the first time, it was a totally different experience. Because yes, that friend was completely wrong. I missed a lot. The exploration of the LV-426 moon teaches us so much about the alien and what we can expect, not to mention some important character development.
The crew, responding to the signal on the nearby moon, quickly learn that something big happened there. They find a massive alien ship and enter, filled with curiosity. There’s evidence of a chest-bursting alien. Oh, and there are literally hundreds of alien eggs. From the massive size of the ship to the almost beauty of the eggs, it’s hard to look away. Yet, at the same time, you’re almost cringing while waiting for something to jump out at you. And when it finally does, attacking Kane, you think you’re prepared for what’s about to come. But you aren’t.
Seeing Kane lay helpless and vulnerable with an alien stuck to his face is one of those pictures that you just don’t forget. It’s creepy, but nothing really happens. After the infamous chest-bursting scene, things begin to escalate quickly. As the alien picks off the crew one-by-one, we’re left wondering who (if anyone) will make it. The alien, only growing bigger each time we see it, is a constant reminder that we don’t really know what it’s capable of. That trapped feeling that you can only find in space is where even more terror comes from. Nobody can save them, and they may not even be able to save themselves.
Image via 20th Century Fox.
A Not-So-Happy Happy Ending
As Ripley floats back home to Earth, we know that the terror isn’t over. Even if she’s safe, there are still hundreds of those things out there. So, we get the happy ending of our two favorite characters surviving, but it’s still not a happy ending. What are those aliens going to destroy next? Yeah, we learn eventually with the sequels. But if you just watch Alien you’ll still be left with the tense feeling of imagining what they’ll do next. They killed one, but what about the rest?
Ellen Ripley, The Badass In Charge
Like there’s no shortage of great space movies, there’s also no shortage of badass female characters. From Black Widow to Harley Quinn, we’ve seen women kick ass. But we’re in 2020. Alien came out at a time where women didn’t always have the opportunity to shine in action movies. They were often helpless damsels in distress. Ripley was meant to be a man, but Ridley Scott thankfully made the decision to cast a woman. And why did he change her? To subvert expectations. He knew that we rarely expect women to survive in horror movies, and knew that it would catch the crowd off guard.
What makes Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) one of the all-time greatest female characters is that she’s given the space to just exist. She never feels like a forced character that’s there to please audiences. Unfortunately, many female-driven films are given this treatment. Movies like the Ghostbusters or Charlie’s Angels reboots are received poorly because it feels like they’re forcing us to appreciate the strong female characters. They scream “Look! I’m a woman, and I can do it, too!”, while Ellen Ripley screams “I can do it!”.
Ripley does not immediately appear on screen telling you that she’s there to save the day. We live in a time where everyone has heard her name. However, if you saw the film when it first released, or go in without any prior knowledge, you have no idea that she’s the heroine. Her face isn’t on posters and she isn’t the top-billing. We’re given a chance to experience the terror of Alien. Only then are we given the glimmer of hope that is Ellen Ripley. She rises while we are deep in fear, and proceeds to kick alien ass for the next half of the film.
Image via 20th Century Fox.
Everything She Does Is Purposeful
Ripley is undeniably badass. Yes, she’s scared. It’s her actions in spite of her fear that makes her a hero. She’s smart, commanding, and sticks up for herself. Despite all her greatness, the film often receives criticism for the choice to leave her in her underwear near the end of the movie. While it does stand out, it shouldn’t take away from her boldness. It’s not a sexualized outfit. It serves the purpose of showing us how vulnerable she is, a stark contrast to the alien she’s looking dead in the eyes. And anyway, if you watch the entire film and leave wondering why she was in her underwear, you’re missing all the amazing things that she did leading up to that scene.
Our Review of Alien Is That It’s Always Worth Watching
I think it says a lot that I fell asleep during this movie the first time and still loved it. It’s great no matter what perspective you look at it from. Whether you like watching a bad-ass female character burn an alien to death or just some scary action, you’ll find something. Alien pushed boundaries. One of the best ways to test a space exploration film is to see how it holds up decades later. We’ve had hundreds of films with far better CGI and space realism, yet this one remains one of the greats. After all, it’s not about space. It’s about what happens when an alien attacks and you just so happen to be trapped.
This review of Alien is here to remind you that it deserves infinite re-watches. If you have somehow made it this far without seeing it, now is a perfect time. They may be bringing Tom Cruise to space, but they’ll never repeat the masterpiece of Alien.
Featured image via 20th Century Fox.
Meghan Hale is a graduate student living right outside of Toronto, Canada. She has always been the go-to gal for talking about anything film related and has a frustratingly long list of movie trivia up her sleeve. She is currently working on her first screenplay, as well as a horror novel, with the goal of publishing it while Stephen King is still around to read it.