Rated: 4 / 5
This is a film I saw back in the day, well after I had seen and become a fan of its sequel Aliens (which is still my second favorite movie of all time). At the time I just thought this was a mediocre warmup to greatness, where things start small to the point of boring; one alien as opposed to several, going up against morons nowhere near as resourceful as the space marines. Plus the film is slower and more boring. Then again, I was a pre-teen when I saw both films, so you could imagine that I was out of my depth when it came to appreciating aspects of films. Let alone appreciate that it has one of the greatest film trailers of all time.
I understand why some hold this film in higher regard than its sequel. It’s more focused on the horror aspect, plus the implications of the unknown and the truly destructive power of the creature and it’s wicked sexualized intents. Such implications found on the alien craft of unknown origin, with the only thing we really know (discarding the existence of anything outside of this film that that attempts to dispel this mystery) is that the alien species that is onboard the Nostromo is responsible for killing an alien of an advanced race. Which makes the implications of its origin and power more terrifying. Keeping it mysterious and unknown, only prone to speculation of humans who often fear what they do not know, gives the film more power. Which is why Prometheus and Alien: Covenant suck ass, and so does Ridley Scott who doesn’t comprehend what he has done to his first major artistic masterpiece.
Many have already covered the sexual nature of the creature. From the vaginal entrances to the alien ship, to its phallic head, and how it uses its inner mouth to kill its prey, the facehuggers forcefully penetrating throats and laying eggs into its prey, and how the creature approaches Lambert. Plus the effect it has on the android Ash, influencing him to use a magazine in a manner similar to that of the facehugger against Ripley. How the alien blends in so well with the mechanical machinery of the ship, being a metaphor for being just as cold and calculating. That’s ground that’s been covered by others far more qualified to go in-depth with it than I am. It’s just worth repeating to mention an aspect of the creature that makes it so disturbing, because physical biological aspects of it, including how it goes through its lifecycle, implies it rapes to live and survive, violating other lifeforms in addition to devouring them.
This is one of the reasons why there are those proclaiming this to be superior to the sequel, because the sequel does away with this. If the creature uses this inner-mouth, it’s less sexualized compared to how it’s done in this film. There’s less of that disturbing sensuality in the sequel, taking away that aspect of the cosmic horror.
What the sequel does have that this film possesses is commentary on blue collar workers under the boot of corrupt corporations. In this film, the two main characters exemplifying this are Parker and Brett (which is amusing because Yaphet Kotto, the guy who played Parker, played one of the main protagonists in the 1978 film Blue Collar, where he also argued about how he and others are treated poorly by unions/corporations, one year before this film came out). Both of them are viewed as of a lesser class compared to others on the Nostromo crew, payed less yet doing more of the hard labor. They even move around parts of the ship that the others often, if ever, go to. Everyone eventually realizes they’re in the same boat when they figure out “the company” prioritizes acquiring the alien (like for weapons research) over their own lives.
This is something that’s also apparent when you read between the lines. For such a large spacecraft carrying such a large amount of cargo, even in the distant future when technology has advanced so far, “the company” seems to have the standard of only having a skeleton crew on board these ships when making these long journeys to and from Earth (or whatever planet or space station that utilizes this ore they mine). Very peculiar given the size of the station, all that could go wrong outside of just having a xenomorph on board that will kill everyone and endanger the ship and the cargo. And yet the same thing happens in the sequel. Even when they knew they were going into danger, it seems like standard procedure to have a skeleton crew of soldiers to do the job “the company” has assigned for them. Showcasing how even in the future corporations are still willing to cut corners and only do the minimal safety standards for making profit or getting tasks done, even if it results in disaster.
Back to the horror aspects. There’s foreshadowing regarding the alien egg itself on the Nostromo ship during the introduction. For brief instances, before the crew awakens, we can see two of those drinking bird toys on a table, and a dancing egg a few moments later. Guess the film decided the chicken came before the egg. Anyway, the whole point being that an egg is about to hatch, just like in the famous trailer. Just as the crew “hatch” out of their cryo pods, just as the facehugger hatches out of an egg, just as the chestburster hatches out of Kane. Various elements showing that birth can happen peacefully or violently.
Another aspect of this introductory scene is the feeling it is to invoke with regard to there being an unseen presence aboard the ship. I’m not talking about the xenomorph itself (this is before it ever gets on board). It’s how a sound is heard, how papers begin fluttering around a bit. Granted, this is probably some heating system turning on to prevent the ship from freezing, but it’s done is such a way that gives a feeling of a haunting presence on the ship. Best I can figure is that it’s about MOTHER watching things, “the company” having a presence aboard the ship that feels invasive. Only other time I saw something like this is when Ash is fighting with Ripley, in what seems to be an obvious film goof with these hanging stars (like the kind that would hang over a baby crib, which if taken to another level you could say is what the stars outside of the ship are also to be taken as with the ship being its own kind of crib) moving around like something (the cameraman) bumped into it. Perhaps the scene couldn’t be shot without that goof happening. Perhaps it was intentional from the get-go. Because I just can’t picture this being accidental and completely overlooked in the editing room. So I’m willing to go with the invasive 3rd party metaphor, especially since Ash is an artificial creation of the company, thus a more blunt way of stating the company’s invasive policies with regard to its worker’s lives in a “thinking outside the box” sort of way. By breaking the 4th wall.
If you ask me regarding the overall allegory this film is putting forth, my best theory is that it’s an allegory for the struggles of birth and begetting life. The crew are aboard a ship with a computer program called “MOTHER” which they rely on for information and automation. There are struggles within the mother ship, with color schemes of white in some cases, gold/tan and/or dark in others. The white rooms are some symbolism for semen, as is the milk that Ash drinks (not to mention the blood his body is made up of). And eventually Ripley and the alien get off the ship, and Ripley blows the alien out the airlock while it’s still attached to the ship by a cord, like an umbilical cord. Eventually the cord is forcibly cut and the alien flies off into space free, just as Ripley has finally become free. Like the one sperm that struggled to survive amongst all the others that will finally go on to grow and live. The alien itself being the factor to eliminate the other sperms (humans) so that the strongest may survive and live on. The alien, like the similar colored machinery and hallways on the ship, represent cold calculating oppressive nature that life will always struggle against, because life itself is a struggle (let alone the process of being born). And if they alien had successfully killed off all the crew members with no one surviving, guess that would make the film an allegory for abortion at that point.
One aspect that used to bother me when I was younger when watching this film was Brett’s death. Not that it happened, just that it took so long for it to happen when it became very obvious that it was coming. From the moment he split off from Ripley and Parker, I knew he was a goner. Anyone who has seen enough slasher/horror films knew this guy was going to die at that point. Yet there’s over 4 minutes of filler prior to his inevitable (due to film convention) death. Back then, my mindset was, “Get it over with already!” But now I’ve learned to see things about this buildup to the kill that make me realize it contains a great deal of content that’s missing from many horror films that have those “buildup to the inevitable kill moment, with potential jump-scares along the way” sequences. For instance, the colors of the first area Brett wanders to outside the hallway, the same area where Parker and Lambert meet their demise. How it has this tan/gold color to it, the same color of the alien planet (the color it has from a distance). Then the colors of the next room he moves into where he meets his death. How it’s darker and more humid, like the depths of the alien ship itself. The tan/gold color is rather attractive, but gives way to a terrifying darkness within. Much like the color of the chestburster, or the first indication of the facehugger within the egg. There’s a consistency to this.
Of course there’s that hint that the alien has grown when Brett finds the shedded skin, but that’s the more obvious aspect of the buildup to the kill. I became more interested in the thematic story the scene was telling when Brett walked into the, uh, chain room (not sure what the room is for, and it’s not entirely relevant except for films geeks who are all into that stuff; I may end up eating my words on that at some point in time). His hesitation of going in there, knowing it was a bad idea on an instinctual level. The heartbeat noise elevating the tension momentarily. Fighting his instincts of fear, which end up being valid survival instincts he shouldn’t have been fighting. How the instincts of each of these characters determine if they have the attributes to survive by the end, just as competing sperm would (keeping that allegory in mind). Then that one drawn out moment where he stands beneath the dripping water (condensation, so likely some HVAC room for heating/cooling) for a moment of relaxation and feeling good. Which is also an ASMR moment for me, which makes me believe the sounds and prolonged length of this moment is intentional for creating a sense of relaxation.
There is much going on beneath the surface of this scene. It’s like its own little mini-story. There’s an art to this long drawn-out moments leading up to the death. An art missing from other films that have similar such lead-ups (that often come off as cheap and boring and predictable, and not in a way where one is under-appreciating some unrecognized genius about it). And if nothing else, it creates terrific atmosphere. It also shows how the ship seems like a nice enough place with the well-lit white and tan/gold areas, only to become more oppressive and dark with less nice-looking areas after Ash’s death and the realization that the company doesn’t prioritize their safety. Which is why the place Brett was once in that was bright and gold transitions into the more darker and uncomfortable color when Lambert and Parker are there later on.
Which brings me to the differences between this so-called Director’s Cut and the Theatrical Cut. There are various differences between these two cuts, and I’m not going to cover them all (movie-censorship.com does that). But I would like to mention a couple bits that I believe make the Director’s Cut (DC) inferior to the Theatrical Cut (TC). It alters this “condensation to the head” bit by inter-cutting this with the alien creature swinging above Brett, which kind of kills the buildup momentum (or at least throws it off-kilter). It removes that relaxing ASMR aspect of the scene, in a manner that makes the whole sequence less effective.
That being said, the DC does fill in a plot hole. Brett gets killed, but no one sees him get killed in the TC, which makes it a bit strange when Parker mentions that, “it was huge,” and Ripley states they saw it go into the air ducts. The DC shows them coming in at the last second to see the alien drag Brett upwards and disappear. But this does come at an expense, an expense that I can understand perfectly that others are willing to forego for the sake of having the plot hole filled. Just the silence and atmosphere created when Brett’s screams start echoing, then go silent. It creates a chilling atmosphere. Having Parker and Ripley coming in calling after Brett takes away from that atmosphere. Pros and cons to both.
Then there’s the more famous restored sequence where Ripley locates Dallas and Brett in this chamber where the alien has been sliming them, and doing some sort of process where their bodies break down into creating the alien eggs they found on the alien ship. First of all, this breaks continuity with the sequel, not in that this process couldn’t happen (on the contrary, it does an effective job adding to the alien mythos and the cosmic horror element), but that it would’ve seemed familiar to Ripley in the sequel, making her “I don’t know what that is” comments rather questionable. Second of all, it kind of messes with the length of time it takes for her to run back and forth across sections of the ship, from the self-destruct room to the escape shuttle area. If this was to have any decent point in the film to occur, it would have to be before she initiated the self-destruct sequence.
To make a long story short, the DC detracts too much from the TC to make me consider it a superior version of the film.
As for my current opinion of the film. While I do appreciate it more now than I did in the past, and while I do understand the arguments others make about how the sequel took away the “cosmic horror” aspect (including the implications and mysterious alien mythos) and replaced it with a more shallow action-oriented vibe, I still prefer the sequel to this movie. I mean, sure, the alien has all this mystery and mythology and implications of sensuous evil about it that makes it more interesting than just being a simple monster in the sequel. But the film never really spends enough time with it to let all this sink in as effectively as it should. There isn’t enough time spent satisfactorily exploring this unexplainable evil within/behind the creature itself giving it more depth than just being a simple monster, to the point where it’s more of a simple monster to me.
It’s probably just a personal taste thing for me, and it’s not that I don’t appreciate all this stuff that’s put into there, but I believe the film could’ve been done better. Sure there’s that deleted “egg morphing” scene, which I do believe can be effectively placed into the film to add more to it. And there are these other extended sequences that could’ve made Brett’s death more effective (with the alien’s hands coming towards him, almost like it would caress him lovingly before… you know), as well as that sequence with Lambert and Parker up to their demise (the creature crouching in front of Lambert, and the way it pinned Parker’s face against the wall prior to having its way with him), which I could probably make fan-cuts of just to give an idea on how they could’ve been done better. But even then I’m not so sure that would be enough. There would have to be more dialogue scenes discussing the creature and its implications to increase the buildup and mystery. There may already be enough there as-is in either the TC or DC versions for fans, but not quite enough for me. The film is still good, and well-deserving of its classic status. But I believe the sequel Aliens did a better job at achieving what it set out to do as a film compared to this one.
Plus I never really found the film to be THAT scary with regard to the creature. I mean, if I’m being honest, the scariest part of the film for me was when Ash started spazzing out (conflicting AI orders and programming logic), and when he got his head knocked off revealing him to be an robot. That sequence freaked me out more than the alien stuff (not to say the alien stuff wasn’t frightening, just that the robot attack/reveal part was more frightening to me personally).
That all being said, this is a much better horror/slasher film than just about any other horror/slasher genre film out there, including John Carpenter’s Halloween. If nothing else, it doesn’t get monotonous or over-use some shtick. And while some aspects of the cosmic horror could’ve been done better, at least it had them at did them well enough. Plus, I haven’t really seen creature designs (or even creature life cycles) that have been done better (if even on-par) with this movie. This film comes highly recommended.