This is a little embarrassing to admit. I’ve spent the last several years writing about space, theand science fiction, but before this week I’d never seen Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi classic, Alien.
In my defense, when the movie came out on May 25 of that year, there were still about 12 weeks to go before I would burst forth from my human host, albeit in a less lethal manner.
So now that, I decided to correct this major oversight and watch the original theatrical release for the first time. The experience was not just that of taking in a bit of cinema history, but simultaneously staring back across the yawning gap of cultural history that separates 1979 from 2019 and witnessing what’s for me a literal lifetime of change, some of it set in motion by Alien itself.
Plenty has been written and said about. I now get most of that noise.
The pacing, set design and cinematography are all masterful, even by today’s standards. This may be one of the first major works of science fiction to really capture the often overlooked truth: While space is vast, traversing it requires claustrophobic and constant confinement. And sharing such small spaces for long periods of time would more likely be a far grittier, grimier experience than gliding through the sterile, well-lit corridors of so many other space franchises.
The alien creature and android design also retain a certain terror and creepiness even decades later, transcending the relative cheesiness of just about every sci-fi movie to that point. Yes, even Star Wars.
Sitting through the whole thing for the first time in 2019, I was reminded how spoiled we all are by CGI and the ability of filmmakers today to put pretty much anything they can imagine on screen. When Alien came out, it was lauded for its special effects, though by today’s standards, it’s easy to see the limitations the crew was working with back then.
This creature wasn’t about to pull off any of the gravity-defying ninja slasher moves complete with just a hint of a smirk on its mouth (mouths?) that we expect today. Scott had to make do instead with creative use of shadows, jump cuts and lots of implied gore that we don’t see.
In need of an upgrade
While it’s fashionable (and well deserved) to look back at this film and Scott solely as sci-fi trailblazers, there are also some glaring lapses in imagination that are easier to spot from the future where I now live.
How is it, exactly, that a 22nd-century interplanetary industrial company can refine ore from other worlds and create gravity at the push of a button and yet its ships are equipped with artificial intelligence, audio and video equipment that have not advanced since the mid 20th century? My Commodore 64 was far more useful than the Nostromo’s “Mother.” I mean, the system was card-operated like a Univac from World War II. Really? And I mastered the flight simulator software that seems to pass for the ship’s navigation system in the 1980s.
Weirdly, though, what stuck with me most after watching Alien for the first time as a soon-to-be fortysomething and father of a soon-to-be teenager was the absolutely astounding lack of caution and sometimes even basic common sense by the crew of the Nostromo.
As I watched the characters stick their bare faces near a dead “facehugger” that had just squirted acid through the ship a few scenes prior, I couldn’t help but think that our often maligned, safety-obsessed, fear-filled, helicopter parenting culture might have come to be for good reason.
While watching the characters on a distant moon cavalierly poking at alien corpses and eggs, I was flashing back to photos, taken just a few years after the film came out, of myself as a toddler. They show me crawling around under a vehicle my uncle was working on, with grease on my face and rusty bolts in my hand.
That was the more carefree, caution-thrown-to-the-wind culture that produced this movie in 1979 and that reared me. Guess we both survived somehow.
And yet, at the same time, Alien was also commenting on the culture of the day and what we might call toxic masculinity today.
Monster movie ‘payback’
The scriptwriter Dan O’Bannon said the infamous “chestburster” scene, not to mention the explicitly invasive way the alien embryo was implanted in Kane’s body in the first place, were meant to nod at the male fear of penetration. He thought of it as “payback” for countless monster movies depicting female victims terrorized by implicitly male creatures.
However, another subtle moment from the film carries new meaning when seen from the #MeToo viewpoint. When Captain Dallas, played by Tom Skerritt, the Tom Cruise of his day, brings Kane and his attached facehugger friend back to the ship, Ripley resists letting them in for fear of contamination. Dallas tries to use his rank and power to bully Ripley into ignoring what’s obviously the right decision according to protocol and the aforementioned basic common sense.
Eventually the science officer (who’s actually the robot ringer on board) lets Kane, Dallas and the alien in, setting their ultimate demise in motion. But it’s interesting in 2019 to watch a 40-year-old film in which a bunch of men bully a female protagonist into letting a literal alien rapist enter their home. When things later get out of hand, the dudes then double down on the cowboy approach and get picked off one by one.
Yet, Alien does also fall back on the old trope of stalking a vulnerable woman. The whole thing builds to Ripley stripping down to her underwear only to then discover that the alien has stowed away on her escape shuttle.
The ending, where we get both the gratuitous shots of Weaver in panties that are two sizes too small followed by her ultimately MacGyver-ing the situation to kick alien ass, best illustrates my feelings about Alien in 2019: It’s a movie that’ll be forever ahead of its time and yet simultaneously remains bound to the era that produced it.
Originally published May 24.