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A SIERRA NEVADA
(MICHAEL MADSEN & JOHN SAVAGE).
What does slow, subdued classical music do to you? Do you find it relaxing? Some people feel that way.
I don't. To me, that's the theme of an indifferent universe. Music like that terrifies me. Here's why.
ALIEN, the defining film of the "thar be varmints on this ship" category of movies, was directed by Ridley Scott (BLADE RUNNER, LEGEND, HANNIBAL) and written by Dan O'Bannon (DEAD & BURIED, LIFE FORCE, HEMOGLOBIN), based on a story by Mr. O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett (DEAD & BURIED, BLUE THUNDER).
The story begins on the starship Nostromo, a commercial freighter hauling ore back to Earth. The ship is quiet and seemingly uninhabited. We see empty rooms and hallways, all with that haunting but indifferent music in the background. Then a few panels light up and a surprisingly primitive (given that this must be at least 100 years in the future) computer screen flashes streams of data.
The crew is awakened from "hyper" sleep (better than super sleep but not as good as ultra sleep), a form of suspended animation. Conversation makes it clear that they think they've arrived home, that being the usual reason for the computer to wake them up. Not until they get up to the control room and start looking around do they realize they're nowhere near Earth.
Dallas (Tom Skerritt: THE DEVIL'S RAIN, THE DEAD ZONE, POISON IVY, POLTERGIEST III) is the Captain of this merchant vessel. The rest of the crew are Kane (John Hurt: V FOR VENDETTA, HELLBOY [all]), Lambert (Veronica Cartwright: INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, THE INVASION, WITCHES OF EASTWICK, CANDYMAN II), and Ripley (Sigourney Weaver: GHOSTBUSTERS, ALIENS, GHOSTBUSTERS II, ALIEN 3, ALIEN: Resurrection). Ash (Ian Holm: FRANKENSTEIN, eXistenZ, LORD OF THE RINGS: The Fellowship of the Rings, THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING, THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW) serves as science officer and Parker (Yaphet Kotto: FREDDY'S DEAD: The Final Nightmare, THE PUPPET MASTERS) and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton: ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, CHRISTINE, THE GREEN MILE) make up the engineering staff.
The computer (referred to as "Mother" and voiced by Helen Horton) has invoked a little known regulation. An artificial signal has been detected and they are required to investigate. No one is happy about the situation, especially Brett and Parker, who frequently gripe about getting paid less than everyone else.
Despite my complaint about the primitive computer tech (a text interface?!), all the events here come off as very believable. The details are subtle and effective as these cargo hauler space travelers find themselves forced into a situation they clearly don't like. They trace the signal to the moon of a gas giant planet and land in the middle of a blizzard. This moon has a thick atmosphere of nitrogen and methane, making it very much like Saturn's moon Titan.
Dallas, Kane and Lambert suit up and walk to the source of the signal: an alien spaceship. And when I say alien, I'm not even kidding. The ship is the first taste of many designs either made by or inspired by artist H.R. Giger. The derelict space vehicle is recognizable as artificial and yet looks unlike anything humans would design.
Kane is the only true explorer here. Dallas and Lambert would just as soon get this over with so they can go. On board (after passing through a deliberately designed vagina-like entrance), they discover a bizarre alien corpse with a large hole in the chest the bones pushed out as though something exploded from within. This dead space traveler is huge, an effect achieved by using children in space suits for most of these shots.
Meanwhile, back on the ship, Ripley is surprised to discover that science officer Ash hasn't tried to decipher the alien signal. She takes a crack at it and is quickly able to discern that it's not an SOS. The signal is a warning to stay away.
Kane wants to investigate a hole burned into the floor of the ship. His crewmates lower him into what looks like a large cargo hold. The floor is covered with large, leathery eggs, protected and kept warm by a light barrier of some kind. When an egg reacts to Kanes presence by opening up, Kane (who must have NEVER seen a horror movie) let's his curiosity get the better of him and leans in for a closer look.
The facehugger is the first stage in the alien life-cycle. It was designed in part (forcing something down its victim's throat) to make men in the audience feel sexually violated.
Lambert and Dallas bring Kane back to the ship, where Ripley is in temporary command. When she hears about what happened she correctly points out that bringing it (the creature attached to Kane) on board violates quarantine regulations and could put the rest of the crew in danger. She ignores Dallas' orders to open the airlock, but Ash ignores Ripleys orders and opens the hatch. The alien is on board.
I'll be careful here in my comments in case anyone reading this hasn't seen the movie yet, but keep in mind that during the movie's most famous scene (when it comes, you'll know), the cast wasn't told exactly what was going to happen, so when . . . it . . . happens, their reactions are genuine.
The alien (and now I mean THE alien) is unique in sci-fi / horror history because even though it is a man in a monster suit, it never looks like a man in a monster suit. Giger's design is vaguely insectoid but really there is no category for it, which is what you'd expect to be true of alien life.
And speaking of expectations, I expect this would be a good time for a
Continued at Alien Science Moment.
It's hard to overestimate the effect this movie had on its genre. More than 20 years after it was made, if you describe a movie as an "Alien rip-off", everyone immediately knows what you mean. Often imitated but never equaled, this movie set a standard for sci-fi horror that represents what we mean when we say five shriek girls. ALIEN doesn't get five shriek girls, it is the definition of five shriek girls.
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