With Alien getting re-mastered for a 4k return to cinemas and home re-release, Ren Zelen looks back at the sci-fi horror milestone in its 40th Anniversary year...
This year sees the 40th anniversary of Ridley Scott’s Alien, and to mark the occasion 20th Century Fox is releasing a 4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray package that will be available in the UK from April 1st, 2019.
Alien is one of the most discussed, dissected and academically analysed movies in modern cinema. Considering so much has been said about it, the film seems to be simplicity itself: a tense, linear storyline, an innovatively envisioned setting, sparse dialogue – simple, but close to perfect.
Belying its high production values and box-office success, Alien was made on a shoestring budget by Hollywood standards (approximately US$11 million). It goes to show that creativity and imagination are more enduring than mere dollars. Without the benefit of CGI, Ridley Scott and the Swiss surrealist artist H.R Giger relied on their artistic inventiveness to create this hugely influential movie. We would never see space travel the same way again.
It is hard for the current generation to imagine a time in science-fiction before Alien - a time before face-huggers, chest-bursters, CGI enhancements and strong heroines, but such a time there was. In the science-fiction movies of the fifties, sixties and early seventies, the role of female characters was mostly confined to mixing cocktails for their scientist husbands or screaming and fainting at inconvenient moments.
They were there to be protected and rescued by the male protagonists, often as adjuncts in a larger scheme of saving the world. Apart from the occasional appearance as tightly-costumed eye-candy, their role was generally as damsels in distress, helpmeets or bespectacled ‘assistants’.
After the Alien sequels and spinoffs, countless imitators and the subsequent cinematic plundering of Giger and Scott’s sci-fi visual language, it is hard for latter generations to comprehend the sci-fi movies that came before, since the entire ‘look’ and tone of sci-fi was forever altered. As a female raised by a father with a fondness for old sci-fi B-movies, I found Alien a revelation.
It was odd to see a grubby, leaky, industrialized spacecraft after all the shiny chrome and twinkling lights of previous cinematic spaceships. More shocking was a female character being allowed to finish a movie as the sole survivor. I’d never seen that happen in the sci-fi movies my dad used to watch - just as I’d never seen that outstanding Giger visualization, the Xenomorphic alien (for which he won an Oscar).
It’s impossible now to approach Alien as a first-time viewer and feel anything resembling its original impact. Everyone has seen that vision of space taken up by countless sci-fi films and most people know each of Alien’s iconic scenes. We have become so familiar with the ‘Alien’ of the title, most viewers don’t realise when watching the original movie, that the creature is never seen properly until the last few shots. (We didn’t see Giger’s creation in its full glory until the James Cameron’s action sequel, Aliens.)
Science-fiction film is a genre predicated on the exploration of the bizarre, fantastic, and unusual, most closely connected to the imaginary - to dreams and possibilities. Despite its apparent simplicity, Alien tapped into some deep psychological territory, and this is another reason why its resonance is still felt throughout popular culture today.
The film began with the camera exploring the inner-space of the mother-ship, tracking down a corridor to a womb-like chamber which houses the crew, wakened from a protracted sleep by the craft’s support-system, aptly named ‘Mother’.
The waking of the crew mirrors a kind of rebirth, but they emerge into a clean, antiseptic, white-walled ambience – well-controlled and regulated with no blood, trauma or pain. Contrast this with the mysterious, dark, dank, organic interior of the crashed ship three of the crew are later required to enter through vulvic-like openings.
Crew member Kane is lowered into a dark, steamy chamber housing rows of eggs, the most basic of organic forms. As his hand touches one it opens up, revealing a fleshy, pulsating interior. The thing inside leaps out, smashes through his helmet and penetrates through Kane’s mouth – reaching deep inside him in order to fertilize itself within the secure confines of his stomach. Many primal fears are invoked – the fear of suffocation, of forced penetration and of unwanted pregnancy, and just for good measure, this invasive violence and subsequent gestation is perpetrated upon a man. The Alien is not fussy about whom it impregnates.
The now well-known scene of Kane’s bloody birthing of the Alien ‘baby’ was originally one of the most jolting cinematic ambushes in cinema history. It begins innocently enough, with Kane apparently recovered and the Nostromo circle happily reunited over dinner – but it ends with Kane convulsing in agony, being held down by his unwitting crewmates, when, with a cracking of rib-bones and a spray of blood and entrails the Alien infant gnaws and bursts its way out of his torso, hisses at the stupefied, gore-splattered crew, and scurries out of sight.
The invasive ‘alien’ penetrates and violates the human body, bursting through its flimsy organic matter and likewise through the barriers of sexual identity – and its birth is death. On the film’s first release cinema-goers were just as shocked as the crew - in space, apparently, ‘no-one can hear you scream’.
Probably the bravest twist in that original Alien movie was to kill off the central character of the rugged, manly captain (Tom Skerritt) mid-narrative (against all the cinematic expectations of the 70s) and so allow an attractive woman to be the tenacious survivor. No-one at the time would have expected Ellen Ripley to take on the role of monster vanquisher.
In that first movie Ripley emerged gradually from an ensemble cast to be the focus of identification - a heroine and a survivor. Even more unusually, Sigourney Weaver’s character was to become the connecting thread that was to run through all the Alien sequels, making it the first movie series to be focussed on and powered by a female protagonist. It made an international star of Sigourney Weaver and of the Xenomorph she managed to escape (against all cultural odds of the time).
You don’t have to wait until April to see Alien in 4K. It is being released across UK cinemas and in some international territories in mid-March, with a brand new 4K scan as well as a new audio restoration supervised by Ridley Scott. Don’t miss the chance of seeing the alien on the big screen, bursting out of John Hurt’s chest in glorious HD!
Copyright R.H. Zelen – ©RenZelen 2019 All rights reserved.
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Images - Getty & Amazon