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Retro Review: Alien

With a screenplay by Dan O’Bannon and directed by Ridley Scott, 1979 sci fi horror Alien was ground breaking and terrifying for audiences around the world that were caught off guard by the shocking horror and complex themes. The movie poster gave very little away, and it would have been difficult to ascertain exactly what the film was about by looking at it. Even the alien egg is essentially upside down in the poster making the image confusing, and with no photos of the alien itself, it would have been easy to think that initial image was the actual alien of the title.

The premise of the film, crew of a commercial space ship attend a distress signal, end up infected by an alien that then stalks them through their own ship, could almost be an episode from Hinchcliffe’s era on Doctor Who. A classic base under siege story, but the stylish and time less design of the ship, the perfectly cast crew and the mystery behind the alien all combined to make this a film that redefined the sci-fi horror movie forever.

For a modern audience, it’s hard to explain the initial impact the film had. Today we are so aware of the film, the alien and even the mythos, that we are complacent to the point of apathy about the franchise. With too much back story, crossovers and failed reboots, Alien no longer has any air of dread and mystery about it, unlike the original film that was shrouded in darkness and horror, and so little exposition that when Ripley finally disposes of the creature, it leaves more questions than answers.

The alien itself is only ever glimpsed in half lit corridors and steam enshrouded crawl space. As there were no publicity stills, the design of the alien made it difficult to process what you were actually seeing on the screen. The elongated head and back spines confused the eye even when we did see it, the ambiguous shape and lack of screen time proved to be frustrating yet strangely apt. It’s only at the end of the third act that we see the alien is humanoid in shape as it dangles from Ripley’s escape pod.

The film was a critical success, receiving awards and box office success. Alongside The Exorcist, The Shining and Bladerunner, it is a film that not only broke new ground, but went on to shape everything else that followed it. Sequels and prequels were bound to follow, but in my opinion none come close to the sheer claustrophobic terror of the original. The horror and tension of Alien is given the action movie treatment in subsequent outings, but nothing could match the atmosphere and delivery of the original.