Daily Archives: November 22, 2013

The Much-Recommended Classic – Alien

I tend to watch films with my other half, and we tend to watch films together that neither of us have seen before. For the first few years after we met this was fine, but recently I’ve become aware of the fact that we’ve been watching films like Seeking A Friend For The End of the World (a low-rent Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, starring a low-rent Jim Carrey (Steve Carrell) and a low-rent Kate Winslet (Kiera Knightley)) while obviously superior films that one of us has already seen sit uselessly on a nearby shelf

One such film is Alien, which my other half has been trying to foist upon me for a good few years now, and another one of those films that make people say “you haven’t seen …??!??!” when it comes up in conversation. I have up to this point resisted, because (i) my other half has a frankly terrible record of recommending films, especially ones that they saw ages ago, and (ii) perhaps aware of this, any recommendations that I watch it have been accompanied with caveats that it’s really old, really slow to get going, and is the predecessor to a litany of sequels which don’t make a lick of sense

Despite all of that, Alien regular features near the top of Best Sci-fi Movie lists, and indeed Best Horror Movie Lists, so now seemed like as good a time as any to take the plunge

Let’s get that question out of the way first, then – Alien is a straight-up horror movie. The presence of spaceships, computers etc. are merely a framing device for classic, old-skool horror scares and shocks. The cavernous, dark interiors of the Nostromo could just have easily been a haunted house with malfunctioning lighting; the eponymous enemy could just as easily have been any one of the unkillable psychopaths of the classic slasher flicks; and the never ending series of bad decisions that caused the whole plot to come to pass could just as easily have been made by pneumatic bikini-clad bimbos as engineers and science officers

And my other half’s warnings are, for the most part, entirely fair – the slow pacing is a masterful tool for building atmosphere once the alien is loose, but for the first half an hour or so it’s a shortcut to tedium rather than tension. I don’t doubt that the sequels – Aliens apart, which is meant to be pretty good – are something of a let down. But for the most part I thought it had aged remarkably well, largely down to the trick of not featuring anything remotely high-tech – the text adventure-style interface with the ship’s computer and Sigourney Weaver’s unashamedly old-fashioned pants being the notable exceptions

The trouble with Alien, and indeed any massively influential film from the same era, is that so many films have copied it that it’s actually quite predictable if you’re seeing it for the first time today. Any amount of tense build-up can be instantly punctured when you suddenly think “I remember – it’s going to burst out of his chest, isn’t it?”. At least with Star Wars, even though I knew what was going to happen, it was still enjoyable when it did. Alien strives to shock rather than entertain – and 30 years ago, it definitely would have. These days, not so much