Hi. I’m new here but I look forward to getting to know a few of you in the future. It's a massive site, by the looks of things, and I had to think about what I wanted to check out first. However, seeing a thread dedicated to one of my all-time favourite movies is too good to pass up.
I'd like to talk about why it's such a highly regarded movie for so many of us by sharing my own thoughts on it and finding out what it is that others like about it too.
Personally, I like this movie for its atmosphere, its characters, its minimalism (what I mean by this will become clearer later) and its pacing.
If I had to choose just one word to describe the atmosphere of this movie, that word would be ‘immersive’. I could choose others, certainly. ‘Claustrophobic’ would be a good choice as well but what really strikes me about Alien is the way in which it so fully draws me into its world. It is to the filmmakers’ credit that whenever I see the movie, I feel as though I’m right there on the Nostromo with the rest of the characters. With many movies, even many good ones, I feel a cognitive distance from what I’m seeing on the screen. I’m safe on my lounge watching events from afar, much as I might watch what’s happening in the street below from a restaurant balcony.
Personally, I find this feeling of immersion really only takes place when I’m watching movies with settings that are far removed from everyday life – and I love it when it happens. Escapism is, I find, a large part of the appeal of movies. However, only movies that can truly bring their settings to life achieve this. For instance, consider the manner in which the original Star Wars conveys a lived-in feeling to places like Mos Eisley or the Millenium Falcon. Then compare that feeling to what you get when you watch something like Transformers. When watching one, you forget you’re even in your lounge room. When watching the other, you wonder if your kettle’s boiled yet. When it comes to atmosphere, Alien sits alongside the former.
I love the characters in Alien. I really do. They’re so ordinary. They’re played by actors who look like the rest of the us, which is probably down to the fact that movie was made in the seventies. It was a good decade for actors as opposed to stars. Furthermore, the characters act like regular folk too and they’re all more or less relatable. If you’ve ever had a job, you know these people. I’m sure many viewers, like myself, relate to Parker and Brett with their grievances about not getting their fair share for the work they put in. We can relate to Dallas too. Sometimes, you do just get too tired of all the hassles to even care. When he decides to leave the planet without completing the last of the repairs, it’s very human. And, of course, we can all relate to Ripley. It’s frustrating when seemingly everyone else in the workplace is ignoring common sense and you feel as though you’re the only sane one in the asylum. When both Ash and Dallas ignore her quarantine concerns – well, Ash seemingly ignores them – and she has no one higher to take her complaints to, we know what that’s like. Banging your head against the proverbial wall. In many ways, you could view Alien as a workplace drama.
Show, don’t tell. Don’t insult the audience’s intelligence. Good pieces of advice for filmmakers, these are guidelines virtually everyone knows whether they are a creator of fictional content or a consumer of the same. Yet, whether intentionally or not, writers and filmmakers don’t always follow them. Alien however, is that rare beast in which the people behind it do remember these words of wisdom. Nobody on the Nostromo goes off on a long soliloquy about how overwhelming the vast reaches of space are and how humans are just infants in the realms of interstellar travel, taking their first steps surrounded by ancient giants. They could have but they didn’t – and they didn’t have to. We know full well how out of their depth the crew of the Nostromo are when three of them step into that great big room where the space jockey’s remains lie fossilised, suggesting that these great space-farers were ploughing the interstellar shipping lanes when the human race was still living in caves. This encapsulates the spirit of the entire movie. It says a lot using just a little. Class warfare, sexual discrimination in the undermining of a senior officer on the ship because she’s a woman, commentary on the ruthlessness of corporate greed and how impersonal the world is becoming... these are all bubbling under the surface of this movie. A myriad of ideas. But not once do the filmmakers feel the need to spell all these things out for us. They’re just there, we can notice them or overlook them and the filmmakers trust us to see them for ourselves.
I’d also like to mention here another type of minimalism at work in Alien and that is the fact that the movie is not that gory. People may be surprised that I would say that but they shouldn’t be. Consider the recent Prometheus, which was marketed as less of a horror movie and more of a philosophical movie. It had graphic violence aplenty, with the camera frequently lingering on gory nauseating imagery when brief visual snippets would have sufficed. Now, consider Alien again and ‘that scene’. You know the one I mean. It’s extremely gory, yes, but it’s brief. There are no lingering shots on gaping wounds, the very next scene is sufficiently later in time that we are spared the messy aftermath of the events we just witnessed and, finally, the scene is an isolated one in what is otherwise a surprisingly bloodless film. Now, one thing is that this shows much better taste than Ridley Scott demonstrated in Prometheus but another thing is that by refraining from turning the entire movie into a visual bloodbath, the scene where the alien bursts out of Kane’s chest has far more impact than it would otherwise. It is a different type of minimalism than what I discussed in the previous paragraph but it’s another way in which this film works so well.
This film should be used as a textbook on pacing. It hits all the right notes with me. I like the way the film is divided so clearly into two halves – the build-up and what follows. I’m also a firm believer that no matter how long a movie is, it’s always good if something dramatic is happening around the one hour mark and that just so happens to be when the alien is born, things hit the fan and the film changes gear completely. Some people say they find the first hour slow but I don’t. I like the feeling of discovery at the beginning of the film. I like getting to know the characters, I like the way in which you are given time to feel their isolation and see the strain that they are all under. You could have a rushed first half in order to quickly get to the alien but I believe you’d lose a lot in doing so. I believe the second half works so well because it’s so well set up and the slower pace of the beginning of the film contrasts so brilliantly with Ripley’s mad rush to get off the ship before it self-destructs. At the start, it seems time is something that everyone has in a far greater quantity than they'd like. Months of cryosleep. Months before they can eat decent food. Months before they can get off the ship and enjoy a few days of normality. Then at the end of the movie, it seems there isn’t anywhere near enough time and every last second is precious. It’s tense. It’s brilliant and it makes for one hair-raising finale.
And if you put all these things together, then I think it is no wonder Alien is so highly regarded. So, what is it you love about Alien?