Still a masterpiece, ‘Alien’ returns to theaters for three days in October
“Fear of Jump” is a well-established horror movie trope, in which the “scream cord” on the soundtrack suddenly rises, in order to give audiences a jolt. Lazy horror movies aggressively use the “screaming rope” but don’t fool anyone. If a filmmaker needs the equivalent of someone screaming in my ear to provoke fear, then the director and his film are clearly unworthy. A key to not being audibly assaulted in a movie theater: Cover your ears and just watch the action. So most horror movies aren’t that scary without the explosion of sound to bounce you off your seat… unless that movie is Ridley Scott’s. Extraterrestrial. There is no protection from this movie, especially on the big screen, where Scott and his hidden visuals surround you.
Released two years later Star wars and during a season where the big studios worked overtime to rip off The Force with their own budding suitors (Star Trek: The Movie, The black hole, and Moonraker are notable entries), Extraterrestrial arrived quietly and went in a different direction. By merging sci-fi with Freudian, Gothic, and existential horror, he let go of optimism, rewired the genre’s expectations, and succeeded in terrorizing his audiences. Forty years later, it is still a great and sinister masterpiece.
In 2122, the Nostromo spacecraft found its crew awake after a long period of hibernation, to discover that they were not in their own star system. A signal from a neighboring planet requires investigation, though the mission is met with skepticism. Nonetheless, they land on a dark and stormy planet, scale the ruins of a strange alien spaceship, and discover a giant room full of eggs, gestating with angry life forms begging to hatch.
A masterstroke is in the casting: the team is played by Sigourney Weaver (in his first lead role), Tom Skerrit, John Hurt, Veronica Cartwright, Ian Holm, Harry Dean Stanton and Yaphet Kotto. You read that right: there are only seven actors in this movie – eight if you count the underrated contribution of the seven foot tall Nigerian actor Bolaji Badejo in the title role. The dynamic between the team seems genuine, as the actors never seem to act. A gifted ensemble makes the rapport in screenwriter Dan O’Bannon’s screenplay natural and overlapping. It’s a surprise to learn that not all of the dialogue was improvised, because it always sounds like that. Everyone here is wonderful, although Holm’s icy intensity, Cartwright’s heart-wrenching hysteria, Weaver’s fierce turn, and Kotto’s slow burn are the highlights.
After the calm and elegant establishment scenes, a thick sense of dread and unease takes over; the wonderfully detailed sets become darker and darker as the film visually and thematically becomes darker. The mystery and wonder of the opening scenes merge into a Darwinian struggle for survival, as the biggest obstacle the crew faces may not be the parasite they pick up.
Scott’s film (his second after his landmark debut, The Duelists) establishes that something is wrong from the start, and Extraterrestrial is scary long before the monsters appear. As iconic (and still gruesome) as this dinner scene is, one earlier detail still manages to make my skin crawl: Notice how the Facehugger, while hanging on to its first host, wraps its tail more tightly around its victim’s neck. .
Note to spectators: there are some strobe lights in the third act. Otherwise, the film’s way of shaking an audience is genuine and still effective. Extraterrestrial turns on its audience early on, as there is no indication of the great scares to come. Horror arrives out of the blue and Jerry Goldsmith’s score, as good as it is, stays away from the film. The most gruesome scenes take place here without musical accompaniment.
The filmmaker of yesterday and today is known as a creator of tangible and living worlds, and everyone in front of and behind the camera does an exemplary job. Nothing in Extraterrestrial (not the sets or the creatures) seems constructed and the performances are, as well, at this level of plausibility. On the small screen it reigns as one of the scariest movies ever made – but in a movie theater it’s a gripping experience. Expect to walk away amazed… and shaking.
Rated R / 117 Min.
Alien is playing at the Maui Mall Megaplex on Sunday October 13 at 1 p.m., Tuesday October 15 at 7 p.m. and Wednesday October 16 at 7 p.m.
Image courtesy IMDB