Lauren (finally) watches: ALIEN

A few years back, I was chatting with a guy I’d just met a few hours earlier at a writing conference, and he told me that he bet he could guess my favorite movie. I told him to give it a whirl — after all, most of the discussion at writing conferences is based around stories, both the ones we love in pop culture and the ones we’re trying to tell in our own work, so I figured that, based on that, he had a decent chance of at least hitting one of my top five.*

He pondered for a second, then took a shot.

Blade Runner.”

I shook my head, and told him that I’d actually never seen Blade Runner, and therefore had no opinion on it whatsoever. Once he got over his initial shock (which is fair — I was a baby when the original Blade Runner came out, but as a ‘90s teenager, I really should have watched it on VHS at a sleepover or something), he assured me that once I did get around to watching it, I’d love it. And I thought he was probably right. After all, Blade Runner has morally complex robots, a futuristic noir premise, and a young Harrison Ford, all of which are things I like.

Harrison Ford in Blade Runner (1982). Photo credit: Warner Bros.

But when I did finally watch Blade Runner… I was not a fan.

I don’t think that Writing Conference Guy had me pegged entirely wrong. I think that if I’d seen Blade Runner as a teenager, I might have loved it, and that nostalgia factor might have been strong enough to last me well into adulthood. But watching it for the first time as an adult, I found myself so troubled by certain elements** of the movie that I found myself unable to emotionally invest in the rest.

It was disappointing, to be honest. I’d really looked forward to finally getting to experience Ridley Scott’s sci-fi masterpiece, and to be so underwhelmed by it was like finally opening that big present you’d been eyeing under the Christmas tree and finding it was filled with socks.

Not even good socks (I… have been known to ask for good socks for Christmas). Old, used socks. The kind you wouldn’t want to wear, even if they’d been washed and had cool designs on them, because they’d always make you feel just a little bit gross.

Which got me wondering about that other critically acclaimed Ridley Scott sci-fi movie that I never got around to seeing as a teenager: Alien.

(Right now, you may be wondering what I was even doing as a teenager to miss out on not one but two of these formative classics. Which is why now feels like the time to also admit that I hadn’t seen Point Break until last week. It was great.)  

I’ve always been curious about Alien, but for one reason or another, have never gotten around to actually watching any of them. Honestly, lately, I’ve been a little nervous. Ever since watching Blade Runner, I’ve wondered whether I’d even be capable of loving the Alien series as an adult first-time watcher, or if I missed my window, and wouldn’t be able to enjoy it without the nostalgia-colored lenses. It’s such a beloved classic; did I even want to risk not liking it? Was it better to remain blissfully ignorant? 

But I recently discovered that every Alien movie except Prometheus is available on HBO, and it felt like it was finally time to pull the trigger.

So I’m going to fling myself headfirst into the Alien franchise, watching one a night (ish — I’m unwilling to cancel my life for this and also I’m an adult who cannot watch movies until 2 a.m. like I did in college) until I’ve gotten through every single one, and will chronicle my journey here, one movie at a time.

Here we go.

ALIEN (1979)

My expectations:

Ever since I read Film Crit Hulk’s deep-dive on the career of Ridley Scott (which is an excellent piece and I highly recommend it), I’ve had my own Ridley Scott theory sort of percolating quietly in the back of my mind, which only solidified more after listening to the entire Director’s Commentary for Legend, which I wound up tweeting about as I was watching it because it’s just… so… weird.

Legend is a very odd movie. The worldbuilding is never fully fleshed out, a lot of the character choices don’t make much (any?) sense, and the mythology is… confusing, to say the least. Yet, bizarrely, it works. And after listening to Ridley Scott go on and on and on about set design and scoring and… cat?… people?… it became really clear to me that he was never all that interested in telling a coherent story that made logical sense, but was very interested in evoking a specific set of emotions and sensations in his audience. And he totally succeeded. I love Legend, even if I could never actually explain to you why most of the events in Legend happen the way they do.

Mia Sara in Legend (1985). This is probably one of my favorite sequences in the whole movie and I still couldn’t actually explain to you what’s happening here. Photo credit: Universal Pictures

While Legend is probably the most extreme example of Scott’s tendency to prioritize sensation over narrative cohesion, I feel like every Ridley Scott movie I’ve seen does this to some degree or another. He’s like an impressionist painter, always far more wrapped up in the overall feeling of the stories he’s telling than in drawing solid lines for the audience. The overall picture may be beautiful and evoke the exact emotional response he intended, but if you examine it close up, it can be hard to tell what you’re looking at. Which means that by the end of his movies, you almost always end up feeling the way he wants you to feel, even if you can’t quite explain what happened in the movie you just watched.

That said, Alien was only Scott’s second feature film, and came out three years before Blade Runner and six before Legend. So I’m curious to see if what I perceive as his characteristic style had already solidified by then, or if Alien will have more clearly defined lines than his later work.

I’m both excited and nervous. I’ve already committed to watching all five sequels (well, three sequels and two prequels), whether or not I like this first movie. So I truly hope I enjoy it, not just because I want to be able to join in on the fandom love, but because I really don’t want to have to slog through 12 hours of a franchise I don’t like.

Here we go.***

Watching the movie:

Alien (1979). Photo credit: 20th Century Fox

  • First thoughts: Ridley Scott’s fascination with set design was not unique to Legend, I see. He seems very enamored with these sets, and wants to make sure we see every last detail. Maybe because we’re going to see them all get destroyed later? My husband tells me that all of the effects on Alien are practical, so I’m guessing that whenever the alien starts terrorizing the crew of this ship, all these lovely sets are going to get torn to shreds. (Also this music feels very Star Wars.)
  • Is… “Mother”… the ship? Way to establish that creep factor right off the bat.
  • Where do I know this other woman who is not Sigourney Weaver from? *checks IMDb* Flight of the Navigator.
  • The pacing in the first act of this movie is extremely relaxed. Shots linger, dialogue overlaps, silence abounds. This is not how I’d expect a sci-fi-horror-thriller to start, but it’s working. There’s so much I don’t know about these characters, this ship, and their mission, and the film seems completely unconcerned with filling in those blanks at this time. It feels isolating, which is, I’m sure, exactly the feeling Scott was going for.
  • Sigourney’s on the ship and she’s the only one I’m positive makes it out of this movie alive, so I’m not getting too attached to this crew going to investigate the alien ship. Star Trek has taught me well.

Alien (1979). Photo credit: 20th Century Fox

  • How did that guy just fall down into the egg farm, he was literally standing still and then he was falling — wait, no, what are you doing, when you see an alien undulating inside a weird space egg, don’t touch it — aaaaaand there’s the facehugger. Honestly, dude, you kind of deserved that.
  • Oh hey, they all survived. I was primed for someone to die right off the bat, but from the unhurried setup to the body count still being zero, I gather that this is going to be a much slower burn than I was anticipating. But also they’re bringing this thing onto the ship, which means the alien baby is probably going to explode from that guy’s chest soon, because I know that happens in one of these movies and it seems like that’s where this is going.
  • It BLEEDS ACID, I am VERY concerned about all these people running from deck to deck and LOOKING UP AT THE CEILING, WHAT IF IT GETS ON YOUR FACE. Ugh… I just realized that in watching all of these movies, I’m definitely going to eventually have to watch someone’s face get eaten by acid, aren’t I. Probably in this movie, because why introduce acid blood if that’s not going to come back eventually.
  • He’s… better? And everyone is unconcerned? Come on guys, I don’t buy it. The facehugger totally impregnated him with its alien baby.
  • Yup, there he goes. Exploding chest, alien baby. Also I’ve seen Spaceballs so many times that I kind of expected it to sing? I feel shame.

I could’ve told them all it was a bad idea to just sit down to dinner like nothing much had happened. Alien (1979). Photo credit: 20th Century Fox

  • This plan to airlock the alien using fire seems decent. Too bad it’s definitely not going to work.
  • Wait, I just remembered that there are androids in the most recent Alien movies (I’ve tried to remain as unspoiled as possible for these movies, but sometimes things slip through the cracks) which means… is one of them a robot. Surely they wouldn’t just introduce androids in the prequels unless there are already androids in the original movies. WHO IS THE ROBOT? Part of me wants to say Sigourney, because it was super cold for her to refuse to let her crewmates back on the ship after one had been attacked by the facehugger, and that seems like robot logic. But I kind of doubt the protagonist would be a robot (Blade Runner aside), so I’m going to put my money on Ian Holm, who has been acting slightly creepy this whole time. Also, while I could argue that it is robot logic to refuse to let them back in, I could also argue that it is robot logic to let them in, because he’d be the only one without a self-preservation instinct.
  • Is the cat supposed to be a metaphor for something, because I feel like we’re spending way too much time on the cat.
  • Hahahahah the alien just appeared with JAZZ HANDS.

This is probably not supposed to be funny. Alien (1979). Photo credit: 20th Century Fox

  • This woman who is not Ripley — Lambert, I guess is her name — is utterly useless. I was pleasantly surprised to see that there’s more than one woman on the crew, but seriously, what is Lambert’s purpose? She appears to have no skills and no chill whatsoever. I hesitate to give this movie points for being progressive in its casting when all Lambert has done for the ENTIRE MOVIE is worry, complain, and scream.
  • “Crew is EXPENDABLE?” What on earth? So this message was for the Science Officer’s eyes only, which makes me think Ian Holm is definitely the robot, because if someone is going to unflinchingly carry out “all other priorities secondary” orders, it’s a robot.  

Was all the milky drooling REALLY necessary? Alien (1979). Photo credit: 20th Century Fox

  • I guess Lambert was mildly useful here with the cattle prod thing. Except she only zapped Holm-bot once and then broke down weeping and screaming before he was actually incapacitated, so… meh.
  • I don’t fully understand why they think Ash (or Mother, come to think of it) would know how to kill the creature. Aren’t these aliens new? Why would they have more data on them than the humans would? Was this explained and I missed it, or is this just Ridley Scott movie magic? I guess it doesn’t matter in either case, since The Head of Ash is proclaiming they’re unkillable.
  • Seriously, is the cat significant? Why would you go off ALONE searching for the cat when the alien has now killed three ACTUAL PEOPLE? I say prep the escape shuttle and if the cat shows up before the launch, great.
  • Aaaaaand Lambert just got herself and Parker killed thanks to her incapacitating uselessness. I’m pretty sure Lambert was toast either way, but Parker could possibly have gotten out if Lambert had just… done… anything.
  • This sequence of Ripley trying to get to the escape shuttle alone with the strobe light is SUPER tense. Even though I know she’s got to get out alive, my stomach is in knots watching this. This movie keeps whittling down the crew and making the spaces they occupy more and more confining, and then throwing in the flashing light here (and also the self-destruct countdown) makes everything feel super claustrophobic. So again, even though I don’t fully track why she turned the self-destruct on and then wanted to turn it back off (I guess just to buy herself more time?), the overall sensation of this sequence is fully delivering.

Sigourney Weaver in Alien (1979). Photo credit: 20th Century Fox

  • Also she left the cat alone with the alien, is the alien going to impregnate the cat with its alien baby so it can explode out at her in the escape shuttle?
  • Wait, she left with the alien at the entrance to the shuttle and then came back and it was gone, which means it is CLEARLY IN THE SHUTTLE, RIPLEY, DON’T GET COMPLACENT.
  • … how many times is this spaceship going to explode?
  • Ugh, she got complacent despite my warnings and is stripping down to go into cryosleep. Also we are to believe Ripley went through all of the events of this movie without any sort of bra on? And ill-fitting underwear? I’m no astronaut, but I’d imagine that in an environment like that you’d WANT YOUR UNDERTHINGS TO FIT PROPERLY (and to exist, at all), even without all the alien complications. Come on, Ridley Scott, consult with a woman or two on your costume design.
  • THERE IT IS, I don’t know how it got stuck in the wall, but YIKES that is terrifying.
  • Okay this sequence of Ripley edging into the spacesuit is SUPER effective on a visceral level, even if I do think it’s filmed somewhat voyeuristically. So much of the tension in this movie is built on feelings of isolation and claustrophobia. Watching it feels like being gradually pressed into a series smaller and smaller containers, until everything is squished and uncomfortable and suffocating.  

Alien (1979). Photo credit: 20th Century Fox

  • Finally, the alien is airlocked. And blasted by the engine for good measure. See, Bilbo-bot, they CAN be killed.
  • And now Ripley is cryosleeping with the cat, and… the movie is over. THE CAT WAS NEVER SIGNIFICANT. IT WAS JUST THERE THE WHOLE TIME.
  • You know what else was never really significant? Acid blood. Or, honestly, the fact that there was a secret android hidden among their crew the entire time. Sure it contributed to a really unsettling combat sequence, but plot-wise, Ash’s presence and the reveal that he was an android never felt all that relevant. It was just there to add an additional layer of creep-factor.

Closing thoughts:

I enjoyed that movie. I don’t think I can say I loved it like many of my peers who first watched it as teenagers, but I thought it was entertaining, and — as expected — extremely successful in evoking feelings of isolation, claustrophobia, and suspense, even if I was left with some lingering questions about the why of it all.

Excited to see where the series goes from here, as different directors take the helm. Tune in later this week for my first-time viewing experience of James Cameron’s Aliens.

* There was no possible way he was going to guess my actual favorite movie, because it’s Galaxy Quest, and that’s not a movie anyone ever guesses. If you’re interested in the other four, ask me sometime. They tend to fluctuate.

**It’s worth noting that the other Harrison Ford movies he calls out in this video, I do actually love — but I also saw them as a kid.

***For anyone checking HBO and panicking that I didn’t get the true Alien experience because the version that’s streaming there is the Director’s Cut — don’t worry. I wanted my initial viewing to be the same one everyone else got, so we rented the Theatrical version. I am curious about the Director’s Cut, but that one will have to wait for now.

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