10. Alien (1979)

Director: Ridley Scott

Starring: Tom Skerritt, Sigourney Weaver, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto

In the grand tradition of the haunted house and creature features of the 1950’s, “Alien” is a movie about that which lurks in the shadows and prefers to sneak up on you from behind. The title creature itself owes much to the ‘Carrot Monster’ from “The Thing From Another World” (1951) and the mutated ants from “Them!” (1954). Like the Gi-Ants, the Alien leaves a terrifyingly unforgettable impression upon its first appearance. In the case of the Carrot Monster, “Alien” borrows the idea of an extra-terrestrial life form hunting down humans within a limited area. Instead of an Arctic research facility, the setting is the commercial space freighter Nostromo. Also serving as inspiration is the science-fiction classic “Forbidden Planet” (1956), where an Earth spaceship lands on an alien world, ignoring warnings not to do so, and its crew is killed off one by one.

I first came across “Alien” in a kind of roundabout way, having the film’s most famous scene spoiled for me by a certain Mel Brooks comedy. About four years later, when I was ten years old, “Alien 3” was about to make its theatrical debut. Interested in seeing it, I first rented both “Alien” and “Aliens” so I would have some idea what was going on. I found, to my surprise, that “Alien” really cares about getting you acquainted with its small cast of seven characters. Although the Alien does pick them off in rapid succession, we spend almost half of the movie just getting to know these people before the monster comes out to play. Many horror movies made today will get so hyperactive about showing off scenes of gore that they forget to lure the audience in and get us emotionally involved. “Alien” makes you feel every death.

The crew members of the Nostromo act like real people. They bicker and argue, they panic, and some of them show particular interest in how much their employers plan to pay them for their work. Unlike many science-fiction or horror films, the cast actually looks like they have the experience they would need for deep space missions. This is partially due to their age, with Sigourney Weaver the only one who had not yet celebrated her 30th birthday at the time of filming, while the rest of the cast’s age ranged from 30 (Veronica Cartwright) to 53 (Harry Dean Stanton). Age isn’t everything, of course, and one of the things that really helps elevate “Alien” above the usual standard fare of the genre is the terrific individual performances, especially from Weaver. There’s a reason why all science-fiction female heroines since 1979 have been judged by whether or not they can be thought of as “the next Ellen Ripley.”

Add the beautiful soundtrack to the list of reasons why “Alien” makes my top ten list of all-time favorite films. I’ve often noted that great horror movies more often than not have amazing scores, but “Alien” is a unique case. The original score that Jerry Goldsmith composed for the film is almost completely unused here. Instead, other well-known pieces of orchestral music are used, my favorite being the excerpt from Howard Hanson’s Symphony No. 2, “Romantic.” For my favorite scene, I would have to go with the opening scene where we’re scanning around the empty corridors of the vessel while its passengers are still resting in their cryogenic chambers. This sets up the perfect foreboding atmosphere. The movie will never be this quiet or peaceful again.

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