Reviewed by: Brett Willis
2 hr. 4 min.
Year of Release:
May 25, 1979
Movies in this series:
This film stands out from the general Sci-Fi crowd in terms of convincing acting and good (for its era) special effects. Also, it avoids the occult/supernatural themes found in many Sci-Fi stories. Sigourney Weaver’s character Ellen Ripley wasn’t first-billed in the original, but she took center stage in several sequels.
Sometime in the far future the Nostromo, a mining ship owned by The Company, is returning to Earth from another star system, hauling 20 million tons of ore. (It’s not clear in these films whether “The Company” is just a private mega-corporation or whether it’s also an interstellar version of the CIA; we do learn that The Company has a bio-weapons division, and that it sometimes uses treachery and deceit.) The crew of seven (five miners and two spaceship-maintenance men) is in hypersleep; the shots of the sterile, computer-guided ship have an atmosphere like that of “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
A signal beacon, possibly alien in origin, causes the computer to wake the crew and to pilot the ship to the beacon’s source on an unexplored planet. Company policy requires making contact with alien life-forms whenever possible. A search party finds a derelict alien ship with a giant mummified pilot still sitting at the controls, apparently killed when his chest burst open. The ship also carries a cargo of one-foot-high eggs; things really start happening when one of the crew gets too close to the eggs. The rest of the film becomes a “haunted house” story.
The alien, created by H.R. Giger, is a complex organism: a xenomorph with “alternation of generations.” The “sporophyte” generation [the “Face-hugger” form] hatches from an egg, vaguely resembles a crustacean and implants an embryo of the (presumably) “gametophyte” generation into any available host. The gametophyte [the “Warrior” form] bursts from the host when mature, grows rapidly to human size, and has aspects of a reptile and of an insect or arachnid. The alien (both forms) also has some formidable fighting characteristics, both offensive and defensive. In short, it’s the stuff that nightmares are made of. The tagline is “In space, no one can hear you scream.”
Profanity is steep, with several uses of f* and other language that we might expect from “miners.” There are several bloody deaths, including a chest-bursting scene which was often imitated in later Sci-Fi “cheapies.” The deaths, and the brief views of the alien, are typically handled with quick cutaways; so the scariness is based more on suspense than on grossness. An expanded version of this film uses outfootage showing a “cocooned” victim (cocooning is an important element in the first sequel). In addition to the alien attacks, the crew is also threatened by the Company’s policies.
There’s no sexual content. However, during dinner one of the men makes a joking reference to oral sex (aimed at one of the women). The ports of the alien ship are shaped like human female genitals (I didn’t consciously notice this until I read about it in the Sci-Fi movie magazine “Fangoria”; those wishing to accuse someone of seeing things that aren’t there should contact the magazine, not me). And the film’s climax has an element borrowed from typical “scary movies”: a woman in skimpy underwear runs into the alien and reacts by hiding in a “closet” (normally that’s not a good tactical move, but in this case it is).
It’s hard to remember now how radical it was in 1979 to cast two of the five miners as female. The constant portrayal of certain themes in movies has often helped to bring them to pass in real life.
Violence and scariness aside, the very act of showing an alien creature feeds into the public’s hunger to find out that we’re not alone in the universe. That hunger was created when we as a society philosophically “killed God off;” the quest for aliens is partly a search for a God-substitute, and for meaning for our own lives. I don’t recommend this film series unless the viewers are mature enough for the adult material AND already have their questions on origins resolved so they can treat this as the pure fiction it is.