Alien Film Review
|Fig. 1 ('Alien' poster)|
The 1979 British-American film, directed by Ridley Scott, is notable for its influence in the sci-fi genre, especially in the case of design. While the story itself remains rather simple the film makes use of intriguing sound design, camera angles and pacing allowing for the amalgamation of a piece that captures the viewer’s attention and induces anxiety.
Starting the film from the ship’s cockpit the crew are slowly woken up from their sleep before breaking into their everyday lives. What appears to be an alien signal leads the crew to investigate before bringing on-board an aggressive creature that proceeds to kill five of the seven the crew members with ease. This leaves the protagonist, Ripley, to escape from the craft and fight for survival against the monster.
“The basics of the plot are simple” (Malcolm, 2009). While not original in comparison with its pervious peers, the plot allows for the set design to shine. At its core the story is a horror-house where several characters attempt to escape with only but a few surviving. The house in question is that of a futuristic space ship filled with the necessary equipment for man to venture into space. The set appears to be complete and well thought, comparable to that of Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. Long pipes, control panels and other equipment litter the hull giving off a very distinct “human” feel, finding comfort in the man-made machinery. This is heavy juxtaposed by the extra-terrestrial design which can be attributed by the different artists. While concept artists Ron Cobb and Chris Foss created the human assets surrealist artist H.R. Giger created the alien forms. Even when looking at the foreign ship from afar it is clear that it is not of human origin. The interior of the ship proves just as alien. Walls appear to be made from an organic material, support structures form bone like ribs along with width of the ship and a large humanoid carcass that fills the screen.
|Fig. 2 (crew explores the alien ship)|
All these details both human and alien only serve to accentuate that which is familiar and unfamiliar. Additionally more practical effects are used to bring the film to life meaning that even today the film remains visually impressive. Knowing that little CG is used it is a spectacle to observe some of the well-constructed shots.
Timing is one of the strongest points in the film as Scott creates tension simply by lengthening a sequence. “It takes its time. It waits. It allows silences”, (Ebert, 1979) as stated by Roger Ebert the film has slower place where it is needed. In comparison to modern slasher films such as the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” remake, ‘Alien’ allows the fear sink into the audience rather than instantly meet their expectations. The suspense created by the still nature of the shot is usually married with an unclear view making use of a lack of visibility that is generated by either the set or camera.
Scott enhances the atmosphere though this simple device. By denying greater visibility for the audience it is uncertain what is truly being seen, deceiving the viewer. By doing so it is difficult to gauge what is safe even if the shot is a close up. Alongside the use of fog and blur there is an interesting use of camera angles to create tension as the camera pans slowly to reveal more of a room that perhaps contains a hidden danger. Additionally Scott has chosen to highlight certain areas of the shot by having some areas in focus drawing attention to one area. As seen in fig. 3 the eyes are drawn to the teeth of the creature shadowing one's imminent fate.
Assisted by the way the set has been designed the cramp and claustrophobic nature of the ship helps to portray the undeniable feeling that the crew are trapped.
There is a reoccurring theme of uncertainty that is carried out through ‘Alien’ as sound design also incorporates this concept. While timing for sound is well done allowing the cold noise of the ship’s inner workings fill the room to create a more immersive experience, the most notable feature is the use of muffled sounds especially when a radio is in use. This helps to convey the realistic and grim situation with the audience having a more difficult time fully understanding the issue at hand. Viewers are also kept in the dark about the nature of the alien. Described as the ‘perfect’ creature, the alien is not seen in its fully grown form until later into the film. Rather than displaying the creature at its strongest the film hints towards the ever changing presence of the antagonist. With this we are unsure of the capacity or behaviour of the alien until later on, “So we never know quite what it looks like or what it can do” (Ebert, 1979). Not only does the film thrill the audience with more graphical sights but also spurs on the imagination creating more psychological fears.
While people will study ‘Alien’ for its refreshing design the film shines in many aspects and also dares to break film tradition by casting a strong female protagonist. The story itself could be interpreted in different ways and as a result the film has led on to create many debates and theories. In all ‘Alien’ is a griping film that has the viewer tense up at the most critical moments, with a believable and immersive world the alien draws fear in the viewer.
Ebert, R. (1979)
Malcolm, D. (2009)
Derek Malcolm's Alien review from 1979