Anyone who's ever shared a movie conversation with me is probably aware that Ridley Scott's Alien is my #1 favorite film of all time. And instead of doling out yet another traditional review of this well-admired and wonderful piece of space-bound horror, I'll just break it down by bullet points. Of course it's worth noting that the inspiration for this (sorta) review comes from the rather amazing new blu-ray box set from Fox. I'm not a big fan of Part 3 (and I actively dislike Part 4), but there's little denying that this gorgeous collection is worth the expense for anyone who adores Alien and/or James Cameron's Aliens. And really... who doesn't like those two films?
Reason #1 that Alien is my very favorite film:
It was forbidden fruit of the juiciest kind. My dad, a fireman, had a VCR in the workplace about a month before we had one at home. One night over dinner he told my mother (in passing, mind you) that he and his friends had watched Alien (1979) and The Thing (1982) back-to-back, and that, I quote "they were NOT for me or my sister to see!" And my dad wasn't the joke-around "Ho ho, now I know they'll find these movies" sort of guy. He meant they were totally off-limits. Keep in mind that I was a hyperactive 12-year-old who was already a pathetic movie freak.
Needless to say, my friends and I saw the film a week or two later, which brings us to ...
#2: It blew me away. I'd seen scary movies before, and I'd even seen some gore, but there was nothing to prepare my youthful brain for what Alien was about to dole out. From the second the film began, yes even through the "boring" opening sequences, I was enraptured, enthralled, disgusted, fascinated, challenged, and entertained to a dizzying degree. I can still remember the way I felt when Ash gets his damn robot head knocked off: stunned, delighted, and actually excited by what it meant to the story.
#3: As I grew into an insatiable film watcher (and passionate horror freak) I began to learn WHY this particular film affected me so much: that it's essentially an old-school haunted house movie -- only the house is up in space and there's no way out. That the director made the "fantastic" so realistic by setting in a compelling yet mundane world. This is no fancy spaceship, there are no real heroes, and the seven characters don't even seem to like each other very much. How this, combined with the icy and claustrophobic setting, make the creature even more "alien," because there's no comfort, no friendship, no real warmth to be found anywhere.
#4: How gore can be used as (much) more than a cinematic sideshow display. That Kane's horrific demise works so well because it's a sudden, visceral, tragic moment -- and how something as potentially silly as Ash's post-mortem messages can come off as creepy instead of ridiculous. Also! How an always-changing creature is even scarier, because these poor travelers don't know if they're dealing with a rodent or a lion.
#5: The Cat. I named my own beloved feline "Jones the Cat" in honor of this film, and I think the little mammal represents, ironically, the one small semblance of humanity to be found on the spaceship. Poor Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) gives his life while searching for the little beast, and it's Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) who risks her last chance at escape to go back and rescue the stranded animal. In another film, it could be ridiculous. By the third act of Alien, we're so happy to see a human touch (even a mistake) that's based in emotion. Also, the cat and the alien are the only random factors in the whole story, so I always enjoy their one strange scene together.
#6: The Combo: Like most childish men, horror and science fiction are among my very favorite kinds of story, and Alien is one of the classic flicks to get them both right. The idea of a city-wide mining vessel traveling back to Earth full of cargo is, of course, the stuff of very cool science fiction. Then throw one significantly unique monster into the mix and you're on your way to something special.
#7 The Cast: I'm a huge fan of what we call "character actors," and there's not a weak one to be found in Alien: Harry Dean Stanton, Veronica Cartwright, John Hurt, Yaphet Kotto, Ian Holm, Tom Skerritt, and (of course) Sigourney Weaver. The actors have all been great elsewhere, but there's some oddly compelling ensemble work on display in Alien. (Some of the subtler moments are fleshed out in scenes that were cut from the original theatrical version.) Watch the bizarre way Holm (as Ash) runs in place early in the film; the wonderfully quiet ways in which Cartwright slowly gets angry; the rascally passive-aggressiveness of the mechanics played by Stanton and Kotto. Not one of these characters is fascinating, per se, but they're all pretty interesting when put in a spaceship together.
And on and on. Why we "love" specific movies is sometimes as weirdly personal as why we love a specific person (or even a cat), so let's just all agree that Alien is a five-star mega-classic that I probably fawn over a bit more than you do. This entire six-disc set is a pretty staggering piece of work, and I'll turn it over to Joe McCabe for his breakdown of the rest of the package. I can, however, tell you that Alien now looks (and sounds!) better than I've ever experienced it before, and the first disc in the set comes with both the 1979 theatrical cut and the 2003 extended version. Also included are Ridley Scott's old commentary AND the cast & crew commentary if you flip over to the extended edition. You'll find digital tons of extras on the supplemental discs, but I'm very happy to note that Jerry Goldsmith's isolated score track has been included this time around. (It was on the one-disc release but not in the "quadrilogy" set from a few years back. Yes, I'm a huge nerd.)
Some (like, say, me) may gripe that the Alien films are not available for separate purchase, but I choose to look at this Anthology set as a slightly pricey Alien / Aliens double feature, with tons of extra features and two subpar sequels thrown in for completion's sake. Going only by Disc One, this has got to be one of the coolest dvd releases of the year.
Note: Check out FEARnet editor Joe McCabe's review of the Aliens Blu-ray here.