Escape Velocity

A curated Collection of Fantasy and Science Fiction Media

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Alien is a science fiction horror film. Halfway their trip back home, the crew of the commercial space tug Nostromo is woken from their cryosleep by a mysterious transmission from a nearby meteorite. They decide to check it out and a small party discovers an old stranded spaceship and a field of alive eggs. Should they touch one of them?


Some media ages a lot better than others.

Generally speaking, visual media, like video games or movies, get the short end of the stick, as new technology surpasses old technique, and practical effects but especially CGI end up looking outdated. Speculative fiction tends to suffer even more, as made up elements need to be brought to the screen by exactly those techniques that are prone to aging.

Then, some media seems miraculously excepted from that rule.

Alien is another one of those films where it sometimes feels like the most outdated element on screen is Sigourney Weaver’s haircut. The effects stand the test of time incredibly well, despite being over four decades (!) old at this point.

I find it especially interesting to compare Alien to other classic science fiction films. For example, Alien was released in between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, and though Alien is of course a lot more modest in scope than Star Wars, I think the difference is striking. Of course, you can still watch Star Wars and I am not saying those are bad movies; but as a viewer I feel like I am constantly reminded of how different those Star Wars-movies would look if they were made today. A movie like Total Recall, which premiered in 1990, eleven years after Alien, and was one of the most expensive productions ever at that time, looks laughably bad when compared to it.

The decisions to keep the film almost entirely confined to the limited crew rooms and cramped and steam-obscured service passages of the Nostromo, and to keep the antagonist hidden for the better part of the script, help immensely in both maintaining suspension of disbelief after forty years, as well as ratcheting up the claustrophobic horror as the crew transition from hunters to hunted. In fact, most of the moments where you can immediately tell you are not watching a movie that came out yesterday are the shots outside of the space ship, or where the titular alien is in plain view.

So the film doesn’t look its age. But is it any good?

Definitely! As I said, the tension in this movie runs really high, also because filmmakers of the past were happy for a slower development than today’s audience is used to. Despite the pace, it has your hart beating and adrenaline pumping all the time. The cast is great, the visual style is great, sound design is great, the script is great. As a horror movie, it has some of the same tropes all horror movies fall victim too, though this movie does have some plot explanations for less-than-optimal decision making. Overall, I would recommend Alien to basically anyone that can stand a horror movie.

There is a lot more to say about Alien– its gender-neutral casting, its completely outdated future technology that sparked cassette futurism, why did Ripley need to take her clothes off, the fact that Alien (at least partially) spawned out of the wreckage of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s failed attempt at a Dune-adaptation – but you don’t need all that for a review. If you haven’t seen it yet, go watch Alien – it’s rightfully a classic of the genre.

The first time I saw this movie was with my father. He was a huge fan of the alien franchise, especially of the first two movies, and it would not surprise me if he has had a Ripley-poster above his bed when he was young. I loved the thrill of this horror movie with its heartbeat-score and flickering, disorienting lights, crawling under a blanket and against the safe body of my father.

When I watched this movie recently, I was afraid my nostalgic memory of it would fade and make way for a sober view of a decent, but dated movie. But I was wrong! It held up way better than expected! It was slow-paced, as many films of more than 40 years old feel, but it suited the film. From the first scene on the tension established, the camera slowly panning around while the music made unmistakably clear something ominous would happen. Yet, technically nothing problematic happens for the first hour or so. We get the time to get to know the characters with no one clearly being the main character. And even when they meet the alien, they still have not passed the point of no return. And then, finally, shit goes down.

Just a side note to end this review: it is always fun to see how old movies imagine future technology. As for Alien, it apparently could imagine humanity flying huge distances in space with massive mining ships, but we would still have tiny computer screens with MS-DOS interface and terrible quality video and sound transmissions. And an incredible amount of steam!

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