On this site I have a list of my 25 favorite films of all time (plus two more that I added later). It’s agonizing to make a list like this—I started out to pick my Top Ten—because there are always so many films that ought to be on the list, but there’s just not room! However, if I expanded this list to the Top 50, or maybe even the Top 30, Alien would be on it. There are only three movies in my lifetime that have either made me jump in my seat and cry aloud, or scared me so much that I was literally looking through my fingers, or both: this one, Psycho (I was 13, okay?) and Jaws. (I have a phobia of being underwater, and sharks scare the pee out of me.)
This is by far the best haunted house movie ever made, and the starship Nostromo is by far the spookiest haunted house. It’s all dark corners, dripping water, creaking chains swaying in the air, and a kajillion metallic places for a metallic bogeyman to hide. Ridley Scott adhered to the principle that what you don’t see is scarier than what you do see … sort of. I mean, we saw the eggs and the first stage clearly enough, but that was just act one. And we saw the second stage emerge from John Hurt‘s chest clearly enough, though just for a moment, in the most famous and most startling gory scene of all time. But the Big Mutha (designed by that crazy man, H.R. Giger), the final stage, is only glimpsed, seen in pieces—a mouth with extendable teeth, a long-fingered hand, spines along the back—until the very end when Ripley confronts it in the shuttle. And by then it wasn’t so scary. The scene was horribly tense, but when I saw it all it became something I could deal with. On the DVD there are some deleted scenes, all but one of them deserving to be on the cutting room floor, and the worst was one that showed the whole creature in a long shot, facing Harry Dean Stanton. I’m so glad Scott decided to shitcan that one. (To this day my mind is divided on whether he should have left in the famous scene of Tom Skerritt wrapped up in a cocoon, pleading with Ripley to kill him. Maybe so, maybe not.)
This is the movie that made Sigourney Weaver a star, and it’s easy to see why. At 5′ 11” she dominates every scene she is in with quiet intensity, but it’s more than that. Her screen test was shown to a dozen women at the studio, and they unanimously chose her over much bigger names. She is just one of those people with a great screen presence. She made three more movies in the Alien universe, of gradually diminishing quality, but luckily for us she refused to get typecast as Ripley. She has developed into one of our best actresses, seldom in the lead role, but always delivering a powerful third billing, improving most movies she is in.
It’s been 33 years now, and the special effects here still hold up very well, not looking primitive at all. It’s mostly ingenious model work and old-fashioned visual tricks done to great effect. You do not have to have sophisticated CGI to make this stuff work. The thing that strikes me most, though, is the totally primitive nature of the computer. “Mother,” the Big Brain on the ship, communicates telegraphically on green-screen monitors. She actually says “DOES NOT COMPUTE,” something no computer outside of a motion picture has ever said. But in 1979 no one but ultra-geeks had a computer, they were utterly mysterious to most of us. It made me reflect on the computers we see in movies like Avatar today: transparent touch screens floating in the air. And I realized that, though we may soon see things very like that, the one sure thing is that, 33 years from now, computers will look nothing like that. Like all SF, movies are doomed to eternally get things wrong, wrong, wrong when we go beyond, say, ten years in the future. Nothing to be done about it, anymore than you could put a cell phone in the hands of Jimmy Stewart in 1946.