It’s a Classic: ‘Alien’

Looking at some of the best pop culture offerings in film, TV and comics…

“Ash, can you see this?”

Alien - xenomorph

The central terror of Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien’.

Year:  1979

Starring:  Tom Skerritt, Sigourney Weaver, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto

Directed by:  Ridley Scott / written by:  Dan O’Bannon (story by Dan O’Bannon & Ronald Shusett)

What’s it about?

Investigating the source of a mysterious transmission, the crew of a commercial starship discover a derelict alien craft which houses a deadly cargo…

In review:  why it’s a classic

Carrying the ominous tagline “In Space No One Can Hear You Scream” and celebrating its fortieth anniversary this year, Ridley Scott’s classic science fiction horror, Alien remains one of the all-time greats of cinema.  Growing from an idea by screenwriter Dan O’Bannon (originally titled “Star Beast”), Alien sees the crew of the deep space commercial towing vehicle Nostromo awakened from hibernation when the ship’s computer intercepts a transmission of unknown origin.  Tracing the signal to a nearby planetoid, the crew touch down and discover a gigantic vessel where an encounter with a parasitic organism leads to unforeseen horrors and a fight for survival against a relentlessly lethal alien life form.

Alien is a benchmark in both science fiction and horror, but whilst there are otherworldly elements and futuristic (but credible) technology, much like Star Wars before it, there is a worn, lived-in quality to the production in respect of the Nostromo and its equipment.  This sense of believability extends to the memorable characters of Alien – essentially wary space truckers bickering about bonuses and regulations, sharply written and wonderfully acted by the cast – comprising Sigourney Weaver in her breakout role as Lt. Ellen Ripley (in turn creating one of the most iconic screen heroines), Tom Skerritt as Captain Dallas, John Hurt as Kane, Ian Holm as science officer Ash, Veronica Cartwright as Lambert and Harry Dean Stanton and the excellent Yaphet Kotto as engineers Brett and Parker, respectively.

Alien - Ripley

Sigourney Weaver as Lt. Ripley.

Another standout aspect of Alien is undoubtedly the incredible ‘bio-mechanical’ designs of Swiss artist H.R. Giger, startling and unsettling gothic creations used to bring the Alien and its world – principally the mysterious derelict ‘bone’ ship found by Dallas and co – nightmarishly to life.  The central creature itself (which would become known as a ‘xenomorph’ in James Cameron’s outstanding 1986 sequel, Aliens) is a thing of horrific beauty, intricately detailed and all the more terrifying thanks to Carlo Rambaldi’s Alien head effects and Bolaji Badejo’s simple but effective performance, making it something more than just the staple ‘man inside a rubber suit’ of old SF and horror ‘B’ pictures.  With Giger’s work and Michael Seymour’s production design there’s a lot of fine craftmanship on display and coupled with the meticulous model and miniature effects (the team including Brian Johnson, who had previously worked on 2001: A Space Odyssey and on Gerry Anderson’s Space: 1999 television series) that provide a tangible sense of reality in a way that CGI just cannot replicate.

Scott’s direction is flawless, gently leading the viewer through darkness and shadow then catching them off guard with several shocks and scares.  That approach, with the serious attention to detail and ambition for the project, coupled with Giger’s designs lifts Alien above the more primitive and potentially schlocky imaginings of Dan O’Bannon’s initial concept.  Music is of equal importance and Jerry Goldsmith’s eerie, tense and atmospheric score is the perfect complement to the visuals, accentuating all the terror, unease and chills of Scott’s unforgettable haunted house in space.

Standout moment

Exploring the cavernous belly of the derelict alien ship, Kane stumbles across a cargo of egg-like objects.  Taking a closer look at one of the eggs, Kane sees signs of movement from within…

Geek fact!

H.R. Giger would later contribute designs of the xenomorph in director David Fincher’s second sequel, Alien 3.

If you like this then check out…

Aliens : James Cameron’s sequel pays reverence to Scott’s film without repeating it as Lt. Ripley returns to the planet where her nightmare began with a unit of marines.

Predator : a spiritual sibling to Alien, John McTiernan’s science fiction action classic sees Arnold Schwarzenegger and his crack military team being hunted by a deadly extra-terrestrial.

Image(s) used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

Film Review: ‘Blade Runner 2049’

Director Denis Villeneuve returns to the bleak future envisioned in Ridley Scott’s seminal masterpiece…

Spoiler-free review 

Blade Runner 2049

Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford star in ‘Blade Runner 2049’, from Warner Bros. Pictures.

Starring:  Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Jared Leto, Ana de Armis, Sylvia Hoeks, Robin Wright, Dave Bautista

Directed by: Denis Villeneuve / Written by: Hampton Fancher and Michael Green / 163 minutes

What’s it about?

‘Blade Runner’ Agent K’s investigation of a long-hidden secret leads him to former Agent Rick Deckard who hasn’t been seen in thirty years…

In review

It’s always tricky to follow up a classic, perhaps even more risky when the gap between films stretches across the decades.  Thirty-five years after the release of Ridley Scott’s celebrated science fiction detective noir, Blade Runner (based on the Philip K. Dick novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”) comes the forever mooted sequel from Arrival and Sicario director Denis Villeneuve – Blade Runner 2049.  Whilst it doesn’t surpass Scott’s original, Villeneuve’s film deftly captures the look and feel of Blade Runner without merely imitating it, the filmmaker adding his own elements that serve as a progression, or continuation, of the ideas envisioned by Scott back in 1982.  This is one of the most visually striking pieces of cinema to grace the screen in recent years, the expansive, sprawling future Los Angeles cityscapes, seedy side-streets and sand drenched wastelands presented on a hugely epic scale that begs to be viewed on the largest of cinema screens.

Taking place some thirty years after the events of the original Blade Runner, Blade Runner 2049 introduces us to Agent K (Ryan Gosling) who is in the same line of work as Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard – a ‘Blade Runner’, assigned by the LAPD to hunt down and ‘retire’ (i.e. execute) renegade androids known as ‘Replicants’.  World-weary and asking questions of his place in the world of a rundown, hopeless future, K’s latest mission finds him drawn into a deep and dark mystery that poses a great threat to mankind.  To say much more would spoil the goods but the story ultimately leads to a meeting of the new and older generation of Blade Runners as K seeks out the elusive Deckard (Harrison Ford).

Ryan Gosling takes the centre stage in a nuanced and introspective performance that makes K feel like an uncanny yet natural successor to Deckard whilst making his own mark on the beaten-up and worn-down archetype of this dystopic detective story.  Heavily laden by the demands of his profession and his LAPD chief (Wonder Woman and House of Cards star Robin Wright), he’s consoled by his only companion, Joi (beautifully played by Ana de Armis) who is the only light in an otherwise bleak existence.  As for Harrison Ford, it takes a bit of time to get to him but it’s assuredly worth the wait and as much as he did in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Ford slips comfortably back into another iconic role but certainly doesn’t rest on his laurels.  The meeting of K and Deckard is an anticipated moment and handled greatly.

There’s also Jared Leto (Suicide Squad’s Joker) who puts in a strong and carefully measured performance as blind corporate titan Niander Wallace, master of the newest generation of Replicants and the aspiring villain of the piece, his right-hand woman – an enforcer named ‘Luv’ (Sylvia Hoeks) – in place to deal with any potential threats from those who might try to interfere in Wallace’s goals in perfecting the “more human than human” design of his ’works’.

The running time of Blade Runner 2049 can be a little challenging given it’s protracted pace, but it does allow the viewer to become fully absorbed into the moody atmospherics and simply appreciate and be awed by those mesmerising and astonishing, Oscar worthy visuals by cinematographer Roger Deakins.  The screenplay from Hampton Fancher and Michael Green is suitably mysterious and fairly straight forward in the grand scheme of things but poses plenty of questions of existence and identity in a similar manner to the original Blade Runner and the dialogue is lean and purposeful.  At its core, Blade Runner 2049 is more of a thought-provoking, visually arresting piece of art-house cinema afforded the budget and scale of a $100+ million blockbuster than out-and-out popcorn action spectacle.  Where its action beats are called upon, Denis Villeneuve executes them with reserve and grace that, coupled with all of the film’s other elements make for a sequel should please both fans of Blade Runner and those who appreciate intelligently implemented cinema.

The bottom line:  Arresting, mysterious and delicately executed, Blade Runner 2049 is a worthy sequel to a revered science fiction classic.

Blade Runner 2049 is in cinemas now.

Film Review: ‘Alien: Covenant’

In space no-one can hear you philosophise…

Spoiler-free review

Starring:  Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride

Directed by:  Ridley Scott / Written by: John Logan and Dante Harper (story by Jack Paglen and Michael Green) / 122 minutes

What’s it about?

Diverting to investigate the origins of a mysterious signal, the crew of the colony ship Covenant are soon fighting for their lives against horrific and unstoppable creatures…

In review

In 2012, director Ridley Scott reawakened the dormant (some would even say stagnant) Alien franchise with Prometheus, a sort of quasi-prequel to the original 1979 classic that took place within that universe whilst charting its own course by exploring deep existential and philosophical themes concerning the origins of life and the horrific consequences of playing God.  Although divisive amongst fans of the iconic science fiction/horror series, the questions posited by Prometheus and a desire to correct some of its perceived shortcomings have lead to this latest instalment, Alien: Covenant, with mixed results acheived.

Picking up ten years after the close of Prometheus, we are introduced to the colony ship ‘Covenant’, whose core crewmembers are awakened prematurely in critical circumstances by on board synthetic Walter (Michael Fassbender).  As vital repairs to the ship are attended to, the interception of a mysterious signal leads to the discovery of a nearby Earth-like planet that the crew believes may be a more idyllic site for colonisation than their original destination and an investigative course deviation warranted.  It’s needless to say from there that ‘paradise’ is ultimately not what it seems and harbours dark secrets that will turn the colonist’s hopes for a prosperous new life into a fight for survival.

Whilst Prometheus took strides to set itself apart from being a traditional Alien film (more an extension of the universe rather than a completely devoted tie-in or continuation of it), Covenant is unmistakably that, returning the series to its harder horror roots, with some twists on familiar elements as it works to further develop the Alien prequel story and continue discussions of life and creation.

For its first half, Covenant takes a slow, measured approach, allowing a steady build-up of intrigue and an ominous sense of foreboding before unleashing monstrosities – both new and old – upon the unsuspecting human players.  It’s as grisly and bloody an affair as director Scott has been teasing, the terror aided by a mix of classic Giger designs with the new ‘neomorph’ creature – a suitable evolution from the creations we saw in Prometheus.  It’s in the film’s second half where things start to derail and go awry as the script, despite lofty ambitions as it references Byron and Mary Shelley, falls victim to cliché and predictability as it begins to check off a grocery list of scenarios similar to what we’ve already seen before and not necessarily helped by lashings of fan service.  It culminates in some exciting but perhaps slightly misguided blockbuster CGI spectacle that attempts to meld Prometheus with Alien and Aliens, leading to a derivative finale that feels rushed and lacking in suspense.  There are also some questionable narrative choices along the way, particularly those concerning the origins of the alien ‘xenomorphs’ that may irk long term fans of the franchise especially considering that (much like Prometheus) it further demystifies Alien.

In terms of the cast, Katherine Waterston (Fantastic Beasts) does a decent job of portraying Daniels, another strong female character type who is actually something a little more than the mere Ripley-clone the marketing suggests.  Watchmen’s Billy Crudup is also great in a believable turn as Oram, the Covenant’s captain and man of faith, whose spirituality permits further exploration of the existential ponderings posed by Prometheus.  It’s also worth mentioning Danny McBride who proves to be another notable member of the cast – and certainly not comic relief – as the ship’s pilot, Tennessee.  However, Alien: Covenant really belongs to the excellent Michael Fassbender who excels in the dual role of android ‘synthetics’ Walter and David.  With a captivatingly subtle and nuanced performance (and an effortless switch between accents) he is arguably the film’s strongest draw.

Although the script for Covenant may be problematic, there’s no faulting Ridley Scott’s direction as he once again demonstrates his talent for world-building and the ability to present a visually astounding film by marrying beautiful and striking photography from its New Zealand locations with brilliant production design that’s only let down by a reduced emphasis on practical effects in the creature action.

Despite its flaws, Covenant is still an enjoyable enough addition to the Alien franchise.  It’s by no means its greatest instalment but there’s no doubt that Ridley Scott’s film is superior to Alien: Resurrection and Alien vs Predator albeit far from being on the same level as Alien and Aliens and is quite likely to prove as divisive as Prometheus.

The bottom line:  Hindered by predictability and a rushed finale, as well as controversial story choices, Alien: Covenant is carried by its arresting visuals and the performance of lead actor Michael Fassbender.

Alien: Covenant is in cinemas across the UK now and opens in the US and worldwide from 19th May.

alien covenant

It’s back: the iconic xenomorph returns to reign terror in ‘Alien: Covenant’.