Alien: The Right Way to Make a Movie

Dr Zaius

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Why is it there are so few truly classic horror and sci-fi films? Are these films really that hard to make, or are we just cursed to suffer through one lame release after another? It's really aggravating considering how many really good sci-fi and horror novels there are to draw on for inspiration. Is Hollywood really that clueless?

But there are a few gems in the rough. Blade Runner, The Thing, and Jaws come to mind. Another movie I never get tired of is Ridley Scott's Alien.

One of things I always found compelling about this film was the way every element was portrayed with a gritty realism. For example, the ship isn't a sexy combat vessel like the Star Trek Enterprise, but a crawling industrial ship that looks like something we might actually build. The crew, too, look and act like ordinary people, not movie stars acting a part. They smoke, they curse, they bicker over money and work, they look tired and cranky when they wake up. None of them are particularly heroic, just scared and a little bit desperate. And, of course, the alien itself is a wonderful conceptual design, complete with plausible explanations of its biology and life cycle. Unlike most scary films, the director makes the alien itself interesting and mysterious, something so different that we find ourselves wanting to know more about it and where it came from.

Scott is one of those rare directors that intuitively understands that sometimes less is more. He doesn't stick the creature in our faces at every opportunity or seek to throw as much pointless gore at the audience as possible. Instead, the alien behaves like we might expect a wild animal to act in a strange environment, preferring to hide in dark places and not wanting to be disturbed. When it does attack, it does so for a reason.

But for all the great things you can say about Alien's sets, its wonderful back story, and the creativeness of the alien itself, the film really revolves around the performances by the crew. And they're believable. They're not beautiful teenagers foolishly walking into obvious danger and uttering meaningless dialog just to keep the story moving along. Each is integral to the story and there is no 'useless crewman #32' served up because someone is needed to feed the monster in the next scene. On the contrary, we instantly grasp who these people are and what their role is on the ship. In short, the parts are well written and Scott does a great job getting low key, but intense, performances out of each of the actors.

Lastly, this film showcases the value of a quiet moment. There are long sequences when the camera just pans around the ship or lingers on the crew members as they ponder some question, but no one speaks and the audience is slowly sucked in. Rather than have one of the characters tell us what's going on by belaboring the obvious, Scott instead chooses to let us experience it for ourselves and draw our own conclusions. The end result is moody and atmospheric, and we can relate to what the crew is going through.

It's always amazes me just how often Hollywood gets it wrong and how clueless so many screenwriters and directors seem to be. There really ought to be more movies like Alien. It's only when you watch a film like this that you realize just how pathetic most other offerings really are.
 
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