Viking Night: Alien
By Bruce Hall
February 1, 2017
In honor of the recently passed John Hurt, I’d like to take a moment to talk about the opening moments of 1979’s Alien. That’s the Ridley Scott masterpiece that kicked off a once glorious film franchise. Today, sadly, that franchise is best known for redefining what it means to “jump the shark.” And please understand that when I say “shark,” I am referring to a Jurassic Park class of hell-beast roughly the size of a navy destroyer. The Alien franchise has indeed fallen on hard times, but it all began with one shot.
There are three parallel lines, an innovative title card, a noble gas giant, and a massive spacecraft lumbering through space. Jerry Goldsmith’s score faintly fills the background, like the sound of falling snowflakes. The ship is the deep space mining ship Nostromo, and her crew is in hypersleep. The camera continues its journey, drifting like a butterfly through the darkened corridors we know that, in half an hour, will be spattered with blood. Passing through the bridge, the ship receives an emergency message, which wakes the crew from hypersleep. So our butterfly enters the now-lit crew compartment, where the crew’s sleep pods majestically open.
And as the they do, the camera comes to center smack dab on John Hurt’s junk. I’d never noticed that before but now, as I reflected upon the man’s career, I realized how fundamentally great he truly was. He will be missed.
Meanwhile, in space, the crew of the Nostromo quickly realize they’ve been awakened well before arrival on earth, and they’re kind of pissed. Kane (John Hurt) is the Nostromo’s chain smoking first officer. Running the ship is Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt), who seems like the cool big brother we all wish we had (except for my younger siblings, they’re perfectly happy). Rounding out the roster are Chief Engineer Parker (Yaphet Kotto), navigator Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), science officer Ash (Ian Holm), Parker’s assistant Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) and warrant officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), who is third in command.
I bother to name them all because for the most part, Alien does a good job of establishing them as individuals very early on. We’ve got one vicious extraterrestrial killing machine, seven potential victims, and 117 minutes to murder them all. That doesn’t leave much room for character development, but Alien isn’t a slasher film, it’s a serious drama. For that to work, the characters need to grow on you to some degree, and for the most part, they do. These are hard working, blue collar stiffs who get paid well to do a dangerous job, and when the ship’s computer reports receiving a possible intelligent alien message, nobody’s interested in investigating.
Unfortunately, the crew of the Nostromo are (according to Ash) contractually obliged to do just that. Doesn’t sound like a big deal, unless you’re the one suffering from chronic back pain and itching to get back home and blow your bonus money in Space Vegas (I envision it orbiting the moon). I suppose by now, everyone reading this already knows that the crew of the Nostromo pick up a very nasty passenger on their visit planetside. Obviously; it’s the whole premise of the film. And even if you have never seen this film, you have it to thank for the Dark, Moist and Gritty genre of science fiction. The set, costume and overall art design on Alien were groundbreaking, not to mention that iconic, acid-spewing title character.