Okay, fine, so you and everyone else saw Alien years ago. I only saw it for the first time this week.
I’ve never been into science fiction. For one thing, in bookshops sci-fi gets lumped in with ‘fantasy’, which seems to define itself rather narrowly as “slaying dragons with a magic locket while leering at a scantily-clad Amazonian” rather than, say, “winning Olympic gold”, “finding your true love” or “owning your own home”. This can be off-putting — no one wants to slum it with the geeks.
Also, a lot of the time I simply can’t understand what’s going on.
Recently, though, I had the flashing insight that perhaps not all science fiction is fantastical adolescent gibberish. Maybe, I dared to dream, some of it features realistic people doing recognisable things in readable or even good English.
So I got myself a handsome edition of H.G. Wells’s most famous novels and read The War of the Worlds — and I enjoyed it. Whatever about no one believing that Martians were watching us, I could hardly believe that a science fiction novel could be so gripping and well-written.
Print sci-fi duly mastered, I’ve also decided to catch up on classic sci-fi films. The original Invasion of the Body Snatchers was a quaint and enjoyable start, and now I’ve seen the first of Alien.
The slaying of dragons is there if you look for it. There’s also time for a quick bit of leering at Amazonians, viz. two justly notorious shots of Sigourney Weaver in her underwear. That said, and to be fair to director Ridley Scott, Alien is a lot more progressive than many other big-budget films of the time. The female and black characters are assertive and capable, aren’t the first to die, and at the time it must have been a novel twist that it’s Weaver who turns out to be the film’s action hero(ine).
One of Alien’s other big surprises — John Hurt’s tummy bug — is now a famous pop-culture reference point. (It’s early enough in the film for it not to be a “spoiler”.) And as you’ve already seen Alien long before I did, you know the rest of the film too. The jaded crew of a dilapidated ship respond to a mysterious S.O.S. signal, and before you can say “No, John Hurt, don’t go in there!” people are seeing their own intestines dripping down the walls. It must be stopped! But how?
There was one other doozy of a twist, about halfway in, that I wasn’t aware of beforehand. It worked a treat on me, and Scott does great work in steadily ratcheting up the tension with a revelation here and a peril there. Alien is as much a horror film as a science fiction film. It helps that Alien has a terrific cast: Weaver, Hurt, Yaphet Kotto, Ian Holm and Harry Dean Stanton are pretty much your cult-movie dream team.
Though I liked Alien a lot, that’s probably enough sci-fi for me for the moment. I’m not too pushed about watching the sequels; I presume they’re all about the cat.