For a long time, I considered Aliens (1986), the sequel to Alien (1979), better than its predecessor. There was more action, the characters were more fun, and James Cameron did a fine job expanding on and exploring the creature's life cycle, but strangely enough, I find myself drawn to Alien more as I get older. Maybe the "send in the marines to blast bugs" storyline grew old, maybe my tastes have changed, but I now prefer the original and will hold it up among the best of the genre.
The commercial spaceship Nostromo is hauling ore when its computer detects what seems to be an SOS signal and awakens its crew from cryogenic sleep. The crew -Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt), Lt. Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), Kane (John Hurt), Ash (John Hurt), Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and Bret (Harry Dean Stanton) - land on a nearby planet and discover a derelict alien spacecraft on the surface. Inside the ship, they find a chamber of bizarre, giant eggs that hatch a creature that attaches itself to Kane's face. After the creature dies and Kane seemingly recovers, the crew is ready to resume course when another being emerges in a most horrific manner. Now the crew must fight for their lives against a ruthless and dangerous enemy.
At its most basic level, Alien is a slasher movie set in space: a small group of people being stalked and killed by a seemingly indestructible being in an isolated setting. Unlike the glut of slasher movies that appeared in the 80s, Alien does not come off as hokey or cheap. Director Ridley Scott takes his time, building a methodical pace and establishing a futuristic, claustrophobic, and slightly Gothic atmosphere. The Nostromo feels like a real starship, the crew a real crew, and the planet an actual, desolate landscape. Most importantly, the alien feels like a real creature.
We only catch glimpses of the creature. Scott is content to leave in the shadows and mostly talked about by its prey and let us fill in the blanks with our imaginations. The creature changes form, growing, that it's nearly impossible to get a definitive understanding of it. It's all the more frightening because the characters spend so much trying to figure out exactly what it is they're dealing with, and the conversations about the alien -what it is, what it's capable of- are just as compelling as the stalking and killing scenes. Those conversations build up the alien presence and tighten the suspense. It's not just a monster; it's a monster that evolves and adapts unlike anything they've ever encountered, and it feels like a something that could actually exist in space. It's not just a plot device to pop out and go "Boo!"
But what really sets Alien apart from its imitators and copycats is its genuine sense of wonder and discovery. Many slasher movies follow what I like to think of as the "party plot" : throw a group of teenagers together where they can party, make out, do drugs, have sex, etc. with a killer occasionally breaking up the narrative-less monotony until we get to the final girl. Here, we follow the crew of the Nostromo as they encounter awe-inspiring sites (the spaceship, the space jockey) and are pulled in along with them on the journey.
It's impossible to discuss Alien with mentioning Ripley. As played by Weaver, Ripley became the series protagonist as the tough, take-charge woman of action. At this point, she's one in a group of survivors and struggling to comprehend and react to what's going on. While the performance would serve as a template for the series, I do believe Aliens contains the most interesting characterization because of the connections she develops with those character and the decisions she makes to confront the alien menace once again, knowing what they're capable of. Here, she's just trying to survive, but that's not to say she's not the Ripley we all recognize. She's just more straightforward and perhaps a little more innocent.
Alien gave us one of the coolest taglines ever: "In space, no one can hear you scream." In the sci-fi horror genre, nothing can top Alien. For any fan of science fiction or horror, Alien is required viewing material