Alien is, along with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and George Lucas’ Star Wars, a science-fiction landmark; the rod by which all subsequent sci-fi horror movies (and subsequent Alien sequels) are measured. It’s funny to think that, as a landmark film, its critical reception upon release was not as positive as those gushed upon it by modern media and fans. In fact, critical response was quite mixed. Here are some of the best of the worst reviews.
“An overblown B-movie… technically impressive but awfully portentous and as difficult to sit through as a Black Mass sung in Latin … Alien, like Dawn of the Dead, only scares you away from the movies.”
Michael Sragow, L.A. Herald Examiner.
“It would be very convincing to say that there’s no hope for movies – that audiences have been so corrupted by television and have become so jaded that all they want are noisy thrills and dumb jokes and images that move along in an undemanding way, so they can sit and react at the simplest motor level. And there’s plenty of evidence, such as the success of Alien. This was a haunted-house-with-gorilla picture set in outer space. It reached out, grabbed you, and squeezed your stomach; it was more gripping than entertaining, but a lot of people didn’t mind. They thought it was terrific, because at least they’d felt something: they’d been brutalized. It was like an entertainment contrived in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World by the Professor of Feelies in the College of Emotional Engineering.”
“Occasionally one sees a film that uses the emotional resources of movies with such utter cynicism that one feels sickened by the medium itself. Alien … is so ‘effective’ it has practically turned me off movies altogether … The movie is terrifying, but not in a way that is remotely enjoyable.”
David Denby, New York.
“There is very little involvement with the characters themselves … A generally good cast in cardboard roles.”
“An empty-headed horror movie with nothing to recommend it beyond the disco-inspired art direction and some handsome, if gimmicky, cinematography.”
Dave Kehr, Chicago Reader.
“Has the usual number of inconsistencies, improbabilities and outright absurdities characteristic of the sci-fi and horror genres. What is interesting, though, is its hostile critical reception, despite the excellent visual values, direction that is no more hokey than usual in such films, dialogue that (when it is decipherable) is par for the course, and acting that is generally superior. What earmarks Alien as a probable audience hit and certifiable critical flop is merely that the horror is more horrible than usual.”
“Just another bloodthirsty shocker, albeit with a classier production than most, and with an army of interesting special effects.”
“A horrid film, skillful and studied in its nastiness, and there is little the cast can do to mitigate its manipulative horror … those with the stomach for indulgent nastiness may go and gibber.”
“[An] empty bag of tricks whose production values and expensive trickery can not disguise imaginative poverty.”
Time Out [This negative review does not appear in the Time Out film guides and has been replaced with a kinder one.]
“A sort of inverse relationship to The Thing invites unfavourable comparisons.”
Sight and Sound.
“Space-age horror film reverts to 1950’s formula story, but adds stomach-churning violence, slime, and shocks. Still, this is some people’s idea of a good time.”
And here, for you perusal, are two full-length reviews, one from TIME and one from Vincent Canby at The New York Times.
“Alien may prove to be Hollywood’s most efficient moneymaking machine of the summer. Technically slick and commercially singleminded, this film attempts to crossbreed the scare tactics of Jaws with the sci-fi hardware of Star Wars. The result is a cinematic bastard, and a pretty mean bastard at that. Alien contains a couple of genuine jolts, a barrage of convincing special effects and enough gore to gross out children of all ages. What is missing is wit, imagination and the vaguest hint of human feeling. Luckily for Alien‘s creators, such ingredients are not really essential at the nation’s box offices, especially during the sunstroke season.
Still, it is depressing to watch an expensive, crafty movie that never soars beyond its cold desire to score the big bucks. Unlike Jaws, Alien does not use stylistic cunning to excite the audience; it just shovels on the mayhem. Unlike Star Wars, Alien has no affection for past movies of its genre; it just rips them off. Stripped of its futuristic setting and pretensions, this film is an oldtime B monster picture. Alien might just as well be about a huge scorpion loose in a haunted house, circa 1953. While the murder sequences are executed with all the realism money can currently buy, the innocence that ignited vintage horror films is missing. Alien‘s steely, literal-minded approach to violence more often recalls last summer’s joyless Jaws 2.
The premise is slender. Because of farfetched plot developments, a crew of seven earthlings lets an alien invade its spaceship as it returns home from a routine interstellar mission. The toothy alien is no fun: his ever changing appearance summons up everyone’s worst fantasies about shellfish, and his sole aim is to devour each of the crew members. Once this narrative pattern is established, the only suspense involves the question of who will be eaten next. Since the movie’s generally good actors [among them Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto, John Hurt, Harry Dean Stanton, Sigourney Weaver] all play equally bland technicians, it is hard to make an emotional investment in the alien’s pecking order. Indeed, the film’s characters are so lifeless that one begins to wonder whether they might not be parodies of space-age bureaucrats. If so, the satire is far too flat to be its own reward.
The bloodletting scenes aside, Director Ridley Scott [The Duellists] settles for mere competence or even less. He signposts plot developments; the meanderings of the ship’s pet cat too often precede the alien’s attacks. Scott’s allusions to other hit movies do not reflect well on his own. Alien features an all-knowing computer called Mother that is no match in humor or malevolence for Hal in 2001. Though the spaceship’s interior recalls both 2001 and Star Wars, the audience never learns enough about its array of gadgetry or the overall layout of its various chambers. Alien, like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, also features some nasty extraterrestrial pods, but there is no social commentary beyond the usual warning against the evils of heartless technology.
The movie is more a symptom of that technology than an antidote. Scott knows how to push the buttons that make the audience squirm, but he achieves nothing that could not be accomplished equally well by sending electric shocks through a theater’s seats. This same manipulative technique was apparent in another recent hit, Alan Parker’s blood-lusting Midnight Express, and it is no surprise that the directors of both films got their training in TV commercials. Scott and Parker know too well that if you sell consumers a shiny package, few will question the value of the product inside.”
More from The New York Times:
“A GIGANTIC construction moves serenely through space where, though the night never ends, there’s always enough light to see strange objects. This one looks like the main set of D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance. It’s as if Babylon had been cut loose from earth to sail back through space to its own time. In actual fact, it’s the cargo-ship Nostromo on its return to earth at the end of an extended voyage to the far end of the galaxy. When we go inside, the ship appears to have been as suddenly deserted as the Marie Celeste. We wander down empty corridors into abandoned living quarters, into engine rooms and, finally, into the command room where the computers are the only signs of life. The interior of the ship is vast. It contains the kind of waste space one seldom sees anymore except in some rare old Manhattan pile like the Dakota. Something decidedly eerie is going on. Thus —familiarly but with immense promise— begins Alien, Ridley Scott’s new, elaborately produced science-fiction film that opens today at the Criterion and other theaters. However, as this voyage continues, familiarity consumes the promise and leaves as residue the memory of some shrieks from shocks of a most mundane kind. The crew of the Nostromo have not vanished. They are merely sleeping the time away and, shortly after the opening credits, they come forth from their sleep-pods to prepare for their re-entry into the earth’s orbit. It’s then that they encounter peculiar signals from the wreck of another space ship, one from another galaxy and one which has crashed onto an uncharted planetoid. The Nostromo stops to investigate, locates the craft and, when it takes off again for earth, it carries aboard a specimen of alien life, a small, octopus-like blob that won’t stop growing and —possibly worse— is “unclouded by conscience or delusions of morality.” That’s about all one should or can say about the story originally conceived by Dan O’Bannon and turned into a screenplay by him and Ronald Shusett.
Alien is an extremely small, rather decent movie of its modest kind, set inside a large, extremely fancy physical production. Don’t race to it expecting the wit of Star Wars or the metaphysical pretentions of 2001 and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. At its best it recalls The Thing, though the Howard Hawks film was both more imaginatively and more economically dramatized. It’s an old-fashioned scare movie about something that is not only implacably evil but prone to jumping out at you when (the movie hopes) you least expect it. There was once a time when this sort of thing was set in an old dark house, on a moor, in a thunderstorm. Being trendy, Mr. Scott and his associates have sent it up in space. As he demonstrated with The Duellists, his first feature, Mr. Scott is a very stylish director. Though Alien is not the seminal science-fiction film one wants from him, it’s executed with a good deal of no-nonsense verve. The members of the small cast are uniformly good though, with two exceptions, the roles might have been written by a computer. Sigourney Weaver is impressive and funny as the Nostromo’s executive officer, the second in command, a young woman who manages to act tough, efficient and sexy all at the same time. Ian Holm is also excellent as the ship’s science officer, a man with a secret that will set him apart from everyone else forever. Other members of the crew are played by Tom Skerritt, Harry Dean Stanton, Yaphet Kotto and Veronica Cartwright, the actress who was so good in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. She plays a somewhat similar role here, one that requires her to weep a lot and leaves her so red-eyed and red-nosed that she may be in danger of becoming the Isable Jewell of the living-color space-age.
Alien‘s sets and special effects are well done, but these things no longer surprise or tantalize us as they once did. In a very short time, science-fiction films have developed their own jargon that’s now become a part of the grammar of film. You know the sort of stuff I mean — the shots of blinking instrument panels, of wildly bleeping computers, of cryptic messages clattering in square type-faces across television screens. There’s also the obligatory shot of that huge space vehicle early on in every film. It appears from over our right shoulder, passes over our head and then proceeds slowly and majestically toward the far distance at screen-left. When I first saw it in 2001, it was awesome. Now it makes me feel like a turtle on a busy though unnaturally quiet highway.”