In sharp contrast to the reviews and retrospectives of today, the critical reaction towards Alien upon its release in 1979 was somewhat mixed. “Alien is a very annoying film,” is how Starburst writer John Brosnan began his review in issue #14. “On one level it is a masterpiece and on another it’s a botched job.”
Brosnan’s points of contention were the plot’s similarity to manifold B-movies of the 50’s and 60’s; the complete overshadowing of the cast by the sets and effects; and its lack of scientific rigour. The difference between this and It! The Terror from Beyond Space was, in his estimation, merely “ten million dollars.” Despite the sheen, it was simply “a 1950’s B film” with “all the faults of that specific genre.”
“You could put the world’s worst actors in Alien and the result would be much the same.”
Brosnan, who had read an early version of the script that described the Alien as a bioweapon manufactured by the Company, was left confused by the changes and omissions the plot had undergone throughout production. All in all, this left the impression of a plot “so full of holes it completely collapses once you start thinking about it.” The deletion of the cocoon scene and the obfuscation of the Company and Alien’s purposes left him confused. The lack of scientific accuracy also irked him, leaving him to comment, “It seems that all the pioneering work done by Stanley Kubrick in making a space film, 2001, that was scientifically accurate, has been forgotten by today’s new filmmakers.” It was, to him, “the equivalent of someone making a Western, set in 1850, which shows all the cowboys driving around on motor bikes.”
He had praise, of course, but strictly for the film’s visual design, Alien creature, and horror elements – suspense, scares, etc. Still, sci-fi fans responded in droves – Starburst issue #17’s letter pages were full of readers’ thoughts, repudiations, corrections, concerns, and even in some cases, agreement.
So, here are the transcribed reckonings of some British viewers on Alien shortly after its release in 1979:
“Having just returned from seeing Alien I read your review in Starburst #14 and I would like to make a few comments myself.
The impression I got was that the Alien was a natural, rather than a company-created, creature. I believe the crashed alien ship was a victim of the Alien. The skeleton in this ship had a hole in the chest, suggesting it died in the same way as Kane. The distress call was later decoded by Mother, Nostromo’s computer, and found to be a warning, presumably left by the dead creature. How the Company knew of these events and what they wanted The Alien for is beyond me.
I agree with your comments about the omission of the scene where Ripley destroys the cocooned Brett and Dallas. Indeed I am grateful to learn, through your review, what The Alien was doing with the bodies.
In regard to the scientific inaccuracies mentioned, there has to be some sort of sound when space action is taking place, to hold the audience’s attention. It might as well be the sound of a rocket engine as Thus Spake Zarathustra in 2001. The presence of gravity, like the presence of sound is a piece of necessary artistic license. By the way there was a reference to the ship’s artificial gravity being switched on just after the Nostromo has left the planet’s surface.”
Gordon Steele, Slyne, Lancs.
“While I broadly agree with John Brosnan’s remarks on Alien, and am grateful for the information about the original concept of the Alien as a genetic experiment by the company (a good sf premise), I must take issue on a couple of points.
Firstly, he remarks about sounds being heard, and shock waves being felt, in space. Yes, I know sound and explosions are silent and wave-less in the vacuum of space, but consider the cinematic effect of a silent soundtrack as the ‘Nostromo’ flies over your head. Much of the impact of the ship’s size as it thunders above you derives from the loud Dolby soundtrack which almost literally shakes you in your seat (Some of this impact is going to be lost in smaller theatres, I know.)
All the sounds you hear, ship’s engines firing, Kane’s body being ejected, etc come under the (valid) excuse of cinematic licence. It’s all very well for sf buffs (and I count myself in that category) to point out such scientific accuracies, but science fiction has got to make some compromises for cinematic success, at least in the popular cinema. (Face facts again, 20th Century Fox wouldn’t have put up the vast amounts of money for the film if they didn’t think it was going to be a popular success, would they? And without that money, we wouldn’t have had effects that are largely successful, highly atmospheric sets, good acting, excellent directing, etc…)
Secondly, and this is a minor point, Mr Brosnan remarks that there is no mention of artificial gravity to account for the ‘normalcy’ of life aboard the ship in space… well there is! If he cares to cast his mind back to the point where the ‘Nostromo’ re-enters orbit after taking off from the planet, one of the crew (I think it’s Ripley, but I could be wrong) mentions something to the effect that ‘artificial gravity has been engaged’.
By and large, I agree with Mr Brosnan’s points that the missing ‘cocoon’ scene is a major plot flaw, and I think that any advantage that is gained in pacing the film is lost in the gap in the reasoning. Similarly, a lot of the scientific detail that Alan Dean Foster has provided in his novelisation would have slowed the film, but would have been welcome in terms of giving the film a more scientific credibility and ‘feel’.
However, unlike the novelisation, I think the editing style improves the story. The film has gaps, (like that in which Kane is hauled back out of the egg chamber and back to the ‘Nostromo’) which improves the effect on the audience. The scene in the film where Brett is captured by the adult form, is played out to greater effect than in the novel — even knowing myself what was to come, I found myself becoming increasingly nervous as this scene elapsed in the movie, and shocked (as well as fascinated) by the creature’s first appearance.
Another incident which voices the film as an improvement on the novel, is the Alien’s capture of Dallas in the ventilation system, which is one of the most brilliant moments of suspenseful cinema I have ever seen. The fact of seeing the creature in its entirety looming over the captain for a single split second is an unexpectedly shocking moment.
One final moment I must make in praise of the film is the point when Ripley backs into the shuttle craft and, through the strobe-lighting, sees the creature. Perhaps this is one of the points where (and here I agree with Brosnan again) we see rather too much of the creature, but in this instance at least, I feel the atmosphere carries it through.
Finally, I would like to say that, overall, the film is a big success. It is the closest I have yet seen sf translated to the big screen, and the most atmospheric production certainly. Its horrific elements work very well indeed (even though they’re not novel in any sense).”
Rob Frampton, Canterbury, Kent.
Some viewers saw the film’s contents as somewhat questionable in the larger scheme of things; namely, the prevalence of violence at the cinema:
“Good ole Alien is here at last! And it isn’t all bad! Everyone loves John Hurt’s death! And Ash’s last gasp! By Jove, yes!
And I confess, Ridley Scott has knocked together a fair dinkum hunk of celluloid. So let us pause…
Some would call it a return to the Middle Ages: this new wave of viscera meets a demand for ‘stronger stuff’ from a hardened audience; blood n’ guts is making a come-back. American tv audiences have seen an execution – by firing squad; most of us saw the horrifying murder of the American newsman in South America. But what really followed? We see a man shot in cold blood, and no one reacts; we say, ‘That’s awful!’ and try to ignore it. Yet faked death is ever-popular: and the more vicious and bloodier it is, the better we like it. Are we really immune to the suffering of our fellow man?
I think so. The Romans had The Amphitheatre; we have the cinema. The hideous contests which the Romans watched are now said to be decadent; but have you ever heard a Romero fan rave on? Phantasm’s silver ball, with its skull driller, is also popular; yet the effect is revolting. Cronenberg’s Shivers, Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, and Grau’s Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue contain scenes which could be called pornographic, if violence were as unpopular as sex in the cinema. Anyway, Lenny Bruce said all this before, in plain language, so I’ll call it a day.
My point (at last) is that something must be wrong with us if all we want to see is intestines hurtling all over the place. Will ‘bread and circuses’ be our last words?
No: but I don’t care that much either; otherwise, this would be a rational, intelligent, sophisticated letter.”
Simon Cunnington, London W6.
“John Brosnan’s review of Alien in issue 14 was up to his usual high standard, although I must disagree with him about the ‘scientific inaccuracies’ which the film contains. Mr Brosnan complains about hearing sounds in space, and about the lifeboat being buffeted by the shock-wave caused by the destruction of the ‘Nostromo’. While being scientifically inaccurate, I maintain that these are cinematically correct, as they are designed to heighten the audio-visual impact taking place on the screen.
Mr Brosnan also complains about the makers of the film ignoring the problem of lack of gravity in space, and comments, ‘there’s not even a mention of that old gimmick, artificial gravity’. In fact it is mentioned. When the Nostromo is lifting from the planetoid to rejoin the refinery, Captain Dallas instructs Ripley to engage artificial gravity – so there!
While on the subject of Alien – which I enjoyed very much, I would like to ask readers if I am the only one who felt in retrospect that I was missing something? By this I mean that I had the impression that though cleverly edited, I got the feeling that a lot of footage was excised at the final cut, and that some scenes, especially the ‘chestburster’, were toned down radically. Perhaps a case of the film’s backers getting cold feet at the last minute?
Scott McSkimming, East Kilbride, Scotland.