• U.S.

Cinema: Sell Job

4 minute read
Frank Rich


Directed by Ridley Scott Screenplay by Dan O’Bannon

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 ma ipulative 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.

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