Alien (1979)

Alien won the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation in 1980 Unusually for that era, the voting stats have been preserved:

Looking at this in 2016, I commented:

The results for Best Dramatic Presentation include a couple of "What were they thinking?" moments.  Not as far as the winner goes – Alien is by most metrics not just the best known sf film from 1979, but the best known film of any genre from that year. It won by a good margin, 881 to 588, over a film I had not even heard of – Time After Time, starring Malcolm McDowell as H.G. Wells, David Warner as Jack the Ripper, and Mary Steenburgen as McDowell's twentieth-century love interest.  The first "What were they thinking?" moment is that this completely forgotten film, which came second overall, beat Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which came third, and The Muppet Movie, which came fourth.  This was also a rare pre-2015 success for No Award, which beat Disney's The Black Hole for fifth place.  (The second "What were they thinking?" moment applies to Disney for making The Black Hole at all.) Alien was way ahead in nominations with 234 for 196 for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, followed by Time After Time, The Black Hole, The Lathe of Heaven (ruled ineligible until the following year, when it came second to The Empire Strikes Back), and The Muppet Movie well in the rear with 28; the next in line was Moonraker with 20.

I got a certain amount of pushback for dismissing Time After Time, which on reflection I must admit reveals more about my own ignorance (which I should probably remedy) than the quality of the film. But Alien is a superb achievement, rated top of both rankings by IMDB users, and I'm putting it right at the top of my league table of Hugo and Nebula-winning films, ahead of 2001 which had the top spot up to now. Just in case you've been hiding under a rock from the scary thing for the last four decades, here's a trailer (which doesn't actually show the Alien).

To get the usual out of the way: none of the cast (who number only seven or eight) had appeared in any Hugo or Nebula-winning films. One cast member had had a speaking role in an Oscar-winning film, and he also went on to play a rather prominent role in Doctor Who. I am of course referring to John Hurt, who as Kane is the first to die at the hands of the Alien here; back in 1966, thirteen years ago, he betrayed Thomas More as Richard Rich in A Man for All Seasons, and in 2013, 34 years hence, he would appear as the forgotten incarnation of our favourite Time Lord, the War Doctor.

One other cast member appeared in a non-speaking role in an Oscar-winning film. Believe it or not, it's Sigourney Weaver, who is Woody Allen's last girlfriend chronologically in Annie Hall.

Well. For the first time in a Hugo-winning film, we have a black actor in a leading role (actually, two black actors counting Belaji Bodejo in the title part) and a woman protagonist – this is, after all, the film that originally and canonically passes the Bechdel test.

And we also have a film that looks utterly gorgeous and believable, thanks to the design of H.R. Giger, Chris Foss and Ron Cobb (who died only a few days ago). Like 2001, it won the Oscar for Best Special Effects. (Star Wars, two years before, won six Oscars as well as the Hugo, and Raiders of the Lost Ark two years later won four.)

After the slick glamour of Star Wars two years ago, this is the seedy underbelly of the future: cynical spacers who are themselves being exploited by capitalism, the computer calling itself Mother but really not on their side, and the Company openly declaring that the return of the alien is more important than the lives of the crew. The dynamic between the seven people who don't like each other but none the less have to work as a team is well observed. There isn't a weak performance among them. Perhaps the most chilling is Ian Holm, who I knew when I first watched it as the voice of Frodo in the BBC Lord of the Rings (and of course he ends up as Bilbo in the Jackson films, which we'll get to in due course). The moment when Ash's true nature is revealed, and the subsequent revival of his head, are exceptional.

And Sigourney Weaver, in her first major role and the youngest in the cast, is utterly convincing as the junior woman officer who the older men are not taking seriously, until it is too late. The final scene is almost unwatchably terrifying even if you've seen it several times before.

There isn’t a wasted moment in the entire film. It’s two hours of brilliance. I loved it. Just to finish with, here's the scene where Harry Dean Stanton's Brett goes looking for Jones the cat and finds something else.

That year’s Oscar winner was Kramer vs Kramer, which I have not seen and am not looking forward to nearly as much.

One thought on “Alien (1979)

Comments are closed.