Alien (1979) – A Science Fiction Movie Review

I watched the movie Alien today for the first time since I saw it back in 1979.  Some things surprised me about the movie but the general impression is much as I remember it.  Luckily, the most annoying thing about the movie as I remembered it, the wildly varying sound levels used as a weapon against those with intact ear drums, was under my direct control thanks to the volume button.

I won’t give a detailed synopsis since everyone knows the plot.  I’ll describe it as follows.  An Earth space ship, the Nostromo, is travelling to Earth with a large cargo of ore.  The crew is awakened to investigate a message beacon coming from a nearby planetoid.  On it they find an ancient space ship with a long dead creature that seems to have died when something exploded out of its chest.  They discover a chamber that contains what look like eggs.  One of the eggs opens up and a crab-like creature smashes through the spacesuit helmet of one of the crew (played by John Hurt) and attaches itself to his face.  Later on, back at the ship the creature detaches from the crewman’s face and wanders off to die.  The crewman is seemingly unharmed but a few hours later a small somewhat humanoid creature erupts out of the crewman’s chest killing him.  The creature which is about a foot tall runs off into the ship and the crew goes on a search to find it and throw it out into space.

Somehow the creature increases in size until it’s about seven feet tall and spends the rest of the movie killing off the rest of the crew.  Finally, the only one left is Warrant Officer Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver.  She sets the Nostromo to self-destruct and escapes on a shuttle craft.  But, of course, the alien is on the shuttle so she has to sneak into her space suit, open the air lock and shoot the alien with a grappling gun to push it out into space.  It manages to grab onto the engine so she ignites it thus ejecting the charcoal broiled alien into interstellar space.

The movie is a mixed bag.  The sets on the planetoid and the exterior shots of the Nostromo are beautifully done.  The interior shots of the Nostromo for the most part succeed in portraying a futuristic but gritty industrial environment.  I guess a combination of a tramp steamer and a star ship.  But one of the worst features of the movie is intentional.  Apparently, the designers and constructors of the ship ran out of light switches.  The whole movie takes place in the absence of light.  You can’t see a thing.  Sure, every once in a while, the monster’s jaws and its inner jaws start opening up and monster drool drips out but you never get to see the damned thing doing anything other than that.  And there’s a very good reason for that.  When all is said and done and all the marvelous CGI shots of the planetoid and the Nostromo are taken into account it’s still a movie with a guy in a rubber suit.  And that’s just not going to cut it.  So, most of the movie is just the crew running around in the dark waiting to scream when the monster bites them or injects them with an egg or whatever the hell it’s supposed to be doing when it catches them.

The actors do a creditable job with what they’re given.  In fact, most of them seem quite interesting and I wouldn’t mind watching a prequel where we see them interact while performing their duties as the crew of an interstellar ore freighter.  I’ll bet they could make such a movie fun and interesting with all kinds of adventures and sights.  But as monster fodder it’s a sort of limited palette.  Look left, look right, oops he’s behind you.  Look all around you, uh oh he’s hiding on the ceiling.  What this movie needed was a few Maglite flashlights.  Then they not only would have seen the monster but also beat it to death with the generous heft of the Maglite ML300L LED 6-Cell D Flashlight.

There was one really scary scene.  When Ripley escapes the Nostromo in the shuttle, before she discovers that the alien is in with her, she strips down to her skimpy underwear before entering the hibernation chamber.  And for the most part she seemed admirably contoured for a young woman thus attired but then she turned away from the camera and I discovered with horror that her butt was missing.  Instead of gluteus maximus she seemed to be suffering from a case of gluteus minimus.  What could have happened to her?  Did she lose her butt in some kind of industrial accident?  Did she donate it to someone else in the very rarely mentioned butt transplant surgery?  We may never know.  I still haven’t completely recovered from the shock.

Suffice it to say I have a mixed opinion on this movie.  If you think you could enjoy a poorly lit game of hide and seek with an interstellar menace then go for it.  You will see some nice visuals.  But watch out for Sigourney Weaver’s butt.  It’s truly shocking.

A Man for All Seasons (1966) – A Movie Review

This movie is the adaption of Robert Bolt’s play of the same name.  It is the story of Sir Thomas More.  He was a politician and a scholar who lived during the reign of King Henry the Eighth of England.  But most of all he was a principled and deeply religious man.  Being a personal friend of the King, he rose to the rank of Lord Chancellor but when Henry desired to divorce Katherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn it put him on a collision course with the Pope.  And when Henry declared himself the Head of the Christian church in England, Thomas More had to resign from his office.  But the powerful and unscrupulous Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s chief minister, conspires to use More’s piety as a means of destroying him and ultimately have him executed.

And that is the plot of the movie.  Thomas More uses his considerable intelligence to walk the tight rope between maintaining his loyalty to the King and honoring his religious convictions.  But slowly and inexorably Cromwell cuts through that rope.

The movie is excellent.  The dialog is wonderful and intelligent.  The cast is great.  Cameos by Orson Welles as Cardinal Wolsey and Robert Shaw as Henry the Eighth are memorable but the main actors are Paul Scofield as Thomas More, Wendy Hiller as his wife Alice, Susannah York as his daughter Margaret and Leo McKern as the villainous Thomas Cromwell.  And there are other strong performances.  John Hurt plays the traitorous Richard Rich and Nigel Davenport is the colorful Duke of Norfolk.

The movie won the academy awards among others for Best Movie, Best Director and Best Actor for Paul Scofield.  And I think it deserved all of that.  I will caution the reader that I do enjoy theater and this is undoubtedly a play adapted for cinema.  It’s all about the dialog and the relationships of the principal character to the others.  And it is a tour de force for Scofield.  If you dislike plays this may not be for you.  But for me this is great storytelling.  The humanity and the intelligence of Thomas More are on full display.  I literally can’t say enough good things about this movie.

Highly recommended.

Shakespeare in Film – Part 11 – King Lear – Olivier’s 1983 Version

King Lear is a very strange play to watch.  All of the virtuous characters are banished, disowned or fugitives from justice while all the rest of the characters that aren’t out and out villains are seriously flawed and unable to distinguish good from evil.  There is a continuous downward spiral as the evil characters consolidate their positions and everyone else including the hapless Lear ricochet from one disaster to the next.

I first saw this play back in the 1970s as a Shakespeare in the Park presentation in Central Park with James Earl Jones as Lear.  Some extremely timely thunderstorm activity by Mother Nature made for an exciting performance and I have enjoyed the play since.  But I will admit that the Storm scene is extremely odd to sit through.  Even the actors seem to be slightly at a loss as to how they are supposed to relate to each other during this weird act.

The 1983 version of King Lear starring Laurence Olivier is a British Television production and it is done on a television sound stage and it has the look of a sound stage made to look like a theater stage.  That is not to say that it is badly filmed but rather that it does not have the production values that the budget of a major Hollywood movie can allow.

The cast in addition to Olivier includes some well-known faces.  Lear’s Fool is played by John Hurt.  Leo McKern, who American audiences might know from the British import television series “Rumpole of the Bailey” plays Gloucester.  And if you’re old enough to remember the 1960s spy series “The Avengers” then you would remember Diana Rigg who here plays one of Lear’s evil daughters (Regan).  The rest of the cast is unknown to me but overall, the acting is reasonably good.

In my opinion, you watch this version for Olivier and to a lesser degree John Hurt.  They provide the stand out performances that elevate this above an average television version.  It is sad to see how frail Olivier is here.  He was 75 years old at the time and in extremely poor health.  This was his last attempt at Shakespeare.  But he gives the lines their due.  He allows Lear to make sense to an audience struggling with this bizarre set of characters and circumstances.  He was still a great actor even here at the end of his life.  That is not to say that the performance was perfect, although I believe it had more to do with technical problems of a television production.  During the Storm scene Lear’s voice is difficult to understand over the wind and rain noises.  If the video has captioning then this will not be as big a problem.  Also, some of the staging is a little odd to me.  The torches that were used during some of the scenes look very odd and I assume this was a limitation of the television cameras used to capture the action.

Overall, this is not a masterpiece like Olivier’s Hamlet or even a slick commercial production like Henry V that had a robust budget and a great supporting cast.  This is a modest production with a mixture of greater and lesser talent.  But it is your only chance to see Laurence Olivier as King Lear.  If that interests you then you should see it if it is available to you from whatever source you obtain your movies.