by Jack Sommersby
Boy, that cover art from the movie poster sill kicks ass!
Thirty-one years later, it's still a vital entry in its author's very successful career.
Usually movie tie-ins are contemptible because they strive for nothing other than to milk the cash cow with very little in the way of actual artistic ambition. Unlike adapting a novel to a screenplay, a tie-in can pretty much just rehash the entire screenplay with just a few added ingredients for undemanding readers as opposed to the former where certain considerations have to be pondered to make the story truly cinematic in both visual and aural terms. Luckily, Alan Dean Foster's Alien, from the 1979 sci-fi/horror masterpiece from director Ridley Scott, is one of the few exceptions, which really shouldn't come as too much of a surprise being that Foster, whose other tie-ins include The Black Hole and Outland, always manages to deliver quality product. Of course, he's at quite the advantage in that the film's story is irresistibly enticing and just plain scary in the most primal sense of the word.
The deep-space towing vehicle Nostromo is returning to Earth after a long voyage carrying millions of tons of mineral ore from a faraway planet. The crew of seven are in hypersleep until they're prematurely awakened by Mother, the ship's supercomputer; it's intercepted a transmission of unknown origin from an uncharted nearby planetoid. And what a strange transmission it is! It's a "voice" of some sort and sounds absolutely bone-chilling. Most of the crew want nothing to do with it -- they're only halfway home and are eager to return to get their hands on their hefty paychecks -- but they're contractually bound by their employer, the Company, to investigate or risk losing all monies. There's Dallas the captain, Kane the second officer, Ripley the warrant officer, astrologer Lambert, scientist Ash, and engineers Parker and his trusty sidekick Brett. None of these characters are particularly glamorous or dramatically deep, which is perfectly fine given the subgenre.
The landing turns out to be a rough one and results in a considerable amount of damage to the ship. While it's being repaired, three of the crew venture outside to an incredibly harsh atmosphere (high winds blowing blindingly dense clouds of dirt severely limiting the depth of vision) in search of the source of transmission; and when they do locate it they're floored by the sight of a gigantic alien ship; and it's far from conventional -- as Dallas observes "it conveys the impression of having been grown rather than manufactured." They explore inside and find it deserted (the signal was being transmitted from an electrostatic device that'd probably been sending it out for centuries), but Kane, ever the adventurer, opts to be lowered into the bottom level; there he encounters some strange egg-looking objects that are surprisingly shiny and translucent given their age and the ultra-cold temperature of the world.
Suffice to say, curiosity most definitely gets the better of the cat when a hand-skeleton creature bursts from an egg, attaches itself to Kane's helmet, melts the faceplate, and securely fastens itself onto him. Brought back alive onboard though against specific company procedure (the twenty-four-hour space quarantine law is ignored by Ash to the chagrin of Ripley), the attempts to remove it from Kane prove unsuccessful, especially when a laser is used and a molecular-acid-like substance spills out of the creature and eats through two layers of the ship. Eventually the creature, which Ash describes as the "toughest chunk of organic material" he's ever seen and can quickly regenerate so any defensive wounds can heal fast, comes loose and dies. Kane regains consciousness after the ship lifts off but soon thereafter is horrifically killed when a baby alien bursts from his stomach. It escapes, grows to man-size, and proceeds to knock off the crew one by one.
As is clearly obvious, Alien doesn't exactly boast the most original story. It's basically a haunted-house tale set in outer space with a dastardly monster that doesn't have so much as a kind (bone?) in its virtually-indestructible body. But what's wrong with a familiar story with a familiar structure when it's been proven to work in the past and can still provide ample groundwork for an artist with ample imagination? Some of the fun is not knowing what form the creature will take, and its acid-defense puts the crew in quite the pickle in that they can't try to messily kill it or its "blood" could eat through life-sustaining circuitry and wires not to mention breaching the hull of the ship. Their best plan is to drive it into the main airlock and eject it, but they're unable to anticipate its rapid growth and growing cunning -- it's avoiding detection by traveling through the air ducts. And then another obstacle is thrown in: the crew has only a week's worth of oxygen left to deal with it -- most of their time was supposed to be spent in hypersleep.
Foster certainly couldn't be accused of eloquence all throughout his prose in that it's very direct and lithe, which is perfect for a story that, when it really gets under way, leaves not a lot whole lot of comfort zones and breathing rooms for neither the characters nor the reader to take much refuge in. But when it's called for this talented author can whip out good descriptions like there's no tomorrow:
"In all that shrouded land there was not a single warm color. Not a blue, not a green; only a steady seepage of yellow, sad orange, tired browns and grays. Nothing to warm the mind's eye. The atmosphere was the color of a failed chemistry experiment."
"Whatever metal the hull was composed of, it glistened in the increasing light in an oddly vitreous way that hinted at no alloy ever formed by the hand of man."
And a lot of the time, Foster doesn't single-space his paragraphs when the scenes change -- like in the movies, they go from one to the other without anything in between, which keeps the pace going at a breakneck speed. But he also knows when not to uncouthly rush certain things: he allows the nerve-jangling situation the crew finds themselves in to effectively sink in; and so the characters don't come off as incompetent fools, they're given the appropriate time to mull over all their available options in dispatching a truly feral killing machine. You can practically smell their sweat and hone in on their ultra-heightened anxieties when those options are particularly limited on a very plausible level. Just how do you combat a creature that's human-size and is swift and powerful enough that you can't go at with laser guns in that there's no telling if it has a vulnerable spot and that even if there were it can regenerate but not before spilling enough blood to detrimentally destroy the ship?
Adding to this doom-laden aura is the frustrating ineptness of Mother to devise much of an offensive plan in dealing with an evil, conscienceless creature that keeps demonstrating an acute resourcefulness right when the crew thinks they've finally got the upper hand. In a nifty paradox, the crew have been largely relying on technology during their voyage yet, in a neat plot turn later down the line, technology winds up turning on them due to their conglomerate employer not quite having their best interests at heart. (In our country of today, Foster would be accused of being a liberal harboring "anti-business" sentiments.) And the author does something else cannily right: though the previous stages of the creature and its design are very detailed, when it comes to its adult stage much of it is left to our imagination; this also helps place us even further amid the crew's plight which makes the following even more eerie:
"In several minds, the initial thought of 'Where has the alien gone?' was beginning to be replaced by ticking little thoughts like 'What is the alien doing?'"
Oh, there are some quibbles. Even taking into account its futuristic setting, how the alien transmission could be translated by Company experts being that this species had never been encountered before is dubious. The space jockey, one of the very best things about the film, is disappointingly omitted. And the conclusion, which comes down to the last crew member battling the creature in an escape shuttle, is both rushed and weak, as if Foster were about to run out of ink in his typewriter and just dashed off the first thing that came to mind. But there are so many wonderful passages that these demerits aren't likely to stick in the reader's craw. The sequence of Dallas crawling though a narrow air shaft after the alien has been wrung for maximum suspense. The small hints at a crew member's true identity are well milked and gracefully foreshadowed. And Ripley's gathering strength is palpable. This is the kind of novel that effortlessly grips you from the onset and never lets up because Foster is an expert at rendering you apprehensively rattled yet begging for more. Now that's a rollicking entertainment.
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originally posted: 09/21/10 14:01:10
last updated: 07/18/14 11:30:52