ALIEN: IDIOT PLOT: A SPOILER-SATURATED SUMMARY OF ALIEN (1979)
by Jim Wallace
The classic SF/horror movie Alien (1979) features brilliant directing by Ridley Scott, Academy Award-winning visual effects, breathtaking designs by artists Ron Cobb, Chris Foss, H.R. Giger, and “Moebius,” and a star-making performance by Sigourney Weaver as well as strong ones by Yaphet Kotto, Veronica Cartwright, and Ian Holm. It’s at an A level in every way but one: its plot, which is that of a B movie. Its original writer, Dan O’Bannon, swiped from B-grade SF/horror movies such as It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958) and Planet of the Vampires (1965) and several SF stories; and it’s basically a slasher movie in which the alien monster is the homicidal maniac and Weaver’s character Ripley is the “final girl.” Slasher movies—actually, horror movies in general—tend to have “idiot plots,” plots that move forward via characters’ poor decisions. And defleshing Alien’s skeleton—its plot—reveals that the beautiful, evil seductress in fact has very poor bone structure:
Sometime in the future, a commercial space tug is towing a mile-long extraplanetary refinery processing mineral ore back to Earth when, only halfway there, it receives an alien transmission. So its crew of seven is prematurely wakened from cryosleep and, as per “a clause in the contract,” makes a detour to investigate it. The source of the signal is on a moon of a ringed planet, and when the space tug lands there (after leaving the refinery in orbit) it sustains some damage from the terrain and atmosphere. So the ship’s engineers (Parker and Brett), assisted by its warrant officer (Ripley), begin repairing it while its captain (Dallas), executive officer (Kane), and navigator (Lambert)—monitored by its science officer (Ash)—venture out in spacesuits. And then the fun begins …
Dallas, Kane, and Lambert discover that the transmission is emanating from an alien derelict spacecraft and enter it, which causes Ash to lose contact with them. Inside, they find the remains of its mammoth pilot, still in its seat and with a torn-open chest, and a nearby square opening in the floor leading into an indeterminably deep shaft. Through it, Kane, tethered to a winch on a tripod, is lowered into the bowels of the beastly, organic-looking ship. (After all, what could possibly go wrong?) At the bottom is a cavernous cargo hold with a section filled with hundreds of two-to-three-foot-high leathery eggs covered by a layer of blue artificial mist. After stumbling and falling past the mist and into the cache of eggs, Kane does what a stereotypical Florida man would do: he touches one of them and, after it then opens, looks directly down into it! A small creature springs out of the egg and, with acidic secretions, burns through the faceplate of his helmet to give him his Darwin Award.
Dallas and Lambert carry Kane on a stretcher back to their own spaceship, where, in spite of their vehement protests, Ripley refuses to let them out of the main airlock, citing “quarantine procedure: 24 hours for decontamination.” But Ash defies her authority—and the law—by opening the inner hatch. In the infirmary, Dallas and Ash discover that the creature is irremovably clamped onto the comatose Kane’s face, has a fleshy tube snaked deeply down his throat, and has an extremely corrosive acid as a bodily fluid that can immediately melt through the decks of the ship—and ignore Parker’s suggestion to “freeze him” in cryosleep. Later, Ash discovers that the alien “facehugger” is no longer on the still-comatose Kane—or anywhere to be seen. So he, Dallas, and Ripley search the infirmary without personal protective equipment (!) for the creature that dissolved its way through the faceplate of Kane’s spacesuit with its acid and couldn’t be removed from his face. And, as if that weren’t enough, only after a full minute does Science Officer Ash think to close the door behind them.
The facehugger’s carcass is found, Captain Dallas insists upon lifting off from the moon over Ripley’s objections that they’re “blind on B and C decks [and] the reserve power system’s blown,” and the space tug reconnects with the refinery and tows it back onto its original course. Parker again suggests that Kane be put into cryosleep, his suggestion is again ignored, and Kane comes out of his coma with no memory of what happened. He wants one last meal before going back into cryosleep, and while the crew is eating it the infant alien monster whose embryo had been implanted in him by the facehugger (or, rather, “facerapist”) bursts out of his upper abdomen and escapes into the ship. After Kane’s funeral (during which his body is jettisoned into space rather than preserved in cryosleep for a proper funeral back home), the crew splits into two three-member teams to hunt the alien.
Their harebrained plan is to find it with one of the motion trackers built by Ash (because the ship’s monitoring on B and C decks is still out), stun it with one of the electric prods built by Brett, catch it in a net, and jettison it out an airlock. The small alien moves quickly, which would make it hard to corner and catch, and secretes a highly destructive acid, which would make it dangerous to handle and hard to contain. So a viable plan would’ve been to—while wearing personal protective equipment, of course—spray it with an immobilizing sticky foam and an acid-neutralizing base, seal it in a container partially filled with that acid-neutralizing base (enough to neutralize all the acid in its then-small body), and jettison the container out an airlock. But this turns out to be a moot point when the team of Ripley, Parker, and Brett runs into the alien …
Brett, by far the dumbest of the crew of dummies, lets the ship’s cat go after they catch it by accident (which could allow it to be detected by accident again or harmed by the alien) and sets off alone to recapture it. Outside the ship’s fore landing claw chamber, he finds a skin shed by the infant alien. For some unfathomable reason, the chamber is open to the maintenance garage and thus pressurized, which would mean losing a great deal of air supply when it opens for the claw to descend. And it’s in there that Brett corners the cat … and the alien corners him. Somehow, it grew to be over seven feet tall in just a few hours and without eating anything (unless it broke into the ship’s food supplies or feeds on inorganic materials). Parker and Ripley, hearing Brett’s screams, rush in just in time to see him being lifted up into a cooling duct by the alien.
The alien is using the ship’s air ducts to move around in it, so Captain Dallas comes up with a plan to use flamethrowers built by Parker to try to drive it from those ducts into the main airlock, from which it can be expelled into space. Ripley and Ash are stationed at that airlock, Parker and Lambert cover the “one big opening” (in the lower level), and Dallas goes “into the vent” to hunt it. But when he’s at “the third junction,” Lambert’s motion tracker seems to malfunction after she determines the alien is “somewhere around” there and Dallas finds a small patch of slime on the floor, so he loses his nerve and decides to bail out. Unfortunately, instead of going back upward he moves downward against Lambert’s hysterical advisement and into the alien’s clutches. (And, of course, if he hadn’t disregarded Ripley’s objections that they’re still “blind on B and C decks,” they could’ve tracked the alien remotely and sealed it into a path to an airlock.)
Ripley, who’s now the highest-ranking officer, manfully takes command and insists they “proceed with Dallas’s plan [and] go step by step and cut off every bulkhead and every vent until [its] cornered and then [expel it] into space.” And after scolding Science Officer Ash for not having any other suggestions for neutralizing the alien threat, she accesses the ship’s mainframe computer and, with an emergency command override, learns about Special Order 937, for “Science Officer Eyes Only.” The corporation that employs them had already known about and deciphered the alien transmission before they departed for their return journey to Earth. And it replaced their former science officer with Ash and rerouted the ship so it would intercept the signal. Ash’s order was to ensure the return of a specimen of the organism with “all other considerations secondary,” including the survival of the other crew members.
This raises the question why the corporation didn’t just send a surveyor vessel to the source of the signal instead. Obviously it needed to get to the alien derelict before someone else intercepted the signal. Perhaps, the craft being beyond “the Outer Rim,” the towing vessel was by far the closest it had to the site. Another question is why Ash didn’t put Kane into cryosleep (as Parker suggested) or surgically remove and put into stasis the embryo implanted in his chest instead of allowing it to burst out and grow to adult size. Perhaps interstellar law mandates that any discovery of extraterrestrial lifeforms or artifacts must be reported to the proper authorities and prohibits the private acquisition of those extraterrestrial lifeforms or artifacts. So the ruthless, morally bankrupt corporation would consider the crew not only expendable but a liability.
(Yet another question is why the corporation is interested in only the “bioweapons” in the cargo hold of the alien derelict and not the derelict itself. Judging from the structure of the craft, it has a reactionless drive, which the corporation would surely want to reverse engineer.)
The Amazonian Ripley, after reading Special Order 937, grabs the diminutive Ash (who somehow managed to sneak into the private interface room after her without her hearing its pneumatic hatch open) by his shirt and slams him against the wall before storming out to tell Parker and Lambert. Looking oddly aroused, Ash cuts her off and, twitching and with a drop of semen-like fluid streaming down his left temple, knocks her semiconscious by throwing her into walls with surprising strength. Then, next to a wall decorated with pinups of nude girls, he tightly rolls up a magazine to try to force down her throat (as the alien facehugger/faceraper forced its phallic implantation tube down Kane’s throat). Ripley wakes just as the rigid paper phallus touches her lips. She struggles for her life while Ash spazzes as if he’s having an evil orgasm. Parker and Lambert run in and try to pull him off, and Ash claws Parker’s right pectoral in a homoerotic titty-twister. (WTF? Why didn’t he just choke Ripley by squeezing her throat and punch or choke Parker instead of getting all rapey and shit?)
Then Parker grabs a phallic symbol of his own, a metal canister, and uses it to whack Ash in the back of his neck, which causes him to spin, squeal, and spit out more semen-like fluid. Parker follows up with a blow to the side of his head, which causes it to come off, revealing the android-like Ash to be an actual android. After he’s incapacitated, Ripley sets him up on a table to ask him how to kill the alien. He tells them that they “can’t” because it’s a “perfect organism” whose “structural perfection is matched only by its hostility,” a “survivor, unclouded by … delusions of morality.” So Ripley unplugs him and decides that they’ll set the ship to self-destruct and escape in the shuttle. As they leave the room, Parker turns and wastes precious flamethrower fuel by incinerating Ash’s head.
Ripley tells Parker and Lambert to go down to the ship’s C deck to gather all the coolant they can carry for the shuttle’s air support system while she prepares the shuttle. Splitting up is a classic boneheaded move that horror movie characters, even the sensible “final girls” of slasher films, make. And the sensible Ripley also neglects to close the hatches behind her as she prepares the shuttle and then decides to go up to the ship’s bridge on its A deck to get the cat after hearing its meowing over the opened intercom system. Meanwhile, down below, Lambert makes as much of a racket as she possibly can collecting metal canisters of coolant. And then Parker stops standing guard (!) to instead also gather coolant, making even more of a racket! Not surprisingly, the alien soon appears behind Lambert …
Ripley, hearing over the intercom Parker yelling at Lambert to get out of the way, rushes to go help them. Parker won’t use his flamethrower on the alien because Lambert, frozen with terror, can’t bring herself to move out of the way. So, instead of throwing something at the alien to divert its attention to him, he grabs a hook used for hanging pressure suits (even though it would not only wound the monster no more than superficially but spill its extremely corrosive acid, which could eat through the hull beneath their feet) and charges at it Florida Man-style. He gets his Darwin Award when the alien whips him against a wall with its tail, holds his head in its hands in a vise-like grip (as he screams “Get out of the room!” to Lambert), and plunges its toothy tongue through his forehead and into his “brain” before turning back to Lambert. When Ripley arrives too late to help, Lambert’s body is missing its boots and pants. WTF did the alien do to her? (And how did it have time to do it before Ripley got there?)
Ripley races back up to the ship’s B deck to activate its “emergency destruction system” without taking any of the canisters of coolant with her. (Apparently the shuttle doesn’t need any more for just one person.) The scuttle procedure turns off the ship’s engine cooling unit to cause the engine to overheat and explode, obliterating the ship and the refinery it’s towing; and she escapes (with the cat, of course) in the shuttle before this happens. Unfortunately, so does the alien, which was able to because Ripley had left the hatches open and it was able to secret itself in an alcove between air ducts in the shuttle. After putting the cat into one of the shuttle’s two cryosleep bed capsules (So how could the shuttle have accommodated Parker and Lambert, too, without a third one? Perhaps that’s why they needed coolant for its air support system, for the passenger not in cryosleep.), she discovers the alien and flees in a panic into a storage closet. Inside it, she regains her composure and formulates a plan …
Ripley exits the closet wearing a spacesuit and armed with a grappling hook gun (apparently used for extravehicular activity) while the alien remains in the alcove, appearing as if it’s preparing to go into hibernation. She straps herself into a seat and drives it out of the alcove with a blast of corrosive nitrosyl chloride gas from a nozzle there. (The acidic chemical makes the alien squeal with pain, so the flamethrowers really would’ve succeeded in repelling it.) She then opens the shuttle’s hatch to expel the alien into space, but it grabs the edges of the airlock. So she shoots the grappling hook into its abdomen, which causes it to squeal with pain again and let go of the frame as she lets go of the gun. Unfortunately, the hatch closes automatically just in front of the nozzle of the gun, which causes the alien to be tethered to the shuttle (even though its highly destructive acid should’ve dissolved the grappling hook).
The alien, surviving for approximately 15 seconds in the nearly total vacuum and nearly absolute zero temperature of interstellar space, pulls itself into one of the shuttle’s main thrusters with its tail. So Ripley fires them, which appears to just expel the alien instead of destroy it. (WTF?) Before she enters cryosleep, she records a log entry in which she states that she “should reach the frontier in about six weeks.” So the commercial space tug was ten months from Earth but only six weeks from other humans, which means that its crew wasn’t nearly as far from help as it appeared to be. Thus it should’ve sent an explicitly descriptive distress signal to any known outposts in the region of the frontier its ship would be passing through. And it could’ve used the flamethrowers to—going step by step—get the alien contained in as small an area of the ship as possible, seal off and drain the air from that section (which would cause it to at least hibernate if not die), and have all but two of the crew go into cryosleep to conserve its life-supporting supplies.
But never mind …
Here’s a review of the entire movie—which isn’t as good as it was by 1979’s standards but is still good by today’s standards—rather than just its plot:
STAR BEAST: A REVIEW OF THE ORIGINAL ALIEN (1979) SANS SPOILERS
And here’s how to enhance the movie to make it compensate for its idiot plot as much by today’s standards as it did by 1979’s (without doing a George Lucas by defiling it):
ALIEN: ULTIMATE VERSION: HOW TO MAKE ALIEN (1979) GREAT AGAIN