'Alien': Why Critics in 1979 Hated It

The ideal fusion of sci-fi and horror, Ridley Scott’s space thriller Alien was ahead of its time — so much so that it’s still inspiring spin-offs and sequels, including Alien: Covenant (in theaters Friday). But when Alien opened in 1979, critics didn’t see it as a future classic. In fact, the consensus among the film’s first reviews was that Alien was downright old-fashioned, and couldn’t match the caliber of the era’s other science fiction films.

“Don’t race to [Alien] expecting the wit of Star Wars or the metaphysical pretentions of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” wrote Vincent Canby of The New York Times. A better comparison, he wrote, would be Howard Hawks’ 1951 monster movie The Thing from Another World, all suspense and jump scares. Canby wasn’t the only critic to associate Alien with the kinds of horror flicks that played at 1950s drive-ins. Variety compared the film to It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958), and The Guardian’s Derek Malcolm to The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). To these critics, Scott’s film was a throwback to a less sophisticated era of filmmaking. That’s why The Chicago Sun-Times’ Roger Ebert dismissed Alien as “basically just an intergalactic haunted-house thriller,” while Chicago Reader’s Dave Kehr described the film’s conceit as “a rubber monster running amok in a spaceship.” 

To be sure, Alien didn’t traffic in grand statements about humanity and the universe, something audiences had come to expect from sci-fi films in the wake of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars. But surely, critics could agree that H.R. Giger’s acid-drooling, chest-bursting creations were scary as hell?

Not exactly. Though some reviewers acknowledged the film’s nightmarish merits — “Alien contains a couple of genuine jolts, a barrage of convincing special effects, and enough gore to gross out children of all ages,” wrote Time’s Frank Rich — most seemed to find its scares mundane or worse, distasteful. Here’s how Pauline Kael assessed the film’s appeal in the wake of its success: “It reached out, grabbed you, and squeezed your stomach; it was more gripping than entertaining, but a lot of people didn’t mind. They thought it was terrific, because at least they’d felt something: they’d been brutalized.” Film Illustrated (via the fan site Strange Shapes) described Alien as “a horrid film, skillful and studied in its nastiness.” The New York Times declared, with an implicit yawn, that “Alien‘s sets and special effects are well done, but these things no longer surprise or tantalize us as they once did.” Leonard Maltin said dismissively that the film’s “stomach-churning violence, slime, and shocks” were “some people’s idea of a good time.” And The Guardian noted that detractors were calling Alien “ a cruel, heartless, and essentially exploitative opus.”

How about that lead performance from Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, the astronaut who smashed the genre-movie glass ceiling? The Times called her “impressive and funny”; The Guardian called her “watchable”; and the New York Daily News declared that “some women may be impressed that actress Sigourney Weaver emerges as the ‘hero’ of the ordeal” (with “hero” in quotes). Variety said that Ripley used too many swear words. Many reviews didn’t single her out at all.

Alien was a major box office success, leading some journalists to despair that viewers were seduced by its supposedly cheap thrills. In her 1980 essay “Why Are Movies So Bad? Or, The Numbers,” Kael argued that Alien’s success proved “that audiences have been so corrupted by television and have become so jaded that all they want are noisy thrills and dumb jokes and images that move along in an undemanding way, so they can sit and react at the simplest motor level.”

The merits of the film — its masterful pacing, the realism of its working-class space crew, Giger’s unique creature design — would be appreciated more in the years to come. A few notable writers even backtracked completely on their Alien critiques. Ebert lauded Alien with a four-star review when he included it in his Great Movies series in 2003, writing that it “still vibrates with a dark and frightening intensity.” In 2014, Maltin said that he regretted his original Alien review. “I’m a wimp, and when it first came out, it scared the hell out of me,” he conceded in an interview. “I found it too upsetting so I gave it a review that reflected that. Twenty-five years later, Ridley Scott tweaked it and reissued it theatrically. When I saw it again, I thought it was masterful and I completely changed the review to three-and-a-half stars.”

Maybe it wasn’t the film itself that upset critics, so much as the shift in values it represented: from the optimistic, open-minded sci-fi of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas to a cautious, fearful future warped by technology and evolutionary chaos. As the Guardian review concluded, “Alien is not in the business of old-style family entertainment…It bases its appeal on a different set of values. Not very enlightening ones, no doubt. But exactly in tune with much more cynical times.”

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