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Critics Weren’t Very Kind to ‘Alien’ Back in 1979

One critic called it “as difficult to sit through as a Black Mass sung in Latin.”

It’s not uncommon for movies that end up becoming fan-favorite classics to get trashed upon their initial release, which makes one wonder if we tend to need a little distance from movies before we can truly appreciate them. Take John Carpenter’s The Thing, for example. Today, it’s widely considered to be one of the best horror movies ever made, and a high watermark for practical effects. When it was released back in ’82, however, many critics hated it. And it didn’t do well at the box office. Almost hard to imagine, isn’t it?

Another classic sci-fi/horror film that wasn’t so well received when it came out? Ridley Scott’s Alien, which was trashed by critics well before Prometheus became the subject of a whole lot of scorn in 2012. The website Strange Shapes collected together many of those negative reviews from back in the day, and we wanted to share some of them with you today.

What did critics think of Alien back in ’79? Let’s head into the time machine to find out.

“An empty-headed horror movie with nothing to recommend it beyond the disco-inspired art direction and some handsome, if gimmicky, cinematography.” – Dave Kehr, Chicago Reader

“A horrid film, skillful and studied in its nastiness, and there is little the cast can do to mitigate its manipulative horror.” – Film Illustrated

“Has the usual number of inconsistencies, improbabilities and outright absurdities characteristic of the sci-fi and horror genres.” – John Simon

“[An] empty bag of tricks whose production values and expensive trickery can not disguise imaginative poverty.” – Time Out

“Unlike Star Wars, Alien has no affection for past movies of its genre; it just rips them off. Stripped of its futuristic setting and pretensions, this film is an oldtime B monster picture. Alien might just as well be about a huge scorpion loose in a haunted house, circa 1953. The toothy alien is no fun: his ever changing appearance summons up everyone’s worst fantasies about shellfish.” – Time

“An overblown B-movie… technically impressive but awfully portentous and as difficult to sit through as a Black Mass sung in Latin … Alien, like Dawn of the Dead, only scares you away from the movies.” – Michael Sragow, L.A. Herald Examiner

“Occasionally one sees a film that uses the emotional resources of movies with such utter cynicism that one feels sickened by the medium itself. Alien … is so ‘effective’ it has practically turned me off movies altogether.” – David Denby, New York

Of course, not all critics were as dismissive of what Ridley Scott brought to the table with Alien, but it’s interesting to look back and see how many of them initially wrote off a film that would go on to become one of the all-time greats. What’s perhaps even more interesting is that many of those Alien criticisms are much the same as the 2012 criticisms for Prometheus. Both films were widely panned for having boring characters that made dumb decisions, as well as for plot developments that made little sense – so maybe there’s hope yet for Prometheus in the court of public opinion.

Maybe we just need more distance.



COMMENTS

31 Comments
  • Steve Barnard

    The Thing did poorly at the box office because it was released the same time a E.T. As for Alien being a B Movie, well duh, it’s a remake of 1958’s It! The Terror From Beyond Space.

    • Stephen F.

      But The Thing also got truly trashed by the critics, which is what this article is about, not what was also doing the rounds in the multiplexes that can be used as an excuse for under performing. I think this is a poignant article, as it reminds some that need to reminded: Don’t go to Rotten Tomatoes for an accurate gauge of how a movie was originally critically received. Little has changed since 79, There’s still critics and so-called fanboys ragging on Sir Scott’s movies. It’s now become the popular past-time of the internet inbred to pour scorn over his recent achievements, whilst ignoring that they are no different to the critics back in 79 that did the very same thing. Fortunately, I was one of the many that ignored the critics back then and saw Alien multiple times in the cinema.

      • Steve Barnard

        That’s not news though, horror film and books are routinely dismissed and always have been. How many horror films get nominated for an Oscar? Who cares what a critic from The Times thinks? Most horror fans use Youtube and blogs to get reviews from fellow horror fans. I think Prometheus got ragged on because it dismissed everything from Alien. A 30 foot fossilised creature became a 10 foot creature in a space suit. The Lovecraftian themes of eldritch horror got swapped out for some lame Arthur C Clarke crap about black goo and the origins of life.

        • Stephen F.

          Sorry, Steve, I’m not picking on you, as I agree with a lot of what you say. However, a helluvalot of people DO care what critics say, and as you pointed out, are now guided by the new trend of Youtube and blogs as well as Rotten Tomatoes scores, where opinions can be at loggerheads as well as totally polar-ends of the spectrum. My point is, is that some tend to declare that the original Alien was hailed as a masterpiece by critics and that everyone appreciated it first time round. As the article demonstrates (yes, it’s not news) is that it’s completely a myth. Alien wasn’t originally appreciated by a lot of critics. I’m sure if the internet was around in 79, things would be much the same as they are today, with armchair critics declaring that it’s derivative, not scary enough, boring, illogical, etc.

  • huntermc

    This just goes to show that critics often don’t know what they’re talking about. You can go back and read many of the Rolling Stone reviews of dozens of classic albums by Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, etc. and many of the albums that would be considered cornerstones of seventies rock only received one or two stars in the publication.

    • Ocelot006 .

      Rolling Stone still doesn’t have any credibility if they helps when you look at their older reviews.

  • moebius2249

    The article implies that “Prometheus” may be similarly regarded as “Alien” in time. I doubt it, but it’s funny.

    • John Squires

      Never implied that Alien and Prometheus will someday be viewed on the same level. Just saying sometimes we need a bit of distance to truly appreciate a movie. Have already talked to many people who didn’t like Prometheus upon release but enjoyed it way more upon watching it more recently.

      • Ocelot006 .

        Well when something is initially disappointing a rewatch makes it more enjoyable as you’ve readjusted your expectations by then. But yeah the fact of the matter is movies are kind of fluid. You can love it on one watch and not care for them another. That’s what I never liked about Pauline Kael. She prided herself on only watching a movie a single time.

        A lot of my favorites from this decade were initial disappointments: Inherent Vice, Jack Reacher, Skyfall(took me eight watches to finally go ‘you know what….this is a great Bond movie’) etc.

  • Kingsley Amis recalled one of these pseuds deriding ‘Alien’ as “Science fiction blot B”. Amis’s response was that Alien was “Science fiction plot A”.

    Also, the allusion that Prometheus will be equally lauded in a few years is funny.

  • Darkknight2149

    Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” was panned on release. A lot of classic horror films were also criticised on release simply for being violent for the time. In fact, we’re still seeing this happen today.

    Half the reviews for “The Human Centipede” and “Antichrist” (for instance) aren’t even about the actual movie. I’m not opining either film, but pretentious and squeamish critics need to lose their agenda.

    • Van Howling

      True. If a film is too violent for you – don’t watch it. If you think the violence is totally unnecessary, you can criticize that, but not base a review only on that.

      • Darkknight2149

        Agreed.

      • Brandon MisterJuicy Alexander

        i would normally agree…. but what else can be said about (for example), a movie about sewing somebody’s lips to another person’s asshole?

        dunno, thats a pretty shallow pond 😉

        • The Fucked Up

          Centipede got rightfully smashed not due to the graphic body horror but due to the fact that it was simply a bad movie. Martyrs was more disturbing and graphic but was a much better movie due to the themes explored and the gutpunch ending

          • Brandon MisterJuicy Alexander

            yes, but that doesnt have anything to do with what i wrote.
            who mentioned martyrs?

  • Flu-Like Symptoms

    Film critics are rarely ever horror fans. They shouldn’t be exposing their mindless drivel to the eyes of the less aware who might accidentally take them serious and steer clear of a great movie.

    That said, nothing is gonna save Prometheus. Alien was great, and no goofy review from some ignorant moron who isn’t a fan of the genre was gonna stop it from cementing it’s place in cinema history. Prometheus had potential to be great, but was ruined long before the first scene was ever shot. Most of what you read about it from those who actually wanted to like it is true, and unfortunately time isn’t gonna change that.

  • Michael Hill

    critics were right. This film sucks rotten cock . one of the worst ever made. Should never have been made . Only those of low intelligence like it.

    • And yet everyone massively loves it. Your assignment is to do the math on that one.

      • Golic

        Well, more people love Transformers or the endless yearly MCU garbage than 1979’s Alien. So what exactly is your point?

      • The Fucked Up

        Intelligence is not a democracy 😉

  • Films critics,even genre film critics,weren’t kind to genre films back then in the 70s and the 80s,for they swung at those films as though they had Rex Reed standing overt heir shoulder. Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel may have not been friends to the horror genre community(since they knew that they were mainstream film critics first),but they did get it with what made HALLOWEEN(1978) effectively work.

  • Rohan

    Great horror movies are rarely well reviewed upon release, and most great filmmakers get fucked over because of it.

  • Millegeo

    I think it’s interesting and kind of funny that horror movies get panned as badly as they do, and rarely garner any respect from awards seasons. The reason why I feel this way, is that HORROR as a genre is the MOST COMPLETE genre of movie making. Think about it. What other genre can deliver every single human emotion from disgust, fear, horror,….all the way to happiness, laughter, sensuality. Then there is also the social commentary, which horror has been doing since literally the very first horror film in Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Horror also has some of the best practical effects in any genre, and amazing world building. Horror is probably the truest form of cinema; and yet the least respected. It amazes me, and not in a good way

  • TrackRecord162

    Those people were all high on something!

  • Jonny Angel

    Who gives a shit was critics say.. The only critic that is worth anything is you, yourself.

  • aFriendlyAgenda

    I heard pauline kael hated it

    But the more I hear about her legendary reputation among the critic illuminati the more she seems like a standard issue smug new york axxhole who thought her opinions were self justified just through the magic of being a smug new york axxhole

    critics dont have any respect for genre movies for their own intentions or merits They dont understand them or care to understand them becasue they have no respect for them

    They rate all movies on a scale and perspective from woody allen movies down

    “Its wasn’t very good, it was no Annie Hall”

  • Mehliens

    Prometheus defintely is not on the same level of Alien alone for th fact it is lacking the cutsie humanism of the original. The confused and clearly over their head employe level space truckers create so much more relatable gravity than the symbolism laden theatrical mythic tale of the prometheus crew. That said it’s a fine movie and the haters are simply the expression of everybody being an expert now on how things don’t make sense because it’s not realistic or improbable. Well that’s just about every movie ever and Scott literally crapped on this concept since the beginning of his career. When you read a story straight out of Metal Hurlant (one of the main inspirations for BR and Alien) you don’t get to complain about the internal logic or probability you just fucking enjoy the boldness of its absurdity that it actively tries to lead you away from that concept of probability. Covenant does this in an admireable brazen way and it’s glorious

  • James B.

    I can see how some critics might say Prometheus or the Thing weren’t great films. But, Alien I can’t believe they’d write those words about such a classic.

  • James Allard

    It was like “…sitting through a Black Mass sung in Latin.” Not really sure why someone would think of that as a negative thing, frankly, but there it is.

    This is one of my favorites…

  • Colin Christian

    Fuck the haters,Prometheus rocked.

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