This was not a commercial success on release as many are well aware. Just three years after the release of Alien some people apparently forgot what it was like to enjoy a serious science fiction horror story that was well made and really got under your skin. It was deemed was too nihilistic and too mean spirited in the wake of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. But why is that even a factor? Just because they came out close to one another? It seems like a bizarre comparison to make. Because both have spaceships? I'm sure they can exist together, I mean nobody balked at Alien because Star Trek: The Motion Picture had a different tone. It's 'pure nonsense'. This is of course John Carpenter's magnum opus; a love letter to the original 1950s movie and the peak of his work with Kurt Russell.
Atmosphere is king in this version which looks back a the original story Who Goes There? rather than directly remaking the first film. It's an approach that people usually never go with because of iconic elements of an earlier beloved film which is often unbeatable. A group of scientists in a remote location find an alien craft housing a frozen monster, but that's about where the similarities end. Gone are the military men arguing with the science team about preserving their find, instead it's pure survival. The silly Frankenstein's monster design is replaced with shape shifting entity that copies it's victims, using attributes from this world and others.
Of course this is the winning adaptation in all kinds of other ways. It's consistently harrowing with a bleak location and a bleaker series of events. Like the best sci-fi stories there's room for interpretation if you feel the need for allegory, and the poster in the blood test scene showing a warning to military men about catching VD on shore leave points to an obvious train of thought. There's also food for thought regarding the loss of identity just like Invasion of the Body Snatchers if you're feeling so inclined. But these elements are window dressing, and the film works for many other reasons.
Despite claims that this is too cold even for a nightmarish arctic adventure, there is plenty of character here. The cast start to blur together wearing goggles and masks for protection against the elements, but they have plenty of personality. Most of them are ill tempered which is understandable in the circumstances, but it's not a totally sterile situation and there's plenty of good dialogue before things start to wind them up. Their agitation being stuck together without a working radio and only recorded TV game shows to watch is clear. Keith David as the irritable Childs and David Clennon as the paranoid pot head Palmer always stand out to me, but everyone gets a good line or two and there are plenty of moments for levity even if they are brief.
The real horror stems from the existential crisis and the extra-terrestrial dread that ensues. There are all kinds of interesting thoughts to discuss on repeat viewings about how the alien works and if the clones it produces are real people. Does it copy their memories and their health problems? Are they thinking like themselves until it needs to attack? It's endlessly claustrophobic, a premise that truly makes your skin crawl. Obviously the disturbing creature reveals add to this, in what stands as one of the big achievements for puppets and models in this period. The real shock value is lasting, even during the sillier moments where severed heads try and escape by sprouting insect limbs.
Usually for a John Carpenter release he needs to have written the music for it to be part of the package, but here Ennio Morricone provides a minimalist score that exudes sinister feelings. Carpenter and regular collaborator Alan Howarth still worked on the music to some extent, but the pulsing, ticking sound of the electronic theme is an immense, doom laden piece of work. The grey prison like research outpost is also pretty intimidating, and Dean Cundey's stark blue and white photography adds another layer to the feelings of deathly isolation. It all fits perfectly to create a movie that has so much in terms of real distrust and unease before letting loose the indescribable abomination from space. The poster tag line doesn't lie - it remains the 'ultimate experience in alien terror'.