In 2019, a New Jersey high school made national news when it put on a stage production of Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi horror masterpiece Alien. The production even got the attention of Ripley herself, Sigourney Weaver. It was a huge deal because everyone had the exact same thought: “How the hell do you turn Alien into a stage show?” It turns out that question was actually answered years earlier by a group of bus drivers in the United Kingdom.
Several years earlier, a theater troupe comprised of bus company employees put on a low-budget retelling of Alien, but only a few dozen people saw it. Among those people were filmmakers Lucy Harvey and Danielle Kummer, who were so struck by the passion of the production, they pitched the group on making a documentary about it. That resulting documentary, Alien on Stage, just had its international premiere at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival and it’s every bit as delightful as you can imagine.
Harvey and Kummer take us behind the scenes and inside the homes of the cast and crew of the production, giving us a glimpse of their humble but relatable lives. None of the people involved with the production are professionals—they just all love theater, movies, and acting. When they first put on Alien, the documentary shows that they’re all pretty bummed about the low turnout, but that’s when things change and the filmmakers themselves become part of the movie. They launch a Kickstarter and the excitement surrounding it generates enough buzz for the company to book a performance of Alien in London’s West End. For any actor, acting in the West End is a big deal, but for a group of bus drivers from a small town, it’s just about the biggest thing that’s ever happened to them.
Alien on Stage is kind of slow at the start; we don’t really get to know many of the company too well and most of what we learn about them seems a little too on the surface. It’s unclear what the day-to-day is like before we’re hurried into the meat of the film—the trip to London and the stage production itself. The most detail we get is seeing the creation of the costumes, sets, and props needed to bring Alien to life, including the Face Hugger, Chest Burster, and Xenomorph. However, as all of those secrets are revealed and the filmmakers continue to follow the rehearsals and preparation, anticipation and excitement begin to build.
All of it leads to the last 30 or so minutes of the film when everything comes together. A packed West End theater howls in delight as the tricks and craftsmanship of the company is presented to them and, as captured on film, it’s absolutely mesmerizing. By the time the show ends and you see the cast and crew’s dumbfounded, overly-emotional reaction to the adoration they receive from the audience, it’s incredibly touching and moving. It’s a shining example of the important reward hard work can bring.
This is when I realized two things: one, though the first half of the film is a little slow, the payoff is beyond worth it; and second, the first half is slow because the filmmakers actually don’t give themselves enough credit. We’re briefly told just how crucial Harvey and Kummer were to keeping the show alive and bringing it to the West End. It would’ve seemed natural and interesting to examine that aspect a bit more, to get into the weeds about how the production pushed the documentary and the documentary pushed the production. In fact, it probably would’ve given the film some of the depth it’s lacking.
Instead though, the filmmakers give full credit for everything to the passionate cast and crew of the Alien stage production and the documentary makes them the stars. It’s the right choice for the movie, and a selfless one; it might hurt the film a little at the beginning, but makes it all worth it by the end. As a result, Alien on Stage is like Alien itself, exhilarating and memorable, just minus all the scares.
For more information on Alien on Stage, visit its official website.
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