Sci-Fi Connoisseur: Alien

alien

The local Cinemark theater recently screened the 1979 science-fiction classic Alien, and I’ve decided to use the occasion to inaugurate a series of posts looking back at great sci-fi (Hey, I did dub this the Summer of Sci-Fi®, you know?).

Ratings:

Alien is the quintessential science fiction horror movie (actually, are there any others worth talking about? Oh, right, The Thing.), but its influence reaches far beyond nailing that one little niche perfectly. There’d been dark and cynical sci-fi on the screen before–it hadn’t all been Buck Rogers and Star Wars–but there was something novel about the banality of space travel in Alien. The world of this film was not the future fantastic, but the mundane. Director Ridley Scott’s later penchant for sweeping vistas and epic set-pieces is belied in Alien by reliance on shadows, by slow pans of padded spaceship corridors and the workaday communal kitchen of a cargo ship. Much has been said about the alien as a character in the film, but equally important is the ship, the Nostromo itself is a character, one that dwarfs the others, negating the human crew members. Though the characters have left a few human touches here and there, the dirty pictures and plastic dash board ornaments are desperate gestures against the massive inhumanity of the ship itself. Seven lonely caretakers for a ship that sprawls through set after set of pipes, containers, switches and levers. The human beings are dwarfed by the ship, just as they are insignificant and expendable to the secret mission their employers have sent them on. They are the aliens next to the Nostromo’s technological hegemony, a sharp allegory for the individual’s place in a culture dominated by corporate greed. Against this backdrop comes the bio-mechanical Giger alien, which thrives and is more at home in the ship than its crew, a subtle suggestion that all our technological edifices are really monsters, slowly eating away at our humanity, birthing new generations that will serve the nebulous it as master, instead of ourselves.

Theme…7

Influence…9

This film introduces one of–”one of,” wait a second–the greatest sci-fi movie heroine of all time. What some may forget, though, is that Ripley is not the central character in the first half of the movie. Contemporary screenplays always flag our protagonist early and create a tidy line of key scenes to follow his or her progression through the arc of the film. Alien, though, is one of the last great films of the messy 70’s, when filmmakers were toying with conventions and rewriting rules left and right. There are no clues in the first half that it is Ripley we are meant to watch. It is Kane we see wake first from hyper sleep, and him who we follow into the bowels of the crashed spacecraft where the eggs are discovered. If not him, then Tom Skerritt must be the star. He was a well known actor (whereas Sigourney Weaver was exactly nobody at the time) and he was playing the captain–but then he dies. Perhaps Yaphet Kotto’s irreverent mechanic Parker will emerge the hero of the story? No, instead Ripley, who seems at first to be an unsympathetic stickler, prevails and survives. We are given no tedious background details about any of these characters. Everything we know about them we learn from their interactions and not through any forced exposition (with the exception of the Ash talk between Ripley and Dallas which still gives next to nothing away). Again, contemporary screenplays wouldn’t dare leave such ambiguity. For proof, look at Ridley Scott’s recent return to the Alien universe in Prometheus. In that film, the screenwriter shines a bright light on Noomi Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw from the get-go with tedious shoe-horned exposition to reveal her motives (“I can’t create life…”) and it is that the main narrative tracks through the movie. Alien, though, engages us without the hand-holding. Contrast the natural, workmanlike banter between Kotto’s Parker and Staten’s Brett in Alien with the stilted griping of Fifield and Millburn in Prometheus. Alien’s characters are authentic and human, and by not overselling them, Scott ratchets up the suspense in the film.

Characters…9

There is no better embodiment of the ethos of uncertainty lurking around every corner than the big Ash reveal. Nothing in this film prepared the audience for Ian Holm’s character Ash being exposed as an android. Not one flipping clue tipped off the viewer that this fictional world had convincingly human androids. When Ash goes off the rail and Parker beats him to pieces as the machine spews white, milky fluid everywhere, the audience is startled, confused, unhinged…until Parker, catching his breath after winning the battle, finally mutters, “He’s a robot…a god damned robot.” Again, no screenplay today would be allowed to throw such a curveball at the audience–but it works brilliantly in the film. We, as viewers, are dropped into a world we don’t understand. We are made to look in on this world without any knowledge of its rules. We expect a monster movie, but when one of the characters turns out to be a sort of monster himself, it heightens the already palpable suspense.

Suspense…10

Of course, the creature itself deserves more than a passing mention. Any sufficiently well-informed Alien fan will tell you that this film could have gone seriously, seriously wrong. As originally written, the alien was a monster that actually raped its victims to impregnate them. But Ridley Scott turned to H.R. Giger to create a movie monster unlike anything envisioned before…or since. It’s a truly terrifying creature, but–and this hurts to admit–its horrifying potential wasn’t fully developed until the sequel, Aliens. Yes, Scott wisely kept the thing itself in shadows for most of the movie, sinister and remote. But when we do see it, it moves slowly, sluggishly even. It stands before Lambert and we see it is, in reality, a guy in a suit. Perhaps Giger’s creature was never supposed to breath, never supposed to seem truly alive, but the beast is ultimately more terrifying in the hands of James Cameron, even if that film wasn’t a horror movie.

Antagonist…8

Total Points on the Newly-Minted and Completely Capricious Helmling Scale: 43

Nitpicks:

  • Cinemark’s screening was attended by, no doubt, only serious fans of the film. Still, when Ash’s severed head is reactivated, a chuckle rolled through the theater. Now, I’m generally a fan of practical effects over today’s physics-free CGI effects, but at a certain point, as a director, you should say to yourself: “If I can’t get the shot, then I shouldn’t go for the shot.” Ash’s head-through-the floor bit looks fake through and through. At one point, it’s just plan laziness. When Parker blasts the head with the flamethrower, the android skin is peeled away by the heat, revealing a solid block of material. This was supposedly an android head so realistic that its crew mates had no idea he wasn’t human and you’re telling me that underneath the skin it was just a block of plastic? No eyeholes? No articulated jaw? Nothing but a wax mold? Come on, guys. Attention to detail.
  • The version aired for the special screening was the original theatrical cut. There is a longer cut available in which Ripley finds Captain Dallas already cocooned and impregnated in the landing gear area of the ship and has to expedite him with a mercy-blast of napalm from the flame thrower. A few other little scenes add some nice touches, like Lambert cat fighting with Ripley over trying to lock them out of the ship. There’s one thing, though, that I think Scott should’ve cut out of the original version for the final version. When Dallas is fleeing the creature in the vents, there’s a moment where he shines his light to his left and BAM, there’s the alien. It reaches for him with a quick jerk…and then…you can kind of tell that it doesn’t do anything but reach. It’s like the alien intends to just yell “gotcha” and not actually move to grab its prey. Shave a few frames off, would you Ridley.
  • Also, when Ripley blasts away from the Nostromo in the shuttle we are treated to a series of strangely horizontal explosions (apparently whatever the ship was hauling was quite volatile). The funny thing is, though, that Ripley watches this series of big booms through the cockpit windows…even though she’s flying away so the explosion should only be visible through that little window in the airlock door.
  • Finally, I know that the Nostromo is supposed to be a junker, a tow truck in space, but the computer technology shown in the film demonstrates a remarkable lack of foresight on the production design team’s part. It doesn’t take much imagination to envision computers with displays more sophisticated than the ones available in the late 70s. Hell, Star Trek imagined computers that could interact with natural voice commands and completely synthesize audio-visual content a full ten years before Alien. The Nostromo may not be the Enterprise, but they should’ve known that a ship’s computer–even on a tugboat like this–would need to be slightly more advanced than a Speak N’ Spell.
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  1. May 27th, 2013

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