Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Classics Revisited: Alien

(1979) Directed by Ridley Scott; Written by Dan O'Bannon; Starring: Tom Skerritt, Sigourney Weaver, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm and Yaphet Kotto;

Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: *****

“…Giger’s designs were an especially unique experience for the audience.  The world had simply never seen anything like that before.” – Ridley Scott (from his introduction to H.R. Giger’s Film Design)

When I decided to devote an entire month to monster movies, I knew there was only one choice* to kick things off.  It’s impossible to gauge what a profound impact Alien had on the science fiction landscape and unsuspecting audiences when it was unleashed in 1979.  Although some families would have questioned the logic of my brother, nine years my senior, taking his impressionable pre-teen younger brother to a matinee of the film, I’m eternally grateful for the experience, even though it resulted in a few restless nights, sitting up in bed and wondering what was lurking in the dark.  35 years after its introduction to my consciousness (and unconscious), it forever shaped my cinematic tastes and penchant for exploring the darker recesses of the human psyche.  I witnessed the literal and figurative birth of a creature so unlike anything that preceded it, that most attempts to copy or improve on the elegance of the original design have fallen flat. 

*Okay, maybe I considered a couple others, but let’s not quibble over technicalities.

Director Ridley Scott described his science fiction/horror hybrid as “Ten Little Indians in The Old Dark House.”  While this might be oversimplifying the film a bit, it’s essentially a space-bound haunted house story, in which a mostly unseen assailant picks off the residents one by one.  According to Scott, he was fifth in line to direct the film.  Coming from the world of advertising, he was an unknown quantity, having directed only one other feature film to date (The Duellists).  We’re fortunate he got the chance to prove himself with Alien, establishing his flair for atmosphere.  Although some might accuse him of favoring style over substance, in Scott’s case, the style becomes the substance. 

The story focuses on the crew of the space tug Nostromo, en route to Earth, as they are awakened from hibernation to investigate a signal from an alien planet.  You don’t have to be familiar with the film to guess that nothing good can come from discovering the source of the signal.  Once they arrive on the foreboding otherworldly landscape, their fate is sealed.  Scott employed the conflicting styles of Ron Cobb and H.R. Giger to visualize the human and alien worlds.  Giger’s surrealist sensibilities were perfect for creating the ancient derelict alien spacecraft and its cargo, while Cobb designed the spaceship Nostromo, and its remarkable “lived in” interiors and cramped corridors.  Their contradictory styles worked well for the film, representing the known versus the unknown.

* Cobb and screenwriter Dan O’Bannon worked together on John Carpenter’s debut effort, Dark Star, which could be regarded as a dress rehearsal for their work on Alien

Much of Alien’s enduring impact can be ascribed to the beautiful and disturbing art designs of Swiss artist Giger.  Viewing a work by Giger does anything but invite apathy, with its jarring themes and Freudian imagery.  Alien remains the best realization of his art on film.  His obsession with biomechanics, the melding of organic with the inorganic, was a perfect launching point for the title creature (based on his Necronom IV and V paintings), with its phallic head and tongue laden with teeth.  Likewise, the derelict spacecraft is rife with yonic* imagery, with its rounded entrances and damp, curved interiors.  As a kid, I didn’t fully comprehend what I was looking at, but in some subliminal way I felt its influence creep into my brain.  One of the film’s most stunning images is the “space jockey,” an enormous extraterrestrial pilot fossilized in its chair, with a hole in its chest, and ribs bent outward.  We never find out where it came from, or how long it was sitting there.  Like the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, it’s an enigma; one of the most tantalizing mysteries in modern science fiction cinema.**  Each stage of the creature’s reproductive cycle represents some terrible, violative process: the crab-like facehugger that emerges from a leathery egg and the parasitic chestburster are mimicry of birth.  The creature’s final, part-insectile/part-reptilian stage is a bastardization of the human form.

* The female equivalent of “phallic.” (Yeah, I Googled it.)

** Scott toyed with the mythos that was established in Alien, with his semi-prequel Prometheus, which unwisely attempts to provide explanations. 

For all its innovation, Alien employed some decidedly low-tech effects as well, including Scott’s hands in surgical gloves inside the alien egg to simulate the movement of the facehugger, along with sheep and cow offal to simulate the inner workings of the egg.  The appearance of the final creature was achieved through a combination of animatronics courtesy of Carlo Rambaldi,* and a man in a suit (the seven-foot, two-inch tall Bolaji Badejo).  With his “the less you see the better” approach, Scott took pains not to reveal too much, to avoid the creature appearing as simply a person in a costume.    

* I’ve always been amused by the fact that Rambaldi was also responsible for the benevolent aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T.: The Extraterrestrial.

Continuing a theme, which O’Bannon explored half a decade before with Dark Star, Alien presents the antithesis of the sterile environments favored by many of the space-themed films that preceded it.   The Nostromo crew members are not an elite group of space explorers, but a team of working class stiffs, collecting a paycheck for their exploits, as exemplified by Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton as crusty ship mechanics Parker and Brett.  Alien also represented a departure from many earlier science fiction films with its introduction of a new kind of heroine, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver).  She’s more than a match for her shipmates, remaining rational and pragmatic in the face of chaos.  Instead of waiting to be saved, Ripley must take charge of the situation to confront the monster head-on, while standing at odds with Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt) and a science officer (Ian Holm) who’s as cold and unfathomable as the alien creature.

Alien works on many levels with its explicit and implicit psychological themes, and Lovecraftian overtones about an ancient evil with an order of intelligence we could scarcely understand.  It gnaws at our collective psyche like a shared nightmare we can’t escape.  30+ years after the creature’s debut, the film series shows no sign of stopping, inspiring a host of rip-offs in the 80s, James Cameron’s separate-but-equal follow-up, Aliens, and two other sequels (the less said, the better), the abysmal Alien vs. Predator crossover flicks, and the misguided prequel, Prometheus.  None of these incarnations can dilute the impact of the original film, however, with its introduction of a creature that never fails to send shivers down my spine.  


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