Wednesday, October 31, 2012
Making Monsters #29/30: Alien/Aliens
The different stages of the alien's life cycle in Ridley Scott's original were famously designed by H.R. Giger; screenwriter Dan O'Bannon had worked with Giger on Alejandro Jodorowsky's unrealized adaptation of Dune, and was able to incorporate Giger's designs (as well as the world-building concepts by Ron Cobb) directly into the script. Each stage was brought to life through a combination of old-fashioned trickery - the unsettling movement of the egg Kane investigates was created by Scott fluttering his hands inside the prop - and an eye for verisimilitude. Animal organs were incorporated into the design of the egg and facehugger in order to make them appear more, ahem, organic. When the full-grown alien appears, Giger's design is brought to stunning life by Carlo Rambaldi, who won a special effects Oscar for the mechanical design of the alien's head. But as impressive as Giger's design and Rambaldi's execution are, it's still a guy in a suit - it's Scott's brilliant decision to only show us the alien in brief shots, veiled in shadows, that retains the creature's otherwordly mystery and allows our imagination to fill in the dark spaces.
The film's most famous scene, when the newborn alien rips through Kane (John Hurt) as he's just trying to eat his lunch, is actually shot in full light; while the grown alien is all Lovecraftian supernatural menace, the chestburster is all about presenting this perverted form of childbirth in as unflinching and visceral a way as possible. The effect was shot in one take, with multiple cameras rolling, to capture their real surprise on the actors' faces (while they knew what would happen in the scene, they didn't know what the effect would be like). As a technician pushed the chestburster puppet through Kane's prosthetic torso, a jet of fake blood squirted directly at Veronica Cartwright's face; her surprise and disgust are authentic. It's such a stunning moment, sold by the unnerving sound design and Hurt's convincingly anguished performance, that when we register a moment later that the chestburster is clearly a puppet, it really doesn't matter - by that point, Scott has us hooked and we're prepared to believe anything.
It's normal for sequels to adapt a "bigger is better" mentality, and Aliens is no exception - more aliens, bigger action sequences and lots of firearms. Thankfully, with Aliens this approach works brilliantly; James Cameron was still at the top of his game as one of the most skilled action directors, the switch-up from interstellar Agatha Christie to Heinlen-influenced combat movie is inspired, and the relationship between Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and young survivor Newt (Carrie Henn) creates a strong emotional investment in the nail-bitingly tense climax. Cameron also made changes to the alien's design, most significantly removing the sleek dome of his head to exposed the ridged cranium underneath. The production also cast acrobats and contortionists to play the aliens in order to give them inhuman movement and combat the "man in suit" problem. Aliens is that rare beast, a special effects spectacular that doesn't sacrifice intelligence or believability.
The film's most astonishing effect is the queen alien that Ripley has to rescue Newt from. Visual effects artist Stan Winston initially scoffed at Cameron's request for a 14-foot animatronic character to be completed entirely without the assistance of stop-motion or optical effects. Thankfully, Winston accepted the challenge - the queen required multiple puppeteers and technicians operating various controls, hydraulics and a crane supporting the entire puppet. The end result is a convincing and fearfully intimidating villain that lends Aliens one of the most suspenseful, crowd-pleasing endings of all time (Winston and the other effects supervisors won the Oscar). The great thing about the Alien series is that it has allowed each of its directors to make the franchise its own - while David Fincher and Jean-Pierre Jeunet's entries in the series had varying degrees of success, each is interesting and distinctive, as is Scott's own return to the Alien universe, the flawed but fascinating Prometheus (we'll leave the AvP movies out of this). But it's the first two films that remain the best, each the work of an exceptionally talented filmmaker at the top of his game.