Monday, September 24, 2007

Anybody ever tell you you look dead, man?

Alien is the rare horror film that terrifies from its opening credits, its title fading in like a cryptogram over a tracking shot depicting a remote, ominous corner of space that could be the scariest prog rock record art never used. While Star Wars opens with bombast, Alien, with its brilliant Jerry Goldsmith score almost inaudible on the soundtrack, opts for an eerily elusive note. And while Ridley Scott's genre-bending masterpiece was greenlit in the wake of the massive success of the earlier film, its universe is not populated by explosive interstellar dogfights and smart-alecky robots. A direct descendant of 2001's creepy zero-gravity homicide, Alien gives us space as the ultimate old dark house, an existential void where monsters lurk, waiting to be discovered. I wanted to be an astronaut until I saw Alien.

A sci-fi/horror hybrid revolving around a seemingly unstoppable extraterrestrial monster, Dan O'Bannon's screenplay is a direct descendent of 50's B-movies like The Thing From Another World and It! The Terror From Beyond Space, and is often derided as such. Putting anti-genre pretensions aside, Alien stands out from its predecessors in a number of ways, the first being its remarkable use of silence. The quiet journey of the space freighter Nostromo (its Conrad reference a none-too-subtle corporate jab) is suddenly interrupted by the electronic squak of the intercepted SOS message that wakes the film's blue-collar protagonists from their cryogenic slumber and propels them towards their doom. Scott's elegant tracking shots mirror the seeming precision of the craft and underline the symbiotic relationship between humans and technology (personified by an on-board computer named Mother that, alas, does not sing "Daisy"). As the crew of the Nostromo stumbles upon, is invaded and picked off by titular beast, Alien is propelled not only by a fear of the monster but of the machine, and the film blurs these distinctions in interesting ways.

As Ash (Ian Holm), the film's on-board robot says of the alien, "I admire its purity. A survivor, unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality." But just as Ash represents something terribly wrong about the fusion of the organic and the artificial, the alien is a horrible marriage of animal instinct and mechanical precision, its acid blood and second mouth making it appear more manufactured than born. H.R. Giger's designs for the monster, and particularly his even more sexually charged Necronomicon, depict a life cycle carried out with impeccable symmetry but, as Ash indicates, absent of any humanity, at once perfect and totally monstrous. Scott repeatedly disguises the full-grown alien in plain sight amidst the Nostromo's nooks and crannies; it is as if the craft itself is a traitor against its crew. When Ash is revealed to be precisely that, his strange near-rape of Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and subsequent breakdown are the result of a computer's inability to understand or express the human desire it sees all around. While any discussion of Alien will inevitably include a use of the term "vagina dentata," the alien's sexualized design is more than a rape metaphor - it's a perversion of the healthy carnality that Scott will repeatedly idealize in his ouevre (unsurprising that, on the most recent DVD release, Scott cites Francis Bacon as an influence). The classic demise of poor Kane (John Hurt) is shocking not just for its gore but as a distortion of childbirth, the screaming and viscera both reminiscent of the real thing and a corruption of femininity (another of Scott's ideals). It's a moment of physical but also psychic violence, its power amplified by Hurt's confused anguish and the palpable disorientation of the crew. If ever there was a moment in cinema that defines chaos, this is it.

Indeed, while Alien's design team is frequently and rightly praised, the cast is even more important to the film's success. There are eight actors in the film (including Bolaji Badejo in the rubber suit), and they make up a perfect ensemble, their early casual interplay as authentic as the best of Altman. Rather than overhwelming with exposition, the actors convey worlds about the characters' backgrounds, camaraderie and power struggles. Each represents a distinctly human opposition to the alien, whether it's Captain Dallas' (Tom Skerrit) cool logic, Lambert's (Veronica Cartwright) vulnerability or the pragmatism of Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton), whose friendship becomes more oddly endearing with each successive viewing. The film celebrates these average characters for their respective strengths, yet none ar saved from the monster. Only Ripley, hard-headed and at first unlikable for her stubborn adherence to the rules, outwits the alien thanks to her resourcefulness and superior survival instinct. Ironically, this places her closer to Ash's ideal of a survivor; what separates Ripley from the machine and the creature is her humanity. Weaver is remarkable in the film's last reel, conveying with little dialogue an almost paralyzing fear and the inner strength needed to prevail (plus, she's a cat lover). Ripley is never a stock damsel in distress; sporting only undies in the film's last minutes, she projects a completely self-posessed sexuality that even the nastiest of monsters is unable to penetrate. As she blasts the alien into space, the film turns suddenly triumphant - it is the triumph of humanity, a restoration in the form of one nubile panty-clad warrior. Score one for Earth.

Released in 1979, Alien is very much a film of its decade - cynical towards corporate thinking, distrustful of authority, very much in favor of sex, drugs and rock and roll. As the series progresses, both its hero and its monster will change and evolve to suit the ideas of each film's zeitgeist. And while I love its sequels to varying degrees (and plan to discuss them in the weeks to come), it's the original that retains an iconic perfection. Alien is a singular concept, rich with subtext and masterfully executed. I admire its purity.


Anonymous said...

I've never worked in outer space, but have worked with people like Parker, Brett and Lambert who spent most of their time drinking coffee, smoking or bitching about the company, so that element of Alien always felt very real to me.

If this were made today, I think the tendency might be to make everything bright, hopeful, easily understood (what year is this?) and simple minded. Hill & Giler's gothic approach seems much colder and much more terrifying.

Fantastic article, Andrew. Alien and Taxi Driver are two of my three favorite movies of all time.

PIPER said...

The comparison to Altman is interesting as it relates to the early dialogue. Not so much talking over eachother, but more of a casualness in how they conduct themselves. Less about moving to the next scene and more about setting a casual tone before the shit hits the fan. This is an excellent piece.

I remember this poster hanging on the door of my friend's older brother. Every time I passed it, I read the line "in space, no one can hear you scream." It scared me every time.

In looking at this film again, I'm sorry that Ridley was discovered by Hollywood. Alien and Blade Runner and I would even argue Legend are so much more interesting than Gladiator and Black Hawk Down.

Andrew Bemis said...

Joe: My dad can't stand most sci-fi, but loves Alien, I suspect, for the reasons you mention. He's an engineer, very pro-union, and I think that gave him an entry into the story that made the scares effective.

Piper: I suspect that the revisions and subsequent failure of Blade Runner and Legend caused Ridley to hang up his auteur hat and concentrate on being a solid craftsman. His subsequent work is well-done but hard to love (though I'll admit a soft spot for the polished kink of Hannibal).

PIPER said...

The polished kink of Hannibal. Interesting.

J.J. said...

Great post, and I agree with every point. Alien is a masterwork, and the most realistic space movie ever made. I am not a fan of horror or science fiction, but this movie still has a permanent spot in my all-time top 10 because of, as you said, the purity of the viewing experience.