Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Alien

That shadowy egg always appeared as if to be smiling. It scared the you-know-what out of me when I was ten. The newspaper ads and posters for 1979's ALIEN burned themselves into my head and never left, leaving me to this day feeling uneasy when I see or even think of it. That's some shrewd marketing, 20th Century Fox. And very truthful. Such a simple image. The promise of something frightening. As you may know, it delivers in spades.

What is not so simple is the production design for ALIEN, Ridley Scott's second theatrical feature as director. So detailed are the sets and props that the microcosm within the spaceship Nostromo is as real as any manufactured space I've seen in a movie. It all seems possible. For many films, this sort of fastidiousness with set dressing would be considered icing on the cake. ALIEN creates a claustrophobia that yes, is as much mental as physical, but the locations themselves are so vividly evoked, so eerie in their cold stillness. It's as if the ship and the planet upon which the action occurs will release a stranglehold at any moment.

And Scott's classic sci-fi/horror film in fact does resemble a 2 hour vice grip, a tense odyssey with a diverse crew of officers, scientists, and mechanics as they trade curiosity for survival after an alien form invades their ship, a commercial vessel mainly built to transport mined ore. What was supposed to be an uneventful, straightforward mission. Then, a signal. Maybe it was a warning. To stay away. But Corporate orders an investigation of the planetoid from which the signal originates, to investigate possible alien life. The crew does in fact find it.

Dan O'Bannon's screenplay (with uncredited contributions by David Giler and Walter Hill) takes its basic cues from "who goes there" and "And then there were..." thrillers but evolves into something far more disturbing. Stories like this go back a ways, though many cite IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE (1958) as the inspiration for ALIEN. I recently watched that cheesy old movie (review to come) and can see the broad outlines. Scott and company transcend the B-movie premise not only with extravagant effects, but also some disquieting observation of societal (and gender) roles.

The sociology of ALIEN is sketched briefly, early in the proceedings but will remain a consideration to the very end. There is a pecking order amongst Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt), Executive Officer Kane (John Hurt), Science Officer Ash (Ian Holm), Navigator Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), and Warrant Officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver).  There are also Engineers Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton), often relegated to the bowels of the vessel, away from the others, griping of their duties and fretting of their wages. May as well be steerage. There are standard moments of who outranks who in the group, but the alien threat is an equalizer: while each crew member may have a different skill (and mind-) set as to how to handle this life-or-death scenario, it  may all come down to a form of Darwinism.

There is a fair amount of obvious sexual imagery in ALIEN. Even if you're not so inclined to find it (some people can find sexual and religious imagery in damn near anything). Observe the designs of the ship, the alien itself. The implications and fears of bodily violation, the process of incubation and birth. What's always struck me about ALIEN is how feminine its point of view seems. More than just Ripley as a warrior - most definitely not the usual tag along victim seen in most such films - or the ship's Artificial Intelligence known as "Mother" The men are the ones compromised. By a female alien as the rapist. Perhaps this can be seen as the filmmakers' commentary on the typical genre scenario. It's hard not to wonder what David Cronenberg could've done to flesh out these ideas.

Ridley Scott, unlike Cronenberg, does not treat us to any gynecological detail but does sport some celebrated, icky gore here and there, most notably the infamous chest bursting scene that caused a buzz among my classmates back when. In case you're not familiar, squeamish viewers best look away during that moment.

ALIEN would eventually spawn three sequels, each less impressive than the previous, though all worth at least a look. James Cameron's ALIENS was a relentless action film; David Fincher's ALIEN 3 considered more of the cerebral, while Jean-Pierre Jeunet's ALIEN RESURRECTION (which had a screenplay by Joss Whedon) just seemed pointless, though I did like seeing the alien underwater.

Scott would, for his next film, create another iconic science fiction classic, BLADE RUNNER. It did a fraction of ALIEN's box office but has likewise acquired a very devoted fan base. I love both, some of the reasons for which overlap. BLADE RUNNER has more philosophical meat on its bones, to my eyes. Its effects are also beyond that of its predecessor, quite revolutionary.  But ALIEN is no mere warm-up. It is the ne plus ultra of its kind, a must even if you hate these sorts of films. Scott deserves a spot in the Pantheon for ALIEN alone. Shame about PROMETHEUS, though.

P.S. - H.R. Geiger, the Swiss artist who designed the alien creature (and a vast body of surrealist pieces), passed away earlier this week.  He was 74.

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