Ten Reasons to Love: Ridley Scott's ALIEN
I came to Alien in a strange way - I may be misremembering, but I believe I saw Cameron's bombastic sequel Aliens first. JC's film is full of snappy dialogue, lens flares and fun action sequences, and was a near perfect film for my adolescent brain. As I've gotten older, I've grown to appreciate tremendously a film that at the time was my most disappointing film experience, Alien3. When you're expecting space opera, and get bald guys and dreary endings, my high-school brain wasn't up for the challenge. These days, free from the the expectations set by the previous films, Cameron's sequel has become a mere trifle, little more than a guilty pleasure, while Fincher's has at least become an integral part of the series (yeah, I even like the fourth one).
Above each of the sequels lies Scott's original. Alien contains elements, some listed below, that completely changed the way films of this ilk are made. Certain its very creation owes a debt to Star Wars, from both a financial and technical point of view, but its dank and claustrophobic setting, mixed with Kubrickian camera work and the "used universe" that Lucas popularized created a fantastic synergy. Throw in some Swiss cybererotic production design and you've got something that literally changed the face of films forever.
I know for certain that I saw Spaceballs before I saw Alien, meaning the chestburster sequence always has the tune of "Hello My Baby" running through it (I'd yet to see the Michigan J. Frog cartoon either, which made the Mel Brooks spoof even more surreal). Like the shower scene in Psycho, it's almost impossible not to have the bloody sequence spoiled whether you've seen it or not, it's nearly as iconic and Rosebud the sled or the kiss in Gone With the Wind (one film, I must admit, I've never seen to this day).
Ridley is a director known for tinkering his films incessantly, and Alien is no exception. The (exceptional) Blu-Ray includes both the Theatrical and Director's cut, the latter of which despite some added sequences is actually shorter. Feeling that some of the pacing of the original was too slow for modern audiences, he actually shortened some of the sequences so they played with a bit more intensity.
I go into Prometheus completely trepidatious that we'll see little more than a neo-Ridley flick, some blur-filled shaky cam mess filled, a poorly plotted and shot dud that shares these characteristics with practically ever film he's made for the last three decades. In order to help give him the benefit of the doubt, it may be worth remembering a few things that what made the original such a rare breed of science fantasy cinema.
1) The Title Sequence
Jerry Goldsmith provided weirder and more experimental (Planet of the Apes), more anthemic (Star Trek: The Motion Picture), even perhaps more effective (Chinatown) scores, but the combination of the Alien score with the title sequence is the stuff of cinematic dreams. As we pan across a wide expanse of space, planets pass by the camera looking like something that wouldn't be out of place rockin' the side of an Astro van, airbrushed on as backdrop to some half-naked space vixen.
You kind of ignore these parts of the visuals, as the iconic lines appear as if they're part of some mad ballet with the somber theme. First a slash (/) then another at the opposite side (\), a few horizontal bars, making the very title of the film feel, well, alien. It's a cute trick, but it's gorgeously executed, and shows that in simple, graphical terms you can do something remarkable to set a film in motion.
2) The Pacing
As I said above, one of the things that Ridley tweaked in his later cut was to reduce some of the "waiting around" moments in the film. Having not seen this version for quite some time, I was struck by how deliberate each sequence plays out. When Ripley, Ash and Dallas enter the medical station to look for the facehugger, time practically stops. They're tiptoeing around gingerly, but the combination of the sound design and genuine tension of the scene makes for something absolutely gripping.
When they talk about people not making films like this any more, it's these kinds of moments that get dropped, the in-between parts that aggravated certain French directors so much they went straight for the jump-cut. So much of this film is creeping around slowly, like some old fashioned haunted house flick, yet it does so with such astonishing grace that it never feels that it's dragging along.
The floating camera helps tremendously with this effect, from the initial Steadicam shots of the hallways before the crew awakes, to the manic handheld (yet still highly composed) shots at the end of the film. Sure, Ridley's proclivity for shaky cam rears its head on the video feeds, but these moments are used sparingly, and remain effective because of the contrast with the majority of the film.
The camera in Alien plays an incredibly important narrative role in the film, far more than just a device to capture events. Often, the composition that Ridley and co. choose does more than any lines of dialogue to convey a particular feeling or mood. It's gleeful stuff.
3) Everything's wet
Alien is probably the most viscous film ever made. From the buckets of sexual lube that the crew used for the Xenomorph's drool, to the drips running upwards on the reverse-cranked shots of the eggs, the film is shot with a moistness that became almost a crutch in later years for Ridley's aesthetic.
Sure, the rains of Blade Runner or even, well, Black Rain provide moments of visual splendour, but there's something quite remarkable about being in the middle of space, only to find a room where giant chains hang from the ceiling and it's literally raining indoors. The shot of Harry Dean Stanton raising his head to the ceiling, taking in a last drink of water while the shadows of the chains pass over his face is simply astonishing.
Scott went one further than Lucas and made his lived-in universe dank, the walls practically oozing with sweat. When we enter the more sterile parts of the ship (the operating room, Mother's control room) the contrast is immediately effective. Ridley's flickmakes the space vessel feel immediately like a ship, with its submarine-like passages and torpedo tubes beckoning to a more familiar aquatic environment to tie the audience to the scenes on screen. Rather than pushing the audience away, these elements draw us in, making the familiar or benign take on heightened levels of suspense.
4) Excellent use of curse words
Ripley gets most of the good cussin' in the film, but the screenwriters did a super good job at sprinkling salty language at just the right parts. The scream of "You BITCH!" is one of cinema's finest, but the use of a couple "Fucks" from the crew at time of real duress are also quite effective. For a film so taut and deliberate in what it's withholding from you, they captured the balance between the crudeness of certain phrases and the need to effectively communicate in only a few syllables exactly how shitty the situation is at a given time.
I hearken back to a film a couple years later that did a similar thing: There's only one swear word in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and it's when Indy sees the submarine, a moment well worthy of a muttered curse. Alien does the same, if sprinkling in more than its share, holding back the language until a moment when thing really do look dire. As such, it proves to be far more effective than things that came much later, where either the language was neutered to achieve a lower rating, or used haphazardly so that it lost much of its effectiveness.
5) There's a fabulous "self-destruct" sequence
I can't think of a film that as effectively used the tension that results from a countdown to destruction shtick as this film. Sure, it's a tired narrative convention, but in this film, remarkably, the tired game works perfectly.
First of all, the destruction device itself looks goddamn incredible. Giant pull-down thingies need to be lowered, then these probe-like phallic things are pulled up from the ground. The sounds of those tubes popping up is one of my favourite bits of foley in the whole film. Slide a section open, press the four buttons (after carefully reading the instructions), type in a few commands, then, boom. You're about to blow up the ship, and have only five minutes to turn it off if you change your mind.
What's great about this is that when Ripley tries to turn it off in order to buy more time, it fails, and the countdown inexorably keeps droning on. This allows for a double the use of the prop, it generates even more tension, and results in the aforementioned cursing by our protagonist at the annoyance of it all. Brilliant stuff
Everything smokes in this film. The characters are puffing away, a sign of a time when you couldn't show a penis on screen in an R film, but you could have all your leads puff away without comment. My, how times have changed.
When they're trudging to the alien ship, the space suits themselves smoke, puffs of grey mist erupting from the tops of their heads. The models are baked in smoke, in part to give a sense of scale, but mostly to set a mood.
Smoke is used when Ripley is being annoying, Parker shutting off the steam valves once she returns to the bridge. There's smoke from the fire weapons, smoke from the body of a man named Ash who gets burned to death (get it?), smoke from the engines that burns the creature to end the film.
Combined with the lasers and the dampness, there's a sweaty nightclub feel to the whole thing, some nightmarish after-hours dungeon filled with irritating people puffing away.
7) There's a cat
Sure, I'm a cat person, but if you're going to have a pet in space, I admit a feline companion might be more than a bit annoying. First of all, if you've ever moved with one of these animals, you know they're really, really good at hiding. Call them all you like, if they don't want to be found, they ain't coming any time soon.
When the bad guy finally shows up and starts eating everyone, the cat (correctly) freaks the fuck out. The hissing and screeching sound that Jones makes is pretty damn similar to the call of the Alien itself, and it's of course no coincidence that they both share a fluidity and grace of motion.
Sure, it's a bit much that Ripley goes on a hunt for the kitty in the midst of being chased by a giant toothy monster, but the shots of her running through the hallways, flamethrower in one hand and cat carrier in another, are priceless. Equally fab is that fantastic shot where the cat looks out of its cage, while the Alien peers back, cocking its head in puzzlement.
Throw a dog in this film and the whole thing falls apart - the cat is a perfect, preposterous choice, just as perfect it was to have the key survivor being the character you at first least expect.
8) The main character survives by kicking ass, and yet is allowed to cry.
After a slew of other films in the series, it's near impossible to think just how radical a character like Ripley was in 1979. Forget that the black guy is one of the last to go, also a fairly unique thing during that period, the notion that the bitchy big haired lady who's questioning the Captain and wanting to stick with quarantine protocols will be the one to live would have been absolutely a shock to contemporary audiences.
That said, it's the moments where Ripley is scared absolutely shitless, yet still rises to the occasion, that makes her character even richer. It's easy to get annoyed by the other female character played by Veronica Lambert, all screams and tears and panic attacks, but frankly the thought of a 10 foot giant thing sticking its tail up your hooch while a snapping set of mandibles makes its way to you is worthy of a little bit of worry.
It's the same panic that grips Stanton, but his laconic nature belies his own insecurities. Yet Ripley, even in the grip of this same anxiety, manages to get hold of herself and do what she must to survive.
Her tears come at two really interesting spots - one, when Ash surprises her in mother's lair, and she learns about the duplicity of the mission. She lets a few tears drop, and we see her struggling to hold them back, turning the fear into anger and commitment. She also cries when she loses the last of her companions, finally alone (well, with a cat) and again steels herself to deal with her impending doom.
9) It's all about penises, vaginas and bodily fluids
To say the imagery is far from subtle is a wee bit of an understatement. There are cocks aplenty, from the shape of the ships curing protrusions to the curve of the top of the Alien's head. Naturally the gory mouth extension is ripe with phallic imagery, but so to is that slithering tail, making its way uncomfortably between the legs of Lambert.
Yonic imagery equally abounds, from the labial openings of the alien ship to the seething passages throughout the ship.
It's no surprise that Giger's influence results in a symphony of sexual imagery, but even the more straightforward designs connote enough explicit representations that they'd make a Jungian blush.
Naturally, when a tight-pantied heroine flushes the giank, black penis-creature out the opening of the ship, only to be flooded by the ejaculation of the ships engines, well, it's hard again to accuse Ridley of being coy.
We've got a computer named "Mother" adding a whole other emphasis of the psychoanalytic mind trip, but it's the dripping KY from the mouth of our titular creature smearing acidic goo that most speaks to the viscous nature of the work. The physical manifestation of the secret plan comes in the form of Ash, who sweats (and then bleeds) milk to tie it to the maternal (not so) subtext.
There's a facehuger that facefucks a man with a smothering embrace, laying its egg in the stomach of a creature it kept alive only to gestate its young. Explosions of blood spatter the shipmates at lunch, and the most dangerous thing they encounter about the creature is that it bleeds a form of "molecular acid". What is molecular acid you may ask? Doesn't matter. It just sounds awesome, and deadly, as we watch it eat through the ship and consume the tip of a pen just to bring the point home.
10) Everything else
Alien may not be a perfect film, but like other blockbusters before it (Jaws, Star Wars) it bears reminder just how utterly shit it by any rational right should have been.
Ridley's only previous flick was a post-Barry Lyndon period piece about Napoleonic-era dueling. The script by O'Bannon and co. could been as clunky (yet charming) as Dark Star, or as nerdy and relentlessly esoteric as Lynch's Dune. Out of all the films that Star Wars wrought, from Battlestar Galactica to Black Hole to innumerable films that are long forgotten, Alien proved to be not only a followup giant hit for Fox, but transcendent of its B-movie horror origins.
The cast of character actors are absolutely top-notch, an impeccably assembled group that almost immediately gives credence to their characters. There's not a single false note in any of the performances, the near Shakespearean range and effortless, improv-like talking over one another during certain moments is a study in how certain talents can elevate even a superficially preposterous narrative.
I love the design of the ship and its monitors, the chunky keyboards and strange illuminated displays. I'd definitely give Scott major bonus marks if the prequel eschewed computer displays that are radically more sophisticated than what we see in the '79 original - keeping it all glowing LCD numbers and flippy switches would be a wonderful break from the "re-imagining" that I fear inevitably will transpire.
Whatever Prometheus will prove to be, and I hope it ends up being a lot of fun, I only hope that Ridley remembers in part what made his earlier film so remarkable. I hope we have moments of quiet and stillness, not just bombast and bravado. I hope we have a score by Marc Streitenfeld that's respectful but not entirely derivative of Goldsmith's epic turn. I hope we have a cast that is as capable with this material as the crew from the 1979 film, and based on their previous credits it looks like that's at least a possibility.
I hope, in short, that Prometheus will stand on its own. I also know for a fact that it can't live up, at least not immediately, to Ridley's first creation within the Alien saga. This does nothing to denigrate this upcoming film, but it does occasionally bear remembering just how damn good that first film was, how every time you watch it there are scenes that can make your skin crawl, make you jump out of your seat, and make you wonder with amazement how this remarkable cast and crew managed to craft a near perfect film about a guy in a giant suit systematically taking down the crew of the Nostromo.
A good sci-fi/fantasy film with a good cast that was well made and paced, often an alien concept these days indeed. Perhaps its unholy prequel spawn can live up to its glory. If not, well, I'll still manage to have some fun, I hope.
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