Monday 11 July 2011

Alien (1979)


What happens when you give a B-movie concept the A-movie treatment? When you take the seed of a simple genre piece and spin it out into a towering behemoth of conceptual art, technical mastery and utter terror? Well, in 1979, the world got a decisive answer to that… you get one of the most revered, respected and influential horror films ever. Finding its roots in relatively low-grade sf shockers, drawing it up in the wake of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and setting its sights on being an intense horror experience, we have here something special… Alien.

Whilst travelling through space back to Earth, the commercial towing vehicle Nostromo receives an SOS signal from a nearby planet. The crew, are under obligation to investigate, land on the planet, causing some damage. While looking around, an alien creature attacks one crewmember, and eventually the whole crew are in danger.

Writer Dan O’Bannon wrote the original screenplay for Alien out of a kind of frustration with an earlier attempt at an sf film, his 1974 Dark Star, directed by John Carpenter. It’s a classic of sorts (and I’ll get to it at some point), but budget constraints hampered the film greatly, most notably in the alien sequence. There’s no getting away from the fact that it is a beach ball. This always annoyed O’Bannon, who decided to have another crack at the genre. Sitting down with fellow writer, Ronald Shusett, the pair fleshed out a story about a dangerous alien being set loose on board a commercial spaceship, terrorising the crew. Building on the basic concept of Dark Star - a group of truckers in space - O’Bannon creates a great bunch of characters. These people aren’t really astronauts or space adventurers… they’re blue collar workers. They look kind of scruffy, they bitch about pay, can’t wait to get home for some real food. We know these kinds of people. They’re so recognisable to us that it’s very easy to identify with them and, therefore, fear for them. More importantly, they are, to some degree, a family. Living and working together this closely, they kind of should be. This is echoed by the name of the ship’s computer, Mother. There are also great details to the creature. For example, it bleeds acid. It’s such a simple touch, but serves to make the story more tense and the creature even more terrifying.

Ridley Scott held the directorial reigns on Alien and, though it was only his second feature film, it is confirmation of his talent and a staggering achievement. Scott is widely known as one of the most skilled visual directors alive and this serves as evidence why. It is one of the most completely realised films I’ve ever seen. Every detail has had attention. It begins so very slowly, camera movements are so calm and deliberate, and the ship is so quiet that even a harmless chirp from the computer is able to draw a jump in the first couple of minutes. The film has an unstoppable pace. As the film goes on and the terror level rises throughout, the pace quickens and quickens to an almost hysterical level. The film is a masterpiece of editing.

The design elements and cinematography are so rich with detail, too. Despite being in the future, the ship looks lived-in. It should do. It’s effectively a giant space truck, and serves as the full time work and living quarters of its small crew. There’s a grime to this ship, a grit that covers everything, setting it in sharp contrast to the clean and carefully polished veneer of other contemporary spaceships. It’s rather chunky looks also help to set it in further contrast to the other craft they look to investigate. There, it’s all smooth surfaces and lines, a much more organic feel.

It also has some of the best sound design ever. So much of the film’s atmosphere is so capably built by sound, you could have just a black screen and it would still be as effective. Such wonderful details come through from this. For example, when the crew are around the table, eating, talking, interacting as a group, the ship emits a rhythmic pulse, a heartbeat. It so beautifully and elegantly sums up this group in this place that dialogue is almost superfluous. Every scene is equipped with a superb soundscape, adding wonderfully to the whole. The nerve-shredding scrape of the ventilation shaft hatches, the unsettling rattle of chains in one of the ship’s cargo bays, the eerie high-pitched hum of the alien egg chamber, the screech of the creature itself. The film is a stream of aural assaults, and it’s superb from beginning to end.

The actors on show do a great job. This was Sigourney Weaver’s first real role in a feature and she is excellent as Ripley. It’s the role that people think of when they think of her. She’s got great presence on the screen, which works to give Ripley that sense of strength and fortitude she needs. Ripley is, frankly, one of the bravest film characters ever. Note I did not say fearless. Ripley often shows signs of fear and hesitance, but she’s never put off by it. She willingly puts herself in harm’s way because she must, and you buy it completely from Weaver. It’s a little difficult to conceive of Veronica Cartwright playing the role, like she was originally supposed to. Part of it is because Weaver just seems much more capable of projecting the strength, but that is also informed by how well Cartwright portrays Lambert, who is much less controlled, more emotionally raw than Ripley. Ian Holm is a picture of disquieting calm; Tom Skerritt exudes the air of the tough decision-making captain; John Hurt does well despite not a whole lot of screen time; and Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton do great as the money-grubbing labourers, particular credit going to Kotto for his work as Parker.

However, the dark heart of the picture is where the horror lies. It’s not simply about a dangerous creature out to kill people in a place from which they can’t escape… it’s about sex. Specifically, it’s about rape, the fear of, the act of, and the repercussions of rape. It was in the mind of O’Bannon to have the alien burst forth from one of the crewmembers, as inspired by some insects and bugs. Apparently, when O’Bannon was asked how the creature was to get inside the crewmember, he said, “It screws ‘em.” From this came the notion of rape and impregnation. By an interesting turn, the subject is not the females of the crew, but the men. The whole film plays on the male fear of rape, and their misunderstanding of pregnancy and birth. With this notion in mind, it genuinely does add a more disturbing feel to the film. For example, when Kane has the Facehugger attached to him, and everyone stands around, trying to figure out what it is, the alien is in the act of raping and impregnating Kane. The crew don’t know it, but that’s what’s happening. That they don’t know this and are unsure how to help makes it all the more terrifying. Sex in this film seems to be an act of violence, and moments of sexual thoughts are swiftly countered with terror. At its most basic (and somewhat crude) indication of the film’s central conceit, the focus rests on the ship’s cat, Jones, which Ripley rescues: Protect your pussy and you’ll be fine… yes, I know, I did say it was a bit crude.

The idea of sex being something to fear is encapsulated by the H.R. Giger’s designs for the Xenomorph. (Did you really think I wasn’t going to mention Giger?) Giger’s designs are so obviously sexual, but in a very dark and disturbing way. His artwork in general is characterised by this rather nightmarish sense of sex and sexuality. The Xenomorph’s body is inherently phallic, from its newborn self, which kind of looks like a penis with teeth (scary, right?), to the head of its fully-grown self. It’s also got the mouth-within-the-mouth that serves as form of surrogate penis, something with which to penetrate and do untold damage. That the Xenomorph doesn’t even have eyes makes it even more unsettling.

There’s also a matricidal theme running through the picture, too. The Xenomorph creature that stalks the crew is a violent product of an interspecies sexual assault and, in being born, ends up killing its mother, who in this case is John Hurt. The Xenomorph from then on acts as a living embodiment of rape and matricide. Ripley effectively engages in a version of matricide, too, when she has to set the self-destruct sequence on the ship, killing Mother, the ship’s computer.

After a little over thirty years, Alien still holds all of its original power. It remains one of the most atmospheric, tense and scary horror films ever, thanks to high quality work at every level of production. It’s also one of the most cerebral horror films around, with ample opportunity for dissection and discussion. Imitations and rip-offs are rife, but this is in a league above all others.

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