Alien (1979, Ridley Scott)
Ridley Scott's career as a filmmaker has been filled with incredible successes. Despite what proud accomplishments he can call his own, there have been some bruises along the way. It seems that for every Ridley Scott fan there is a Ridley Scott detractor, and for every film used as an argument in support of the Englishmen, somebody can present a solid case against him. One says Gladiator, another says Robin Hood. One says Thelma and Louise, another says G.I. Jane. People say American Gangster and both the supporters and the detractors claim that as a case supporting their respective opinions. Alien, the 1979 film, originally from the mind of UCLA science-fiction fanatic Dan O'Bannon, is not one such film to stir controversy. Granted, it may have its handful of naysayers and those people may very well have their reasons, yet for the most part the picture is considered a classic and a milestone in science-fiction horror, principally because that meshing of the two genres had never been done as effectively as when Alien spooked the living daylights out of people back in the summer of '79.
The Nostromo space craft is a large sized transportation module heading back to planet Earth after prolonged mission. It crew have just awoken from several months of hibernation, one of the most effective, safest and healthiest ways apparently to complete space travel requiring an extended period of time. There is the captain of the vessel, Dallas (Tom Skerritt), second in command Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), scientist Ash (Ian Holm), crew members Lambert and Kane (Veronica Cartwright and John Hurt respectively,) and finally the engineers who work the tired, dirty motor systems down below, Brett (Hary Dean Stanton) and Parker (Yaphet Kotto). They gather together for some food, laugh, complain about wages in some cases, but overall things are running as possibly as one would hope. What had the ship awaken the crew however was a signal received by the Nostromo emanating from a nearby planetoid. The decision is made to venture onto the mysterious, uninviting looking surface to search for the origin of the call. Their discovery is both awe inspiring and worrisome: a decrepit, near-mummified alien of unknown origin, eerily carved cavern walls, and a large pool of sizable eggs, all of which appear to be totally made of living organism rather than the typical hard shell. When one of the eggs hatches and its newborn immediately attacks Kane, it marks the beginning of a horrifying adventure the Nostromo's crew could not have concocted in their worst nightmares...
Alien is the film which helped make Ridley Scott a household name for the next few years in his career. He was younger back then, working with a smaller budget than on many of the movies he is known for today and those may just be some of the essentials reasons why Alien is and always has been such a remarkably effective horror movie. A word used every now and then on this blog to compliment the quality of work that went into the production of an excellent film is 'craftsmanship.' That word exemplifies nearly everything about Alien. From the production design, to the effects, to the score, and even the editing, Scott's picture feels as though it was a labour of love whereby the cast and crew really invested everything they could so far as individual talent, time, energy and money is concerned, this despite the fact that the funds awarded to Scott by 20th Century Fox were more restrained than was the case on many other large scale productions at the time. In fact, it was only after Scott, now famous for his own storyboards (affectionately named 'Ridleygrams'), showed studio executives the entire film via a collage of storyboard drawing that Fox agreed to increase the budget from 4 to 8 million dollars. Needless to say at this point, 33 years after its initial release, that Alien has had a massive cultural impact on people both within and outside of the industry. From the design of spacecrafts in movies and even the aesthetic presentation of future creature from outer space, Scott and his crew made a breakthrough in science-fiction horror.
When discussing the visual qualities of the picture, there are ostensibly three critical elements which spring to mind. The first, and most obvious is the alien antagonist itself. The second would be the Nostromo and finally, even though the film does not spend much time there, the planetoid from whence the alien came. The alien design, courtesy of one H.R. Giger, a Swiss artist whose frightening drawings of bio-mechanoid monstrosities were the inspiration for the titular villain, is certainly one of the more unique, unexpected monsters in film history. The cinematography smartly chooses to shyly reveal the beast without overbearing visual cues so as to leave the audience questioning (and fearing) what the devil the entire creature might look like until the very end, yet constantly teasing us with iconic peaks at either its head, its tails, and the second miniature head with springs from its watery mouth and rams through its victims skulls in a fraction of a second. Then there is the matter of how the filmmakers choose to depict the creature from its birth all the way to its death. Rarely before or even since then has a horror film spent such care in elaborating the details about a monster's entire life cycle. First the gooey egg, than a spidery-like face hugger which inseminates a seed into a human victim through the mouth and down the throat, followed by a baby monster which springs forth directly through the host's chest and finally the tall, lanky beast whose stealth abilities catch nearly everyone off guard, sending each to a horrible death. Most people reading this article have more than likely already seen the picture, and so the need to venture further into explaining what it looks like is uncalled for. Writing on a very personal level, the number of times I watch the film matters little in the hopes that I shall ever feel totally comfortable in my seat whenever it appears on screen in this movie. 5, 6, 7 times maybe, I have lost count by now, yet that vision of death as designed by Giger and brought to life by Scott continues to make me feel uneasy in the 1979 original.
The beast in its fullest form appears a good hour into the picture, leaving only the final 50 minutes or so for it to judiciously pick off its victims one by one, which itself is one of the aspects about Scott's film that makes it stand apart, the fact that it never seems to be in any hurry whatsoever. The film is perfectly content to presenting everything it needs to present in due time, no faster and no slower. By today's standards, Alien can appear as a 'slow movie' but sometimes the horror genre is at its most effective when taking its time in building the unnerving suspense.
The Nostromo is yet another wonder to behold, for its quirky magnificence. Some corridor have their necessary blind spots (a demand made by the scripts progenitor, Dan O'Banon while visiting the set one day) and is a wonderful balance between light and dark. Where the ship is dark, the audience quickly appreciates how 'real world' and grimy the mechanics of the craft are. Regardless of however fantastical the majority of the picture is, there is a level of believability which inserts itself into this world. Suddenly, the viewer can relate on some levels (of course the actors play a significant part in allowing this to happen as well, lest that be forgotten). Conversely, those brightly lit rooms have a quintessential sci-fi flavour to them, what with the pale coloured doors and walls, the plenty of lights and buttons to press, characters talking to computer screens and the machine answering back, etc. That balance of heightened science-fiction and down to earth, nitty gritty detail pays off handsomely depending on where the characters are and what they are doing at any given moment.
Finally, the is the alien planet, or what we assume is the alien planet (they may have come from elsewhere, mind you). It is so cold and looks so strange, so foreign. The coup de grâce which never fails to give viewers the shivers is when, as Dallas, Lambert and Kane are exploring the terrain and sending video feedback to Ash in the Nostromo, a bizarre, otherworldly vessel comes into view. Its proportions are epic as can be seen in the shots from a distance when the trio of explorers approach an entryway and are absolutely dwarfed by this craft of unknown origin, their tiny headlights barely visible in the shot at all. It looks like an incomplete disc of some sort, yet its more terrifying aspects lie within its hallways, which resemble far more damp caves carved out of a bad dream than they do ordinary spacecraft passages. But then again, there is little ordinary happening in this film.
Little of the film's mesmerizing, unforgettable visual cues would matter as much if the actors failed to inject any sense of characters into their respective roles. What's so impressive about these performances and, consequently, the characters, is that they are indeed more than enough to present each of the unfortunate as real people. 'More than enough' is the key idea here because the script, whether because it deliberately tried to be different or completely forgot about some of the basic screenplay tropes, does not even attempt to set up these people in the slightest. Who is Ripley, where does she come from, what has she left behind on Earth? So little information is provided to the audience on those topics that it is only during the first act of the sequel that some of those questions are answered. Despite what the script avoids doing so far as character development is concerned, the cast steps in and, through some of the subtle choices, add a minimal level of depth to these individuals, at least enough for the viewers to find them sufficiently interesting and, above all else, worthy of empathy. If the viewer as shows any inkling of wanting to see some of these people make it back home in one piece as opposed to lying as decrepit corpses with their skulls bashed back into their brains, most of that has to do with the performances and much less with what is on the page.
That concludes the marathon's first article. Come back later this week for some more in depth appreciation of Ridley Scott's Alien wherein we'll get into some of the minutia that repeat viewings begin to reveal, and some of the more obvious details that simply make the film such a wonder from the get go.