Friday, May 25, 2012

Definitive Alien marathon: 'Alien', an appreciation

This is but a supplement to the Alien review posted earlier this week. Whereas the previous article offered an overview of the film and highlighted its strengths and weaknesses, today's article will dig into the finite details of Ridley Scott's horror masterpiece. We hope you enjoy reading and find the same giddy pleasure in the film's details as we did.

Much was written about how the alien creature, by its design and presentation in the film, haunts me till this very day. It has often been said that the more is left to the imagination, the greater the fear instilled into the minds of the viewers. Rarely has this been truer than in Alien, wherein director Scott, his cinematographer and editor refuse to ever leave the extraterrestrial beast complete drenched in light from head to foot. To begin with, there are only a precious few moments when the alien is depicted on screen: its first attack on Brett, for a tiny glimpse when Dallas shines light on it in the shafts (blink and you'll miss it though), when it dispatches Parker and Lambert in quick succession and finally in the small shuttle during the climax when the only human passenger left is the unexpected true protagonist of the picture, Ripley. In each of these four scenes, the alien is given incrementally increased screen presence, but the full body is never revealed, therefore taunting the viewer about what it may look like. In the first three death scenes, the creature is often given only brief screen time, save for when it sneaks up behind Brett, during which time the camera rests on its bizarre head structure for a few seconds.

Birth is indeed painful

What is revealed is frightening and, quite frankly, discomforting. Consider, for example , the first ever revelation, aka Brett's death. Our hopeless character, completely unaware of the impending doom which seeks to destroy him, has walked into a storage room were condensation has accumulated to the point where water falls from the roofs. Unbeknownst to him, the alien has in fact been hiding among the dangling chains where the shower flows from. Therefore, once the predator carefully, silently lands onto the ground in attacking range of his prey, his is completely wet, which is a great effect. However, the most impressive shot of the sequence is when the camera closes in on its head from a side angle. First and foremost, the viewer can immediately recognize the phallic shape. In interviews, both Ridley Scott and the creature's progenitor H.R. Giger expressed an interest in lending the villain a sense of sexuality, one that would clearly be uncomfortable for the audience. The results are exquisite, if such a word may be borrowed in singing the praises of such a vile thing. So, there is the structure of its head, but the sexual undertones do not cease there. Nay, if one looks closely at its mouth in that same side angle shot, apart from the drips of water which sprinkle down its face and mouth, one can see another substance emanating from its lips, a thicker, more consistent one noticeable by its pale colour. Yes, ladies and gentleman, it looks as though sperm is spewing out of the alien's foul mouth as it breaths rhythmically, aroused by the potential for a kill (and as if it were having, what else, sexual intercourse). The third and final sexual undertone in the scene, although at this point one questions if we are still discussing mere undertones, is of course when the second, smaller mouth emerges from the alien's principle vocal orifice. It is straight as an arrow and, as evidenced by how it easily crashes through its victims' head, very, very hard. It is the substitute for, well, I'm sure the readers have clued in on what's going on...

Ian Holm, as Ash, is doing something very subtle in this film, notwithstanding the scene in which it is revealed he happens to be a company hired cyborg hellbent on eliminating any of the Nostromo's passengers who so desire to vanquish the 'pure' beast they have unwilling brought along with them. Naturally, it is not the filmmakers' interest to reveal Ash's true nature too early, otherwise one of the picture's insidious subplots is spoiled even before the story kicks into high gear. The actor does more than enough to fool the audience, behaving mostly like a real human being, but there are subtle ticks about him that just may hint at something more sinister. One such instant, one found in the 2003 cut of the film, has Ash perform a little jog in one place just prior to his fellow members suiting up and exploring the alien planetoid. He does it a very strange way, as though his robot limbs need a warmup before engaging in the expedition, but he is not venturing on the journey, so why would he be doing that? It goes without saying that the little ticks are noticeable only on repeat viewings. It does not seem possible that anybody would guess Ash is a robot when seeing the film for the first time. What is more discernible is his keen interest in the creature, from its very first incarnation, that being the facehugger, to its very last, that being the adult hunter, although that curiosity can easily be explained by the fact that he is a scientist. Nice bit of screenwriting that. The revelation of his 'raison d'ĂȘtre' never feels too intrusive either. One supposes that at this stage in the future, weapons may be designed as otherworldly creatures. The intrusion of a huge corporation for ulterior motives comes as a shock, a genuine one as opposed to a head scratching one.

Tiny detail that makes me laugh every time: When Parker attempts to rescue Ripley from Ash's powerful arms as he chokes her with a magazine, the cyborg suddenly clutches Parker on the chest. It's just one hand, but apparently Ash's grip is so strong because Parker's face suddenly contorts in surprise and pain. It is hard to explain why, but I always get a kick out of that moment. Even the awesome Yaphet Kotto is getting toasted by this cyborg!

 Oh yeah, I'm feeling it!

 It is interesting to note that the characters are not offed in the order one might suspect. From the outset, it is made clear to the audience that Dallas in in command, which makes his demise as third in line all the more shocking. It is not as though Scott makes any conceited effort into presenting Ripley as the central character of the story. She is but a part of the team, no more and no less. That is the sort of actress Sigourney Weaver is, after all, very unassuming, very capable of holding her own while acting off of multiple other cast members, never resorting to obnoxious tricks in order to overpower the others. She nevertheless exudes great energy and confidence when the script calls for it. Dallas, as played by Tom Skerritt, is, by comparison, so calm and so subtle that it almost feels natural that he does not last the entire film, certainly not when set toe to toe against as ferocious an enemy as the titular invader.

Where would Alien be without the Jerry Goldsmith score? There is a fair bit of controversy surrounding the music in the film in reality. Some scenes feature Goldsmith music from other films and in other cases it is second or third kicks at the can which made it into the picture. The most apparent example of music from another film is when the facehugger's acid blood oozes through multiple floors of the Nostromo. That is not original Alien music but rather a cue from the Freud: The Secret Passion score. Probably what makes this score one of my personal favourites is not merely its beauty but how it is fearlessly juxtaposed against the oblique world of the film. The score is nearly out of place with what transpires and the overall tone of the visuals, but somehow, someway, it fits like a glove instead. 

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