Thursday, August 16, 2012

Alien (1979)

"In space,
no one can hear you scream...."

- Monster movies.... Been there.

Space movies.... Done that.

A monster movie in space? .... Now I have never seen that before!

Ridley Scott's sci-fi classic Alien (1979) is often summarized as "a haunted house movie set in space" but, although not without a logical footing, this description is not entirely accurate. Alien continues to shock new generations of viewers but it terrified 1979 audiences to their very souls. But why? How did some "scrappy little independent film" turn out to be a alarming and dramatic genre game-changer? One reason for this was because Alien was technically innovative and effectively scary but the other reason is the completely unprecedented nature of visual and thematic content which makes the film so much more than a futuristic haunted house picture. The first of Scott's amazing sci-fi films (Blade Runner (1982), followed much later by Alien prequel Prometheus (2012)) and only the second feature film Scott had even directed, Alien is a stunning and suspenseful attack on our delicate senses. Nothing prepared me for what I was about to see - not even having seen Prometheus first and Alien second.

Alien begins with the seven member crew of the commercial spaceship Nostromo waking after a long mission. The crew unhappily wakes to news that, although originally en route back to Earth, their ship has been re-directed by its command center, "Mother," towards a planet emitting a distress signal. Investigating, the crew encounters an unexplainable and deadly organism that turns their standard ride home into a desperate fight for survival.

The story is quite simple but what makes Alien hypnotically compelling are the absolutely mind-blowing visuals and atmosphere. Alien does not build upon a western blueprint as other sci-fi films do (like the Star Wars series (partially) or "Firefly" (literally)) but instead forges new ground in the sci-fi genre by combining a cruel yet awesome wonder of space discovery similar to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the suspense of And Then There Were None and the unimaginable horror of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). Space is depicted as quiet, cold, ruthless; and space travel not as exciting as "Star Trek" which naturally lends itself well to a sci-fi horror film.

Director Ridley Scott assembles every scene with creative and truly powerful camera work; however, my favorite thing about the film is the incredible photography from Scott and cinematographer Derek Vanlit. A stellar distribution of color gives this dark story visual dimension that deepens the mood. The use of light throughout the film is also especially remarkable, bringing a very strong visual style to Alien through brilliant high-contrast lighting and the occasional lens flare (a technique unfortunately reduced to parody these days due to overuse by some directors).

One of the most vocalized assertions from critics of Alien is that the film is paced too slowly; that "nothing happens for 45 minutes." However, I would argue that the unhurried pace is a powerful piece to the overall atmosphere, which is one of the film's biggest strengths. Unlike other horror films, Alien is not filled with a lot of heart-pounding thrill moments (although there are plenty of those). What makes Alien a scary movie is the slow, creeping mood that creates an uncomfortable eeriness throughout the film. Alien burns slowly, building the sense of uncertainty and apprehension in the viewer as the story evolves from an uneasy but tranquil voyage into an eye-opening and frightening terror. A general silence strengthens the dark, uneasy feel of the film - even Jerry Goldsmith's score features more austere sounds and creepy tones than melodies. Alien proves that silence is often the scariest volume. Ads for the film whisper "In space, no one can hear you scream." ....Indeed.

Alien opens with a gentle camera tour of Nostromo, serenaded only by the haunting sounds of the clanging vessel, which plants the audience directly in the middle of Scott's established world. The design of Nostromo is interesting because the production team did not bend their minds to create something entirely unimaginable. The ship is clearly something of futuristic fiction but also feels somewhat familiar with its dirty and practical factory design. This connects audiences to an identifiable featured film world rather than alienating them with something completely unrecognizable. At the same time, a certain uncleanliness and tangible feeling of claustrophobia accompanies the Nostromo which makes even the familiar ship feel intimidating. It is a fascinating world and I am in no hurry to rush through it to get to some blood and action.

The other side of the design coin of Alien is the look of the iconic alien creature and everything else that is seen in the film, designed by artist H.R. Giger who won an Academy Award for his work. Giger's work as an artist proves that he has a unique talent and his contribution to Alien was invaluable. Everything seen in the film, from the unknown ship to the look of the actual creature, is phenomenal.

Based on some of Giger's previous works, the alien organism is unlike anything previously seen in film and some the most and controversial themes of the film stem from the alein's anatomy and behavior. The alien (later to be known as a "xenomorph") has multiple stages of life: first an egg then the other stages commonly known as the facehugger, the chestburster and then the full-grown alien. Once hatching, it must first violate a person by entering down the throat and implanting an embryo inside the host's body. It then bursts forth from the inside out and begins to grow into a deadly terror. A fully grown alien looks somewhat like an asexual human but is pitch black, slimy, having jagged snake-like features, a shaft-like head, nasty teeth, acid for blood and a deadly tail to boot. The shape of its head gives the alien a phallic look but its protruding toothed tongue especially evokes this idea. The phallic nature of the alien, combined the act of "impregnating" its host, adds a sexual side to the terror the creature generates which not only makes the alien more unique but also scares on a whole plane. It is a terrifying creature, its very traits horrifying us on a very primal level.

Unlike other horror films that do not take the time to allow the audience to get to know its characters, Scott takes the Hitchcockian route and sets up his characters and atmosphere first before the action and the scares begin. Alien begins as an ensemble film - no one character being singled out as the main protagonist until later in the story. The film's seven characters are all a bit older than the traditional route most horror films seem to take (casting nothing but twenty/thirty-somethings), often referred to "truck drivers in space," which adds a certain maturity to the film. The recognizable cast is great from top to bottom: John Hurt (The Elephant Man (1980)) as Kane, Yaphet Kotto (Live And Let Die (1973)) as Parker, Veronica Cartwright (Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)) as Lambert, Harry Dean Stanton (Paris, Texas (1984)) as Brett and Tom Skerrit (M.A.S.H. (1970)) as Dallas all do not act simply as horror movie fodder but embody their characters perfectly as authentic and interesting human beings. Ian Holm (The Lord of the Rings Trilogy) is a particular stand-out among the cast with a layered performance of the intriguing Ash. Holm had little experience with film prior to Alien and, with a background largely as a Shakespearean actor (see Henry V (1989) for a great example of Holm's Shakespearean prowess), had done little to prepare him for this very different kind of role; so his performance is that much more impressive.

Of course, Sigourney Weaver shot to stardom with her involved and intense portrayal of Ripley. Hailed as a ground-breaking character for women on film, Ripley is shown to be a vulnerable human being but also a very resourceful survivor and a tough, capable leader - and, being a woman, Ripley is the perfect protagonist to square off against a phallic beast. Ripley would later be the character to carry on through most of the Alien series and Scott too would continue to feature strong women leads throughout his career, most notably in Thelma & Louise (1991), G.I. Jane (1997) and Prometheus.

Alien, like many Ridley Scott films, leaves a number of events unexplored and questions unanswered. This trait alone returns viewers to Alien again and again and feeds the desire for sequels to expand upon the film's universe and fearsome creature. Although some would occasionally touch upon elements that made Alien great, no other film in the Alien series comes close to the quality of style, theme or feeling of the Ridley Scott original. Scott's Prometheus would come the closest to re-capturing the essence of his original but was largely its own film; the following sequels to Alien - Aliens (1986), Alien 3 (1991), Alien: Resurrection (1997) and the Alien vs. Predator series - took a largely action-oriented approach to the world that Scott created while also taking an interesting look closer at the character of Ripley. The rest of the Alien series, with a mostly fantasy/action direction, have their place as entertaining films but pale when compared to Scott's Alien. Many of the sequels are exciting and fun movies but they lost the focus on style, theme and mood that defined the very real-feeling Alien and made it such a brilliant movie.

CBC Rating: 10/10


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