Tuesday, November 2, 2010
TEFB REVISITS: ALIEN
Directed by Ridley Scott
Starring Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Harry Dean Stanton
Full disclosure: Alien is my favorite movie of all time. While I have a list of more than a few films that I love to varying degrees depending on what day of the week I'm asked, Ridley Scott's 1979 horror/sci-fi classic will always lay claim to the number one spot on that list. There are many reasons why I hold the film in such high regard, many of which I will describe later here, but my automatic response when someone asks me why I feel so strongly about it is a simple one to digest: it's the only film I can watch anytime, anywhere, for no reason at all. There is literally no other film that I feel the same way about. Since the very first time I saw it back in 1994 (recorded via VHS off of cable TV), each viewing of Alien has left an indelible mark on me. It's a film I consider remarkably perfect, and one that I have no qualms declaring a semi-obsession for. I recently received the film and its 3 sequels on Blu-ray video in a collection titled the Alien Anthology. I shelled out some extra cash for the special limited edition, which comes packaged in an alien egg crafted by Sideshow Collectibles. I revisited the first film this evening, and thought this would be a good opportunity to not only voice the glowing review I've had for Alien for the past 16 years, but to promote a very special Blu-ray collection that is a must have for any fan of not only the film, but for top-quality home entertainment that takes personal viewing to a whole new level. Just a word of warning: this revisit will contain spoilers for the film, so if you haven't seen it, stop reading now.
In the mid 1970's, screenwriter Dan O'Bannon, after creating the successful sci-fi spoof Dark Star (directed by John Carpenter), serendipitously met Ronald Shussett, in whom O'Bannon found a kindred spirit and a screenwriting partner who could help O'Bannon flesh out and complete a scrappy B-grade monster-movie screenplay originally intended to be directed by legendary low-budget film director Roger Corman. Like almost every film largely considered classic by film critics, scholars, and fans alike, Alien began as a different kind of beast (both literally and figuratively), and went through multiple incarnations before becoming finalized as a slick, finely paced, remarkably designed, A-level production that helped usher in a new wave of science fiction horror. The film, unsurprisingly, has been unmatched in class and quality since.
As you should know (and those reading this should know - again, this will contain spoilers), Alien tells the story of the seven person crew of the Nostromo, a commercial mining vessel on its journey back to Earth. Woken early from cryogenic sleep by the ship's computers, the crew finds, to their chagrin, that they aren't entering the last stretch of the journey home, but instead commanded to land on a nearby planet to investigate what is misunderstood to be a distress signal. The film takes its time, as the first thirty minutes runs at an agonizingly slow pace. Cut to 3 suited crew-members, a space-jockey, and a face-hugged John Hurt later, though,and one by one the crew succumbs to the deadly monster - in classic horror movie fashion - until there is only one survivor left to go mano a mano with what is cinema's greatest achievement in creature design.
Alien may be structured like a horror film, but make no mistake - its pacing is far more sophisticated than its brethren. Ridley Scott, who uses the first five minutes of the film to set a claustrophobic and isolated feel for the film that is never broken, directs the movie's first half at a leisurely but tension filled pace, with a rhythm more akin to Kubrick than to Corman. Scott's camera floats down the pipe-lined corridors of the Nostromo, as the ship's computers speak to each other and wake the crew from slumber.The only audio track is the sound of blips and bleeps - the mechanized dialogue of primitive artificial intelligence.
Scott uses this deliberately slow opening not only to orientate the audience as to the geography of the Nostromo (which comes in handy to the viewer later in the film) and to show off the film's detailed production design and effects work (the landing sequence, which seems to go on forever, is a brilliant example of this), but to also establish each character and the dynamic between them. Many other films would skip straight to a scene chock-full of exposition. Alien introduces its cast as they have a post-cryogenic sleep breakfast. It's a remarkable scene, not only because it comes towards the beginning of a genre film, but also because it sets up so much in so little time by letting the characters be living, breathing people and not just empty vessels required to move give us background or move the story forward. Parker (Yaphette Koto) and Brett's (Harry Dean Stanton) conversation about bonuses would be cut out by many directors, but Scott understands that these are concerns that real workers would have, and although the conversation seems superfluous, it instantly gives us an idea of who these two guys are and, therefore, a reason to care about them and their survival.
Structurally, Alien is also interesting because it introduces seven characters at the same time - three of which could be the hero, depending on the scene. Kane (John Hurt) is the first to wake from hyper-sleep and the first character the camera lingers on. Dallas (Tom Skerritt) seems to be the obvious hero, as he's the captain of the ship and takes an early role as leader. And yet Parker, who seems at first a bit player, rises up as an action-oriented character, actively excited about dispensing the alien. It's quite a shock watching the film for the first time and seeing all three major male characters taken out by the creature with ease. On repeat viewings, however, it's easy to see how subtly Scott sets up soft-spoken yet tough Lieutenant Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) to be the protagonist. Her key moments present her as so by-the-book that you almost hope she meets her end in the claws of the alien. But these key moments (the scene in which she wants to quarantine Kane, her discussion about the alien with Ash (Ian Holm), her advise to Brett and Parker to "fuck off") are actually primers for her take-charge attitude and pro-active role in the final act of the film.
This leads me to another strong aspect of the film: the acting. For what started out as nothing more than a B monster movie in which, in the words of Ronald Shussett, "the monster screws the human", Alien features mighty fine thespian work. Holm especially stands out as Ash, the creepy and overly dedicated science officer who turns out to be robotic in the literal sense after spending almost the entire acting like it figuratively. Veronica Cartwright single-handedly jacks up the tension of the film as Lambert, with her strung-out and constantly-at-wits-end performance. Koto and Dean Stanton, as previously mentioned, are perfect as the sharp-tongued engineers. Tom Skerritt does a phenomenal job of making you believe he will be the one to conquer the beast, and John Hurt exits the film all too early after portraying the nicest and most level-headed member of the crew. While the cast wasn't working with Tarantino-level dialogue, they do take the relationships between their screen personas seriously, and the film is better off for it.
The stand-out performance, of course, belongs to Weaver. She would be rewarded for her work as the same character in the sequel, Aliens, with an Academy Award nomination, but her first stab at portraying Ripley is more deserving of the award. It's a wondrous debut (Alien was Weaver's first film), and, just like the film itself, layered an intricate. Ripley is my all-time favorite movie hero, and Weaver's performance in Alien is at the top of my "best of" list. She's that good.
Of course, writing about the movie Alien would be all for not if I made no mention of the alien itself. Bar none, as I already mentioned, cinema's greatest creature design, the monster referred to in the title is both beautiful and scary, lethal and sexy. Ridley Scott and Dan O'Bannon pushed for German painter H.R. Geiger to design the monster, and although the studio executives at Fox thought that audiences would be too frightened of Geiger's creation, the odd, pudgy little man won the job. Not only is the alien aesthetically interesting to look at, it's also genuinely frightening, both in looks and in its ability to mine the most horrific horrors out of our deepest fears.
This is done using a few techniques, not the least of which is giving the alien multiple incarnations. The face-hugger stage provokes our primitive fear of suffocation and rape. The small creature forces its seed down the throat of Kane while attached to his face, covering his nose and mouth. This leads to the iconic chest-burster scene (which, like The Exorcist's crucifix masturbation, had people fleeing from the theater). In a very deliberate move, the filmmakers have both the rape and pregnancy metaphors happen to a man (Kane), knowing full well that this would disturb the genre's predominant audience. After erupting from its human host, the alien sheds its skin and morphs from its phallic-shaped newborn body to its awesome and intimidating full-size. Scott never shoots the final stage of the alien's metamorphosis the same way twice, instead choosing to only offer glimpses of parts of it, until the very end of the film. While there are some points at which the creature has an all too obvious man in suit look, Scott's technique is nonetheless effective in letting our imagination fill in the blanks when it comes to this terrible nightmare of a creation.
As with any horror film, Alien has its fair share of set-pieces, each increasing in intensity as the film progresses. Each set-piece - five in total, not counting the very end - is staged in a way that takes advantage of the amazing set design, and gives scope to the size of the spaceship. Brett's death occurs in a very open and accessible part of the ship, while Dallas is greeted by the alien in the confined space of the air ducts. Ripley spends the last 17 minutes of the movie wordlessly running back and forth between the shuttle Narcissus and the ship's self-destruct system. It's at this point where Scott's previous time spent mapping out the geography of the Nostromo makes sense.
It is also at this point where the frenetic and break-neck pace of the final act stand in stark contrast to the languid and calm opening of the film. It's textbook filmmaking, but so effective because Scott commanded all the other aspects of the film so assuredly. Alien is that rare film in which every single person in every single department got the most out of their best efforts. It's about as flawless as a film can be, and there hasn't been anything like it since.
I could go on for several more paragraphs regarding this film - I haven't even began to scratch the surface on why I love it so much. I didn't mention Jerry Goldsmith's classy and riveting score, for instance. I could go on, but I won't. Perhaps I'll save the rest for the next time I revisit the film and fall in love with it all over again.