‘In space no-one can hear you scream’ – now that’s a tagline you don’t get these days. Over thirty years ago one of the all time great franchises was spawned, Alien was simultaneously a cinema milestone of both the horror and SF genre, a leap forward in production design and visual acuity of those two most dismissed film species, as well as the incubator of one of the most horrifying scenes in movie history. Alien cemented the careers of Ridley Scott and Sigourney Weaver which shaped the contours and dimensions of many films to come, both in its host and associated genres. Inspired by the purchase of this little beauty I have decided to embark on a retrospective of the series, navigating my way through the unprecedented volume of documentaries, interviews, anecdotes, deleted scenes, analysis and peripheral material on the films (I have watched five hours of material on Alien and I still have the hour-long Alien Legacy documentary to go, and this is just the first god-damn film!!) not to mention the photographs, storyboards, scripts, production sketches and much, much more – I think its fair to say that this snarling little treasure is value for money. I can’t remember the first time I saw the film, it must have been on TV during the early eighties, but I recall with some affection that is was certainly the first widescreen VHS that I acquired, and its various media incarnations since have always been amongst the first I have purchased to expand my heaving film collection. I’ve only seen the movie once on the big screen back in 2003, when the atypical Ridley Scott version was unleashed in Leicester Square (I must have mentioned that as I exited the theatre Joel Schumacher walked past us to the next screening, he was in the UK shooting The Phantom Of The Opera), it was quite the visceral thrill I anticipated and of course I was beaming at finally seeing the additional scenes that I had read about over the years, the nasty little critter has always occupied a fond place in my heart. As such this post will probably be quite rambling, I haven’t particularly thought about any specific design by strict chronology or by its differing elements or anything, we’ll just see how it goes. I won’t bother with any synopsis, if you honestly haven’t seen the film then go and ingest the obvious Wikipedia summary.
The first thing to say is that I watched the Directors cut – both this and the original theatrical are of course included on the disks – and the transfer is impeccable. Those inky blacks of the asteroid LV-426 and the murky, claustrophobic corridors of the Nostromo are a visual treat, in many ways apart from some small details such as characters smoking, the reassuring lack of CGI and some of the ship instrument design the film could have been made a few years ago, both in terms of its directorial style and visual choreography. Alien was one of the first movies to turn that SF premise of a glittering, gleaming, symmetrically aligned vision of a future world dominated by order and scientific rationality on its head, it has that cluttered aura of a lived in, chaotic and dangerous realm, a cinematic representation where contemporary fears and anxieties can be expressed, considered and feared. Through Jerry Goldsmiths terrific score – I’m not someone who obsessively hunts down film soundtracks but this example I’ve felt will always be one of the high points of the genre – we are incrementally drawn into this future as Scotts prowling camera outlines the dimensions and environs of the ship, giving us the requisite spaces and places where the final horrors will unfold. Interestingly Goldsmith has all but disowned his contribution and doesn’t seem to like the film at all, he hated the characters and thought any potential audience would share his opinion, stating that the only empathy he felt was for the star beast itself – evidently he wasn’t a big horror guy.
Well, he’s an idiot as the film has a formidable cast. For the most part you’d be lucky to get one of these members of the dramatis personae in your movie these days, the mix of American and British thespians springing from the American funding and Shepperton shooting locations. It was Sigourney Weavers first film and she is a natural heroine, both petrified yet plucky, as she roams around the strobe lit and smoke shrouded corridors in the movies final act. Of course the film is unusual in having a female protagonist, actually thinking about it I guess it’s the first SF film with that particular allocation, no doubt culled from the popularity of the horror films of the era that orbit around the film and their ‘final girl’ motifs, or maybe Scott was just being brave and quite wisely thought that he would turn some cinematic conventions on their head, in context with some of the other themes of the film that I’ll get into later (sex and death, nature and nurture), in the original script the part of Ripley was male after all. John Hurt was only cast in the painful part of Kane after the initial selection of Jon Finch had to be abandoned when he became seriously ill on set (deleted scenes of his are on the disks), Hurt literally meeting with Scott at his house on the same evening, accepting the role and appearing on set a mere 24 hours later. The models of the Nostromo and its immense cargo still convince on the wide shots, experienced eyes such as mine may pick up some irritating matte lines at certain points but for its era it’s quite a convincing achievement that overcomes its pre-CGI infancy. I’ve got something of a fetish for ship instrument screen designs and parameters – yeah I’m weird – and although the designs are reassuringly vector graphic they still pass muster, eagle-eyed viewers will note that Scott took some of them forward into Blade Runner a couple of years later. Maybe both films are set in the same world? I think I’m going to have a quick lie-down as that has never occurred to me before.
One of the films great strengths and the reason for much of its impact and fond affection is of course the labyrinthine and Lovecraftian production design. Until Alien SF for the most part had been conceived in wobbly and poorly executed sets and little,(if any) thought was given to how this crucial element of movie-making could contribute to the atmosphere and aura of the picture. Although Kubrick accelerated the serious attention lavished on this essential ingredient ten years earlier for 2001 it was the outstanding work and vision of two men – Ron Cobb and H.R Giger – that really took this little ‘B’ picture into the stratosphere. Both men had been beavering away on Jodorowski’s majestically insane treatment of Dune (one of the great unmade films of the genre of course) where they met Dan O’Bannon who had been drafted in for some screenwriting duties, when that project disintegrated O’Bannon brought them both over to London to begin work on his creature feature. Ron was responsible for the functional realism of the Nostromo, he sketched the costumes and other ship designs whilst Gigers nightmarish imagery was poured into the planet, the critters and of course the Alien itself, a uniquely brilliant and terrifying monstrosity, arguably unequaled over the last thirty years. Cameron remarks on this in one of the documentaries, noting how it is throughly primordial, it’s all teeth and no eyes to gauge any semblance of instinct or empathy, and that dental feature of the slimy proboscis perfectly captures Gigers symbiosis of the sexual and mechanical that infects all his work. The money shot scene of the so-called ‘Space Jockey‘ was nearly abandoned by the money-men (as usual the bean counters had no conception of the film as a film and just wanted the construction of any expensive sets struck from the production budget) but Ridley stuck his heels in and got his canvass up on-screen, again elevating the picture to an A list movie grandeur, it really opens up the scope and emanations of the movie through this first contact with some incompatible, diabolical civilisation. One of the things I like about that scene is that the design of the creature is just so, well it’s just so alien in its size and intent, all too often SF monsters are simply actors with some tentacles stuck to their face which just look utterly laughable and unconvincing. Shortly afterward the necrotic succubi in this movie makes quite an entrance;
It was producer and screenwriter Ronald Shusett who initially came up with the horrific incubation premise, as a unique way of getting the beast on ship before the carnage ultimately begins. It really is a horrible scene isn’t it? Although some of the final moments look almost laughable now I’d wager it is still several million times more effective and terrifying than anything that can be crafted today in the digital realm, although of course the cast knew what was coming as they’d all read the script and seen the construction of the Kane facsimile those stunned reactions are very real and very genuine. It is the moment when some of the sexual components of the tale erupt in full force – this a male giving birth which to our species is an utterly unnatural concept – and from here on out the film is one of the most relentless old dark house, stalk & slash, the killer in the dark pictures that ever terrified the hordes of anxious cinema goers who flocked to this movie.
There are other areas where Alien broke new ground. The post-modernists seized upon it out in the Academic systems and celebrated the films vision of a late capitalist society, a period in our species development where the logical growth of commerce had expanded to a point where the lives of employees are mere accountant entries in a multinationals loss and balance sheet, where the demands of an organisations Research & Development arm coolly results in the potential sacrifice of an entire crew to secure a valuable new bio-weapons asset. Parker and Brett consistently whine about their union credentials and the bonus clauses in their contracts for settling down on a foreign planet. After Dallas is despatched Ripley accesses the ship computer to discover that they were purposely diverted to LV-426 in order to unearth a profitable new venture despite the Company understanding that the transmission was a warning signal, not a distress signal. Thatcher was in situ (I’ll save the comments on that for the Aliens review) and the following year Reagan ascended to power, a serpentine duo who ushered in an unparralled era of unchecked and unregulated corporate defilement. The feminist theoreticians detected the films inversion of gender archetypes and scrutinised some of the metaphors lurking in the films silhouette – the ship’s computer ‘Mother’ which is accessed through the only portion of the ship that harbours a warming womb-like glow, the feminine qualities of the Alien life-cycle, the aforementioned rape and birth symbology of the inception scene, Ripley’s intrusion into Mother’s databanks – a direct confrontation with the forces of a patriarchal hegemony* that is only possible when the authority male figure has been removed – a transgression that results in the emergence of a second threat;
I always found this one of the most chilling scenes in the film, purely out of pure surprise, a twist that was completely unexpected that they’d throw in another non-human into the story, if memory serves this was an invention of the producers rather than gestating in the cranium of O’Bannon and Shusett who probably thought that after Star Wars a SF movie must have a robot – for once they added a welcome tangent to events. Watching the Directors Cut again reminded me of the few additions to the movies run-time that are mostly welcome, some further inserts develop the opening of the film, some more blood and gore was largely unnecessary in some of the encounter scenes, and of course the legendary cocoon sequence was finally presented in all its bloodcurdling glory. The films central influences I think can be diluted down to three main culprits, firstly Mario Bava’s Planet Of The Vampires, the clunky but fun It! The Terror From Beyond Space and perhaps The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a film whose savage intensity inspired Scott to seriously up the horror ante. Some surprising names were initially connected to the production – Robert Aldritch who admitted that he didn’t really understand SF, Jack Clayton who I assume was evacuated due to his lacklustre commercial history, and Peter Yates who lacked the visual dexterity that Scott demonstrated in his first movie The Duellists, the movie which first brought him to the attention of the world cinema stage.
The final half hour of the film is relatively dialogue free as the intensity accelerates and the now clichéd SF staple of panicking protagonists rushing through dimly illuminated bulkheads to the shrieks of warning klaxons was embedded in the genre consciousness. Even the obligatory ‘shock’ duplex ending doesn’t feel too hackneyed and obvious – oh it’s dead oh fuck no it’s not – is presented with a nimble sleight of hand. Throughout this finale Scott still keeps the creature shrouded in the shadows to maintain the semblance of mystery and dread, all too often contemporary movies feel the need to give the audience a full reveal for the climax of a picture, as some sort of reward for an audiences patience, a choice which could have resulted in disappointing laughter judging by some of the full frame, starkly illuminated screen tests of the Alien costume that are included on the Blu-Ray – as Kirk Douglas astutely observed – keep ’em in the dark. The film was claustrophobically lit by Derek Vanlint who kept some of those tasty lens flares intact, he has a surprisingly meagre CV so I’m mystified why he didn’t go on to work on many other projects. The focus puller was Adrian Biddle who had more of a prestigious career, including a promotion to cinematographer on both Aliens and Event Horizon, two movies which obvious links to this 1979 host cinematograph. Their work is eclipsed to my mind by the superb editor Terry Rawlings who crafted a creeping momentum in the core scenes in order to build an augmented tension, slicing down the masters and inserts into a crescendo of terror, not scything the movie to death which also seems to be the present stylistic norm – just take a look at this.
But in the final analysis this is Ridley Scott’s film and he deserves the bulk of the credit. He was the director and marshalled the troops at his command – the designers and screenwriters, the editors and camera crew, the SFX guys and associated technicians – to produce some of the best work of their careers and that is a major yardstick by which you must judge any successful director. What he brought to the film was the unique design coupled with his (then) fresh and emulsified visual style, it was his original storyboards that convinced 20th Century Fox not only to green-light the film but double the production budget, SF of course was ‘hot’ at the time after Star Wars a mere two years before and all the studios were anxiously stalking any project that would enable them to hang on the coattails of that films economic tsunami. Just the title of the film – Alien – is direct and to the point, it captures the essence of the whole piece that provides an empty vessel that the viewers can invest in, its cultural and aesthetic influence over the intervening three decades is testament to its strengths of seriously freaking people out. Some final (nerdish) thoughts – it’s interesting to ponder the question of the Alien potentially gestating to its environment so it can camouflage and cloak itself – a premise that Fincher toyed with during episode 3 – one hopes that some of these considerations will be activated for the imminent return to this ghastly cosmos. The franchise has a distinct mythology as Ivor Powell remarks in one of the documentaries that we genre fans like to feast upon, there are enough glimpses of a more realised fictional world that provokes some intriguing questions – Where did those eggs come from? Was that ‘jockey’ taking them somewhere? Why? Where did ‘he’ come from? What was ‘his’ percentage? What happened? On that note I’m off to devour the almighty Aliens, one of the finest action films I’ve ever seen, but let me leave you with some choice comments from the letter that Ridley Scott inserted into this wonderful box set – ‘I hope you enjoy what we have in store for you as we return to this dark, mysterious universe filled with Aliens, Space Jockeys and…something even more dangerous that you haven’t seen yet. Consider this the ultimate primer for what’s to come’. Now I know that this is some choice marketing guff but those remarks had me grinning like a fifteen year old fan boy….
*Stop laughing. I don’t necessarily agree with all this over-analysis but it is interesting, at least to me.