Alien (1979)

Alien (1979) – So Starfleet is a pretty cool idea. I mean a sort of egalitarian organization that goes around exploring and keeping the peace. That’s part of the utopian vision of Star Trek. (Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek, anyway, I don’t know so much about J.J. Abrams’s…) A lot of space-set science fiction tends to focus on scientists or explorers. Others (including a sequel to this movie) focus on interstellar military forces. Or evil empires and the rebellions that fight them. But you know what? Assuming the human race did begin a multi-planetary civilization, there would be a whole hell of a lot of blue-collar work to be done. That’s simple one of the things I like about Alien. These are not experts trained for this type of situation. The screenwriters even described the characters as “truckers in space.” There are even hints at class tension among the evidently more educated members of the crew and the lower deck mechanics. Granted, this is a monster movie above all else but creating the sense of a believable world and identifiable characters helps sell it more than you might think.

The Nostromo is a commercial ship owned by the Weyland-Yutani Corporation and it is hauling twenty million pounds of mineral ore back to earth. To conserve resources, as well as not bore people to death during the ridiculously long trips, the crews of long space flights are preserved in cryogenic hibernation. The crew consists of Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt), new science officer Ash (Ian Holm), Kane (John Hurt), Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), Carter (Yaphet Kotto), and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton). The ship’s computer, Mother, thaws out the crew and they wake up only to realize they’re still ten months out from their destination of Earth. Mother intercepted a transmission of possible alien origin from nearby planet LV-426. Carter and Brett, who have been angling for more money, don’t want to go but Ash point out that investigation of possible alien life is already in their contracts. Dallas, Lambert, and Kane go to investigate. Kane finds something… After something of an ordeal, the whole crew sits down for a nice dinner…

Like I said, the characterization really makes this work. Interestingly enough, all the characters were just written with only surnames then the writers decided everyone’s gender after the fact. Interesting way to go about things, and worth doing again I think. I could go off on a rant on feminism in film and the Bechdel test but smarter people than me have already done that. Because of it we get strong female characters who are not defined by their sex… though I suppose Lambert does fit some negative female stereotypes… and Ripley does strip down to her underwear in one scene (albeit for a very good reason). Anyway, if you have somehow managed to avoid knowing the plot details of Alien, this is a good place to stop reading and skip to the last paragraph. (Also kudos on your multi-decade spoiler aversion for popular franchises!) The dinner scene when the alien… emerges is one of the all-time classic horror movie moments. Interestingly enough “the alien emerges” is all most of the actors knew was going to happen (except John Hurt who, out of necessity, knew exactly what would happen). Veronica Cartwright’s scream after being splashed with blood? Genuine. She did not know that was going to happen, including the blood splashing. Knowing the shock of the actors was authentic just makes the scene play even better.

The design of the alien (referred to in sequels as a “xenomorph”) is a damn scary one. Not one that just you jump just looking at it or anything, but there is just a wrongness to the alien. It’s still vaguely anthropomorphic with two legs, two arms, standing upright (sometimes) and all, but beyond that there is very little recognizable from what we know as earth life. Bolaji Bodejo, a 7’2” Nigerian design student, was hired to play the alien because it was thought by the film-makers that his arms and legs looked so unnaturally long that people would think there couldn’t possibly be a person inside the alien suit. The details set it even more apart from a person. It has no eyes. It has a sharp tail. It has random protrusions from its back. It has that extra mouth inside its mouth that rams out like a phallic torpedo to break through skulls. Speaking of phallic, its whole head looks vaguely dick-like, albeit a particularly horrifying dick with a mouth full of metal-looking teeth (and another mouth) and dripping in slime (that was actually KY jelly during filming). This was designed by H.R. Giger, the legendary designer who we lost recently. Giger definitely liked putting genitals in his work (particularly cocks but also lady parts). The underside of the face-hugger looks like some kind of nasty diseased vagina. I have heard the idea before that the Alien series is a metaphor for rape. (Reminder again that this is a spoiler paragraph.) The face-huggers attack Kane with their vagina-bellies and then orally violate him with some kind of a tube-protrusion (a pussy dick?) and subject him to the ultimate emasculation of getting him pregnant. Then of course his rape baby goes on to kill a ton of people. The death of Lambert, the only other woman in the movie besides main protagonist Ripley, is not shown but built up to with the alien slowly moving its sharp tail between her legs. We don’t see what happens next but we hear the screams (until they stop suddenly). Now obviously there are some things you don’t make light of but Alien achieves a level of true horror by tapping into one of the most awful fears that human beings can face. It’s fucking intense stuff for a sci fi thriller to be alluding to. That’s why it works.

If you were skipping the spoilers this is where you can start reading again.

Obviously Alien spawned a number of a sequels. There’s James Cameron’s Aliens, one of the greatest sequels ever made. There’s David Fincher’s Alien 3 which I like but that is an opinion that places me very much in the minority (even Fincher hates it). There’s Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien: Resurrection which gets obvious style points from the director of Amelie but suffer from an uncharacteristcly stupid script by Joss Whedon. Then the films crossed over with the Predator franchise for two stupid movies that for whatever idiotic reason were set on Earth. Then Ridley Scott returned to the world of Alien with Prometheus, which managed to be entertaining despite a number of logical plot holes and unanswered questions (to be expected of screenwriter Damon Lindelof, of Lost fame). But Alien started this whole crazy thing off and is one of the best (okay, Cameron’s flick is better). The claustrophobia, the characterizations, the rape subtext, the horrifying design by the great Giger, it all comes together for one of Ridley Scott’s best films.

R.I.P. H.R. Giger, 1940-2014

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