Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Alien Week, part I: The terror from beyond space


As the film that kickstarted the whole cycle of sci-fi horror in the 1980s, we are forever in Alien's debt; and for being awesome in and of itself, we absolutely must pay it the respect it's due.  But, guys, sometimes a near-masterpiece can just be a near-masterpiece, and you don't need to give it full marks merely to recognize how important, or even how good, it actually is.

Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by Dan O'Bannon, Ronald Shusett, David Giler, and Walter Hill
With Sigourney Weaver (Ripley), Tom Skerritt (Dallas), Veronica Cartwright (Lambert), John Hurt (Kane), Yaphet Kotto (Parker), Harry Dean Stanton (Brett), Ian Holm (Ash), Helen Horton (Mother), and Bolaji Badejo (the Alien)

Spoiler alert: joking, yes?

What else is there to say about Alien, Ridley Scott's career-making sophomore feature and the progenitor of one extremely long line of sequels, prequels, and rip-offs?  How about the one thing that practically no one ever brings up: it's actually got flaws.  And not just that obscene jump cut which transitions us from an unconvincing prop of Ian Holm's head back to the real thing, either.  No, Alien has deeper problems than that little snafu; problems that could've, and should've, been fixed at a much earlier stage of development than the editing room, and it's a damnable shame that they weren't, because the movie really is within spitting distance of the kind of perfection every critic on Earth will tell you it attains.

But first: I have, on more than one occasion, remarked that Alien is a film that I respect more than I wholeheartedly love.  In fairness, this has never entirely been Alien's fault—in substantial part, it comes down to the fact that I was born three years after it opened, knew everything about it by the time I saw it, and, as a result, have never quite been able to make that mental leap back through time, to experience the thing as it must have been when it was truly new.

Alien is a simple film, of course—simplicity being the most obvious of its several strengths—but that same simplicity has worked against it over the years, as it became evident that its elemental imagery and iconic moments were singularly vulnerable to mockery and allusion, moreso than literally any other movie I can name, including Citizen Kane.  (And I certainly include Alien's own '70s blockbuster bedfollows, too—whose names, in combination, formed the crass elevator pitch that finally lifted Dan O'Bannon's long-languishing distillation of the mid-century space-based creature-feature to the very top of the screenplay pile on some 20th Century Fox executive's desk.)

Maybe it's simply the sheer quantity of both parody and infringement that Alien's been the victim of over the years; there is, after all, virtually no film in existence that has been subjected to more of either form of corrosion than this one.  So maybe all I'm really saying is this: when the first time you ever saw John Hurt get his chest burst open, it was actually in Spaceballs, it's bound to leave Alien in a very strange place in your personal canon.  Everything goes backwards; the referent becomes the reference; and it's that much harder to enjoy the film upon the primal level which, frankly, made it such an easy target in the first place.

Yet that's not the whole of it, nor even the biggest part.  Now, you know I've never been above making the argument that a classic movie has been superseded by its successors; but that's not at all the case here, when Alien's would-be replacements have rarely been as good, and very rarely been better, and typically only when they were directed with unusual severity by John Carpenter.  Instead, then, Alien's flaws are inherent and they are timeless, boiling down to a streak of storytelling indifference that winds through about two full thirds of the screenplay—a screenplay ultimately written and rewritten by no fewer than four men, which perhaps provides a partial explanation for its little endemic problems.  We can turn also to its twisted conceptual genesis, if we wished: on its long, winding journey toward existence, Alien must have suffered more metamorphoses than the biowarfare beasties of its distant prequel Prometheus, as it bounced up and down alongside O'Bannon's career.  Indeed, it had already found its first cinematic expression as another JC movie, this being his crappily bleak sci-fi comedy Dark Star.  (Talk about being "susceptible to parody": Alien was parodied half a decade before it even existed!)  Anyway, it would be a few years before O'Bannon could rebrand his heavily-reworked scenario as Jaws Meets Stars Wars, thereby ironically removing himself from contention for the director's chair, once the film he'd worked so hard to conceive got funded with eight or so million dollars of somebody else's money.

The story that ultimately did get told—which saw O'Bannon replace his dark farce of cosmic isolation with a haunted house thriller in space—hardly needs to be recounted here, though we'll do it anyway: it is the tale of the space tug Nostromo (not the worst literary reference in the world), carrying an ore refinery back to the core systems, while its crew—Dallas, Kane, Ripley, Lambert, Parker, Brett, and Ash—spend the voyage in suspended animation, to be awakened only if the ship's computer, Mother, determines their presence is actually required.  Such an event transpires, however, once the ship receives a cryptic message from an uncharted world.  Required by regulation to respond to the message—and render aid, if they can—this crew of blue-collar space wranglers reluctantly makes planetfall upon that barren windswept sphere, whereupon they discover the source of the transmission, a hulk of metal barely recognizable as a starship, marooned upon its surface.  They dutifully investigate, and Kane, in particular, investigates just a little too hard; for his curiosity, he's punished with a crab-like parasite to the face.

Dallas and Lambert gallantly and kind of stupidly heft Kane's comatose body back—over Ripley's strident (and quite prescient) objections—but the crew is flummoxed by the monstrosity on his head.  Despite his apparent expertise in all matters scientific, even Ash cannot fully explain it; though once he figures out it's full of acidic blood capable of burning through multiple levels of the ship's hull, he determines he's completely unable to remove it.  Things get better for Kane, however, when his new friend falls off and dies of its own volition, allowing him to briefly return to the land of the living; it is at this point, of course, that things get much, much worse, when everyone decides to celebrate Kane's near-death experience with a dinner—since, apparently, no one counted on also having a show.

That brings us right up to the halfway mark of Alien—and Alien is one fine exercise in two-act structure—whereupon its titular character at last appears, in the form of a fetal abomination, hissing amidst the ruins of John Hurt's ribcage.  It's also at this point that I find myself getting a little annoyed with Alien, in spite of its general excellence.  The moral of the story, to the extent it has one, is the opposite of whatever we were supposed to learn in Scott's later Black Hawk Down: sometimes, the best thing to do really is to leave a man behind, especially if he's a dumbfuck like Kane, eager to practically stick his whole head into some gross alien's egg sac.

(It is still morally praiseworthy to save the cat.)

Ripley's reward for demonstrating such a hardnosed brand of heroism is to emerge from the ranks of our vaguely-differentiated cast as its unexpected Final Girl.  And Alien does indeed amount to little more than one extremely factory-standard slasher scenario, only one made strange, and rather more worthwhile than usual, by the fact that it takes place amongst adults and in outer space—and, of course, by the minor (but crucial) virtue that Alien's ensemble was written without regard to gender, so that Ripley might have just as easily been played by a man.  (Though if she had been, we might not have had Sigourney Weaver's career, and we might not have had Aliens, either, and these would both be very sad things.)  Well, if Alien's slasher bona fides weren't immediately recognized at the time, it's only because Alien, being a product of 1979, could not have been subjected to any direct comparison to anything but Halloween and Black Christmas, rather than the literal dozens of slasher movies that would soon be rolling off the assembly lines of every production company in the Western world, come 1980 and 1981.

Mind you, this is perfectly fine.  If Alien is, at heart, a dime-a-dozen slasher flick, it's obviously one of the best (it certainly has one of the best of all slasher villains; we just haven't gotten that far yet).  But if it's a slasher, then it's a slasher in the negative sense of the word, too; for it shares every last one of the slasher's generic weaknesses.  It has the one-note characters you can't give too much of a shit about, up to and including its aforementioned Final Girl.  Its plot turns upon several moments of incomprehensible stupidity, including splitting up and wandering around in the dark alone, though the choicest moment comes when Parker angrily asks of Kane, "Why don't you freeze him?", and you sourly realize that it doesn't make a movie smarter just because it's able to admit its own logical gaffes.

Alien's slasherness hardly ends there, for does it not boast of an antagonist as effectively magical as any of the maniacs with machetes to come?  Oh my, yes: one would strongly prefer to overlook the fact that the very next time a crewman runs into what Alien's sequel would describe as a "xenomorph," it's already grown to full size, without so much as a single meal in the meantime—and, clearly enough, most folks can overlook it.  In a more whimsical sci-fi actioner, maybe I could, too.  But in Alien, the alien life cycle's implausibility slams right up against the wall of everything else the film has going for it—its abidingly grave tone, its grubbily naturalistic characters, and its realistic used-future setting.

Most insidiously of all, the xenomorph of the script even works against the xenomorph on the actual screen: it does Jaws In Space no favors whatsoever to rely upon a monster so far removed from credible biology.  I would almost go so far as to say the screenplay disrespects the efforts put into it by its designers (above all, Alien's visionary artist, H.R. Giger, its animatronic specialist, Carlo Rambaldi, and its suitmation actor, Bolaji Badejo), who worked so hard and so well to fashion a presence that was as biologically credible as it was palpably nightmarish.  Let me stop myself here: I do know it's just me.  But do give me this much—there's a more flawless version of Alien that tracks the beast's journey to maturity, and lets it grow as it consumes its way through the crew.

Though now that we've started digging our sterile literalist hole through the screenplay, I guess we also have to call bullshit on a man who has a kitten-sized parasite nesting in his torso somehow managing to live long enough to have a dramatically well-timed death.

Of course, our Slasher Checklist would be incomplete without a good, old-fashioned Dumbassed Twist; and Alien manages that feat handily, too, coming alongside its only feint toward narrative complication, the reveal of Ash as a robot tasked with executing "the Company's" secret, stupid plan to acquire an extraterrestrial life form for its own profit, and who therefore has deliberately permitted this alien to run amok.  (And thus does Alien proffer its single most poisonous gift to the future: a wearying franchise-long obsession with the Weyland-Yutani Corporation's mad, increasingly-obscure quest to weaponize what frankly amounts to an extremely mean-spirited bear, which it somehow intends to sell to the fucking army.)  Well, anyway, throw in a post-climactic Not Dead Yet Sequence—courtesy of Scott and a million more Foxbucks—and you have a template any Dead Teenager Movie could use.  And would.

But now, at last, I've cleared the board.  And if it seems like this review's been nothing but asinine nitpicking so far, well, you're absolutely right—though nitpicks can add up, and Alien would no doubt frustrate me far less if its problems were generally acknowledged by anybody else.

I do know why they aren't, however, and this is the part where we all agree that Alien is a great film regardless.  Let's start with what kind of animal Giger, et al actually built upon O'Bannon's shaky foundations, then: no less than one of the finest movie monsters to come out of the single most legendary era in all movie monsterdom.

The First Golden Age of Hollywood Movie Monsters had its draculas and wolfmen and creatures from black lagoons; and the Second had its sex murderers, too, starting with Michael Myers, before Alien led the charge in a different direction—namely, upwards.  The Shape begat Jason and Freddy; the Alien begat the Terminator and the Predator—that is, the sci-fi monsters.  (While Clive Barker would ultimately close this loop, in Hellraiser.)  But before you can have a movement, you first must have the stunningly original creation that changes the course of things, and that's exactly what the xenomorph is. So let's forget its less-than-credible growth spurt, its almost eye-rolling maladaptation as a parasite capable of infecting more than one human before people learned to just incinerate anybody who got a facehugger on them, and (especially) its head-shaking unsuitability as any kind of biological weapon.  Instead, like Ash, let's savor its purity—as a creature torn right out of humanity's collective id.  It's the Rape Monster that Rapes, dutifully appointed with aspects of human sexuality, perverted into insectoid horror.  Giger's genitals-and-centipedes design underlines the single brute fact of this monster's existence: it will take you, male or female, and it will jam its genetic legacy right down your throat.  It does not love you; it does not hate you.  You are nothing but an incubator for more of itself.  But I think maybe my favorite part of its design—besides the blacker-than-night color, besides the arthropodoid construction, besides the metallic teeth, besides the sticky secretions of it, besides besides besides—must be its eyes.  That is, their absence.  You wonder how it sees; and then you come to believe that it might not need to.

Alien is a triumph of design, then, in every way it could be; and, honestly, the monster's just the most obvious point of reference to begin a tour of its world.  Next stop, the Nostromo: an immersively functional piece of total garbage, that has aged exceedingly well for a sci-fi setting.  Its 70s-style CRTs and giant boards of switches and knobs and buttons evoke a future we'll never have, to be sure; but they also underscore the fact that the Company is not at all in the business of giving its wage-slaves pretty toys to play with.  The real genius of it, though, may just be how easily the workaday spaceship sets bleed into Alien's more expressionistic elements of humanity's future, like Mother's control center (a monochromatic kaleidoscope of innumerable indicator lights, not unlike living inside a Christmas tree) or the industrial space beneath a rain of water condensing on a cooling tank, where Brett meets his ignominious end (it comes complete with the film's most interesting shot, a close-up of a cat's impassive face, unmoved by the bloody drama of nature unfolding directly before it).

The Nostromo feels so solid, and wholly of a piece; it could not be any more of a striking contrast with the extraterrestrial's ship, which is as profoundly weird as the Nostromo is quotidian, dominated by its cyclopean Space Jockey—ah, to remember the days when we didn't yet know he was an "Engineer"—sitting dead at his pilot's station, apparently staring up through some sort of enormous telescope, though its precise purpose could be knowable only to a cosmic god.

There is cosmic horror aplenty in Alien, you know, and the best single thing it does is the way it marshals its world-class production design by Giger, Ron Cobb, Roger Christian, and Michael Seymour toward the sustenance of an almost apocalyptic mood, emphasizing the sheer hostility of a universe that could not possibly care about such small, insignificant organisms as us.  O'Bannon's script asks, pointedly enough, "what if Jaws were on a spaceship?"  But Scott's direction asks an even more interesting question: "What if 2001: A Space Odyssey were a B-movie?"

Hence the attention to detail in the visuals, without ever much stressing that detail in the dialogue; hence the technology (and biology) indistinguishable from magic; hence the elegiac tone and methodical pace, that only switches to survival frenzy in the last half-hour (right around the time 2001 does, in fact, albeit with rather more sobriety, instead of Scott's demonically-effective quick-cutting and strobe-lighting); hence the uncharacteristically abrasive Jerry Goldsmith score, that ribbons the film with an acute sense of awe-filled dread; hence, indeed, that crazy fucking robot—though, in fairness to Alien's own undeniable innovation, HAL never bled a gallon of semen onto Dave Bowman.

The only big thing missing is an explanation for the Nostromo's gravity, but we usually spot any given space movie its gravity; even in our 21st century, production realities still dictate that most sci-fi movies get filmed on Planet Earth.  Besides, with faster-than-light travel, a little artificial gravity hardly seems out of bounds.  (Meanwhile, I think Alien and its follow-ups might be the only major sci-fi franchise in existence that posits the existence of an FTL travel so slow the crew still needs to spend months or years in hibernation—impressing upon us, once again, and almost subliminally, just how vast and terrifying and isolating outer space is.)

So it's easy to understand why Scott, once he finally got back to the franchise he started, might have decided to turn it directly toward 2001's substance, rather than just inverting its form and switching its color palette from white to black.  We can talk about that later this week (with a heaving sigh, no doubt—because I guess we have to); but, for now, let's just say that Scott got it right on his first try, when he told a simple story about sullen idiots being picked off one by one in a giant evil spaceship, yet, vitally, with the style of a man who truly understood that, in space, no one would even be around to hear you scream.

Score:  9/10


  1. Ooh I can't wait for this marathon. I recently performed one of my own and it's a slog, but I'm at least glad it'll provide me mountains of new material to read. I'm selfish in that way.

    And the biology of the Xenomorph has never EVER made sense, when push comes to shove. An egg that houses an impregnating body? I'm pretty sure that's not a biologically sound approach to reproduction right off the bat. And of course Prometheus and Covenant come in to muck it up at every angle, because why the hell not.

    1. I mean, it would probably do okay with oxen, but the "perfect organism" bit is taking it a bit too far. Ironically, or not, Aliens makes a much stronger case for "perfection" in a sterile formalist sense, by situating the first film's bare-boned biology within a functional, if very alien, society But it's not like Ash could've had any idea they were organized like an ant hive. The humans still manage a body count of 50-1 once we've organized, so who's the better predator, really?

      Prometheus has its Engineer angle, at least, and doesn't posit any special status to the xenomorphs or their progenitors, other than that they were probably a weapon being experimented with by an ancient race of bored gods. But Covenant, of course, goes completely off the rails with the "perfect organism" themes, in much the same way that Alien Resurrection goes completely off its rails, with (amongst many, many other things) the franchise-long "trained bear" conceit.

      ANYway, you're right about it being kind of a slog. Haven't even gotten to the AvP films yet.

  2. If you're still around to read this, it's actually refreshing to read a not-so-reverent take on one of my favorites, and I can relate to your frustration as that's the way I feel about 'The Thing.' Though I think 'Alien' manages to sell the creature's sudden growth spurt, and its implication that we don't understand the universe anywhere near as well as we think we do is nearly as terrifying as its appearance.

    1. The Thing's biology doesn't bother me too much, but the movie (and I have a recollection this is straight from "Who Goes There?") comes extremely close to losing me every time I watch it, and I'm again confronted with the fact that Wilford Brimley is attempting to build a spaceship out of blown-up helicopter parts. Though I still think this is less aggressively dumb than trying to build a military unit out of angry giant insects (or, for that matter, angry utahraptors).