Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Review: Alien

  • Native Title: Alien
    [figure 1] Release poster (unknown)
  • Primary Language: English
  • Format: Colour
  • Year of release: 1979
  • Director: Ridley Scott
  • Budget: est. $11,000,000
  • Film Length: 117 minutes
  • Production Company: 20th Century Fox
    Another of the icons of film history, Alien is a dark exploration into the idea of rape through the classic horror tropes within a period when Science Fiction was in a boom age from the popularity of such franchises as Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica and Star Wars. Alien however is a much darker tale than any of these three and focuses on a used-future setting. It has been critically regarded as one of the scariest and most disturbing films of the late 20th century.
    When you look into it, the film is your classic typical horror story of a group of people trying to survive in a haunted house. One of the things that can come into question that Alien gets around via its setting is the question of "why not leave and call for help?" Unlike suburbia-set films the isolated location of deep space beyond the human frontier makes the film's tagline of "in space no one can hear you scream" ring very true: There is no air for the sound to travel but you will also be too far from anyone outside your group to help should you start screaming.

[figure 2] Its gross, but somehow the key aspects of it being a
baby are still there. Both creepy and oddly adorable. (Eggert, 2012)
    Two other aspects that set it apart from your typical haunted house film are the alien and the crew. The alien as a concept can be much more real than any ghost or phantom as the idea of extraterrestrials was gripping the interest of the scientific community and the general public thanks to, again, Star Wars, Star Trek but also the SETI program and the Apollo missions that generated a resurgence in the idea of extraterrestrial contact. But while Stars Trek and Wars may have been fairly optimistic about alien life, Alien goes back to the roots of 50s alien fiction with the idea of aliens being hostile, brutal, uncompromising and threatening of our way of life. The film also played on the interest in space travel but while Star Trek shows that life could be optimistic in the future, Alien portrays a "used future" palette with pipes, metal grates, industrial architecture and lots of greys and browns, slightly offset by some areas of common habitation such as the Nostromo's dining room and hibernation room that appear hospital-white with smooth contours and bright lighting. At the same time this is a utilitarian future full of exposed wires and monochrome screens, which aesthetically make it a far cry from the bright interiors and colour CRT screens of 2001 A Space Odyssey. There is also mention of a "Company", Weyland-Yutani, that everyone works for. With characters such as Dallas (Tom Skerrit) going as far as to live by the idea that the best way to get by as an ordinary guy in this distant future is to do whatever the company tells you, the with forefeit to rebellion or refusal to follow orders faced with being fired.

[figure 3] Perhaps one of the most famous improv scenes in film
history; The specifics of Lambert's grossed-out and vocal reaction
to the alien was not in the script. But it helps a lot to  establish
these characters as people (Nathan, 2009)
    The second grounding aspect is the way the crew are portrayed. In many b-movies the plot advances primarily because the key characters do things that a sane or rational person might not do in order to advance the plot (the 2012 film Cabin In The Woods satirizes the cliché of young people getting themselves killed for being willfully careless). In Alien, the crew are doing what they can to survive and there are a few stupid moments (which are justified in science officer Ash's case when it is revealed he is really a robot following orders from above) but none of which are entirely nonsensical when some thought is put into it and some of them can possibly be excused by reaction over reason. The characters' behavior is also fluid, they speak like people would. a particularly funny example is early on between Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and Parker (Yaphet Kotto) when Parker asks about matters of pay in a room being filled with high-pressure steam, Ripley tells him he'll "get what's coming to him", he responds with "what" and her response, to put it politely, is for him to go away, to which he responds with "what?", repeating again as Ripley walks off in frustration. The first half-hour is dedicated to characterising everyone and bringing home the idea that these are ordinary people, no different from the real-life crew of an oil tanker or fishing trawler and when looking at the background, there is an incredible amount of improvisation and method acting. "For the film's startling and bloody chestburster scene, the director and Hurt prepared without telling the other characters how it would play out; this now iconic movie moment features improvised yet natural reactions from actors shocked by the amount of fake blood spurting from Hurt's body, but also from his jarring physical performance" (Eggert, 2012), The cast were told to react, but Hurt was prepared away from the rest of the cast with the only clue as to what they would expect being a line in the script saying "this thing emerges". The expressions on everyone's faces show its also clear they weren't expecting that much fake blood to be sprayed about. When Ripley tells Parker to shut up late in the film, forcing herself into his rambling and yelling at the top of her lungs, there is a genuine feel that Weaver/Ripley had had enough of Parker's attitude and his voice.

    Another aversion to classic horror tropes is that the actors listed at the beginning are the ones to die, and Sigourney Weaver, while a film sensation now, did not get a beginning credit. The film stars people like Kotto, John Hurt, Tom Skeritt, Veronica Cartwright, Ian Holm and Harry-Dean Stanton. All of these actors have had careers in film and television all the way back as far as the 50s and were big names of the 70s. Alien was Weaver's breakout gig effectively, as before her career was near negligible compared to the other actors of the film. Yet she becomes the sole survivor of the crew, a position that is most often given to the bigger names on the cast roster in survival films. But at the same time the film still falls into classic tropes of the genre, Jones the Cat is probably responsible for between one third to half of all the scares in the film and Brett's (Stanton) death was though carelessness of wandering around a dimly lit room while there is an alien entity the crew knows nothing about lurking about (although Ash does get in a funny line mentioning to Dallas (Skerrit) that although the facehuggers do bleed acid, he's fairly certain that they don't become zombies. Perhaps something of a jab at the film's overall genre?). And I see definite significance in John Hurt being the one we see waking up first.

   What might make this movie stand out more is the background of some of the key members of the crew: "Scott, a recruit from advertising, where instant atmospherics has to be the order of the day, manipulates his audience in a far stronger fashion than he does in The Duelists" (Malcom, 2009) It can be seen in the drama of the Alien first arriving and in the mood of several scenes that are developed though a chilling score and lighting as well as plenty of close-up shots of the cast at tense moments. When it come to designing the alien and the environment it was found in, Scott didn't go to a concept artist. He went to a surrealist, asking H. R. Giger to design the scariest alien thing he could. What came out was something Giger claimed to have actually haunted his nightmares, a creature that was a nightmarish personification of the concept of rape. Giger was obsessed with reproductive imagery, with the alien ship its found in looking like a woman's....unmentionables in certain places. Add to that its very humid and sticky inside the bowels of the ship and you have a very disturbing, unnerving and definitely alien environment for these characters to explore. Bringing home that these aliens that the Nostromo's crew have found are in no way anything like you'd get in your typical afternoon episode of Star Trek.

[Figure 4] No eyes, no remose, and no clear view of it: Scott
used all kinds of close-up camera angles to up the mystery
of his space monster. (Cheng, 2014)
    There is no doubt that the air of terror radiating from the alien itself is rendered immortal to this day perhaps due to its groundbreaking design. "The monster itself is still one of the flat-out scariest ever designed for the movies. That it was played by a man in a suit works mainly because -- unlike computer effects -- we can sense that the characters and the monster are physically in the room together." (Anderson, unknown) The cast were able to see this thing and as mentioned earlier it was clear that Scott wanted to make his shots as authentic as possible. This wasn't a case of a man in a mocap suit or a guy wearing a tennis-ball-on-a-stick hat as other and more modern films try to depict less-than-human aliens and monsters; this was a breathing, physical creature whose design was probably more horrible than anything seen in films previously: the vast majority of aliens in films prior to this one were often either guys in suits or costume or creature puppets but you could still tell they were either puppets or guys in costume. The alien in this film resembled aspects of both - it had the inhuman head, tail and perahps the posture of a puppet but was played by and moved just like a man which is also why I can understand that some would consider the last act a letdown as it clears up that confusion which is a shame. Despite this reveal at the climax, the Alien live son as one of the most horrifying monsters to ever grace the cinema screen.

    Alien has lived up to its reputation as one of the most chilling films of the late 20th century and established the groundwor kfor many future films along with possibly being one of the catalysts (alongside Fritz Lang's Metropolis) for the popularity of the dystopian science fiction film genre.

Image References


  1. Interesting discussion around the 'realness' of the alien, compared to CG equivalents... Good work, Mark! :)

    1. Thanks. I know a couple of people who prefer actors in suits or puppets over CG models as there is something about them that makes them feel more...real. Although depending on the creature the sense of unrealness could be a deception, for instance where the stuff is motion-captured (Gollum from Lord of the Rings and Dobby from Harry Potter spring to mind: They're CG, but their movements and expressions were performed by real actors wearing mocap suits.)

      The realness of the alien was probably aided by the fact we never see it in the full light. We only ever see bits of it until the very last scene and even when it is revealed though a jump-scare at the end Scott does his best to prevent us from going "oh, wait, its a guy in a suit."