Alien is a masterpiece. You could end the conversation right there. Even the plague of sequels, and versuses, and prequels, have failed to diminish its essential magnificence. It’s still the film that (with one other) maintains (Sir) Ridley Scott’s legacy as a great director, whatever else he does (and he does a lot) to malign it. I should probably leave it at that, but then this piece would be a touch on the brief side.
Most student theses on Alien (and there must be tens of thousands out there, with numbers rising by the minute) will witter on earnestly about the picture’s psychosexual elements ‘til the xenomorphs come home. There’s no doubt this aspect is wilfully impressed upon the film, offshooting from co-writer Ronald Shusett’s inspiration that the creature should burst – or birth – forth from a human host, and gaining momentum with each subsequent creative pass. It’s there in the incredibly suggestive HR Giger design work, and the unusually in-your-face, for Scott’s subsequent career at any rate, allusions, right down to shoving porn into our heroine’s mouth (Scott even debated the sexual impulses of androids).
But it’s a debate with a shelf life, partly because its director isn’t a naturally fetishistic one (well, not in that way; he’s no Cronenberg), and while such content is there, everywhere, it’s essentially superlative set dressing, but one element of the picture’s enduring appeal. I think that’s why – irrespective of quality – subsequent instalments have rather floundered when they’ve attempted to reconstitute such themes. They’ve been far more confident, and adept, at upping the ante of the alien as cannon fodder, or exploring the picture’s other significant contribution to subsequent science fiction (besides its exotic star beast): the disenchanted future.
So academia’s focus on the fearsome phallic fiend is a little off-balance. It’s the mythology, that tantalising mythology, that has proved most enduringly provocative, extending to the design, effects, cast, and most resonantly, to the capacity for suggesting hidden depths of worlds preceding this future, be it through the alien’s construct or the conspiratorial tendrils of the company. Alien is an event movie, but a very individual one, poised between post-Lucas world-building flair and the formal blockbusterism of the ’80s. by the time of its sequel, the same elements would be par for the course, and much less distinctive. Come Prometheus, they would be rote, and in danger of self-combusting inwards.
I didn’t see Alien until after Aliens; a couple of weeks after, I seem to recall, by which time I’d already watched the sequel two or three times. I’ll reserve most of my comments on the follow-up for that revisit, but I will say that, for all Alien’s stunning production design, it was the James Cameron film that initially impressed me most, a view I couldn’t conceive of condoning now. The sequel, despite being relatively modest in budget, was very much scaled as a blockbuster of then-modern action cinema; it was more adrenalised and muscular and immediately dynamic. It also worked well on a cramped 4:3 VHS tape. Alien’s a film that absolutely needs to be seen in its original format to truly be appreciated, and in the years since my appreciation for it has only grown, just as my one-time love for the sequel has waned.
This is Exhibit B (A is Blade Runner, but a fairer approach is probably to interchange them) in the greatness of Sir Ridders as a filmmaker. Alas, there’s a downside, that we’re seeing him at the height of his willingness to explore, experiment and inhabit right at the beginning of his career. By the end of the ’80s his technique will become so honed, so precise, that there will be little left to inspire or captivate his audience. He will have become merely a proficient technician of a filmmaker, one without true passion for the material, and the possibilities that derive from translating it to celluloid, to back up the virtuosity.
With Alien and Blade Runner particularly, you can perceive a real talent embellishing the subject matter with depth, be it via performance, architecture, emotion or theme. Not necessarily consciously, as Scott isn’t much of an intellect-philosopher, but nourishing the capacity for something beyond itself, that potential whereby a film doesn’t stop and start with the edges of the frame on display, the line being read, or the action being performed. That’s true world building, and Scott’s later forays have shown a lesser, more linear capacity in that regard.
The irony is, in the (outstanding) “making of” documentary on the Alien Quadrilogy set, Scott proclaimed he would only do another science fiction film if he had a good story, that “it’s all about the story”. This from the guy who rejected the ambiguity of Deckard being a replicant for cold hard facts, and the one who then decided he needed to explain Alien’s Space Jockey rather than leave it to the fertile minds of the audience (and let’s face it, nothing he fashioned could have equalled the range of conjecture found in the thirty years between, his Von Daniken stylings proving as so-so as the attempts to come up with a new form of body horror to match the original; once you’re comparing or matching against what came before in that way, you’re inevitably in trouble). It’s notable also that Texas Chainsaw Massacre was Scott’s major tonal inspiration, by way of the desire to explore science fiction’s potential in the post-Star Wars technical climate. Tobe Hooper’s film is, after all, most definitely not all about story; it’s all about queasy atmosphere and visceral impact.
I’ve said this before, but I don’t think Scott could make a movie like Alien now. He doesn’t have the staying power, the patience to linger. He’s too process-driven; even those that are (relatively) superior like Prometheus (despite its myriad problems, the film has something, I just wished it didn’t also have the somethings that diminish it) and the much-maligned The Counsellor, are more about his driving a (variable) script through technique than wanting to explore, experiment or create something unique (and even Legend, for all its resounding failure, is unique). Alien’s simplicity is ideal for what Scott wants to impress upon the material.
In Alien, the director takes his time. I’ve never had the will to check out his 2003 edit, a piece designed to publicise and sell the Quadrilogy, but he clarified that the 1979 cut was his preferred, perfect version. That notwithstanding, it’s difficult to believe he’d now spend the time he does on the set up. And this isn’t the kind of time Cameron takes pre-xenomorphs in Aliens; it’s all about creating mood and ambience.
With Scott’s camera prowling the Nostromo’s womblike interiors, we’re a full six minutes into the film before there are signs of life. Everything that happens during the first half is about establishing a verisimilitudinous environment, so ensuring the second’s pay off goes without question. Thus Scott luxuriates in investigating the surface of the planet, and the spaceship and its occupants that look like nothing else. It’s nearly half an hour before we see the Space Jockey, and Scott is sufficiently keyed in to what he is unveiling to encourage our astonishment, to let us drink it in. There’s no need to cut to characters shouting about how much they love rocks.
We see this willingness to be silent, to let the image be as impactful as it can be, throughout, be it the shot of the quiet, contemplating Jones the cat or the alien encountering the same. When Kane gets a face full of hugger, the crescendo of music cuts out and there is silence, Scott and his editor pulling back from the derelict. It’s the spaces that makes this work, that make it so distinct from Prometheus. It’s almost an hour until the chestburster issues forth, and even there the scene is studied in its willingness to let the sound drop out, to contemplate aghast the sheer horror of what has just transpired. Scott can allow himself to become hypnotised by a shot or a shape in a way he would never indulge today; hence, for example, the repeated attraction to fingers (Kane in the derelict, Ripley on the ladder as she flees the xenomorph).
On revisit at least, it’s this immersion, and its maker’s intoxication with the process, that really makes the film. When you’ve seen Alien so many times, the shock tactics are revealed as highly skilled in terms of execution but not really that special or distinct from average horror fare (returning foolishly for the cat, a hysterically screaming woman, characters behaving illogically, most obviously by going into the ship’s ducting, then loitering around waiting to be killed). We’ve seen this kind of thing before and we will see it many times again; the contrivance required to kill off Lambert and Parker (coming after the convenience of a shuttle that won’t take four people, so delaying an escape route), one a weeping fool, the other macho cannon fodder, is by any standards cheap. Come the false ending, it’s been three years since Carrie, and audiences have already learnt to expect such trickery in the wake of De Palma-influenced cinema.
Scott’s used future transposes the weary blue-collar vibe from the ’70s onto a spaceship, with liberal quantities of coffee, cigarettes and ribaldry. This isn’t a place of perfection, and the lo-fi dialogue, often requiring effort to make out (especially in the video era) ingrains this world. It goes without saying that Alien is expertly lit, edited and soundscaped, a meticulously crafted piece of work, but it’s one that also has immediacy and grounding to it.
One aspect that’s notable, much more so than in its sequel, despite this being a Scott picture through-and-through, is the significance of its collaborators. Vital are Dan O’Bannon and Ron Shusett, of course, the former the originator putting a serious spin on the frivolous Dark Star (in which he stole the show, even from the alien, as the miserablist Pinback), the latter providing the aforementioned key suggestion of a creature laying its eggs in a human host.
It’s perhaps understandable that such an iconic film should see those involved looking to claim credit where it may or may not be due, but Charles de Lauzirika’s doc is striking for who comes off better or worse. It’s clear O’Bannon was enormously important beyond the “mere” script aspect; he chaperoned the conceptual artists, bringing Giger to Scott’s attention, and the director also paid him heed. Whereas producers Walter Hill and David Giler, not science fiction guys, we’re dismissive of O’Bannon’s contribution, rewrote the script, which Giler pronounced a piece of shit, and barred him from viewing dailies.
None of which would be especially noteworthy – writers are treated badly all the time in Hollywood, after all – if not for Giler’s attitude, which seems to be one of having brought everything to the table that made the picture the success it was. We only have to see what happened when the same producers had their names on the screenplay (Alien³) to acknowledge what a mess they could make.
That said, Giler undoubtedly does deserve a huge chunk of credit, for he’s the one who brought in the series’ second most enduring element besides the alien itself, that of the company android (he also wrote the great decapitated Ash monologue, perhaps the best dialogue scene in the film). It’s this that lifts the picture from being a mere monster movie, albeit one that has titillated psychological readings ever since, and offers a real-world commentary component beyond the crew being space truckers earning a dime for the company. (The balance to Giler’s authorial assertions is O’Bannon’s tit-for-tat sour grapes over Ash; “an inferior idea from inferior minds well-acted and well directed”. Still, O’Bannon was Pinback, so he wins on points.)
Giler had contributed to the screenplay of The Parallax View some five years earlier, and was clearly versed in the cynicism of unassailable and infinitely corrupt corporations and their systems of power. It’s a feature that flows naturally into Alien but does so at a point of shifting emphasis in movies. Over the two decades before this, much of the conspiracy narrative had focused on the instruments of presiding governmental power, a theme that had been growing ever since the JFK assassination. In the period directly preceding the picture, however, a gradual shift had begun, towards corporate interests as the source of insidious and corrupting influences on society.
Following Alien, the corrupt corporation became a de facto staple, both in the genre (ad nauseam, truth be told) and generally. Cynicism towards the money-makers and capitalists may be commendable, less so when it becomes generic. It loses its bite. Even by Aliens, the blistering rage of response to an institution that would put pecuniary reward before lives is somewhat blunted, a shorthand rather than something that arouses true ire. Here, it has edge, not least because it’s displayed in such a rationalised, calculated form, represented by the automaton and the computer; they are the picture’s inhuman, soulless suits. In Aliens, they’re back to being – very ’80s – human, soulless suits. Scott puts us at the midpoint between Kubrick and a grimier, recognisable world; what if A Space Odyssey was all about the fucking money?
Alien might even be tagged retrospectively as a Von Daniken-esque, origins-of-man conspiracy movie, although that’s perhaps taking things a step too far.
Ash is the second alien in the film, an alien masquerading as a man (the other is a phallus, while simultaneously embodying Barbara Creed’s monstrous feminine toothed vagina), but presumably a repressed and frustrated man who resents strong women in the work place and takes out his impotence by attacking them with pornography (rolled into a substitute erection). While this sort of thing is all quite neat, and the tension between Ash and Ripley is tangibly conveyed throughout by Weaver and Holm, what it isn’t is coherent. There’s never a sense of a master plan with Alien in respect of its presentation of fear and horror, it amounts to whatever sexual insecurity or paranoia seemed like a good idea at the time.
It could so easily have gone another way, from the wasps breeding in a human host (given a decidedly less sexual but no less invasive quality in the four years-earlier Doctor Who story The Ark in Space) in its most literal form, pre-Giger, to considering the consequence if Ripley had remained a man (the cheesecake vulnerability of the climax would be rather different for a start).
In the film, what begins as the violation of the masculine, in a horrifying perversion of the temple of birth, evolves into something slightly more traditional, the semi-naked lady (albeit one with get up-and-go) menaced by the giant penis (more commonly manifested as a knife or blunt instrument). She only disrobes having suffered attempted violation by a man too, which is slightly reactionary. And this comes after perhaps the most regressive depiction of a silly, shrieking woman since… Well, maybe Veronica Cartwright at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (I kid).
None of which is to diminish the academic Freudian interpretations of the picture, but they can become a little all-consuming. These depths are overlaid; they aren’t in the picture’s DNA. There’s nothing inherent here beyond creating an immersive thriller in as aesthetically confounding, challenging and creative a way possible. Or, to put it as Kim Newman rather uncharitably does, referencing its director’s Hovis ad background, “Sliced bread tastes vile and Alien is a dumb film, but you’d never guess that from watching Scott’s foggy, prettified visuals”.
Ash: You still don’t understand what you’re dealing with, do you? Perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.
Lambert: You admire it.
Ash: I admire its purity. A survivor… unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.
The only design work in a modern science fiction movie that tops Alien is Blade Runner. Every aspect of the picture holds up 37 years later, barring the odd limitation of weightless alien in space or shrunken Ash head. The Moebius spacesuits may have found a sexy new incarnation in Prometheus, but these are bruised and battered, functional things that also resemble cumbersome deep-sea divers’ gear. And they look cool. The alien meanwhile disguises itself in tubes and vents like a sleepy insect, and its blood melts through several floors before losing its toxicity (can you imagine if that approach been followed through in the sequels?), an idea that came from Ron Cobb.
While Alien Resurrection recaptured something of the sleek, malign beauty of the creatures, none of the subsequent films have really got that exotic, truly alien aspect (the most perfunctory being Cameron’s aliens=storm troopers reading). One intriguing aspect of this, never really expanded upon in the Alien universe, is mankind’s encounters with other species. We’re told “This is the first time we’ve encountered a creature like this” but the sequel is no more illuminating regarding the extent to which humans have stumbled across other life forms.
One thing all the Alien pictures have in common, though, is strong casts, which isn’t to say they’re all on an equal footing in how they use them. Like Carpenter’s The Thing, this is a classic case of disgruntled complaints about poorly drawn or indistinguishable characters losing their strength as the decades have rolled on. Few would now argue that you don’t know exactly who is who and why, or how they relate to each other in Alien, with the possible exception of Lambert, whom it’s impossible to believe was ever written as other than a stereotypical screamer with virtually no redeeming features (it’s a crime she lasts as long as she does).
Part of why it works so well is the eclectic mix. Even in The Thing, you know Kurt Russell will make it to the final reel (something Tarantino expressly played on in The Hateful Eight). Weaver was nobody at the time, and pretty much everyone else was better known for supporting roles than as leads. This evens the odds, added to which it takes time to realise where sympathies are supposed to lie; Ripley acts sensibly by seeking to enforce quarantine, but it’s in opposition to who looks to be the hero (until he snuffs it). Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton are magnificently contrary with everyone, but no one here presents a uniformly united front. Well, except Ash and Mother (Helen Horton).
Alien also features one of Jerry Goldsmith’s best scores, albeit not always at his own behest (he doesn’t even get to furnish the end credits; it’s Howard Hanson’s Symphony No.2). Famously, pieces from his Freud score were included against his wishes, as he couldn’t deliver what Scott wanted; Goldsmith put it down to the director not understanding the artistic process, that as a musician he provided whatever emotional suited a scene, not a visual accompaniment. Honestly, though, I think every musical choice here works incredibly well. As such, the absence of music works incredibly well too. It’s a feat of sound design (for which it won a BAFTA) as much for what it withholds as what it allows you to hear, right down to Ripley’s breathless rendition of You Are My Lucky Star.
Star Beast could have been a bust. It could have been the same film the myriad of cheap cash-ins of the subsequent two or three years were. But Alien isn’t a picture that results from a singular thematic vision; it’s one that derives from distinct aesthetic sensibilities. It’s why Aliens, say, is far more cohesive yet perversely much less rewarding. As such, it’s what might have been (Vincent Ward’s Alien³) or what almost was (Jeunet’s irreverent take on Joss Whedon’s screenplay for Alien Resurrection) that offer more interesting canvasses to explore subsequently than the route of straight imitation or unimaginative continuance.
Because really, where else is there left to go? While his desire to go all von Daniken at least had the potential of a distinctive new layer to the series’ mythos, it was hampered by a director still wedded to the basic template, and that will continue to be the problem going forward, alas (just look at what we knew of the thankfully aborted Neill Blomkamp Aliens 2); you really need that alchemy of disparate talents to provide a new take on an old tale (Ten Little Indians in The Old Dark House, said Scott, babbling incontinently again), to renew a franchise Fox clearly wants to get ringing the tills again but doesn’t quite grasp how.