Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979)

Spoilers, spoilers, every where.

"You still don't understand what you're dealing with, do you? Perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.

—Ash, Alien

A Dead Teenager Movie with older characters. The B monster movie. The 1950s-style science fiction story. The haunted house tale. The vampire legend. The subset of marooned sea voyagers yarns from pirate comics. Despite telling an incredibly simple story — a group of characters stuck in a confined space where a monster picks them off one by one — Alien uses several genres and tropes at once, but knows the difference between inspired homage and lazy knockoff.

Ridley Scott's film opens with a mining spaceship carrying millions of tons of mineral ore and a seven-member crew in stasis returning to Earth. The ship's computer wakes up the crew altering it of a transmission of unknown origin from a nearby planet. Acting on orders from their corporate employers, the crew lands on the planet to investigate.

Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt), Executive Officer Kane (John Hurt) and Navigator Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) set out to investigate the signal's source while Warrant Officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), Science Officer Ash (Ian Holm) and Engineers Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) and Parker (Yaphet Kotto) stay behind to monitor their progress.

Dallas, Kane and Lambert discover that the signal is coming from an abandoned alien spacecraft. Inside it they find the remains of a large alien creature whose ribs look to have been bent outward from the inside.

Onboard the ship, Ripley believes that the signal transmission is not a distress call, but a warning. However, it's too late. Kane finds a vast chamber containing numerous eggs, one of which releases a creature that attaches itself to his face.

Dallas and Lambert bring Kane, unconscious, back to the ship, despite Ripley's orders to follow quarantine protocol (Ash overrides her orders and allows them in, for reasons we'll get into later).

The deadpan and oft-muted dialogue is another aspect of the film that sells it. The characters speak informally, in shorthand, not like characters in a typical horror — or sci-fi — film. Listen to how Sigourney Weaver as Ripley expresses her confusion and disapproval about bringing John Hurt back into the ship after a who-the-hell-knows-what has attached itself to its face. Everything she says is truncated, informal and under her breath. She speaks like a technician, not an action hero.

(Although James Cameron's Aliens is an amazing film and worthy sequel, this muted style of realistic dialogue is one of the many elements Cameron's movie, which is chock-full of "colorful" characters and "badass" one-liners, discards from the original. If I'm to be completely honest, this is something that I find a tad annoying with Aliens and many of Cameron's films. Not that I don't still love the first sequel. Seriously, folks, don't get the idea that I think and feel otherwise.)

They crew tries — and fails — to remove the creature from Kane's face, discovering that it bleeds acid (and here we get the funny-and-horrific sequence where they follow the spilt blood as it eats through several levels of metallic floor). Eventually, and for no readily apparent reason, the creature detaches itself and is found dead.

Kane later wakes up and seems inexplicably okay. However, when the crew all has dinner together, Kane starts coughing violently and then convulsing. That's when his shirt goes from white to dark red, and a small alien tears out of his chest, killing him.

Yes: here's where we get to the ribcage scene. Oh man. Oh. Man. Just as the movie as a whole incorporates many elements from many different types of movies, comics and stories, this scene manages to exploit many different types of fears, from the terror of childbirth to the horror of cancer to fears of mutilation, being eaten alive and hidden parasites.

It's a whole lot of awful in a very short sequence.

The tiny alien thingie scurries away and sneaks off somewhere in the ship. Even though they don't have conventional weapons (they are, after all, on a mining ship), the crew tries to find the creature using motion trackers, electric prods and flamethrowers.

Brett follows the crew's cat, into a large room where the now fully-grown alien attacks him and disappears with his body into the ship's seemingly endless maze of shafts and vents.

Screenwriter Dan O'Bannon said, "I didn't steal Alien from anybody. I stole it from everybody!" This is clear from the multiple uses of genres to the archetypical story to the incredibly generic title (although it was originally entitled Star Beast). Even the alien itself, designed by H.R. Giger, is not a distinct monster. When we first see it, it's some sort of horrible horseshoe crab/spider/scorpion-looking hybrid. Then it's a tiny white parasitey thing with teeth. Then it gets really big and, well, here's how Roger Ebert described the alien's appearance in his Great Movies essay on the film:

"Alien uses a tricky device to keep the alien fresh throughout the movie: It evolves the nature and appearance of the creature, so we never know quite what it looks like or what it can do. We assume at first the eggs will produce a humanoid, because that's the form of the petrified pilot on the long-lost alien ship. ... The first time we get a good look at the alien, as it bursts from the chest of poor Kane.

"...[L]ater, as we glimpse it during a series of attacks, it no longer assumes this shape at all, but looks octopod, reptilian or arachnoid...the alien is capable of being just about any monster the story requires. Because it doesn't play by any rules of appearance or behavior, it becomes an amorphous menace, haunting the ship with the specter of shape-shifting evil." (Emphasis mine.)

The eponymous alien is a giant creature we never get a great look at that changes form through the course of the film (and through the course of its sequels, but that's another story) that can blend in with the ducts and circuitry of the ship. It has no personality or goals to speak of, aside from wanton cruelty and destruction. It's the quintessential Monster With No Name.

Anyway, after the alien has killed a good number of crewmembers, Ripley later finds out that Ash has been ordered to return the alien to Earth without regard of the crew's survival ("Return alien life form, all other priorities rescinded"). Ash attacks her, but Parker attacks and decapitates Ash with a fire extinguisher, revealing Ash to be an android.

The first time I saw this sequence with Ash sweating a milk-like substance, displaying superhuman strength shoving a magazine down Ripley's throat then violently vomiting up said milky substance, I found it to be as equally scary as the scene where the young alien ripped out of Hurt's ribcage. I didn't know what the hell was going on. It's only after Ash's head is severed that the movie reveals that he's an android.

Is this a cheat? Absolutely not. We're dealing with the far future, alien civilizations and interstellar travel. Why is it difficult to imagine that there are androids in this world? As the characters' shorthand dialogue shows, Alien doesn't hold our hand explaining upfront how its world works; we're more or less thrust in and have to catch up. (George Lucas does the same thing with his debut film, THX-1138 though to a much greater degree, and also with Star Wars, though to a much lesser degree.)

With Ash destroyed and the rest of the crew save Ripley dead, Ripley initiates the self-destruct sequence and heads for the shuttle with the cat, which is responsible for many false alarms and crewmember deaths (note to anyone whomever finds themselves in a similar situation: just like when you're escaping a burning building, never, ever ever return for the cat).

As Ripley gets ready to enter stasis on the shuttle after she blew up the ship, she discovers that the alien is aboard the shuttle. There's the obligatory Big Final Showdown between Ripley and the alien, Ripley finally wins and the alien is blasted out into deep space.

The film ends with Ripley and that damn cat entering stasis for the return trip to Earth, presumably safe and sound (for those of us who didn't see Aliens or are completely unaware of the film franchise).

As Mr. O'Bannon's quote about the writing process for the film reveals, Alien wears its influences on its sleeve and makes no apologies about them. It uses almost every trick in the horror film book, from the person going down the long dark corridor with an awful beastie somewhere in the shadows to the "boo" moment that turns out to only be the cat, that could have come across as a shameless rip-off or uninspired pastiche, but winds up becoming an effectively original standalone film that became the source of (and survives) various knockoffs, sequels and spin-offs.

Screaming in space,

James "Unpleasant Neighbor" Comtois

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