01/04/2012

Up-words - Loving the Alien

Up-words- The Best of the Paper Issues of This way up 2002-10

Loving The Alien by Sean Alexander
February 2004
The word ‘ground-breaking’ in cinema these days has become a euphemism for the latest technical advance in special effects.  Audiences jaded by summer after summer of high-octane, explosive blockbusters can be forgiven for forgetting a time when films still presented something truly unique.  Popularly considered by movie aficionados as the last hurrah of the ‘Golden Age’ of cinema, the 1970s bowed out with one film that would revolutionise the science fiction and horror genres alike and, in doing so, embody the very hallmarks of style and substance representative of classic cinema.

For a film of simple pretensions, Alien certainly made its mark. Starting out as an inverted take on John Carpenter’s cult space comedy Dark Star, Starbeast, as it was originally called, would go through a variety of refining processes during its gestation and rebirth as Alien.  Dan O’Bannon, performer and writer on the aforementioned slacker hit, began work on the script following the disharmonious end to his relationship with Dark Star director Carpenter.  Inspired by stories of World War II bombers attacked by gremlins, O’Bannon wrote the first half of a story concerning the hypothetical invasion by alien beings of a B-52.  At this point a period of writer’s block resulted in the embryonic Alien temporarily grinding to a halt - and it would take the arrival of friend and writing compatriot Ronald Shusett to capitalise on O’Bannon’s suspenseful first act.  Once complete - and despite later revisions and additions from names including director Walter Hill and producer David Giler - O’Bannon and Shusett’s combined two-act template of build-up and resolution would provide the backbone of the film’s success.  And an important name-change to Alien would seal the script’s maturation from pipedream to bona-fide screenplay.

Twentieth-Century Fox green-lit the picture and - several false-starts later - forty-year-old former advertisement maker and BBC designer Ridley Scott began filming in 1978.  Director of one previous film, The Duellists, Scott had been ‘blown away’ by the previous year’s box-office smash Star Wars with its fusion of old-fashioned story-telling and futuristic settings.  With O’Bannon & Shusett’s scary, character-driven script already in place, Scott envisaged an opportunity to capitalise on Star Wars’ success by approaching similar material from a different angle.  Convinced that the realisation of the Alien itself was crucial to the success of the movie - and in turn escape from the science-fiction cliché of a man in a rubber suit - Scott turned to hitherto unknown Swiss-born artist H.R. Giger.

Giger’s disturbing and surreal oeuvre of ‘bio-mechanical’ designs gave Alien a scarcely dreamt of iconic look and visual bible that remains influential on science fiction today.  His organic signature is littered throughout Alien’s visual landscape, from the surrealistic design of the derelict spacecraft to its calcified ’space jockey’ pilot.  But where Giger’s greatest influence on Alien is most clearly seen is in the titular creature itself: an alien in every sense of the word.  Yet the genesis of the ’xenomorph’ was no random occurrence.  Within his seminal work ’Necronomicon’ Giger had already crafted a startlingly similar evocation of terror to that later seen on Shepperton’s sound-stages.  And Scott, a great believer in the ‘If it ain’t broke…’ philosophy was convinced that he had the totem of horror he required.  With his vision and Giger’s design, Alien had its Alien.

Conceptually - and rather appropriately for a man of such visually-inclined bent - Scott ensured that design took a leading role in establishing the cinematic universe of Alien.  And this intention to bring a reality and rawness to the whole film permeates every aspect of each scene’s mechanics.  The principal setting of the Nostromo spaceship has - despite its technical trappings - a very lived-in feeling.  The technical influence of 2001’s Odyssey has been dirtied down and contemporised, fittingly so as to depict a crew - and by extension, society - both at ease with and slightly bored by its surroundings.  From a design aesthetic it is notable how many of the ship’s sets are circular - the mess hall, the infirmary, ‘Mother’s’ chamber - and how Scott’s slow pans around these sets heightens the sense of claustrophobia on board.  This results in a ship where, no matter where you go, you always ends up where you began, underlining the twin notions of familiarity and hostility inherent in Alien‘s philosophy.   Indeed the design of Mother’s chamber is a microcosm of this ideal, its winking lights and cut-off sense of isolation echoing the surrounding vacuum nature of space itself.

While the look of the film merely establishes Alien’s grounding in ‘reality’, Scott uses another medium to capitalise on this foundation.  Sound plays a - surprisingly - significant role in Alien’s slow build up of suspense.  During large sections of the film - particularly in the absence of significant dialogue or music - subtle sounds are audibly emphasised.  The effect is to create a sense of uneasiness, an awareness of something constantly in the background.  The opening breakfast scene as the crew recovers from hyper-sleep is redolent with overlapping conversations, creating a sense of underlying tension.  Scott favours contrasts within scenes - particularly between the cold, harsh reality of the outside Universe and the warm, claustrophobic interior of the Nostromo.  This is best illustrated during the rescue team’s progress to the derelict spaceship, where the pin-drop quiet of Ash’s observation bubble is in stark contrast to the howling scream of the planet outside.

Critics have often suggested that ’nothing happens’ for the first 45 minutes of Alien, ignorant of the fact that it is this very ’nothing’ that gives the film its huge pay-off value later on.  Mindful of this, and of John Williams’ success in creating tension through music on Jaws, Scott utilises Jerry Goldsmith’s score as a means of suggesting menace right up to - and beyond - the pressure-valve release of Kane’s death.  And like 2001 before it, music is here used majestically, enabling sterile, soundless space scenes to achieve a hitherto uncaptured sense of awe and grandiosity.

Within this posited future that Alien takes place it is clear that space-travel has become common-place.  The nature of the Nostromo’s raison d’etre - to ship mineral ore from one side of the galaxy to another - illustrates how far such a once fantastical concept as interstellar travel has become everyday and mundane.  Accordingly, the characteristics of the ship’s crew echo this ennui of over-familiarity.  Our first impressions are of a group of world-weary professionals operating in an uncomfortable environment.  Personal relations amongst the seven are cold and detached - no-one addresses anyone by their first name, professional decorum or otherwise - and there are significant amounts of needle and back-biting.  This is a crew that only turns to forging emotional connections with one another when faced with overwhelming terror, becoming comrades in adversity. Alien was heavily criticised at the time of its release for its sparse commitment to characterisation.  Yet there are no anonymous ciphers to be encountered here.  One of the advantages of the film’s languorous build up over the first three-quarters of an hour is that the audience is allowed to get to know these people before they are expected to care what happens to them.  Like an Agatha Christie who-dunnit, each character contains enough information for the viewer to make informed conclusions.  Captain Dallas is the dependable and clear-headed - not to mention, world-weary - leader of a motley crew of miners.  Kane is a dependable second-in-command, unusually reticent to stir up vitriol in comparison with his ship-mates.  Ripley, as one of the two women aboard, is immediately cast into focus by her authoritarian status in a male-dominated environment; her zealous, hard-faced exterior shrouding a compassionate and vulnerable nature.  Lambert is spiky and prone to panic, while her ability to sense impending doom latterly comes across as pre-cognisance.  Parker and Brett, with their blue-collar background and sense of class injustice in this microcosmic society, emphasise the tone of hostility and distrust prevalent throughout the crew.  And Ash is the coldly analytical man of science, emotionally detached from the crew both before - and during - their enforced bonding as events escalate out of control.  The effect is to create a group of individuals, not clichés.

It is in Ash that we have the most ambiguous yet clearly motivated member of the Nostromo crew.  Although we later discover why he is so focused, it is one of Alien’s finest achievements that, until we discover Ash‘s true nature, his aloofness and cold emotional detachment can be viewed as merely characteristic of a scientifically-inclined mind.  On repeated viewings, we are of course more able to trace Ash’s motives from an early stage.  His prompting of Dallas to Mother’s summons, his frosty hostility towards Ripley while examining Kane’s body scan, his macabre description of the Alien as ‘Kane’s son’.  Yet even as Ash’s true colours are revealed in his murderous attack on Ripley, there is a sense that the character’s underlying nature is somehow compromised.  Ian Holm’s twitchy performance suggests a battle between the robot’s fundamental programming and the orders imposed on it by the Company.  And an intriguing argument can be put forward to suggest that Ash is himself a victim of the Company’s machinations: a perfect example of what happens when Asimov’s first principal of robotics is corrupted.


Ridley Scott always maintains that the film succeeds best on a purely visceral level.  And it is true that, in any diluted analysis, the film is an effective ‘haunted house’ ride of terror where the director plays with our expectations of the genre as to which of the next ‘little Indians’ will die next.  We, as the audience, are always put in the place of the individual about to die.  Yet Alien is suffused with several themes and subtexts that offer rich pickings on repeated viewings. In the depiction of the crew, we are presented with recognisable class systems and examples of power politics.  Parker and Brett, as the ‘oily rags’ of engineering, represent the underclass of blue-collar workers socially at odds with the officer faction of the rest of Nostromo’s crew.  Female gender politics are also examined, principally through Ripley’s zealous defence of her professional standing in a male-oriented world.  Unlike her fellow XY chromosome colleague Lambert, Ripley manages to remain authoritative, resourceful and feminine throughout the film.  And it is a testament to Scott’s integrity as director that, even when Ripley is stripped to the level of voyeuristic eye-candy, the camera enhances her sexual and spiritual strengths to equal proportions.

No true analysis of Alien’s themes can ignore the powerful Freudian imagery of the Alien itself.  Indeed, both the creature’s principal and eventual forms are suggestive of male sex symbolism.  Most notoriously, the adult form has a distinctly phallic-shaped head whose penetrative jaws are caked in a sperm-like drool.  Meanwhile, the face-hugger’s violent and non-consensual invasion of its victim represents a form of oral rape - with the consequential impregnation of a malignant ‘child’ in Kane symbolising latent male fears of child-birth.  The ‘oral rape’ metaphor is reiterated in Ash’s visually-bizarre suffocation attempt on Ripley.  That he perpetrates it with a rolled-up porn magazine - itself a symbol of male rape fantasy - while surrounded by similarly titillating pictures only throws the parallel into stark relief.

The twin symbolism of rape and the Alien is again evident in the death of Lambert.  The creature’s slow, seductive entrapment of her - along with Lambert’s own paralysed submission and pseudo-orgasmic hyperventilating - lend the scene a voyeuristic sensibility from which the camera seems compelled to move away.  And the handheld shot of Ripley’s desperate attempt to reach her colleague, overlaid with the soundtrack of Lambert’s death shriek, makes this one of the most disturbing images of the whole film. In short, the true subtext of Alien is that the familiarity of peoples' lives breeds apathy and contempt.  Against this comes the realisation that true horror comes not from spiritual decay within, but from unholy terror without.  It is this fear of the unknown and the need to keep it outside that is the fundamental theme running throughout the film.  For it is when the metaphorical terrors of outside become the literal horrors of within - quite literally for Kane, who is a victim of the horror inside himself - that the screaming truly begins.

Viewed as a template much imitated but rarely equalled, Alien is a model example of simple, white-knuckle film-making.  It is testament to its ability to hold an audience’s attention that the last seventeen minutes of the film have no dialogue whatsoever.  And so successful was its format that the original film inevitably echoes through each of its increasingly-inferior sequels.  While Aliens is touted as one of the best sequels in modern cinema, even its greatest supporters concede that the film’s sacrifice of Alien invincibility at the altar of gung-ho action has a detrimental effect on the sequel’s audience-stranglehold.  As a reaction to this, Alien 3’s attempt to re-establish the single-Alien threat fell flat on listless characterisation, despite impressive visual and thematic flourishes.  And by Alien Resurrection the run-and-fight pattern of the films had become pedestrian and desperately familiar to long-term viewers. ‘A survivor, unclouded by conscience, remorse or delusions of morality’, Ash eulogised of the alien.  And his description could be equally ascribed to the original film’s ongoing popularity.  What draws an audience to this masterpiece nearly a quarter of a century after its first release is as simple as the film’s mandate to induce terror itself. Like the titular star, Alien is admired for its purity.


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