Thursday, July 10, 2014

Alien (1979)

USA / UK, 117 minutes
Director: Ridley Scott
Writers: Dan O'Bannon, Ronald Shusett
Photography: Derek Vanlint
Music: Jerry Goldsmith
Editors: David Crowther, Terry Rawlings, Peter Weatherley
Cast: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto, Jones

Every time I come back to Alien I am somehow surprised all over again by how good it is—setting aside the first time I saw it and the trauma it caused me, and could well cause you too if you happen to have never seen it. It's a very scary movie, first and foremost, grimly determined to be exactly that. But once past that, with all the shocks and surprises it delivers about the reproductive and survival processes of the terrifying alien monster—"alien" in every sense of the word—the sheer elegance of how this picture is put together shines: savvy in conception, heavy on production design, with a uniformly excellent cast, a tight focus on a single predicament across confined spaces, and with utterly no mercy. It's equal parts great science fiction and great horror, and it is full of twists and turns, some of which I'm going to talk about, so spoiler alert.

It starts with the gleaming spaceships of 2001 and Star Wars and adds rust and office politics. The spaceship in Alien is more on the order of a river barge, with battered and well-used industrial workstations. It's just a corporate freighter mostly empty of life except for the crew of seven, two of whom, blue-collar working stiffs, bicker with the others about their compensation and other grievances. The humdrum ongoing mission (toting materials from one place to another around the known universe) is interrupted when the crew is wakened from deep traveling sleep for a visit to a planet from which a distress signal has been detected. Everyone inside and outside of the movie has a bad feeling about responding to it, the usual starting point for a horror movie. You know how it goes: Don't spend the night in that house. Don't spread out in the woods to look for your missing friend. And whatever you do, don't answer that distress signal.

But they do. And they find amazing things. For a time it's almost hard to sympathize with their impulse to leave. A contingent of three of them discover a spaceship and inside it a giant fossilized alien life-form of some kind. The images are simple, powerful, and effective. At about that time the people back on the shuttle have figured out that the signal they are responding to is less an SOS and more "a warning of some kind." Nice touch, that—and this movie is full of them. Then one of the crew, Kane (John Hurt), stumbles on a cavern full of mysterious, leathery egg-shaped objects. At that point the basic structure for the rest of the movie is engaged, built around the alien's gestational processes and species survival tactics, a whole lot of biology summed for convenience as follows: 1) Egg. 2) Face hugger. 3) Chest burster. 4) The ball-peen, over-toothed alien proper. Each one of these phases stands in as an unbearable ratcheting up of tension.

Take the egg—no, take the whole planet. It's extremely inhospitable, dark, rocky, with howling dust storms and God knows what else. It's dark. The look and feel of the planet and everything on it, including the alien, is the work of H.R. Giger, who nearly as much as director Ridley Scott is responsible for the gnawing sense of unease that Alien stokes and worries constantly. The landscapes and forms created by Giger are deeply unsettling, with swooping, curving, organic, sexualized, heavy-metal shapes and surfaces, at once ancient feeling and, yes, alien. Darkness is never far away in this movie. Kane, wandering in the field of eggs, has to use a dim flashlight to make out what he can, and soon enough we have entered Phase 2, as something flesh-colored that looks like a small manta ray with finger-like appendages on either side leaps out of an egg and attaches itself to Kane's face. See above.

Now they've got real problems. The sense of danger and malevolence never lets up, and to the movie's credit neither does the credibility. There is never anything to laugh at in this movie. When they take Kane back to the ship and attempt to use surgical tools to remove the object from his face, they find out the object contains an acidic fluid that is so corrosive it threatens to burn all the way to the hull of the ship and through. It just seems to fit, and so does everything that follows, which, I'm sure it's needless to say, only gets worse from there.

Alien is so single-minded about making things continually worse that the earliest cuts lasted upwards of three hours. I'll be grateful for the small favor of the edits. Even at just under two hours it sometimes feels like it's over-milking some of its scenarios. Near the end, for example, there is a scene that involves not one but two 30-second countdowns by shipboard computers, as Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) races around trying to wrap things up. I mean literally: "30, 29, 28, 27 ... " This is plainly blunt force manipulation, forcing us to agonize with even the most banal moments. One of the hardest scenes to watch is of one of the grunts, Brett (Harry Dean Stanton), wandering the ship by himself trying to coax a cat (Jones) to come along with him to safety. I believe it lasts approximately an hour.

That reminds me how good the cast is here, all of them, because another angle in to what makes Alien work so well is that none of these people particularly like one another (it turns out they have good reason, of course), and the ensemble is perfect at working this constant undertow of rippling tension. It's Sigourney Weaver's first movie and she's already a natural, science fiction, horror, or otherwise, easily assuming the mantle of the star and ultimately bringing home the movie—the whole franchise, really. Stanton, Veronica Cartwright, Ian Holm, John Hurt, Yaphet Kotto, Tom Skerritt—each is fine and collectively they are solid. But practically everything about Alien is solid, and that's ultimately what makes it so good. The cast is excellent at what they do, but they are just a small part of it—production design, screenplay, music, photography, all chip in and all are impressive. Chances are Alien will scare the hell out of you, but what the heck, YOLO.

One more note: It happens I just saw the recent documentary Jodorowsky's Dune the other night, and as reported there its principals included Alien co-screenwriter Dan O'Bannon and production design man H.R. Giger. The energy behind Alien thus has some extraordinary deep roots I only knew of slightly before from the DVD extras. Now I know a little more. It's a great picture. O'Bannon has one of the best stories in it, and Giger's amazing feats of imagination are only affirmed there, and then some. Alien benefited from the seething welter of ideas and energy that came of that project, it's much easier to see now, and that energy came from two very powerful sources: Alejandro Jodorowsky, the hallucinatory gonzo madman film director spearheading the vision, and comics artist Moebius (Jean Giraud), who implemented the vision, providing storyboards enough to fill two volumes bigger than old-school phonebooks. I'm not saying Dune would have been the better movie, but if Alien is leftovers, it very well could have been a real fine banquet. We'll never know—but we do have Alien.

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