Thursday, June 07, 2012
Before Prometheus: Five Reasons Alien (1979) Endures
But given the arrival of a 2012 movie that connects explicitly to the Alien (1979) mythos, I realized that today represents the proper time to go back and gaze at the reasons why the original film is so terrific and influential.
Here are my five reasons why the original Alien endures more than thirty years after its release.
Alien truly pushed the science-fiction “space” film forward into a new realm of imagination. Director Ridley Scott’s movie eschewed the stream-lined modernism and “neat,” minimalist future-look of such films as Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (1969) as well as TV programs like UFO (1970) or Space: 1999 (1975 – 1977).
The film offered instead a world that was grungy, messy and recognizable…both lived-in and dirty. It’s true that Star Wars (1977) represents a crucial step in this direction, having created a universe that – in terms of visuals – suggests a rich and storied past. But Alien went whole hog into a world where coffee mugs rested on computer consoles, where pornographic pin-ups were hung up beside work stations, and where characters wore sneakers and ball caps when not asleep in cryo-tubes (or “freezers” in the vernacular of the film).
Alien, which features a great and very believable monster, would not have succeeded if the elements of the film that involved “futuristic” mankind – his ships, his clothes, his environs – did not reflect a reality the audience could understand and readily identify with. The recognizable world of the main characters, in fact, makes the alien world all the more disturbing and frightening.
Perhaps this aspect of the film is the one that is actually most difficult to reckon with today because we’ve seen the Alien xenomorph in so many settings and films since the first film came along. We’ve had three direct sequels, plus two AVP movies, plus toys and comics involving the alien.
The notion of a monster attacking a spaceship crew was not new, of course when Alien, written by the great Dan O’Bannon, was produced. By that point -- as history-minded film reviewers are certain to remind us -- we’d seen It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958), Bava’s Planet of the Vampires (1965) plus episodes of The Outer Limits (“The Invisible Enemy”) and Space: 1999 (“Dragon’s Domain”) that explored the trope, in many cases quite brilliantly.
But Alien represented a new horizon for “monsters” because of the bio-organic designs of Swiss sculptor and painter H.R. Giger. This artist’s style had never been captured in mainstream film before, and his work expressed a total (and perverse) blend of human flesh and hard-edged machinery. In short, the monster in Alien looked like nothing audiences had ever before reckoned with, a fusion of distinctly unlike elements.
There’s more to it than that too.
Today we take this for granted, but Alien proved so horrifying a film because the monster’s shape and appearance were different every time we encountered it. We now know the alien life cycle by rote: egg, face-hugger, chest-burster, and adult. But when audiences first reckoned with Scott’s movie in the last year of the 1970s, none of this information was known. We had no idea what was coming, or how the alien was taking shape. It seemed to be in a constant state of flux…of becoming.
Again, all the stages of the lifecycle are familiar today, but in 1979, the alien seemed like the cinema’s first legitimate extra-terrestrial: a thing that changed and evolved into something ever-more hideous each time we saw it. The title “Alien” expresses this idea beautifully. Watching the film for the first time, we really felt we had encountered something not human, and not of this Earth. Today, we’ve seen so many aliens and so many shape-shifters that we’re inured to the concept. But Alien got it right, in revolutionary fashion.
Let’s gaze at the derelict ship that the Nostromo finds on LV-426, which has become an important part of Prometheus’s story-line. When we encounter it in Alien, it is emitting a distress call (or actually, a warning: stay away). The characters Dallas, Lambert and Kane investigate the ship and they see the dead pilot, the "space jockey" with a torn-open chest. They also find a giant lower chamber, which must be a cargo hold, given its dimensions and relative lack of instrumentation, furniture, etc. This hold is filled with alien eggs. The eggs are ensconced underneath a level of fog which "reacts" when broken. What is this level of fog? Is it some kind of technology keeping the eggs in stasis? Was it a safeguard to keep the alien eggs dormant and the (odd) equivalent of the freezers we see on the Nostromo? Who was meant to control it?
One big questioned unanswered: if a chest-burster broke out of the space jockey’s chest, where was the adult alien when Dallas and the others arrived to investigate? A possible answer is that it had died out already, since in Scott’s original conception the alien was to be like something akin to a butterfly, a “perfect” creature that only could live for a few days
See how this film from 1979 is loaded with implications and questions above-and-beyond the "ten little Indians" template of an alien that kills astronauts on a spaceship? The deeper you delve, the more interesting Alien becomes.
And again, this reflects our reality as human beings, an important aspect of horror films. We are not privy to all the answers in life. We don’t always know why things happen, or what fate has in store for us. Some aspects of nature seem a mystery to us, even with advanced science. The crew of Nostromo likewise encounters a terrible mystery on LV-426, but that mystery is largely left unexplored as the battle of survival begins.
4. It’s all about sex.
is cherished and remembered by horror fans for the gory chest-burster sequence featuring John Hurt. But the film also features one of the creepiest off-screen deaths of all time, and a discarded idea (or hidden implication) in the franchise. When last we see Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), the xenomorph's tail is seen winding its nefarious way…up between her legs. Then, the film cuts suddenly to Ripley running down a dark corridor, but we still hear Lambert panting and suffering and some...inhuman moaning.
So what the hell is going on here? What is the alien doing to Lambert? Does it -- by its very "perfect" nature -- boast some other form of reproductive ability that it is practicing on her? Is it fulfilling some kind of sexual desire?
Alien possesses this queasy, uneasy sub-text involving our human sexuality. On the immediately-apparent surface level, the film concerns a creature that can pervert our reproductive cycle for its own ends. But underneath - if we peel back the layers - there are moments in Scott's original that appear to involve homosexuality, sexual repression, sexual stereotypes and more.
Also, Kane lives the most dangerous (or is it promiscuous?) life-style of anyone amongst the crew. He is the first to awake from cryo-sleep, the first to suggest a walk to the derelict, and the only man who goes down into the derelict’s egg chamber. He is well-acquainted with danger as (stereotypically...) one might expect of a homosexual man circa 1979. (Note: I said "stereotypically.” The best horror movies are about shattering decorum and transgressing against good taste and Alien fits that bill.)
Soon in the film, it is Kane who is made unwillingly receptive to an oral penetration: the insertion of the face-hugger's "tube" down his throat...where it lays the chest-buster. What emerges from this encounter is "Kane's son" (in Ash’s terminology). But essentially, the alien forces poor Kane – possibly a homosexual male symbol -- to act in the role he may be familiar with; that of being receptive to penetration.
he can't do the same thing with his penis, so Ash must use the magazine in its stead.
Later, Ash admits to the fact that he "envies" the alien (penis envy?) and one has to wonder if it is because the alien can sexually dominate others in a way that the disliked, often dismissed Ash cannot manage.
The most hyper-masculinized (again, stereotypically-so) character in Alien is Parker (Yaphet Kotto), a black man who brazenly discusses “eating pussy” during the scene leading up to the chest-burster moment. He boasts an antagonistic, adversarial relationship with Ripley, and is the character most often-seen carrying a weapon (a flame thrower), a possible phallic symbol.
As for Lambert, the most-traditionally (and – bear with me - stereotypically) female character in the film -- she gets raped by the alien as I noted above, presumably by the xenomorph's phallic tail. Again, the alien has exploited a character's biological/reproductive nature and used it to meets its own destructive, perverse needs.
Which brings me to Ripley. Ripley is a character written for a man but played by a woman (Sigourney Weaver). She is the only survivor (along with Jones the Cat), of the alien's rampage on the Nostromo, and there's a case that can be made that the alien cannot so easily "tag" Ripley as either male or female, and that's why she survives. She is perfect, like the alien is, a blend of all “human” qualities.
Kane is fey (possibly gay), Ash is a robot (and hence not able to express sexuality in a "normal" way), Parker is all macho man, and Lambert is a helpless damsel-in-distres...but Ripley is a tall glass of water (practically an Amazon), and an authority figure (third in command). She is also the only character who successfully balances common sense, heroism, and competence.
Given this uncommon mix of stereotypically male and female qualities, the alien is not quite sure how to either "read" or "use" Ripley. In the final moments of the film, it does make a decision. It recognizes Ripley - the best of humanity whether male or female - as kindred; a survivor. So it rides in secret with her aboard the shuttle Narcissus as they escape the exploding Nostromo.
Note that the alien could likely kill Ripley any time during that escape flight...but does not choose to do so. It knows it is in safe hands with her, at least for the time being. It uses her "competence," her skill (qualities of itself it recognizes in her?) to escape destruction...again establishing its perfection.
So, underneath the scares and underneath the great design, what we get in Ridley Scott's Alien is the story of a monster that exploits our 1970s views of biology and psychology; causing us (as viewers) to re-examine -- perhaps even subconsciously -- the sexual stereotypes of the day. The homosexual man is endangered first, the alpha males (Dallas and Parker) are ineffective, the traditional "screaming" female gets exploited (not rescued...), and the most "evolved" human, Ripley (along with another perfect creature - a cat) survives to fight another day.
Alien lurks just beneath the surface of the film, and is noticeable even in the set design. Just take a long look at the "opening" of the alien derelict. Without being too graphic about this, it is pretty clearly a vagina.
And the chest-burster is pretty clearly phallus-shaped. Ask yourself why. Sex, and -- sometimes discomfort with sex -- lurks at the heart of this horror film. This factor makes the film endlessly interesting and worthy of a re-watch or debate.
5. Sigourney Weaver as Ripley. Ripley is indisputably one of the cinema’s greatest hero-warriors, but she’s more than that. She represents a critical change in how women were conceived and written in horror and science fiction films.
Ripley is simultaneously part of the “Final Girl” tradition and a crucial evolution of the archetype. Ripley survives in the film because she is smart and because she possesses insights the others do not. She understands why regulations are important, doesn’t succumb to emotion (regarding Dallas’s order to let Kane back aboard the Nostromo), and she is extremely competent on the job. She takes command with authority, and is able to understand the ramifications of her actions. She is tough, but never so much that we lose a sense of her humanity. Male or female, we all wish we could possess Ripley’s qualities.
Ripley was Sigourney Weaver’s break-out role because the actress brought incredible commitment and intensity to the role. Ripley herself showed that the Final Girl did not need others (particularly men) to rescue her, and that she could combat and even destroy the villain, not merely survive to another day.
So, Prometheus opens tomorrow…and we already know that it will delve deep into the implications of the Alien world.
I wonder: will it create a monster as memorable as we first encountered in 1978? Will it feature a character as forward-thinking as Ripley was? Will it boast visual canvas as revolutionary as that which we saw in Scott’s horror film? Will it carry a subtext beyond the surface story of “space horror?”
That’s a pretty tall order, but I suspect that Prometheus will rise or fall not on the new ground it breaks, but how well it subverts and plays with the expectations we carry into the theater with us.
I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait…