Thursday, June 07, 2012

Before Prometheus: Five Reasons Alien (1979) Endures


Ridley Scott’s Prometheus opens tomorrow and my review of the new film will appear here on the blog the morning of Tuesday, June 19th (so go see it before then so we can talk about it…). 

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.

1. Revolutionary production and art design, translated into revolutionary sets, costumes and miniatures.

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).

This visual aesthetic has famously been termed “space truckers,” and it’s indeed a crucial element of Alien’s mystique and appeal.  In director Ridley Scott’s capable hands, outer space was not some glorious final frontier.  Rather, it was just your monotonous, unglamorous day-job.  In this future, the average blue collar space traveler still worked for the Man (Weyland-Yutani), and was still trying to get his fair share of corporate wealth and make a living wage. And he still made it through the day on coffee, cussing and swearing when things break down.

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.

2. The alien itself.

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.


3. Implications unexplored but suggested.  This is the very reason why we are getting Prometheus now.  It’s because Alien dramatized a complete and satisfying story of survival, but more than that, brilliantly implied a larger universe outside the context of the Nostromo’s last days.

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?

And then, of course, other questions are raised.  Who were these aliens transporting the eggs? Why were they transporting alien eggs in the first place? What became of the ship’s crew?   Where were they taking the eggs?  And for what purpose were they transporting this odd – and wholly dangerous – cargo?

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.

Alien 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.

Consider that John Hurt's character Kane becomes the first recipient of the alien's reproductive advances. Whisper-thin, British, and sexually ambiguous, Kane is depicted - at one point in the film - wearing an undergarment that appears to be a girdle; something that is distinctly "feminizing" to his appearance.

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.

Consider Ash and this character's sexual underpinnings. He is actually a robot - a creature presumably incapable of having sex -- and the film's subtext suggests that this inability, this repression of the sexual urge, has made him a monster too. When Ash attacks Ripley late in the film, he rolls up a pornographic magazine (surrounded by other examples of pornography) and attempts to jam it down the woman’s throat...it's his penis surrogate.  The implication of this particular act is that 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.

Also note that when Ash is unable to satisfy his repressed sexual desire for Ripley, the pressure literally causes him to explode.  The android blood is a milky white, semen-like fluid. And it spurts everywhere, a catastrophic ejaculation of monumental proportions. Ash, when confronted with his own sexuality and inability to express it...can't hold his wad.

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.

In another type of film, Parker might be our hero.  But here he dies because of the stereotypical quality of male chivalry or machismo. Specifically, he won't turn the flame thrower on the alien while a woman (Lambert) is in the line of fire. The alien dispatches Parker quickly (mano e mano), perhaps realizing he will never co-opt an alpha male like Parker to be his "bitch;" at least not the way Kane was used.

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.

Here, perfection might be measured by how well it understands the enemy, the prey.

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.

The strange, spiky and sexual nature of 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…

16 comments:

  1. Nicely done, John (as usual). If you read the script, you'll see none of that sexuality, so it must have come from the mind of Scott, mostly.

    I've read/seen/heard the idea about the alien's tail going between Lambert's legs as being phallic and the picture you chose certainly confirms the IMAGE, but I never saw it that way (whereas, I did pick up on a lot of the other subtext your pointed it to).

    In that scene, the alien, about to smash Lambert with its jaw-within-a-jaw, is using its tail (which we see...) to pin her in place by piercing her (yet another sexual metaphor...) to hold her still while it kills her.

    Good work!
    Mark

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    1. Hi Mark,

      Thank you for the kind words on my ALIEN piece, and I totally agree with you that the sexual aspects of the film fully resolve and come to life in the imagery, not in the script. The great thing about doing a post about a movie like Alien is that I can pull out some of those very sexually-skewing images and everyone can see what I'm talking about in regards to that creative thread. Otherwise, people would just think I'm pervy...

      Thank you for your great comment here, and I'm glad you enjoyed the post.

      best,
      John

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  2. Another great, in-depth review! I'm going to see Prometheus on Sunday (I have high hopes!) I should find time to squeeze in a viewing of Alien before then.

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    1. Hi Chadillac,

      Thank you so much! I'm glad you enjoyed this post, and like you, I have high, high hopes for Prometheus. I'll be reviewing it here in two Tuesdays, which should give me time to see the film twice and rally process it. I can't wait!

      best,
      John

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  3. Hi,

    I had mixed feelings about Alien. It was formidable the first time I saw it, in my youth, then not so much when I saw it a year ago.

    I am looking forward to Prometheus, though. Some of the visuals of the trailer were amazing (and the visuals of Alien were never in question).

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    1. Hi Jay-Jay,

      To each his own, of course, but I'm still drawn to Alien strongly in terms of the visuals and the questions it raises about its larger universe (the derelict, space jockey, etc.). I agree with you that the visuals in the Prometheus trailer look absolutely astounding. I can't wait to see the movie...

      Excellent comment!

      best,
      John

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  4. I truly enjoyed your essay here John. I particularly agree on 2 and 3. These are particularly strong reasons for me. Ridley Scott really managed to suggest a mythology and dis so beautifully. How poetic and powerful all these years later. I love Alien. Best, sff.... and I can't wait either my friend.

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    1. Hi SFF:

      Thanks, my friend. I'm glad you enjoyed the essay. It's always a pleasure to write a review or interpretation of a great film, especially when I can find images that support that analysis. With ALIEN, I was able to make that happen, which is a nice thing.

      Like you, I'm waiting with great anticipation to see Prometheus.

      best,
      John

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  5. Anonymous6:43 PM

    John...

    It's been far too long since my last comment. Wonderful to read your thoughts on my "desert island movie." I wanted to add a few extended thoughts on why I think Alien works so well (since you stole all the best ones).

    1. Great use of the camera.
    There's only one moment in the film where the camera isn't composed, and that's when Ripley freaks out after finding the remains of Parker and Lambert. The rest of the film, the camera is moving slowly, and (especially in the opening moments) seeming to stalk the corridors of the Nostromo. Later in the film, the camera seems to squeeze the characters mercilessly, such as Dallas in the airshafts, and a sequence showing Ripley, Lambert, and Parker (following Ash's incineration) walking down a corridor, and the camera is looking slightly up at them, and it seems like they're ducking, as though the corridor was squeezing in on them.

    2. Isolation and Disorientation
    For me, no horror film has ever succeeded as quickly as Alien has in establishing how far from help the characters are. Less than 2 minutes into the film, you already know that you're outside the solar system, and pretty much cut off from civilization. Also, the Nostromo is always shot moving slower and slower as the film goes on, while the starlight illuminating the ship gets darker and darker. And about that corridor I mentioned above... it leads towards the shuttle after a ladder junction. Parker and Lambert go down that ladder to get coolant, but the exterior shots of the ship show nothing below the deck where the shuttle is located. In other words, the Nostromo is an ever changing maze (a concept that Kubrick uses beautifully in The Shining, and one that Paul W.S. Anderson unwisely (i.m.o) makes explicit in the first Alien vs. Predator).

    3. When technology fails
    In almost any other sci-fi/horror movie, we'd get lasers, or some other futuristic gun at least getting some licks on the alien, if not being used to kill it outright (the closest we get here is Ripley shooting the alien with a harpoon to force it out the pressure door of the Narcissus). Otherwise, the ingenious conceit of "acid for blood" negates that possibility. Thanks to their rough landing on LV-426, the cameras on B and C decks aren't working. Mother (and Ash) have been co-opted by the Company. Technology is useless; the crew is forced into a primal battle using essentially sticks and torches.

    4. Additional Thoughts.
    Why did Ash create a motion sensor to aid his shipmates, when his function is to ensure the alien arrives at Earth for analysis? Some residual compassion?
    The recurring flower motif, used on the Nostromo's bulkheads, the hypersleep chamber, the umbilicus to the refinery, the landing legs, the petals on the eggs...
    Jerry Goldsmith's score - freaking awesome and scary as hell.
    The sense of the organic co-opting the technological - like the breathing noises inside Mother's "womb," and the heartbeat of the Nostromo.

    -Jeffrey Siniard

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    1. Jeffrey,

      Brilliant analysis and additional points on the mystique and magic of ALIEN. I concur with all of your bullet points here, especially your thoughts on isolation in space. That is so important: there's no help for the Nostromo crew. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. Brilliantly said.

      I also love your additional thoughts here, regarding the flower motif and Ash's not-particularly-useful motion sensor. I feel like he built one that he knew wouldn't work except at close range (when it would be too late for the crew...). "Micro changes in air density my ass!" I'm also glad you highlighted Goldsmith's chilling score...."Freaking awesome and scary as hell indeed."

      Wonderful observations here...

      best,
      John

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  6. Anonymous7:22 PM

    John extremely thought provoking review that fearlessly goes directly to the sordid elements of this unforgettable horror film, well done.

    SGB

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  7. Awesome piece on a revolutionary film, John. I know some that dismiss 'Alien' as only an updated, A-level treatment of 'It! The Terror From Beyond Space' from the 50s, but they miss the points you, Jeffrey Siniard, SFF, and others reveal here. Others have written of the distinct male dread of penetration and rape so prevalent in the film and inherent with this horrific and disturbing creature. Giger's well-defined, penile-shaped (and apparently similarly purposeful) head of the xenomorph (along with that tail you mention) certainly lends itself to that interpretation. Twisting a classic film's bit of dialogue, it's "The stuff that nightmares are made of."

    Bravo, and thanks for this.

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    1. Hi Le0pard13: I agree with you wholeheartedly that Alien is a revolutionary film, and something much deeper than"It! The Terror from beyond Space." You said well what I danced around in my post: the fear of penetration and rape lurks in this film, in more than any film since Deliverance (1972) perhaps. The stuff that Nightmares are made of indeed!

      Enjoy Prometheus my friend. I can't wait to share a discussion with you about it...

      best,
      John

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  8. JKM, this has absolutely been one of your most enjoyable articles to read. 'Alien', along with 'The Exorcist','The Last House on the Left' & 'Halloween' are amongst the horror films of the 70's that stands the test of time.

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  9. Great exploration of what makes this movie tick. I recently revisited this film after missing it from my movie collection for years (that box vanished during a move). I was actually afraid it wouldn't hold up. Imagine my surprise when I found it to be even better than I remembered, trumping its sequel handily (in my opinion). It is excellent for all the reasons you describe. I love the complete immersion you get while watching the film - it feels like a real place in a real time, and that make the horror moments so delicious.

    Looking forward to Prometheus, but I'm not hyping myself on it. Scott is a different director now then he was back in the '70s. I have a feeling it is going to disappoint those looking for pure horror or action. I'm hoping the sci-fi edge the trailers have hinted at, are as prevalent as they appear.

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  10. Anonymous2:57 PM

    John -

    Once again, another excellent and well written review. I, too, noticed the Freudian sexual overtones in Alien. I must say, H.R. Giger really created and conceived(no pun intended)something heavily influenced by the physical act of pleasure - but in a very unusual and surreal sort of fashion.

    All that aside, I did see Prometheus, yesterday, and I can honestly say that it is an excellent film. I don't want to give away too much, but I will say that Sir Ridley Scott's 'not-so-direct' prequel to Alien does answer some questions concerning the space jockey and the beginnings of Weyland-Yutani. I think you might be pleased with the film's final results.

    As before, another splendid, and well-detailed review. Keep up the good work. They get better and better with each viewing.

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