Thursday, July 24, 2014
Cult-Movie Review: Alien (1979)
It is quite difficult to believe, but in 2014, Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) turns thirty-five years old.
Alas, 2014 has also seen the passing of H.R. Giger, the visionary Swiss artist who designed the film’s titular creature, a “bio-mechanoid” creation of unforgettable shape and proportion.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about Alien to consider on this occasion is that the Scott film does not seem to grow old in terms of its impact, even with the passage of time, even with the acute knowledge that some of its scares have become familiar ones in the pop culture firmament. For Alien has been oft-imitated, and never equaled.
Consider that Alien “indicts big business,” (Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy, page 920)) and that viewpoint has never been more popular than it is today.
Also, the 1979 film explodes our understanding of sex roles in the intelligent and unconventional presentation of its iconic survivor, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver).
Most importantly, perhaps, the film also creates a metaphor for the uncertainty America faced during the “crisis of confidence” 1970s.
Here, the crew of the Nostromo is always battling the previous enemy, and never the next, dreadful iteration of the shape-shifting beast.
Whether one gazes at Alien as a simple “haunted house in space” movie, a social critique of Big Business’s callous disregard for workers, or as a trend-setter in terms of female roles, however, the film remains a masterpiece in both the horror and science fiction movie constellation. The world it forges continues to feel real, vital and relevant, and its scares never cease to thrill and unsettle.
In deep space, the commercial starship Nostromo is diverted from its homeward route when the ship’s computer, Mother, detects a distress call in a nearby solar system. Mother awakes the crew from suspended animation, and the non-military men and women must investigate the signal on planet LV-426 or forfeit their percentage of the mission’s profit.
The Nostromo lands on the inhospitable world and an expedition consisting of Captain Dallas (Skerritt), Kane (Hurt) and Lambert (Cartwright) finds a strange alien derelict there.
Inside the macabre wreckage, a cargo bay is filled with leathery egg-like organisms, and something alive bursts forward from one, and seems to strangle Kane. Kane survives, but as the crew soon learns on their return journey to Earth, the being has laid some kind of embryo down his throat, in his gut.
The embryo grows and bursts out of Kane’s stomach, eventually becoming a seven-foot tall alien whose physical strength is matched only by its hostility. One-by-one, the crew-members are killed or secreted away by the alien, which is hiding in the ship’s vent system.
Desperate, one of the last survivors, Ripley (Weaver) plots a strategy to self-destruct the ship and return to Earth in a shuttle.
The story of astronauts accidentally picking up a monster in space is an old one, yet just as Star Wars gave the old swashbuckling Flash Gordon template new life in 1977, so does Ridley Scott’s Alien breath much new life into the monster-on-a-spaceship story of It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958), Planet of the Vampires (1965) or The Green Slime (1968).
The director largely does so by pinpointing and focusing on the very quality that those films determinedly lack: a grounded sense of reality in terms of how human characters might behave while traveling on a spaceship in “the future.”
So if George Lucas imagined a “lived in” universe for Star Wars, one that implied history, use, and even entropy, Ridley Scott carries that ball a yard or two further down the field. He imagines and presents a blue-collar future, one where work-stations are trashed, where computer consoles make good coffee mug holders, where characters don sneakers and ball caps instead of snappy uniforms, where pornography is pinned-up on the personal cubbies of the personnel, and everyone sleeps in pods they call “freezers” rather than traveling at faster-than-light speed.
This daring visual aesthetic, termed “space truckers” felt new and unique in 1979, though Dark Star (1975), also written by Dan O’Bannon had put “slackers” in space and helped to begin the de-glamorization of life in outer space that Alien assiduously continues. The effort to de-romanticize space makes life seem more immediate and real, and that’s the important thing here.
In Alien, space travel is not a glorious calling or great mission to explore brave new worlds. On the contrary, it is a monotonous and dull occupation. Consider that in this future, corporations like Weyland-Yutani are still in charge, and the average astronaut is not a hero or a pioneer, but rather a guy (or gal) still trying to make a living wage and get his fair piece of the pie. He makes it through the day on copious amounts of coffee, and swears like a sailor when shit starts falling apart.
In the film, Brett (Stanton) and Parker (Kotto) make this dynamic especially clear. They are not “miracle workers” like Star Trek’s Mr. Scott, but overworked repairmen, putting out one fire after another and not immune to the idea of a work slow-down if they feel they are being taken for granted or abused. In fact, Alien features a kind of upstairs/downstairs dynamic regarding the Nostromo’s crew. The bridge crew-members are, at least barely, responsible and dutiful truckers, doing their jobs with a modicum of professionalism. But Brett and Parker sweat it out in the boiler room, making mischief and slacking off wherever they can.
The terror in Alien emerges partially but not only from the revolutionary design and appearance of the monster (as envisioned by Giger), but in the conjunction of that frightening unknown with the very-well known world of these ruckers. If the audience had to imagine “futuristic mankind” and his advanced, perfect technology, the very threat of the alien would surely be mitigated. Instead, Scott depicts a world of ships, wardrobe, people and environs that we all immediately recognize and identify with. Because Brett and Parker, Dallas, Kane and Ripley are all immediately believable, that factor makes the crew’s encounter with something truly unknown, something truly alien, all the more scintillating.
The contrast between us “now” (but in space) and the alien itself also forges a nice contrast. One species is single-minded and brutally efficient. The other is…not.
The other aspect of the film that viewers today may take for granted is the fact that in Alien, the monster is never seen in the same form twice until the last few scenes.
After three alien sequels, two AVP movies, and a prequel, people the world around can recite the Alien life-cycle from rote memory: egg, face-hugger, chest-burster, and adult or drone. But in 1979, audiences had no way of knowing any of that, and so were unsettled because they could never be certain what the alien was going to “be” the next time they saw it.
If the crew in Alien is recognizable as truckers in space or blue collar workers, the alien is utterly unrecognizable, even incomprehensible on first reckoning.
So much tension arises in the film from the conflict between these two poles, of total recognition, and total lack of recognition. The alien’s constant shifting, its universal state of flux, seems to reflect the anxieties of a decade that witnessed three presidents in ten years, and upheavals in Vietnam, Iran, and on the home-front. An overwhelming fear in the 1970s was that we didn’t know what, or from where, something else was going to hit the country as it was trying to get on its feet again.
Would it be another oil crisis? Stagflation? Another political upheaval? A nuclear reactor meltdown? The indeterminate nature of the alien seems to point out, again and again, that the protagonists are falling behind, unable to catch-up with a problem that has spiraled out of control.
Today, we’ve seen so many aliens and so many shape-shifters at the movies that we’re inured to the concept and it no longer frightens us as it did in 1979, but Alien got it right, in revolutionary fashion.
The fear wasn’t that the alien would be familiar the next time we saw it, the fear was that it would be unfamiliar, that all our learning, all our experience with it would ultimately prove useless.
I have written about Alien’s subtext before, notably in my book Horror Films FAQ (2013), and sometimes it is a bit uncomfortable.
But on a very basic thematic level, Alien also concerns sex, and a “perfect” being that can use human sexuality and reproductive drives against prey for its own breeding and survival purposes.
There are moments in Scott's original that appear to involve homosexuality, sexual repression, and sexual stereotypes or roles. Again, this seems fitting considering the historical context. The end of the 1970s brought the disco era, and a new level of hedonism to the American public. Americans had become more promiscuous, and the 1970s has become notorious, even, for its sense of sexual experimentation. This idea has most often conveyed in films that focus on the decade’s “key” parties (The Ice Storm [1997[), wherein which married couples would swap partners for a night by randomly selecting car keys from a dish during a suburban party. At the end of the 1970s, sex clubs such as Plato’s Retreat in New York had also become part of the new tapestry of the culture.
Given such a cultural background, it’s not entirely surprising that the monster in Alien should be a creature consumed with reproduction, and thus sex. To wit, John Hurt's character Kane becomes the first recipient of the alien's reproductive advances. British, whisper-thin and sexually ambiguous, Kane is depicted at one point in the film donning a white undergarment that appears to be a girdle; something that is distinctly "feminizing" to his appearance.
In addition, Kane lives the most dangerous -- or is it promiscuous? -- lifestyle of anyone in the Nostromo crew. He awakes from the freezer first, he initiates the mission to the derelict, and he is the first to enter the derelict’s egg chamber. Kane is well-acquainted with danger as (stereotypically speaking...) one might expect of a sexually-active homosexual man circa 1979. Again, we’re talking stereotypes here, not reality as we understand it in 2014.
But Kane‘s daring is rewarded with alien impregnation. He 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 coded homosexual male symbol -- to act in the role he may already be familiar with; that of being receptive to penetration.
Consider also Ash (Ian Holm) and his sexual underpinnings. Ash is actually a robot, a creature presumably incapable of having sex. 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 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 physical member, so Ash must use the magazine in its stead.
And when Ash speaks of the alien life-form, he admits envy for it. One must wonder if this “envy” arises because the alien can sexually dominate others in a way that the disliked, often dismissed Ash cannot manage.
It is also significant 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 in Alien. And it spurts. When confronted with his own sexuality and inability to express it...Ash can't hold his wad.
The most hyper-masculinized (again, stereotypically-so) character in Alien is undoubtedly Parker (Yaphet Kotto), an African-American man who brazenly discusses “eating pussy” during the scene leading up to the chest-burster revelation.
Parker boasts an antagonistic, adversarial relationship with Ripley, one in which an interest in sex is clearly the undercurrent. Furthermore, the character is often-seen carrying an over-sized weapon (a flame thrower), another possible phallic symbol.
In another type of film, Parker might be the hero, the guy who saves the day. But here he dies because of the stereotypical quality of male chivalry or machismo he exhibits. In particular, Parker 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 again -- stereotypically) female character in the film -- she gets raped by the alien, presumably by the xenomorph's phallic tail.
Once more, the alien has exploited a character's biological/reproductive nature and used it to meets its own destructive, perverse needs.
The monster is able to understand and kill each creature, essentially, according to their assigned, pre-programmed sex role. Kane’s daring and promiscuous life-style is what exposes him. Ash protects and envies the alien because he can’t perform sexually at all. Parker dies in an act of (in vain) machismo. And Lambert is the traditional screaming victim, unable to do anything but get raped.
And then, at long last, we get to Alien’s sense of brilliant non-convention, the character that explodes all the pre-existing stereotypes I have diagrammed. Meet Ripley: a character written in the screenplay 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 itself, an apparent blend of all “human” qualities.
Ripley makes irrelevant traditional sex roles or sex stereotypes, and please recall that I have discussed all the crew in terms of the culture’s stereotypes. That’s because they are prey, and the alien hunts them by those qualities. It can’t get a handle on Ripley because she exists outside familiar sexual dynamics.
All the other crew members are somehow limited by their sexuality, whereas Ripley is the only character who successfully balances common sense, heroism, and competence. She is both strong and weak, in the appropriate measure, both daring and prudent. Given this uncommon mix of stereotypically male and female qualities, the alien is not quite sure how to either "read" or "use" Ripley for its own nefarious purposes. This, perhaps, is one advantage of our species: it can outgrow biology, and not act as mere slave to it.
In the final moments of the film, the alien does make a decision vis-à-vis Ripley. It recognizes and catalogs her as the best of humanity whether male or female. She is kindred; a survivor. So the alien rides in secret with her aboard the shuttle Narcissus as they escape the Nostromo.
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.
When viewed through the lens of human sexuality then, Alien is a film about the way that the reproductive or sex drive can subvert humanity.
The film is a masterpiece in terms of visualization, in terms of how it approaches space travel and alien life, but more than it, it is a work of genius in describing what perfection might mean to an alien life-form. It means not being easily tagged or cataloged as one thing or another. The depiction of the alien itself recognizes the fact that it can be all things to all people. The doorway to the alien derelict, for instance, is vaginal in appearance, and the alien skull itself resembles “the head of a penis,” (William Paul, Laughing Screaming, 1994).
So as the doors of sexual experimentation were swinging wide in the 1970s, Alien gave the world a monster to walk through that open portal…