Friday, April 7, 2017

Alien (1979)

In the wake of Star Wars’ unprecedented and unexpected success, every studio in Hollywood suddenly saw green in outer space – and countless execs and agents tried to figure out how they could set their projects in the heavens. Most of them started coming out in 1979, two years after Wars’ release. In that year we got: Moonraker (Bond in space), The Black Hole (Disney in space), Meteor (disaster film in space) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (the long awaited film adaption, finally greenlit after Wars).

And then there was Alien, originally a shelved screenplay by Michael O’Bannon until Fox showed interest after the box office return of its very own Wars. Now that sci-fi in space was cool again, why not horror in space; it could cross-pollinate both Jaws and Wars, the two biggest hits of all time? Fox’s not-too-risky gamble paid off; Alien raked in 80 million in ticket sales and garnered two Oscar nominations. To date, four sequels have been produced, with one on the way, making it Fox’s second-biggest sci-fi franchise. Not too shabby.

And me? Billed with the tagline “In space, no one can hear you scream,” and with a hard-R MPAA rating, I was positively forbidden from catching the flick in theaters. And even on home video, I never caught up with it until well after I had already seen its sequel, James Cameron’s Aliens, in 1986. My reaction? Meh, not particularly scary, but feeling somehow that maybe I was missing something. Then again, in the 2000’s, I screened it again (on DVD this time), with roughly the same reaction. Finally, I just now saw it again for this blog…. and, despite perhaps a bit more admiration for its ahead-of-its time art direction and science-seriousness, I didn’t change my opinion much. I just don’t get its enormous appeal.

The Nostromo, a commercial space freighter on its way home from a mining job, receives a distress signal coming from a desolate planet. The ship’s crew of seven is eager to get home, but captain Dallas (Tom Skerrit) and officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) believe they should check it out. A search party discovers some weird, fossilized remains of what looks like an alien, and one member, Kane (John Hurt), gets the shock of his lifetime when a clearly alive alien jumps out and sucks itself on his face. They bring him back aboard the ship, against Ripley’s orders but permitted by increasingly untrustworthy science officer Ash (Ian Holm), and that’s when the sh**t hits the fan.

Completely unable to get the slimy sucker off Kane’s face, and hindered by the fact that its blood can burns its way through anything, including two floors of the ship, they write the man off for dead. But soon they discover he’s recovered – with his former parasite assumedly dead on the floor – all ready to chow down at breakfast with the rest of the crew. You know what happens next if you know anything about the movie: from out of Kane’s belly comes a little baby alien, the spawn of their lil’ intruder, and it slithers off into the ship, ready to grow and knock off every human on board. Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) is the first to go, followed by Dallas. And Ash? Turns out he’s the company’s android, under direct orders to bring the alien home, unharmed, with the crew rendered expendable. Ripley manages to smash him up real good, before realizing that the only way to defeat this bad alien mo-fo is to self-destruct the ship. Looks like she’s alone, as two others (Yaphet Koto and Veronica Cartwright) are now dogmeat, but as she ejects with a shuttle she realizes the alien is still with her; she carbon freezes the cretin and kicks it offboard to be done with it once and for all.

There is much to respect about Alien. In many ways, it’s far less dated than its space-age counterpart, Star Wars, owing to its seriousness about sci-fi. The crew of this ship speaks with a futuristic authority; no histrionics here there’s no time. And in the world of Alien space is a matter to be treated with the utmost solemnity (although one could argue that it hardly helps them given the circumstances). Director Ridley Scott makes this verisimilitude work to his advantage; his hyperrealism and underdirection of actors (better than Lucas’) gives the horror that befalls them that much more shock. These are real astronauts, just doing job, and why couldn’t a vicious, stowaway alien also do the same to us?

Scott also does a fine job with his art direction of the ship. This is clearly a man who finds technology beautiful – he lingers lovingly on shots of computers and light, his camera crawls stealthily through the caverns of the Nostromo, taking in all the whirring and beeping and flashing. You can almost smell the equipment. And its this kind of beautification that gives the film its suspense – it’s in the absence of action that Alien is at its best. We wait and wait and wait for the worst to happen after the alien affixes himself to Kane. This is going to be bad, very bad. Hitchcock would be proud.

But yet, it’s around this time when Alien shows its cards, ad they’re not particularly good ones. Once we hit the stomach-popping scene and the critter is on the loose, the film turns, essentially, into a slasher film. One by one the humans go down, and the only real surprise is the revelation of Ash’s robotdom. And worse yet…. I never really found the alien that terrifying. Sorry. He just doesn’t scare me very much. I don’t exactly think he looks realistic – I think it has something to do with the two heads- is it an alien inside an alien? When he pops out he resembles a cheesy stick puppet, and letter he just looks like a guy in a suit. And it’s never exactly clear how he kills people; there’s a lot of quick editing and a shot of a fist plunging through flesh. Is that it? This was the same problem I had with Cameron’s sequel, and if a director as masterful as he can’t make this dude scary, it must be an error with the character itself.

And though, as I mentioned, Scott is skilled at developing character credibility, he’s not so expert at fleshing them out. I certainly could have used more backstory for at least a few of them. But Scott prefers to keep his hardware, and the alien, at center stage, and while, as I mentioned, it’s perhaps ahead of its time in this regard, it’s also a harbinger of the steelier, more soulless action-adventure flicks that clang-clanged their way into the 80s and 90s. By the time the alien starts eviscerating everyone, we’re not too jolted, certainly more inured than 1979 audiences. This stuff holds up, but only because we’re so used to its metallic imitators.

I called Alien a slasher movie, and there’s no greater evidence of that than the final double-ending in which the alien returns when thought dead. The whole sequence is nothing but a tack-on (added last-minute by Scott), and does nothing but exploit a tired gimmick. Anything else that might have worked in Aliens is undermined by that ridiculous ending, even if we do get to see Sigourney Weaver in a tank top and panties.

Bottom line: culturally significant, but never one of my personal faves. Oh, and BTW: my Fox Collection copy is mismarked – it’s Aliens, not the original. Too minor, and too late, to send back.

Rating:  ***

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