Movie of the Week: Alien (1979)

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Ridley Scott directs Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt and Ian Holm in this definitive sci-fi horror about some space truckers who are massacred by the star beast they unwittingly allow on board. 

The original 1979 theatrical cut of Alien is a perfect movie. The science fiction trappings are wholly convincing, being both minutely detailed yet also given enough mystery around their context so as never to be bogged down in unravelling questions. But the horror… the horror plays with just about every form the genre allows. We start in a ghost story. We drift, for minutes, through the deserted ship, watching machines and loose props twitch and quiver with years of inaction and abandonment. We could even be the spirit gliding along cushioned corridors and diode twinkling consoles. It is an eerie slow open, lengthily unsettling us with our new lifeless environment before introducing us to the cast.

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When we land on LV-426 we switch to a Lovecraftian tale of unfeeling monstrosity; scale overwhelms the mere mortals. The crew follow a signal to this planet. They think it is a distress beacon but on closer examination the garbled message appears to be a warning. The planetoid is visibly inhospitable, all fissures and flak-filled mist. Turn around. Turn around before it is too late! Then we see the sheer gargantuan size of the derelict alien craft the ignorant explorers are foolishly looking for. It looks so foreign compared to the industrial, utilitarian mechanisms of their own ship’s hull, resembling more a polished pelvic bone.

They enter like insects into another species’ hive. Are awed by the fossilised remains of the oversized space jockey. (On the day of Alien’s premiere this oversized prop was displayed outside a theatre as a publicity stunt. Religious zealots, thinking it was a satanic work, burnt it to the ground.) One astronaut, Kane, tumbles into a womb full of leathery eggs, a womb the size of a football field, so many eggs… Then Kane breaks the throbbing, hissing (STAY AWAY!) forcefield. He moves his head directly over the pulsating, shifting ovum as it opens…

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Uncaring gods of old give way to pure body horror.

We watch an organism, a glistening bony sperm with legs attach itself to Kane’s face. The force and strength of it can smash through a space helmet. The thick windshield made to protect the fragile human body from the harsh elements of space is no match for this thing’s propulsion from a resting start. Then it coils its tail around its host’s neck. The parasite keeps the man alive while it impregnates him. You cannot remove the creature during this process, he grips, chokes, buries its foreskin-esque intubater deeper down its victim’s throat. Try to cut it off, it bleeds acid. Then moments after it releases you, you are awake and famished. But as you begin to eat, feel normal again, its gestating foetus bursts from your chest. Bursts in an uncaring, lethal explosion of blood and skin. You have served your purpose as a first trimester incubator. It dashes away to grow at an exponential pace… your violated corpse has served its purpose.

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There is a strange little interlude during Kane’s pregnancy. When they try to surgically remove the facehugger, it bleeds acid. “It’s got a wonderful defense mechanism. You don’t dare kill it.” Firstly, what is the Alien’s translucent skin made of? How can it contain molecular fucking acid!? Secondly, as they follow the droplets of yellow corrosive as it eats down through multiple floors and gantries a great bit of storytelling occurs. If they were to eventually shoot, blow up or stab the creature on board they risk breaching their hull in space. If a few droplets can destroy storeys deep levels of steel, then what would a whole 8 foot tall bag of destructive nasty do to the shell that protects their hermetically sealed environment from the oxygen-free abyss of outer space? Traditional horror movie methods of taking action against the killer have been rendered obsolete.

And as they discover this, chasing the glooping acid as it burns further and further through their ship, Jerry Goldsmith’s score changes. It goes from bleak and barren wailing to the twinkling wonder and excitement that evokes Spielberg and John Williams. Alien was often pitched as “Jaws in Space.” In fact, through the inappropriate kid’s merchandising that took place, you can tell Fox hoped, at some miscommunicated point, that their primordial fear inducing gorefest might be a R-rated blockbuster. A horror adventure like Jaws, terrifying but terrifying for the whole family. They produced toys and Topps trading cards with bubblegum, for fucks sake.

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As the star beast grows, the crew are picked off one by one = slasher flick style. But then intriguingly Scott gives up some of his running time to another popular seventies genre, the conspiracy thriller. The horror that powerful suits, in an unseen boardroom, are making murderous decisions about our lives with only profit in mind. The company who own this mining vessel have wanted this creature all along. The science officer, Ash, and the now dead captain, Dallas, have been working at cross purposes to the crew’s survival. On instructions from their paymasters they have allowed the Alien on board and to attack the others. The company wants a specimen. “Crew expendable.”

Rewatching Dallas, knowing he has read Mother’s communicated instructions, long before Ripley has access to them, recalibrates your understanding of Tom Skerritt’s performance. He is begrudgingly putting himself at risk to protect his crew in the hope that they can contain the company’s prize with no further loss of life. He fails.

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Ash on the other hand is not just the company’s man but the company’s machine. Uncaringly orchestrating this secret fatal mission’s instructions to the letter, with little care for inferior assets on board. He tells Ripley there is no point alerting the surface team that the distress beacon is a warning. He opens the airlock, breaking quarantine law and allowing the impregnated Kane on board. Watch him as he lingers over and interjects every time Dallas makes a command.

Holm delivers a truly chilling performance as cinema’s first twist mechanoid. He proves as much a deadly, systemic force of destruction as the grotesque monster stalking them. But not without humour… he hates the inferior creatures who have bullied him, gotten in the way of his mission to preserve the perfect organism. Watch his final, all too human, smirk as he says goodbye to the few remaining survivors he has betrayed “I can’t lie to you about your chances, but… you have my sympathies.”

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Alien has actually been my “Movie of the Week” previously. But there I reviewed the director’s cut with its life cycle rewriting bonus scenes and within the greater context of the two recent prequel movies. But the Alien life cycle is fascinatingly undefined. We don’t know if what we witness on the Nostromo is an aberration or an evolution. How long does an alien live naturally? Is it just me, or in the final sequence when it nests itself in the black ducts of the escape pod, do you think it might be dying itself? Now it could be predictively laying in wait for its prey, sleeping in a camouflaged place, hibernating now it feels all its good stuff to eat or breed with has gone, or like an insect with a finite lifespan is finding a quiet corner to shut down and expire? Not wanting to turn into David Attenborough here, but our sample size for watching an alien go from egg to death is way too short, too busy with killings, for us to truly know if there is a regular day-to-day routine an alien would exist in if humans were taken out of its mix.

And, as a philosophical exercise, let’s try and watch Alien from an alien’s point of view. Strange humanoids hatch and arise from egg-like birth pods. They disconnect from their hive in a smaller vessel. Then like parasitic cells in protective shells they infect an area, breaching a nest of gestating eggs. On return to their hive they realise they have carried a different species back on board with them. To purge themselves of this infant foreign body they destroy their own home and each other. Eventually the lone survivor ejaculating out in another smaller vessel in the hope of finding a new hive to subsist in. Humans are fucking weird and dangerous.

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Alien is fantastically acted for a horror movie. Benefitting no doubt from the slew of award worthy horror smashes of its decade; The Exorcist, The Omen, Jaws. This was the point where shockfests attracted relatively serious thespians rather than just fresh faced kids or former stars on the last dregs of their careers. It no doubt helped that Dan O’Bannon’s script was gender neutral. The crew of the Nostromo are defined by action and reaction rather than race, age or sex. This allows the likes of Harry Dean Stanton, Veronica Cartwright and Yaphet Kotto to imbue their roles with genuine personality rather than have a script limitingly prescribe them. A lot of subtle, physical and facial acting occurs between the exposition and screaming.

Perhaps most important is Sigourney Weaver’s emergence as a leader throughout. Sure, it is the final girl trope that she should survive. But it is Weaver’s constant strongwill in the face of both monster and the patriarchy that punches through each scene. In fact, a bit of air vent joshing aside, Ripley appears to have the respect of grease monkey cynics Parker and Brett earlier on than Dallas ever manages. She proves a more capable captain, decisive and far more protective of her crew, than her dead meat predecessor or violent science officer. Alien is a feminist film not because a strong woman wins at the end, but because she proves herself to be the most intelligent, bravest and decent throughout. Weaver is an unusual movie star, willowy model looks combined with Ivy League educated confidence. How did she end up a space trucker?

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Scott’s eye for casting genuine acting talent in what could have easily been a throw-away genre exercise stays true to the level of care and attention he gives to the production entire. He is a world builder. The costumes are utilitarian but personalised, lived-in frayed and dirty. The crumpled porn mags and dented beer cans, left about in barely focussed on bunks, litter the fiction with veracity. The varied levels of the ship are both labyrinthine yet defined. It is one of the few sci-fi films where the interiors are more iconic than the craft itself.

Ridders has framed and edited every stitch of the crew and weld of the Nostromo and glimpse of the creature so that you believe in this constructed reality. It is TOO true to be a soundstage at Shepperton. The fear on Lambert’s face is too true. The sweat on Parker’s brow is too true. The viscous drool globbing from the horrific jaw of your nightmare is too true.

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Alien closes on an apocalyptically intense finale. A ticking clock as the ship self destructs. Ripley’s escape route is cut-off by the leering, grasping beast. She dashes back to abort the explosion, but she is (apparently) seconds too late. I say ‘apparently’ as I can’t be the only one who thinks that Mother is being spiteful continuing the countdown, surely? Just me? The Mother computer’s verbal warnings almost mocking Ripley at her hubris to try and stop the oblivion that has been set in motion. She tries her luck and somehow makes it into the escape pod. Races away to minimum safe distance just ahead of the blast. Settles in to her new reality, to be adrift in space, but safe. But like Aliens, the nightmare ain’t over yet. “Why have one grand finale when you can have three?” is the series’ mantra.  The Alien reveals itself. Running is no longer an option for our heroine. It can no longer hide in the shadows either. A confrontation takes place, a close encounter. Ripley wouldn’t get this close to her accursed enemy again until it rubs its mandible into her cheek during Alien3’s transgressive tension high point. She changes from vulnerable woman in her undies to armed warrior in a spacesuit. The change is permanent. She opens the airlock. The vortex sucks it out. Blasts the Alien into space. She shoots it with a harpoon and turns on the pod’s afterburners to ensure it is destroyed out there in the darkness.

Jerry Goldsmith’s score changes again. It goes from screeching bombast and brittle percussion back to that twinkling wonder and excitement. We have survived. “Final report of the commercial starship Nostromo. Third Officer reporting. The other members of the crew – Kane, Lambert, Parker, Brett, Ash and Captain Dallas – are dead. Cargo and ship destroyed. I should reach the frontier in about six weeks. With a little luck, the network will pick me up. This is Ripley, last survivor of the Nostromo, signing off.” The bleak, body strewn adventure reaches a happy end… Ripley’s ordeal is far from over.

10

 

 

 

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