That sense of cosmic contempt is what makes Alien tick. The universe is not simply indifferent to life but outright hostile to it. On top of that, instead of banding together in the face of this, many men elect to stab each other in the back. Alien manages not only to be about this monster that consists mostly of teeth and corrosive blood, but also the contemptuousness of one's fellow man. The alien isn't even the real guilty party: it's just a catalyst for other people's fear, greed and cowardice.
This probably sounds like heady stuff for a movie that spawned three sequels and grossed hundreds of millions of dollars, but if you scratch the surface of any big-name entertainment you find a core of truth. Like Jaws before it, which became the first of the big Hollywood blockbusters by featuring a killer shark which wasn't even on screen for the vast majority of its running time, Alien is not so much about the monster as what the monster invokes in people.
The premise is so familiar to many of us that it has become something of a cliché. A spaceship's crew of seven, in deep-freeze for the long journey home, are awakened when their ship's computer ("MOTHER") detects a transmission that appears to be a distress call. The broadcast is coming from a tiny, frigid planetoid that barely seems to be able to support life. The crew doesn't particularly want to investigate, but they also don't want to forfeit their profit-sharing agreement—one example of the cynicism that cuts through the movie on many levels.
What follows next has become so much the stuff of imitation, parody, and legend that recapping it almost seems redundant. That and for those who have not seen the film (and as with Psycho or Jaws, there are many who know the derivative better than the original), the surprises are worth preserving. The broadcast appears to be coming from a derelict spacecraft, with a cargo hold of what seem like eggs. One of them produces a parasite-like creature that attaches itself to a crewmember, and from there on out the film becomes an exercise in steadily-mounting tension. For "tension," read "terror"—especially since 20th Century Fox promoted the film with a now-infamous tagline that aptly summed up the movie's ambitions: In space no one can hear you scream.
In his own review of the movie, Roger Ebert pointed out something that I had noticed but never completely realized: the average age of the crew. These are not the smirking teen-and-twenty-somethings of today's so-called horror pictures, but weary adults—the filmmakers branded them "space truckers," and they all have a grizzled, flinty look to them. Even the women—Veronica Cartwright and Sigourney Weaver—aren't sex objects, but employees, and all they want is to collect their shares and go home. The last thing they care about is this wretched monster tearing about inside their ship and screwing everything up. It's this blunt-nosed approach, this lack of in-jokery that separates Alien from almost every other movie that came after it: they have the words, but not the music.
Sigourney Weaver's career was of course launched (and to a degree maintained) by Alien. In most films like this she would be playing to special effects rather than other actors, but the vast majority of her work is interacting with the crewmembers. Some of them do not like her—her animosity with Ash (Ian Holm) is clear, but the two engineers, Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) and Parker (Yaphet Kotto) seem to despise her on principle because she gets a full share to their half despite her (allegedly) not doing a tenth of the work. She also runs afoul of Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), the only other female crewmember, who hates her for sticking so religiously to the rules that her own life may have been endangered. The crewmembers coexist uneasily from the start, and that creates a tension that doesn't exist in many of the other SF films that involve an ensemble, especially Star Trek or any of its quasi-utopian derivatives.
There are many scenes in the movie that are masterful, but a few of them stand out especially in my mind. The first is when Brett heads into one of the landing-leg modules to look for a missing cat. Yes, an old horror movie staple, now beaten to death, but the movie does it so masterfully that we don't mind. Condensation drips down through the chamber, spattering against the brim of his hat and his sholders, and when he turns around he is face to face with the monster just like that. (The director's cut extends this scene by several extremely effective seconds.) Another scene involves the ship's captain, Dallas (Tom Skerritt), entering a ventilation duct with a flamethrower in an attempt to flush the creature out towards an airlock. There's almost no light in the scene except for the flicker from the flamethrower, which makes the terrifyingly abrupt conclusion to the sequence all the better. Interestingly, the one scene I find most disturbing is not anything involving the alien itself, but a moment where Ash tries to suffocate Ripley by stuffing a rolled-up porn magazine down her throat (an element feminist theoreticians mined endlessly in their readings of the film).
Alien also has a lot of unexpected dark humor. I liked how the other crewmembers' contempt for Ash comes through: at one point Parker enters the lounge area to find Ash in his seat, asks him to move, and wipes the chair off before sitting down himself. At one point late in the film there is a four-way struggle between several key characters that's both funny and horrible (and looks more like a struggle between real people than a slickly choreographed fight). Parker and Brett serve as a Laurel-and-Hardy-ish ongoing comic relief, grousing about the cloddishness of company policy and co-workers. (A good deal of the scripted dialog was thrown out and replaced with more natural, improvised banter, giving the movie an additional level of psychological realism.)
Alien's strength is obviously not in the originality of its plot. Many of the same story elements can be found in John W. Campbell's "Who Goes There?" (published in the Forties) as well as the 1951 film The Thing From Another World (itself remade in 1981 by John Carpenter with a very post-Alien vibe to it). There were other, probably less deliberate connections: A.E. van Vogt's 1939 story "Discord in Scarlet" and his 1950 novel Voyage of the Space Beagle bore suspicious similarity to the general outlines of the film's story. He settled out of court with the filmmakers, although I suspect in this case (and in a similar case where Harlan Ellison sued James Cameron for allegedly plagiarizing some of his material for The Terminator) that the influence was more subliminal than anything else.
Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett, the co-creators of the project, had already achieved a degree of do-it-yourself infamy when a student SF film of theirs, Dark Star, became an underground cult favorite. It was as rough-hewn as you could get (an alien creature in the film was a beachball with Creature from the Black Lagoon feet), but it garnered them attention. They partnered with producer Walter Hill to do a sort-of remake, a "space-horror" film then tentatively titled Star Beast that could be shot on a tiny budget and which used relatively few locations.
Director Ridley Scott's interest in the film came from an unexpected direction. After The Duellists, he had labored for a time on a possible film adaptation of the Tristan and Iseult legend. One day a friend of his took him to a new movie called Star Wars, and a dazed and dazzled Scott decided to try something a little more commercially acceptable. Even funnier was when O'Bannon and Shusett cited The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as a movie they were inspired by; Scott took this as a cue and saw the film for himself, unaware that his two cohorts were scared to death of his reaction: "Oh, he's British and he's probably got very refined sensitivities," O'Bannon recalled thinking. "He'll hate it and think I'm a jerk. And when he came out he was raving: 'Alien's got to be like that but better!"
Excitement over the project ratcheted up even further when Scott brought the others a copy of a book by then -unknown Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger. In Giger's gruesome "biomechanical" art Scott found a look for the alien that surpassed anything else they could think of (the film had in fact been rechristened Alien at Scott's behest). Giger was thrilled, and became so involved in the work that one night while brushing his teeth he accidentally jarred the light hanging over the alien model, setting shadows in motion and spooking him into thinking it had moved. He won a well-deserved Oscar for his work, although his future collaborations with Hollywood producers weren't as satisfying. Species, in particular, despite featuring a number of fascinating designs, was butchered badly in production, and Giger's fearsome work for Poltergeist II was also seriously compromised.
Scott's re-editing of the film for its 25th anniversary release (both original and director's edit versions are available together) both re-introduces some dropped scenes and tightens the pacing of the film for the better. Among the deleted moments: one where Dallas consults MOTHER for advice without success ("What are my chances?"). Among the new ones: a playback of the alien transmission itself, and a truly horrible moment near the end where we learn the true fates of several of the characters. Many more scenes, including a longish sequence that involved the alien going outside the ship, were shot in part but eventually scrapped (although the Alan Dean Foster novelization of the film has much of this material).
People go to the movies to experience things vicariously, including fear, as a way of mastering those emotions. Alien is still capable of scaring us twenty-five years later, when time and convention would have left most movies out to dry—which says to me that it taps into something deeper then just cheap shocks. I find the prospect of the alien itself less scary than the idea that someone might try to sell me—or all of us—up the river for it.
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