Alien (1979, Ridley Scott)


Inarguably an innovative film, Alien was the first high-minded monster movie in the same way that 2001 was the first truly serious science fiction film. Its meaning, subverting by its very nature the florid fascism of Star Wars and its ilk, was to undercut expectations and to reject the very undercurrent of wonder and scientific promise that drove 2001 and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a compassionate rejection of the concept behind the terror that comes from space and eats you alive. That’s all sci-fi business, though, and Alien isn’t really sci-fi — in every respect except its setting, it’s a straight horror film. To those for whom jump scares are ineffective, it fails regardless of its innovations because it’s little more than Jaws on a spaceship, only without the character development, wit and actual tension.

Many disagree, of course, that Alien is not an intense film — some find it almost unbearably so — but this is a question of what the audience brings to the film. Though some classify Jaws as a horror film, and not without reason, it is much more beholden to the grammar of the thriller, with carefully mounting suspense based, for the most part, on the disparity between what the audience knows and what the characters know. Alien is conceived almost entirely from the perspective of its merry crew of doomed characters; its climactic moments are all instances of surprise, basically jumps and quick-cut snarls and swipes that impart little information. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it carries with it both a tiresome cheapness and a fanatical obsession with the grossout.

Conversely, the film is a model of art direction and visual design that’s nearly beyond criticism. Director Ridley Scott is not the indisputable master of composition he fancies himself, but he does know how to hire the right people. H.R. Giger creates a big scary monster that’s truly startling and oddly majestic to behold, a drooling mass of scaly danger and dread. From that basis, the production designer Michael Seymour concocts a womb-like spaceship that fuses the oppressive buzz of a drab workplace with the grimy, cavernous misery of a prison or some sort of infernally brooding crawlspace. Integral to the script by Dan O’Bannon is that this is a commercial spacecraft, no altruistic govenment mission, its goals and placement in this narrative of a mysterious organism captured and carried aboard as menacingly vague as the creature itself. The ship is as much the enemy, it seems, as the monster. The results are unnerving; one never feels safe in this environment, and Scott immerses in it fully.

But as in nearly all of Scott’s films, the environment and its design are not the backdrop for a resourceful and compelling story — they are the story. Alien has nothing else to offer aside from its brooding nastiness and a certain sickening neatness (or screenwriterly patness, if you’re cynical) to its own symmetry: an entire crew wakes up together in the morning and just one member will make it to bed that night — Sigourney Weaver’s intrepid Ripley, a strong female character who must figure in at least a bit of irksomely silly rape imagery with the alien before she is finally allowed her triumph, following more than one false ending. Weaver seems more at home in this world than those who die, a wildly oddball cast of character actors including Harry Dean Stanton as a lonely man in search of a cat, Veronica Cartwright reprising her role from The Birds for all we know, Ian Holm as an authoritative scientist who turns out to be a robot in one of the film’s less frequently discussed and more ludicrous tangents, and John Hurt, whose chest explodes.

While some are skeeved out by the alien, by things bursting out of people’s chests, and by the general atmosphere of horrible evil permeating the entire production, one of the larger problems facing this film is that it’s just all a little too silly to warrant its own rampant self-importance, which is a problem common to most horror movies for anyone who isn’t quite willing to accept them at face value. If one is along for the ride to begin with, perhaps they can get something out of the tepid crew interactions all leading to rhythmic encounters with the creature that does some vaguely horrible thing to each of them, but for the outsider from both sci-fi and horror this seems barely a step above a typical Irwin Allen or Roger Corman production. It’s the kind of film that leads to a lot of talk about “subtext” primarily because there’s not much else to talk about. Even the inventive design, with its clear debt to an explicit male fear of feminine sexuality, gives the enterprise a sheen of macho ickiness primarily because it adopts this image set more or less just as ornamentation. It says nothing more because it’s a horror movie and such things would be beside the point, yet it attempts to escape the horror ghetto with its supposed deeper implications.

None of this is what makes Alien an outright failure; the conceit of exploring a crash site surrounded by eerie silence and eerier organic matter, completely anti-scientific as such a notion sounds, has its compelling and inspired elements, and Scott’s major gaffe is to essentially drop the actual depth of his premise in order to employ it for such a hokey and tired B-movie structure and screenplay. It’s hard to understand what others are looking at when they see this as one of the most artistically vital films of its era. Beyond Scott’s less than ideal camerawork and direction of actors, who are simply a horde of indistinct creations defined solely in the viewer’s memory by their fates, his film is poorly paced and edited, with nearly every scene in the first half approximately twice as long as it needs to be — and the early moments are where the film has the best material to work with; the overwrought execution of the exploration, of Hurt’s illness and death, and the gradual establishing of the central cat-and-mouse premise are all drowned out and ponderous.

From there, the film gets increasingly dumb, in large part because that premise is itself pretty dumb, and the film infuriatingly does absolutely nothing with it to make it really metaphorically viable or humane or of any larger interest beyond its extremely boxed-in hypothetical world. That claustrophobia is partially the idea, of course, but in that sense, one wishes the script had been engaged in more extensive and careful development, because after all the jumps and starts and BOO!s, the characterization is too blank and flat for any catharsis to be achieved at the end — even with a character with whom we’ve struggled mightily from start to finish, and even with a game enough performance by Weaver. She just never seems like anything except a flat point A-to-B caricature whose plight is always held at arm’s length from us. Mostly, the film just isn’t any fun; it’s a chore to watch and elicits impatient groans almost from the first shot. But remember: I don’t like Blade Runner, hate Carpenter’s The Thing, and generally don’t understand any relevant genre here. To me, though, this looked like an overrated film when I was a teenager and looks like a rather bad one now.

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