Wednesday, June 13, 2012


Movie Review: Alien

Director:  Ridley Scott

Reviewed: 12 June 2012

jamesintexas rating--**** (4 Stars = Highest Rating)

Alien is a tremendous achievement in filmmaking.  33 years after its creation, Ridley Scott's masterpiece still casts a shadow over the entire science fiction genre for both its technical brilliance as well as its horrifying subtext, and Ellen Ripley remains one of my favorite cinematic characters ever created.

I forgot how quiet this film is, how prosaic and slow the pacing, the cinematography, the performances are in the first half of the film.  The opening shots of the massive ship are both evocative of the beginning of Star Wars: A New Hope as well as Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Both are touchstones throughout Alien which ultimately reveals itself to be a model of sound architecture, restraint in filmmaking, and scariness in ideas as well as visuals.

The commercial towing vehicle The Nostromo awakens her seven person crew from deep hyper-sleep to investigate a signal from a beacon from a nearby planet.  Mother, as they call their central computer, has redirected their course and wants them to investigate.  With slow panning shots and time to develop personalities, The Nostromo is seen as a hotbed of class warfare, conflicting priorities (science vs. safety), some vague sexual tension, as well as clear leadership struggles.  As a microcosm of society, The Nostromo does as its told, lands rockily on the eerie, wind-swept planet, and three crew members leave to discover the source of the beacon.  Their sojourn takes them to an apparent crashed spaceship of immense size with what appears to be a gigantic desiccated alien corpse perched on a targeting mechanism or a telescope staring out into the stars.  A further exploration underneath the ship leads Kane (John Hurt) to a vast hall of infinite alien eggs ominously guarded by some kind of force field.  Kane touches one curiously, a facehugger jumps out and leeches its way onto his bulbous helmet, eventually securing itself firmly on his face.  The other two return to The Nostromo with their fallen crew member in tow, and Ash, the secretive science officer, violates quarantine and Ripley's urging for protocol and safety by bringing them aboard.  Havoc ensues and as the crew are hunted down one-by-one, Ellen Ripley emerges and confronts.

As I watched this film slowly transform into a full-on, full-bore chase film inside of the enclosed space of a ship (which at times feels like the characters are running down digestive tracts and intestines) and then escape pod, I realized that Ridley Scott's filmmaking transforms also.  The first half of the film is prosaic, is filled with long takes, tracking shots, camera pans and movements that give time and patience to a very slow, very classic film style.  Then, as all hell breaks loose, Ridley Scott reflects that chaos in his filmmaking: over-the-shoulder shots of Ripley running through the bowels of the ship, more close-up shots of characters' faces and the alien itself, the overlaying of a heartbeat over the soundtrack, blaring alarms and strobe lighting, spike-ups in Jerry Goldsmith's amazing score.  Ridley Scott explores some of the ideas here that reappear in his masterpiece Blade Runner regarding artificial intelligence's ability to seem human, pass as human, become human; Ash seems a direct descendent to H.A.L. of 2001, and the way Ash is used by The Company to carry out its orders is chilling.  So, he simultaneously gives at least two differently styled films within one, and the blending of the classic into the frenetic works.  It works incredibly well.  

I'm giving short shrift to the alien itself, a terrifying nightmare of a creature from H.R. Giger.  It remains one of the most terrifying creations ever depicted in cinema along with Spielberg's shark from Jaws and Del Toro's Pale Man from Pan's Labyrinth.  Utterly terrifying in concept and execution, a 33 year-old concept that still evokes something serpentine, dragon-like, demonic, and completely Other.  Further films will sharpen the original concept, but it is pretty gruesome and haunting; at times, the alien appears to hug its victims and its open arms are scarier than its multiple mouths within mouths.

But I guess what I'm driving at many years after first encountering the Alien franchise and concept is how damning Ridley Scott's film is of the menacing undercurrent of capitalism (the alien is wanted for vague weapons research and development) and the coldness of corporate analysis of cost vs. benefit.  Someone, unnamed and unseen, decides that the lives of The Nostromo are expendable for a greater good or a greater goal, not unlike decisions that are made by presidents and kings everyday.  And something incredibly dark is going on with Scott's depiction of The Nostromo itself with its alien-like ducts and wires, corners and tubes, sounds and lights.  I think Ridley Scott might be suggesting that the  Company (only shown through the typed words on the screen of Mother and the nefarious actions of Ash) is even more terrifying than the alien.  Technology and rapacious capitalism are both as scary as an alien wanting to kill everyone on a ship for no reason.  Or, maybe the reason the alien kills is simply survival versus the reason The Nostromo crew are sacrificed is money.  I think on a certain level Ridley Scott leads the audience to confront the messiness of how corporate culture can be even more poisonous and destructive than an outer alien force, a kind of Walt Kelly's Pogo "We have met the enemy and he is us" epiphany.

Ultimately, I am left with so many questions about this film (the blue mist, Ash, the growth of the alien in such a short amount of time, what is that giant alien astronomer?), and I love that Ridley Scott leaves those questions unanswered.  The opening line, delivered by Brett, a crew member at breakfast after awakening from a deep hyper-sleep, is "This is the worst shit I've ever seen, man" refers to the outer space food he's ingesting, and that line perfectly captures my awe and respect for this classic science fiction horror chase film.  This is the worst.

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