2/1/09

Alien

Year Released: 1979
Director: Ridley Scott
Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, John Hurt

And the Stars Look Very Different Today


Star Trek The Original Series. Lost in Space. JFK and the Space Race. Then there was NASA's ultimate climax; Stars and stripes pierced the surface of the moon on July 16, 1969 and America sighed in post-coital haze. By the time the seventies rolled around, television audiences had ceased to care about space, exploration and the heroes living next door. Star Trek and Lost in Space went off the air, NASA takeoffs lost audiences and movies changed their focus to other science fiction genres.

Forgive the bad sexual imagery and bear with me and one of my silly theories: between 1969 and 1979, there was not a single significant Hollywood film about human exploration in space (No, you don't count, Solaris). My research was far from meticulous, but I ask you to visit this list of 70s science fiction movies to see what I am talking about. Films tended to be about aliens visiting Earth or post-Earth – apocalyptic or Utopian – and steered clear of the Final Frontier. See? And please don't bring up Planet of the Apes sequels in rebuttal.

Meanwhile, the biggest science-fiction event of the decade, Star Wars (1977), instead of tackling mankind's future in space, was more of a fairy tale than the brainchild of imaginary human achievement. The text crawl "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away..." introduced film-goers to perhaps the most famous cinematic disclaimer of all time. This is not about mankind. This is someone else, somewhere else, somewhen else.

Finally, in 1978, Capricorn One reacted to the Apollo missions. Nine years after the moon landing, Capricorn One presented a fake mars landing, showering scientific achievement with irony and skepticism, the classic Hollywood cultural reaction and an apt counterpart to Viktor Pelevin's later novel Omon Ra. However, space exploration remained absent for reasons left to other, smarter historians, and so I submit the question, smarter historians: where was our Final Frontier?

I managed to find an exception to the rule. Before 1979, only one significant movie dealt with human space exploration: Dark Star. John Carpenter's “Waiting for Godot” space opera is a worthy film in its own right (and I hope to write on it in the future), but the USC-school-project-turned-$60,000-film was definitely an anomaly, released after a year delay, in 1974, at the heart of science fiction's space-exploration dead zone. Surely, it deserves a very special place in film history, but from a mainstream cultural standpoint, the injunction remained unbroken. Dark Star wasn't momentous enough to plant its flag on the decade, not yet; that's where Dan O'Bannon enters the big picture and allows me to draw you a very funny web:

After Dan O'Bannon wrote the screenplay to and acted in Dark Star, he wrote a little futuristic-detective comic that stands as one of the earliest examples of cyberpunk – and became one of the biggest influences to Ridley Scott's Blade Runner - called The Long Tomorrow, not to be confused with The Long Tomorrow, a novel by Leigh Brackett, who wrote the screenplay for Star Wars, for which Dan O'Bannon did special effects before giving up a career on the technical side for scriptwriting, taking his Dark Star script and adapting it into a space-based horror film released in 1979:

Yes, Alien. Directed by Ridley Scott, Alien was released on May 25, 1979, suspiciously close to the ten year anniversary of Mankind's Giant Leap. Finally, we could enter a movie theater, look up at the stars, see our stars and get excited again. Remember, in space, no one can hear your screams of ecstasy.


Alien | It's More Than Okay With Me | 8.0/10



Voyager 1 began transmitting images of Jupiter in January of 1979. Eleven months later, Robert Wise made a movie about Voyager 6 and released it across from Disney's Star Wars wannabe. In 1979, three crew-based-science-fiction adventure stories - Alien, Star Trek The Motion Picture and The Black Hole - presented visions of our future and all three could not have been more different than the last. Alien was first, but it was also the most accurate and apropos. For reasons which I will glance upon in the Loved & Loathed section, Alien captured a possible future with real people, fathomable technology and a capacity for even little old us.

In case you haven't seen it...

A corporate shipping company's return to Earth is interrupted when an unidentified signal is detected en route. The small crew investigated, the iconic Alien was born, And Then There Were None was Warrant Officer Ripley.

Loved

  • After years of impatience with movies that start slow, I began to really enjoy the meditated, methodical opening sequences of good films. Alien's introduction to the unmanned spaceship Nostromo is one of my favorites, right up to the opening of the cryogenic chambers. After Planet of the Apes and that famous Adam & Eve Twilight Zone episode, how could that not be ominous?

  • The crew of Nostromo wears wrinkled, old, dirty clothes. I cannot express to what lengths I appreciate that detail, especially when compared to science fiction films like Star Trek and Star Wars. The clothes aren't glamorized, either, and besides Sigourney Weaver's ass-crack, neither are the women. When you see Harry Dean Stanton wearing a Hawaiian shirt and smoking a cigarette, it really solidifies the scene as mundane and comfortable, a very impressive achievement when the scene is on a spaceship.

  • Alien is a science-fiction and horror movie, but it's also neither. Science-Fiction films about space travel often tell the stories of paragon beings: soldiers, scientists, exceptional individuals and professional adventurers. Horror films, especially now, rotate plots around teenagers and young adults to attract the fright-seeking audience. What makes up the crew of the Nostromo? 30+-year-olds who are little more than glorified truckers, shipping cargo from one planet to another. They argue about salary cuts, groan about delays and they don't know how to react to killer alien creatures – that's far more interesting.

  • In contemporary minds, the crew of the Nostromo are astronauts. They are Neil Armstrong, the perfect American Hero, except, of course, they are not. Take Tom Skerritt as Captain Dallas. Sure, he listens to classical music, but he also defers to inferiors, backs down from adversity and looks depressed and jaded in his blue-collar life. Alien takes anyone in the audience and says, “If you lived in the same decade as these guys, this could be you.” Step aside, Buzz. We've all got The Right Stuff now.

  • My three favorite scenes in the movie are the three instances where the entire crew gathers around the dining table: upon waking up, upon learning that they are not home and upon Kane's false-revival. In horror movies especially, it is a joy to see characters behaving in their natural environment, especially when a director such as Ridley Scott truly heeds the term natural. I'm also very fond of how the "crew members" seem more like co-workers than comrades and Captain Dallas seems more like a boss than a leader.

Loathed

  • I remember watching Westworld and laughing at the horrible interpretations of technology. However, even spinning wheels have their charm. The blinking lights of Mother, Nostromo's supercomputer, are just silly in comparison to the tiny little monitor by which Mother communicates. I can't wrap my brain around that making even any fictional sense.

  • For the most part, Ridley Scott adheres to the Val Lewton-esque principles of shadows and misdirection to give the impression of the alien when special effects cannot. However, there are two instances when the special effects failed to live up the standards of the rest of the film: when the infant alien, free from John Hurt's chest, slides across the table & when the adult alien approaches Lambert for the kill. I’m sorry, I know this is the 70s, but I can’t help but cringe.

  • The first time I watched the movie, I got very confused at the end. After Ripley seals off the shuttle and notices that the alien is aboard, why doesn’t the alien immediately notice her and tear her to shreds? I’ve yet to find a suitable theory. Ultimately, I don’t really care, and maybe the undressed Sigourney Weaver has something to do with that, but it was very confusing.

  • The three Loathed items above don’t really affect my opinion of the film. However, there is a reason why I would rate this film at 8/10 instead of 10/10, and that’s because Alien is a horror film. Horror isn’t my favorite genre, but neither am I prejudiced. Many horror films besides Alien have made my favorite lists. However, Alien is for the most part an unoriginal Horror film, drawing too many similarities with older films like Jaws and Halloween and falling too often into the horror-movie clich├ęs of stupid choices and tricked-you false alarms.



The Arnold Strong Award
for supporting actor:
Ian Holm as Ash

Bilbo Baggins played Ash. Not only did he have the best name in a crew full of great names (Ripley, Dallas, Kane, Brett, Parker and Lambert), Ash was an android, the corporate mole and unexpected second conflict of the film, as if the "perfect organism" roaming the ship wasn't enough. I am the last person to expect myself to pick Ian Holm over Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt or Tom Skerritt, but there is one thing about Holm's performance that gets me every time. When I first saw the film, up until the milky substance started dripping down his forehead, I never suspected he wasn't human. Every time I've seen the film since, I can't help but marvel at the subtle-but-strong hints in his acting prior to that scene.

The Otto Preminger Award
for cinematic advancement:
The Death of Ash

This award is inseparable with the previous award and again I must lament, because Ian Holm is not my favorite part of the movie. Also, as I am not familiar with much of film special effects history, I'm sure that I am overlooking some important achievements that Alien's special effects team pulled out of nowhere. However, few can deny what Ash's death scene did for the history of androids in film, for they could never be the same again. And yes, I did see that one very rough cut from Ian Holm to the prosthetic head, but I think the overall effect – the white fluid, the Poltergeist-like spinning and the ongoing skirmish after the head had been partially severed – was a landmark achievement. Or maybe I am just fond of the similarities between this scene and Isabelle Adjani freaking out in Possession.

The Hawkeye Pierce Award
for contemporary commentary:
The Landing

This amply-budgeted cinematic attempt to capture an alien surface landing must have rang a bell within audiences who had watched Apollo 11 live. The last time I watched the movie, I tried to imagine myself in 1979 having seen the moon landing as a fourteen-year-old on television with David Bowie's Space Oddity as background music. While the sequence is not the greatest cinematic achievement – it pales in comparison to Ron Howard's takeoff recreation in Apollo 13 - the nonchalant approach to the historic mirror hits me pretty heavily. Whether or not it had the same effect on contemporary audiences, I don't know.

If you liked this film...

You'll definitely love Blade Runner, the other reason why Ridley Scott is one of my favorite directors.

I am a science-fiction geek, but that isn't why Alien is one of my favorite movies. Harry Dean Stanton and Tom Skerritt are two of my favorite actors, but that isn't why Alien is one of my favorite movies. I tend to dislike horror movies and yet Alien is one of my favorite movies. I can sum up the reason with a comparison to another of my favorite directors. I cannot help but picture an aging Robert Altman at the podium, thanking the Academy for his Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006. During his speech, he said, "To me, I've just made one, long film,” a commentary on his own one-style approach to different subjects. While it is true that Altman's subject-matters had great variety, he never made it to space. I know Alien was directed by Ridley Scott, but I can't help but think that Robert Altman never had to bring his film to space because Ridley Scott already did.

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