Sunday, June 10, 2012


This is the first post in Film Stock, a series of reviews appreciating the greatest films of all time. In the spirit of the just-released Prometheus, inaugurating this collection is Ridley Scott’s 1979 opus, Alien. A choice like Casablanca would be more classical and an essay on The Tree of Life would appear more legitimate, but I would like to start with a film that is a masterpiece by all accounts yet also thrilling entertainment and a hallmark in modern moviemaking. Film Stock will update periodically, as per my schedule (I don’t get paid for this, after all). The criterion for a film selected is at least two (often more) viewings several months (often years) apart. I aim to cover a wide range of film history. To prove this, no Christopher Nolan … for now.

Directed by Ridley Scott
Released in 1979

What I would give to know nothing of Alien and watch it again for the first time. Unfortunately, that can never happen. I imagine few people are out there [reading this] who do not know that scene — that scene, when the whole movie changes. If you have no idea what I am getting at, by all means stop reading this and watch this movie untarnished while you still can. But for the rest of us, the alien — later labeled “xenomorph” — and its gruesome method of reproduction are as close to public domain as R-rated science fiction can reach. There is no scene in film history with such an unexpected punch. Psycho’s shower scene. “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” “Nobody’s perfect!” Alien’s Last Supper owns it.

It speaks to Ridley Scott’s brilliance, then, as to why watching Alien for the third time the other day, with the same foreknowledge of the twist as my first viewing, remained as shocking as ever. For that infamous dinner scene, in particular, the suspense relies mostly on the framing of the shots. Scott does not rely on quick cuts to artificially escalate tension; he sustains a shot on Parker (Yaphet Kotto), Dallas (Tom Skerrit) and the ill-fated Kane (John Hurt, perfect as always), only to cut to his friends dining around him. None of them realize what is really happening until it happens, or even after. The characters are not fleshed-out to the extent of a character study a la Raging Bull, but the agonizing, sustained duration with which Scott forces us to watch Kane’s brutal demise, and his friends struggling to save him, defines corporeal and emotional pain.

Consider that it takes about an hour to reach this point. It is a horror movie, and there is not a drop of blood until it is halfway done, and truthfully not much after that. As the alien picks off the remaining crewmembers, most of the deaths are depicted off-screen (shadows against a cat’s head, for instance) or through rapid, almost subliminal shots of gore (usually the alien’s phallic inner mouth pulverizing a head). One of the most notorious jump scares in film history — Dallas’ trek through the ventilation system — is also one of its most craftiest, fooling the viewer with a tracking shot that focuses on the foreground, only for Dallas to illuminate the background with his flashlight and *!!!* *static*. Scott tells the story from the parceled viewpoints of the Nostromo’s inhabitants, only quickly cutting when a vantage point, no, when a friend, has been terminated. The steady pacing, before, during and after duress, is the film’s secret weapon, acclimating the audience to the ship’s confines and acquainting us with our fellow humans, who we are powerless to save. We just watch. Or don’t.

With Sigourney Weaver’s prolific acting schedule in the many years since this film, often starring as a yappy bureaucrat or fast-talking heroine, it is easy to forget this understated performance in her first leading role. Aliens would give her more lines and cement Ripley as the quintessential female action hero. But here Weaver tackles the part without any camp, transcending the admirable benchmark Jamie Lee Curtis set in Halloween two years earlier. Scott certainly dreamed of greatness for Alien, but his dreams only came true with Weaver’s talent and willingness to break ground beside him.

What a remarkable character they created. Ripley revolutionized Hollywood and all those who watched and continue to watch her. Without Alien, we may not have ever seen Clarice Starling, Sarah Connor or Beatrix Kiddo.

Here was a woman, beautiful she may be, not typecast as the clueless female caricature awai
ting her male savior. She organically takes charge above her peers, each of whom could surely do the same (except Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) … poor Brett). But only Ripley had the foresight of the fatal contamination Kane’s alien contact would wreck and the strength to persist with such a tough verdict, even if the literally corrupt Ash (Ian Holm) bypassed her wishes. And only Ripley made it to the end, not by superiority or radical political correctness, but because she was coarse enough to think like the alien and take the bitch out herself.

Some fem
inists decried the sexualization of Ripley once aboard the escape vessel, when she takes off her clothes aboard the escape vessel she believes is safe. “Stripping her narrative competence with her uniform,” Vivian Sobchack writes in Alien Zone, a collection of essays on science fiction cultural theory, “Ripley no longer represents a rational and axesual functioning subject, but an irrational, potent, sexual object — a woman, the truly threatening alien generally repressed by the male-conceived and dominated genre.” Whoa now. Sobchack makes a good point on the ‘uncovering,’ be it will, of the true woman, who is also alone and captured in low, voyeuristic camera angles. But she does not see the true critique and brilliance of the sequence, where Ripley must adorn the spacesuit no woman had worn to the point, become the ‘man’ and kill the hermaphroditic male rapist for good. 

With such subtle imagery, Scott is not substituting Ripley for a male surrogate to win the day but thrashing the expectations the sci-fi audience already conceived for her character. The littl
e striptease is almost sinister in its intention: For the first time, the film incites cheap arousal from the predominantly male voyeurs yet then reintroduces the sexually relative monster and robes Ripley in men’s clothing for a bloodless finish. Scott’s provocation makes for the most satisfying unsatisfying climax in thriller history, no pun intended.

Someone with a familiarity in art history, design and sculpture could speak in more impressive terms, but as a construction leader of my high school production, I know the work it takes to create a set and Alien’s little world is a fully realized, nuanced masterpiece of the craft. The utilitarian hallways Ripley sprints down, with their monotonous pipes and wires that run in stark contrast to Star Trek’s primary colors. The stark geodesic bubble where crewmembers access the ship’s computer, Mother. The resistance of the failsafe levers that Ripley fails to overcome in time. Overwhelming with detail, the Nostromo’s design stands an unparalleled achievement in art direction to this day. Scott, who had a hand in the visual design with Roger Christian, Leslie Dilley, Stan Winston and the essential H.R. Giger, makes love to the set with his camera. Every scene captures an area of the ship from a new viewpoint. The lens flare illuminating the crew during the ship’s descent likely inspired J.J. Abrams. It is a grimy, empty, dreary ship, yet never a depressing or boring view.

There is a complete universe inside and outside the Nostromo. Today, that means “sequels!” and it did in 1979, too, as three successors bore the Alien name over the next 18 years. While James Cameron’s Aliens remains one of his greatest accomplishments (among many, I should clarify), it is a decidedly different film, expanding the mythos while losing its mystery. Meanwhile, the final two films fumble a little too much with their legacy. Alien, Ridley Scott’s perfect film, one with Jaws and Psycho, transcends its genre with multiple levels of meaning on image and soundtrack. Like Spielberg and Hitchcock’s best, the thrills survive without attention to its politics or ideology or aesthetics. But they are all there, ripe for discovery upon each viewing, dealing naked thrills and scary truths.

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