Thursday, February 2, 2012

THURSDAY THROWBACK: Alien (1979)

Despite three sequels, two spinoffs, and a not-so-direct prequel on the horizon, Ridley Scott’s Alien remains a true original. It stands out from all the other Alien films in the franchise because it is patient, loaded with dread and ominous fear instead of action and special effects. There are effects in Alien, obviously, and there is a bit of action, but the picture isn’t reliant on these elements. James Cameron’s sequel, Aliens, is a great film in its own right; but it’s an entirely different type of experience. It is less frightening and more of a straight action picture. But Ridley Scott’s sci-fi creation is truly a terrifying movie framed in a familiar story and built on the cinematic history of that Thing From Another Planet. It had been years since I watched Alien, and seeing it again recently I realize it has only gotten better with age. In a time where green screens and hyperactivity overwhelm science fiction, Alien stands atop the genre as a masterpiece.

The framework of Alien is a familiar one. A mining ship with a skeleton crew travels to a distant planet, responding to an SOS call. The crew is a cross section of types that are all unique characters. The ship captain is Dallas (Tom Skerritt). There are maintenance men, Parker and Kane (Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton), worried more about getting paid than investigating the SOS. There is the resident technician, Ash, played ominously by Ian Holm. And of course there is Ellen Ripley, Dallas’ second in command played by Sigourney Weaver. These crewmembers of the Nostromo land on this desolate planet and discover the people who sent the SOS are all dead. But what killed them? They investigate further.

One of the men, Brett (John Hurt), finds a bed of large, pulsating eggs. One of the eggs opens and a spiny creature leaps from it and attaches itself to Brett’s face, wrapping its lizard-like tail around his neck. Against the protests of Ripley they bring Brett back on the ship where he lies motionless with the creature covering his face. There is a great early scene where they try and cut the thing off his face and the acidic blood burns its way through the levels of the ship. “A nice defense mechanism” notes Ash. Out of nowhere the creature appears to die and fall off Brett’s face. All seems well once again until dinner that night, where we discover the creature did not die. It gestated in Brett’s stomach, and in the film’s signature scene, it explodes from Brett’s midsection and scurries away to the horror of the crew.

Alien then becomes a cat-and-mouse game between the crew as they try and find the creature while the creature evolves and grows rapidly. From a small, toothy monster it grows until it is as big as its human counterparts. The look of the creature is familiar to us all now, with its narrow head, exoskeleton, and snarling rows of razor-sharp teeth. The most terrifying moments in the film come as the crew hunts the creature through the long corridors and ducts of the ship. These sequences are long and slow and build on the dread that the alien might be around the next corner. While the hunt-and-stalk element of the story is straightforward, the film adds a wrinkle. Ash is a robot, programmed to retrieve the monster and bring it back to Earth; all other objectives, including the safety of the crew, is secondary to retrieval of the alien.

It was a bold stroke by Scott and screenwriters Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett to make Ellen Ripley the hero. Sigourney Weaver was a relative unknown at the time, but she would become the first female hero of this kind of franchise picture. Weaver would go on to star in all the sequels, and would even grab an Oscar nomination for Aliens. Such a thing is unheard of, an action star on Oscar night. It is Ripley’s unabashed hatred of the alien that motivates her character and makes her a powerful protagonist. She has no time to try and understand the creature; she just wants it to die.

Ridley Scott makes a return to sci-fi this summer with Prometheus, a film that may or may not be a prequel, may or may not be something totally apart from the Alien lore. I don’t think the patience of the narrative structure will be there this time around, because this is not how science fiction sells these days. This is a great movie, a horrific and sometimes thrilling experience that will never come around again. Patience is the most wonderful virtue of Alien; even the opening title sequence unfolds in a calm, calculating manner. No matter how many times you see the title card develop, it remains exhilarating, and it sets the tone.