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150 Films #3: Alien (1979)

Let’s get this out of the way off the top: I haven’t seen every Ridley Scott film, but I’ve seen most of them, and I only like three: Kingdom of Heaven (the director’s cut), White Squall, and Alien. Some directors do very little for me, like Martin Scorsese, but at least I can see why others like him. Ridley Scott’s most highly regarded films—like Blade Runner and Gladiator—have mystified me. Why do people like these movies? How did Thelma & Louise get so huge? Why hasn’t anyone noticed the patchwork of garbage he pumps out between the hits are the rule, not the exception?

The first time I saw Alien, I had no idea who or what a Ridley Scott was. I was an innocent lad of perhaps 12. I had a friend at school who had somehow finagled his way into the “cool kid” crowd despite his passionate love of Star Trek: The Next Generation and soccer (shudder). We were both late to the TNG party, so when WPWR started playing reruns every day after school, we’d race home to watch the episodes and call each other to discuss what had happened. Conversation often lingered on Counselor Troi’s costuming and whether or not Ensign Ro was hot without the weird Bajoran nose ridges, but we were into it more for the sci-fi than the babes at that point.

This friend moved away at some point and we lost touch, so I’ll call him Sean since I can’t solicit his permission to talk about him on the blog. Sean came from an increasingly popular ’90s fad: the broken home. His dad had disappeared long before we were friends, his mom had remarried, and he had the misfortune of suddenly having an older stepsister that every guy in school wanted to bone. Wait, maybe that’s why the cool kids liked him. I remember him getting distressed more than once when he found out a “friend” had used him to get in good with his sister. The point of bringing this up isn’t to rehash 20-year-old gossip; the fractured family unit and older stepsister allowed him a gateway into things my parents would not approve.

That’s how I ended up seeing Alien—eventually. One afternoon, riding bikes around town, we were talking Trek when he brought up a more mature variation on the space opera. “Have you ever seen it?” he asked.

Seen it? I’d barely even heard of it. My dim awareness came courtesy of repeated viewings of Spaceballs. My mom had explained to me that John Hurt’s cameo was a parody of the movie Alien, the only movie my dad ever walked out of (because he was totally grossed out by “that scene”). So I kinda had that ruined for me, ultimately, but I didn’t realize it at the time.

Sean described it as “like Star Trek, only more realistic.” He also told me it was incredibly violent and full of action, and the sequel Aliens was “even better, because it has more action.”

The very thought excited me. Plus, I knew my parents had seen it, so they’d know whether or not I was old enough to see it. When I got home, I asked if we could rent the movies.

The answer from my dad was a resounding “no.” Still traumatized from his original viewing, he couldn’t conceive of any person who could ever be “old enough” for Alien. My mom was a little more lenient, because she realized this was the early ’90s. I couldn’t imagine this happening now, but back then, certain R-rated movies were basically marketed to kids. For instance, they had entire lines of action figures devoted to the Aliens and Terminator franchises. They had talking Freddy Krueger dolls and Jason masks and plastic machetes, Rambo toys… All of this because, as anyone who has paid attention to MPAA ratings can tell you, “Rated R” has never meant “adults only.” They describe the rating as follows: “Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian. Contains some adult material. Parents are urged to learn more about the film before taking their young children with them.”

I don’t know the history, and I don’t care to look it up, but I can feel in my bones the harassment of some right-wing Christian group calling Hollywood Satanist gore-hound sex-fiends, pressure that allowed some MBA to realize more money could be made with PG-13 movies, anyway, so why not just sanitize everything for our protection?

That’s a rant for another day, however. The point is that, by the tender age of 12, I’d seen plenty of R-rated movies, with and without an accompanying parent or adult guardian. My mom knew this, she’d seen Alien, and for fuck’s sake, she keeps texting me photos of my octogenarian grandfather’s cancer surgery wounds, so she has a high threshold for gore. So, we made a pact: she’d check out Alien and Aliens from the library, and I could watch them in hour-long chunks before my dad got home (I was also partially grounded from TV because of bad grades, so I only got an hour a day).

Even having the John Hurt scene spoiled for me, Alien blew my mind. I’d seen a lot of sci-fi, but never something quite like this. I can’t claim I understood the workingman politics of the dialogue, but I understood the grimy, claustrophobic ship that barely worked. I marveled at the “realism” of cryogenic freezing for deep-space missions, instead of a faster-than-light warp drive (the sci-fi equivalent of magic). I admired the way they jerry-rigged equipment they had on hand, instead of having a ship supplied with exactly what they’d need (especially if they reversed the polarity). I couldn’t believe how gross and weird the guts of Ash the Android were, and that’s not even getting into the alien.

At the age I first saw it, I missed a lot of the more complicated substance of the film (racial, gender, and class politics, especially); mostly, I saw a crazy movie where they chased an alien through SPACE DUCTS with a fucking flamethrower. Yessssss! And thanks partly to that ignorance, Alien infected my imagination as I tried to fill in the gaps in the half-sketched universe the film creates. (Seeing the sequel immediately after it, and later reading the novel adaptations of spinoff Dark Horse comics, would help, but I’ll talk about that more in the next installment.) Stars Trek and Wars created black-and-white archetypes; Trek edged the latter out slightly by at least toying with uncertainty and moral ambiguity. The world in Alien blew both out of the water by essentially putting a factory in space and showing us the disgruntled blue-collar workers who had to keep it running, and asking real questions about when human decency trumps standard operating procedure. Nothing, in the world of Alien, is perfect. That drew me to it more than just about anything else.

I’ve seen the movie so many times that, even though I haven’t seen it in at least a decade, I had it practically memorized. So, as I watched the film, I began to wonder about two questions:

  1. Does the film still work, for me and in general? It it doesn’t, is that just because I hate Ridley Scott’s work?
  2. How would an audience member in 1979 react to the film?

The answer to the second question proved more interesting to me. Alien has one of the great, iconic trailers of all time:

No dialogue, no characters, a cast of virtual unknowns, and an eerie soundtrack. It tells you barely anything more than you could guess from the title and/or poster: it’s about a killer alien.

Thinking about it from that perspective, Dan O’Bannon’s screenplay, and even (I grudgingly admit) Ridley Scott’s direction are a master class in the art of the tease. The opening montage, slow dollies through a seemingly empty ship, generate suspense without anything actually happening. Is the alien already bored? Is the crew already dead, and we’re going to pull an Alias and flash back 48 hours? Finally, the camera settles on their cryogenic pods as they’re awakened.

Then, the crew discovers the computer has awakened them, but they’re nowhere near Earth. Why? Did the alien do it? Who the fuck knows? They quickly learn a distress signal pinged their computer, which had instructions to stop. Holy shit, are they walking right into a trap?! They don’t know, because the computer hasn’t actually decoded the message. They take a shuttle to the planet’s surface. Is the alien down there?! It’s impossible to tell, as an arctic blast enshrouds them in a fog of snow.

Finally, they come upon a crashed ship. You know the alien’s going to be on that fucker. In a sense, yes, it is, but not in the way we’d expect. The ship itself seems abandoned. They come upon a huge skeleton so old that its fossilized remains have attached to its chair. Huh. Even weirder, its chest seems to have exploded outward. Double huh. The gears really start turning, trying to figure out how something so old could possibly still be a threat.

Deep in the bowels of the ship, they find an area that “feels like the bloody tropics,” as opposed to the polar freeze of the planet. The surface is covered by a thin forcefield, and now, goddammit, an alien is going to attack—right?! Yeah, sort of: Kane (John Hurt) finds a whole shitload of eggs, perfectly preserved by this forcefield, and as he examines one, it opens, and the thing inside smashes through his helmet and attaches to him.

Now we’re cooking, but we still don’t know what we’re dealing with. Is Kane going to become an alien? Are they going to pry it off his face and have to face its wrath? The artful tease strikes again: the thing has acid for blood that burns through three decks of solid steel, and it also has a tail squeezing Kane’s neck. Any attempt to remove it will end in, at the bare minimum, Kane’s death. So they leave it, and then, just as mysteriously as it appeared, it disappears. Kane wakes up, and he seems fine.

Then comes the scene. You know the one. By the way, this is halfway through the movie. We’re 54 minutes into a movie called Alien, and we haven’t even seen the scene. When Kane starts feeling sick, literally anything could happen. I started to understand how my dad felt when it turned out the way it did.

The entire Alien mythos is built around a sort of uncomfortable, Cronenbergian body horror element, with these parasites that literally force impregnation upon any living creature nearby, force them to allow a little alien embryo to gestate, and then they give birth to a creature who kills the host. Combined with H.R. Giger’s classic phallic designs and the film’s subtle gender commentary (a man dying “during labor,” a woman the sole survivor of a battle against an unstoppable penis-headed killing machine), it goes well beyond a sci-fi/horror surprise.

From the point of “birth” on, Alien follows the beats of a slasher movie, trying out unsuccessful methods of killing the killer that result in the deaths of at least one character. But the movie isn’t through with teasing. What we first see is a tiny, fast-moving beast full of teeth. It might have been effective enough as the big villain, but we quickly learn it has shed its skin. So the characters are looking for something, and they don’t know what it looks like, or how big it’ll be, or how dangerous it is. And neither do we.

When we finally catch a glimpse of the full-sized alien, we can’t have any way of knowing it’ll stay that size. And even among the human characters, surprises remain. The second-biggest surprise, after Kane’s surprise labor, is the reveal that Ash (Ian Holm) is an android. Up to this point, Ash seems…off. Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) doesn’t trust him, Dallas (Tom Skerritt) confesses that he was a last-minute replacement. When all this alien shit goes down, Holm does a nice job of playing double emotions: he could just be a slightly odd science officer fascinated by this alien marvel…or he could have led them into a trap because he’s nuts.

It’s when he starts sweating milk and turns psychopathic that the only reaction for a first-time viewer is, “What the fuck is happening?!” I’m glad this scene ended up less iconic than the Kane scene, because I still remember that feeling of utter shock and confusion. Anything could have happened: maybe he impregnated himself with another alien, maybe the alien had more babies, maybe the alien has some kind of weird mind-control powers—who the fuck knows? The fact that he’s just “a goddamn robot” actually turns out to be a relief, the sanest option in a world where we still don’t know the rules.

At this point, all the cards are on the table, but we have no way of knowing that. Even so, O’Bannon packs in additional twists. The remaining crew consists of two women and a black man; making any one of them the lone survivor would have been a novel twist in 1979. If they remade it, I can virtually guarantee Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) would have been the one. Ripley is too competent, Parker (Yaphet Kotto) too cool. Lambert is portrayed as competent in the early scenes, but she falls to pieces the moment the alien arrives. She’s shrill, useless, and extremely irritating; the Hollywood of today would call her final fight to survive some form of redemptive arc.

Alien doesn’t need a redemptive arc. It’s survival horror, and in this gritty world, the incompetent only survive because better people died protecting them. Lambert dies, and gets Parker killed in the process, because she is awful. That leaves Ripley (and Jonesy the cat, of course), which doesn’t read like a twist now but was seen as one at its time of release.

There’s one more surprise in store, of course: the alien stowed away on her escape pod, so Ripley has to fight it again. She blows it out the airlock, but that big pain in the ass holds on and tries to climb in through a rocket booster. Even roasting it doesn’t kill the thing; it just spins off into space.

Seeing it for the first time must have been one hell of an experience. But this leads to the question of whether or not it holds up. My answer is a fence-sitting “sort of.”

The “problem,” if you want to call it that, is that the imagery produced by Scott, Giger, and Ron Cobb is so memorable, it doesn’t really need to be seen multiple times in a row (to understand). I’m speaking purely in terms of my 150 Films collection: is this a film that I’ll keep coming back to? Unlike a film like, say, Twelve Monkeys, the most memorable images from Alien are inextricably linked to the plot. You’re going to remember the face-hugger, the chest-bursting scene, Ash’s meltdown, the alien appearing in the ducts… Twelve Monkeys has memorable imagery, but it’s easy to forget the plot. It’s a film that rewards repeat viewings. Once that cat’s out of the bag with Alien, though, you remember what it looks like, and you put up signs warning others to kill it on sight.

On the other hand, Scott assembled a great cast to breathe life into characters that might have felt stale in lesser hands. You don’t have to pay close attention to realize how thin these characters actually are, but the actors make them alternately likable and interesting. More importantly, I think the aspect that really sells the film as an enduring classic, rather than a well-made shock flick, is the fact that it does weave elements of social allegory into the film. At the heart of the story is a nameless, faceless corporation that would volunteer the lives of its crew in order to capture a specimen of what Ash calls “perfection.” I’ve already alluded to the gender politics and the unusual role reversals, but what about the film’s racial politics? Is there an undertone to the jet-black color of the alien? I’ve read analyses that suggest as much, but they often seem like a reach.

Still, there’s something compelling to the idea of the alien representing the frightening monster racists see in their ethnic group of choice. It’s easy to discount the presence of Parker as an obvious sign that there is no racial undertone, but it makes me think of the way racists often separate “good blacks” and “bad blacks,” “good Mexicans” and “bad Mexicans,” and in their fevered mind, the “ethnic monster” stereotype will gleefully murder the “race traitors” willing to fraternize with whites.

Even if Alien can never surprise as it does on the first viewing, it has a great combination of features to allow such radical interpretations: disturbing, highly memorable imagery; a vague enough future world to stir the imagination; and a story so deceptively simple, it’s easier to want to dig deeper for some higher meaning. The funny thing about Scott is, he’s not a subtle director. If he intended something more than a “haunted house in space,” we would know. What makes Alien special is that everyone involved elevated the material to such a point that Scott’s direction couldn’t implore us with his usual “this means exactly what it looks like” hackiness.

I’m only three movies deep, but I will say this was the least enjoyable of the three films I’ve watched so far. I spent a long time obsessed with this film’s universe, yet the memories surrounding that obsession aren’t really happy ones. The movie itself, obviously, isn’t meant to be “enjoyed” like Action Jackson. I think if the movie hadn’t played such a big part in my life, I’d strongly consider selling it. It has a lot of merit, but it’s not something I particularly enjoy watching. Yet, it’s earned its place.

My friend Tarini gives me an unending amount of shit for liking depressing movies because they’re so crushing. I always tell her that I like these movies because they make me feel better about my own life. Well, Alien puts me in touch with real feelings, and I think they’re worth returning to once in awhile, if only to remind me of how far I’ve come.

Thinking about it now, this is probably why I—as big of a Trekkie as you could imagine—don’t own any of the Star Trek (some of which I really like) or any of the series DVD sets. Even before Netflix streaming made it unnecessary, I haven’t gone back to it. I think the last time I watched a TNG episode was over 10 years ago, working on an editing project with a classmate. We were at his house, and he had his TV perpetually tuned to TNG reruns on SpikeTV. I distinctly remember the episode—“Frame of Mind,” the one where Riker’s mind starts to fall apart, split between three different realities—and I remembered the show so well. I thought, “Wow, I love this show, and it’s still so much a part of me.” Then I thought, “I should start watching reruns.”

But I never did. Much of my youth has become a blur, for the simple reason that I didn’t want to experience it. I hid out in the worlds of Star Trek, Alien—even Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles—which were preferable to the grim reality of growing up relatively poor with an alcoholic father. I remember having fun as a kid, but I also remember fleeing into fantasy worlds. When I expose myself to these old worlds, I don’t just feel what they’ve created; I feel the hideout I created, fearful that the walls would close in and my perfect little worlds will implode.

Alien, ironically, encapsulates that anxiety in its plot. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the entire movie is about unwanted invasion: in Kane’s body, in the Nostromo, in the universe itself. What does it say about me that, when I abandoned Trek as too naïvely optimistic, I sought shelter here? Maybe Ripley’s strength comforted me. She fought for her life and dispatched the invading force—something I couldn’t do.

In any case, Alien has more going on than was perhaps intended. That’s what has made it endure, in pop culture and in my collection.

Keep or Sell?: Keep

Up Next: Aliens (1986)

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