Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Alien (1979)

Alien movie poster

When Alien was released on special edition dvd, I had not yet succumbed to the power of the horror film. It was not until later that a friend of mine suggested that I rent it. I did so more out of respect for my friends taste than anything else because I was not a big sci-fi fan either. I discovered why I considered him a friend after viewing this masterpiece.
Alien - egg farm

Of all the horror movies before and all those after, Alien was quite possibly the most identifiable. The look is unique. The sound is unique. The characters are unique. And in 1979, as the syrupy-sweet waves of Star Wars were lapping at everbody's heels, Alien would quickly become known as the antithesis to Lucas' space opera. Set largely in the confines of an old, worn-out tugboat in space, Alien is a creepily claustrophobic stroll into the deepest recesses of our primate brains. The movie is full of dark, blind corners and stygian niches from wence the creature could spring at any moment. Put quite frankly, this movie scares the shit out of you from beginning to end. Not in the rampaging, constant adrenaline rush-way of its sequel, but with at a slow, methodical pace punctuated with moments of stark terror.
Alien starts us on a quiet mining vessel, the Nostromo, traveling through open space on a heading towards Earth. The command and control computer system, Mother, receives an S.O.S. signal from a nearby planet, reroutes the Nostromo, and begins the process to awaken the crew from hypersleep to investigate.
Set design is the first thing that jumps out at you when you watch Alien. It's dark. All the time. The sets don't look like some neat, orderly little spaceship from Star Trek. Everything looks old and run down, just like any commercial vessel would. There are no attractive streamlined shapes. Instead, the entire ship looks like it was cobbled together out of bits and pieces of industrial equipment. It isn't made to look pretty like the USS Enterprise. The Nostromo is a beast of burden with precious few creature comforts and miles upon miles of barely lit corridors for the crew to get themselves bumped off in. But even worse than that are the surface of the alien planet and the interior of the derelict spacecraft. Rocks with odd organic shapes jut up from the black ground like the arms of zombies rising from the grave. The derelict looks like it was grown in a huge vat without a single straight line or right angle to add any human familiarity.

Adding another layer of realism are the characters, all brilliantly played by the cast. These folks are so real that you don't question them for a moment. They're not intrepid explorers looking to broaden the horizons of humanity. These people are doing a job. For money. And they never stop bitching about it. Just a few minutes into the film, any doubt you may have had about the characters' plausibility evaporates, leaving you to enjoy the purity of the movie without having to ponder anybody's motives. They curse. They gripe. They bitch about each other behind their backs. The captain just wants to get home with a minimum of bullshit. The maintenance guys are trying to do the least amount of work in the longest period of time. The navigator is a useless, whining bint. In short, these are real people in a real environment. And when shit hits the fan, they react in very real ways. Some bravely sally forth, some panic uselessly and some just blunder into their own demise like stupid fucking sheep. Even without the monster, this would be one hell of a sci fi movie.

Alien - face plantWhen Kane, a member of the krew is attacked by a creature that wraps itself around its victims head.

Once in the infirmary, Kane’s helmet is removed the crew discovers a claw shaped critter is attached to his face. When someone tries to remove it the critter’s tightens up around Kane’s neck. But there was no need to worry because after a little while the critter dies and falls off anyway, leaving Kane none too worse for wear.

Alien - Ripley hot with a gunWhile the crew is eating their last meal before going back into hibernation for the return to Earth, Kane starts to have convulsions that end with an alien creature bursting out of his chest and scurrying off while the rest of the crew just stand around in disbelief. The remainder of Alien starts with an attempt to capture the alien, and ends with an attempt to just escape the Nostromo alive.

Which brings us to the real heart of the movie: Giger's alien.

Part insect, part reptile and part opium hallucination, Giger's hellish brainchild is the real heart of this movie. Which is odd, in that you hardly every see the thing. Scott didn't blow his wad by giving us a detailed, almost pornographic display of the creature. When you see the alien, it's never a full body shot and never for longer than a few seconds at a time. Which compunds the effect even more as it lets your imagination do the real work of turning a man in a rubber suit into a convincingly real and incredibly frightening organism. Everything about the alien is insidious. It's black, it drools, it's covered in slime and it blends in seamlessly with the maze of pipes and struts that make up the movie's environment. And let us not forget that the thing is born by chewing its way out of a person's chest. Nice touch, that. The beauty of the beast is that in the few glimpses you get of it, your brain keeps trying to make sense of it. Were those tubes on its back? What's up with that head? Just how many sets of teeth does that damned thing have? Again, it's a man in a rubber suit. But it's *real*. The alien isn't CGI, it's old school horror and extremely well done at that.

"Alien" is simply one of the most brilliant, pivotal horror/sci fi movies of the twentieth century. The theatrical version kicked ass even after being trimmed at the behest of Fox. The newer director's cut is even better, with several addition scenes that don't just give us more footage to look at, but actually give us a deeper insight into the world of the movie. I just have to give this thing five out of five.

1 comment:

  1. Ripley is my fav horror heroine ever I think---It was a perfect character to me.