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Alien (1979)

by on 2011/01/09

A franchise notable for the distinctiveness of each instalment, I’ve never been certain about what characterizes and unites the Alien films.  Is it the hero or villain?  A title or design?  Sci-fi or horror?  Art house fare or E ticket rides?  My answer to every question may be “yes”.

I’ve always considered the original to be the series’ cinematic haunted house.  The blue-collar crew of the mining ship Nostromo inhabit a vast warren of dark, flicker-lit passages.  In director Ridley Scott’s purview, nobody is impressed with their “used” science fiction future.  Nude photos decorate alcoves, like the construction areas of Die Hard.  They lift nobody’s spirits, offer no true escape from discomfort, cabin fever, or the others who feel much the same, never mind the xenomorphic stowaway with antisocial personality disorder.

The ship’s doctor, Ash (Ian Holm), admires its “structural perfection, matched only by its hostility, its purity [as] a survivor unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.”  Which is bad news for the rest of the crew, for a variety of reasons.  With rare exceptions, the alien is pure predation, ruthlessly instinctive, impulsive, and elemental.  Plus, it’s phallic and yonic in equally unnerving measures.

I’ve seen this movie several times in the past — on video, at theatrical re-releases, and in both its official cuts — and yet, until my most recent screening, I never realized something quite obvious.  For all the speed and efficacy with which the alien decimates the crew, they’re convinced until fairly late in the game that they are, in fact, the hunters.  Despite all the turmoil, they say things like, “This air shaft may work to our advantage.”  As the dead pile up, latent aggressions boil to the surface, inversely proportionate to the survivors’ numbers.

In his later effort, Blade Runner, Scott would explore the relationship between mankind and its creations.  The themes here are arguably more complex.  Humanity occupies a static limbo, a tenuous, vulnerable position between the primal and the technological, each of which views them as utilitarian, nothing more than a means to an end.  Complicating the tug of war are their own internal squabbles.

The xenomorph is a relatively familiar nemesis, but the ship’s artificial intelligence, MUTHUR, recalls the ineffable, impenetrable calculations of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s HAL.  Relied-upon, though offering no substantial support, “Mother’s” users prompt her with colloquial queries, and she responds with ruthlessly obtuse technobabble.  Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) gazes distantly into a binary code readout, desperate for any sign of meaning, much like Contact’s Ellie Arroway, only less equipped to decipher it than the operators who observe The Matrix’s digital rain.

Ash, who admires their usurper, presents a similar solidarity with the ship.  Ripley’s inquiries are met with forestalling.  “We’re still collating” is the scientist’s explanation, as he does little more to help than label, describe, and regurgitate.

The production design supports the thematic dichotomy with well-acquitted sets and props, simultaneously futuristic, broken, worn, and dirty.  Industrial familiarity shares space with informational esoterica.  Chains hang from invisibly vaulted ceilings of flooding cargo bays while, nearby, banks of monitors cluster together, offering glimpses into numerical and wire frame data.

A predominantly dark environment suggests complexity in the relief-lit outlines of intricately textured surfaces, monolithic objects, and utilitarian lights.  Moments of panic are reinforced by spun bulbs, strobe lighting, and their attendant Klaxons.  Everything is so effective that the occasional oddities stand out:  external perspectives on the view ports, pastel brush stroke explosions, and the artifice of some avatars.

One of these figures, the alien itself, is handled well overall but, at points, resembles exactly what the editing tries to disguise:  a man in a rubber suit.  Similarly, a malfunctioning android is less menacing than reminiscent of a performance artist channelling all three Stooges simultaneously.  Far be it for me to dispute the director but, where the most obvious artifice could have been mitigated, inexplicably jarring edits crop up.

For example, early on, Kane wakes and rises slowly from his stasis.  A quick fade is used, suggesting less the passage of time than the misalignment of a camera between takes.  Later, the “hand off” between an effect and the actor is made with a direct cut from artificial to actual.  I cannot imagine why a cutaway shot wasn’t inserted between the mismatches, at least.  It wouldn’t have made the animatronics appear any more realistic, though it might have smoothed over the bump.

By and large, things move smoothly, with the pacing of pans, trucks, fades, and cuts flowing like the sweeping motions of a conductor at work.  Scott is as elegant with silence, space, and delay as he is with people, places, and things.

I felt much the same way about the Alien’s audio.  Rarely is there no sound at all, sometimes just the subsonic rumble of engines, eerie airflow, and the atonal “hush” of space.  Then extreme juxtapositions throw us suddenly off-balance, often without our realizing why.  The sudden blare of alarms is an obvious example but, at other moments, crescendos fall away abruptly, leaving a deafening sense of silence behind.  In those quietudes, the slightest sounds feel more intense:  the ringing of water, the crackling of flame, the breath and heartbeats of the hunted.

Where exactly the sound design ends and the music begins is difficult to pinpoint.  Conductor Jerry Goldsmith, who approached Planet of the Apes (1968) in a similar manner, continues his disquieting activities, blurring the lines between manipulated effects and conventional instruments.  Like an evolved compromise between the Barrons’ Forbidden Planet and a traditional orchestral score, he achieves what other such “experiments” (Duel, for example) fail to do:  innovate and succeed in compelling, even as he discomfits.

In essence, that kind of tension energizes the piece as a whole.  The contrasts in environments, intentions, themes, and filmmaking techniques have granted a conventional B-movie its enduring A-list acclaim.  Its completeness of vision and quality of execution is impressive.  Despite following so soon after the success of Star Wars, Alien is not the usual opportunist.

* * * *

Rated R for language and violence

116 minutes (2003 Director’s Cut)

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