Saturday, April 19, 2014

#180: Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979)

How do you write about a film like Alien, by far the most famous movie I've written about on this site, a film that is considered a popular landmark of the horror and SF genres, a film that's already been written about plenty? Is it even possible to watch it with fresh, critical eyes? I've seen it so many times, and I heard all about it from my mother and other relatives before I saw it for the first time myself when I was in sixth or seventh grade. I've often wished I could have seen Hitchcock's Psycho without knowing about the shower scene/death of Janet Leigh, Norman's mother being dead, etc., and envied those audiences who saw it fresh in 1960, not knowing what was coming. Similarly, how great would it be to see Alien completely unaware of the cute little critter that violently propels itself out of poor John Hurt's stomach? The acid blood? The second set of teeth protruding from the first set?
Alien was a big hit in 1979, but critical consensus was much harsher. Most critics felt the movie was soulless and empty, an effects-driven carnival ride that was pushing character-based movies out of the way. One of my favorite film writers, Dave Kehr, wrote a particularly scathing review in the Chicago Reader. He called it an "empty-headed horror movie with nothing to recommend it beyond the disco-inspired art direction and some handsome, if gimmicky, cinematography." His review concludes with the withering sentence: "Instead of characters, the film has bodies ... ." I like the film far more than most writers of the time, and its critical reputation has improved over the years, but if I'm going to let myself be completely honest, Kehr does have a point.
What? Heresy, you say. Don't misunderstand. I still love the movie, but there is a distinct lack of character development, and Ridley Scott is most definitely using his actors as bodies more than characters. These are thin, barely drawn people, but Scott tricks you into caring deeply for them because of the actors he uses. This is one of the great '70s casts, with three of my favorite actors ever (Sigourney Weaver, Harry Dean Stanton, and Yaphet Kotto), two people I like almost as much (Ian Holm and John Hurt), the always reliable Tom Skerritt (if you'll allow me to do something as ridiculous as quote an old tweet: "I never say 'Alright! Tom Skerritt!" but I also never say, 'Oh, no! Tom Skerritt!' Thanks for keeping me on an even keel, Tom Skerritt"), and the underrated Veronica Cartwright, fresh off another great genre film, Philip Kaufman's remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Plus a cute cat and a freaky-ass alien. These actors are used for their facial expressions and projection of character types and emotions they can impress upon a viewer just by walking in a room, but Scott doesn't allow them to become distinct individuals. (To be fair, one of them is a robot, after all.)
Is this a flaw or a part of the film's design? In the story, the crew are expendable, the ulterior motive for the mission more important to the corporation they work for and the military interested in the specimen they gather than their value as individuals. Scott uses his characters in the same way. They are expendable, their value as tools of entertainment, shock, and suspense more important than their value as reflections of human experience. Cynical and empty, or a commentary on corporate cynicism and emptiness? Both? Too schizophrenic? I can't decide.
What I can decide is how thrilling and gorgeous and satisfying the film is as a pure genre exercise. H.R. Giger's blueprint designs for the alien and its home planet remain some of the most imaginative and aesthetically appealing in my viewing history. I don't know how someone could not love the design of the alien. I get the same charge I got as an 11-year-old whenever I see it. The stomach-bursting scene is worthy of its classic status. The design of the ship, the atmosphere, the sense of both claustrophobia and infinite space, the strobe-light cinematography, the pure excitement of the thing. How could you not be entertained?
It's funny that critics at the time considered Alien a soulless effects piece when it looks like such a model of handmade beauty compared to the truly soulless CGI extravaganzas dominating theaters today. Can you imagine a CGI stomach-bursting scene? Everything in Alien looks made with care and love by imaginative human beings, not some studio employee clicking a mouse 800 times or some generically handsome goofball jumping around in front of a green screen. (Monthly CGI rant complete.)
It's interesting to see Alien's idea of the future with its mixture of dated '70s haircuts, old-fashioned computers, and an abundance of cigarette smoking alongside the more convincing depiction of corporate servitude and devaluation of humanity. What are you worth as a profit-generator? What can you contribute to the war machine? That's the future that is sadly more convincing. But that's also one of the movie's pleasures, and one of the pleasures of any film set in the future that's more than a couple of decades old. I truly enjoy the mixture of clearly dated technology, interior decoration, clothes, and hair alongside the predictions that just may prove to be right.
You've probably already seen Alien at least a few times, right? What else can I say? In addition to the great cast, there are great people behind the scenes. Ridley Scott, back when he knew how to make a good movie, directs. He followed Alien with probably his best film, Blade Runner. Dan O'Bannon wrote the screenplay. I've reeled off his many awesome credits on this site a few times before, so I'll skip that here, but the guy was a legend. Walter Hill, a pretty great director in his own right, was one of the producers. And I've already mentioned H.R. Giger. No matter how thin the characters, I'll always love this movie.

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