Friday, December 12, 2014

Alien (1979)

Director: Ridley Scott                                         Writers: Dan O’Bannon & Ronald Shusett
Film Score: Jerry Goldsmith                              Cinematography: Derek Vanlint
Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skeritt, John Hurt, Ian Holm and Yaphet Kotto

For a long time now I’ve felt that science-fiction isn’t really a genre at all, that it’s more of a setting for other types of stories. Ridley Scott’s Alien is a case in point. Despite its futuristic trappings, it’s just an old-fashioned monster movie. In fact, it could be one of the best horror films of all time. The monster is so impressive for its time that it makes the monsters in John Carpenter’s The Thing seem almost amateurish by comparison. And yet, like so many classic films, it’s doubtful whether it would even get made today, at least not with the screenplay as it exists. The monster doesn’t make an appearance until nearly an hour into the film. In fact, nothing really horrific happens for a long time. In this way it is also similar to Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, though in that film the lack of a shark early on was due to technical difficulties, but it actually made for a more suspenseful film. The similarity wasn’t accidental, however. The screenplay by Dan O’Bannon was a purposeful pastiche of ideas from various horror and science-fiction films and when he was pitching his finished script to the studios he even described it as Jaws in space. The film narrowly escaped an early death when a deal was almost struck with Roger Corman. Fortunately the producers gave the project to Ridley Scott and when 20th Century Fox saw his storyboards they instantly doubled the budget.

The film begins with a shot of the mining ship Nostromo heading back to Earth. The computer that operates the ship, called Mother, wakes up the crew, which should be their indication that they are nearly home. Instead, they are still in deep space and the ship has responded to a distress signal from an uninhabited planet that they are tasked to investigate. Tom Skeritt is the commander of the ship and is the only one with access to Mother. The executive officer is John Hurt and the navigator is Veronica Cartwright, and both go with Skeritt to investigate an enormous ship that looks as if it has been on the planet for some time. They find a single humanoid at the helm, and he is of equally gigantic stature but long dead, and a hole in the floor is eaten away and leads down to a bed of cocoon-like objects. As Hurt is investigating, one of the cocoons opens and Ridley Scott makes a wonderful choice to simply cut back to the ship with the three trying to enter. Warrant officer, and third in command, Sigourney Weaver doesn’t want to let them in because of quarantine regulations, but science officer Ian Holm overrides her and opens the hatch. When they cut Hurt’s helmet off they find a spider-like creature has attached itself to his head and wrapped its tail around his neck. And though the creature is frightening enough on its own, the real battle takes place as the rest of the crew is dispatched one by one, old dark house style.

One of the most impressive things about the film is the attention to detail. When the crew fires up the hardware to fly home, they are all at their stations going through their checklists and doing what look to be real jobs. As they land on the planet, there is also some damage done to the ship that delays them as they have to wait for repairs. Harry Dean Stanton and Yaphet Koto are particularly good at playing the disgruntled blue-collar workers who have to fix the ship and want a bigger share of the payment for the minerals. Dan O’Bannon’s screenplay takes time to establish characters and this not only builds suspense in general but empathy for the specific characters. And the characters themselves are also convincing because of their age. They are not a bunch of twenty-year-olds, but people who look like they could actually have been working on mining vessels for a few years. Another important aspect of the film was the design of the monster by artist H.R. Giger, who not only created the monster but designed the look of the surface of the planet, the ship, and the alien cocoons as well. Ridley Scott’s tremendous direction is also excellent, emphasizing the seriousness that was inherent in the screenplay and working toward the same vision as O’Bannon.

There were several scenes and ideas that were cut from the film, which only served to streamline the story and make it that much more thrilling. But most of those ideas were revived on future films in the franchise. In fact, the durability of the story itself, not only spawning four sequels so far but a merging with the Predator franchise is argument enough for its status as a classic. But there is so much more that went into the film, the production design on the Nostromo, which was nominated for an Oscar, the special effects for the miniatures and monsters, which won the film’s only Academy Award, and the film score by Jerry Goldsmith. Originally Goldsmith wanted to do a kind of romantic score, something on the order of the water dance from Creature from the Black Lagoon, but when Scott and the executives at the studio hated it, he composed a more conventional scary score and, of course, they loved it. The film is full of incredibly memorable scenes, the face-hugger, the chest-buster, and the creature hiding in the escape pod. But ultimately the goal of both Dan O’Bannon and Ridley Scott to make a first-class sci-fi horror film was fully realized and Alien is rightfully considered one of the finest films in the genre.

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