Friday, March 13, 2015

My Take on "Alien" directed by Ridley Scott

A moment’s preamble:  In June of 2014 I began graduate school at Seton Hill seeking an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction. This term I’m enrolled in a course that focuses on MONSTERS, and as a part of that course I’ll blog on each book/story/movie covered.

I'll break each review down into 4 parts: Strength of Character, Genre potency, Poignancy of themes, and Entertainment Value. For each of these I will assign a letter grade. My reviews will contain **SPOILERS**

“Alien (1979):
A highly aggressive extraterrestrial creature that stalks and kills the crew of a spaceship.” –Wikipedia
Strength of Character: A+

How can I give this film less than an exceptional rating? This is the introduction of Ellen Ripley, one of the best characters in modern science fiction. She is smart, courageous, empathetic, and above all, oozing with agency. Agency is a word us writers like to throw around about a character’s ability to drive the plot through action, as opposed to bouncing along in the wake of the SS Plotship.

I would be remiss not to mention the fact that she was a female protagonist at a time where that was extremely rare for science fiction. I don’t mention this last because I find it less important. Socially, I believe it represents a milestone. This character blazed a trail through acid-bleeding xenomorphs and sexist thoughts alike (are they so different?). But don’t I don’t want to lose perspective here, Ripley works as a character first, and even in a perfect world where sexism no longer exists, this character would still be every bit as memorable.

The crew of the Nostromo is lively and intriguing as well. They are real people (well, except for the android), and represent normalcy and familiarity amidst a setting that is so, well, alien. They want to go home, hate the bureaucracy of “the Company” and gripe about pay. We all can identify.
Oh, you poor souls.

Genre Strength: A+

This movie was a trend-setter for both science fiction and horror. Watching it now, from the perspective of a desensitized 2015 horror movie fan, much of the elements in Alien seem predictable. The false ending is a prime example. Today’s viewer sees it coming because it has been done to death so much it should wrapped in white linen and jettisoned into space. But “Alien” is itself one of the prime reasons this type of ending is so popular. I refuse to look at this film through the lens of all the imitators and see it as somehow derivative.

The film’s pacing is superb, using atmosphere and subtlety to intrigue the audience. The open, cold vastness of space is a cosmic horror in its own right. Silence is the soundtrack for much of the film, letting our own fears echo in our ears instead of a score. “Alien” piques our curiosity. Then curiosity eats the cat with that mini extendo-mouth.

This movie is more Horror than sci-fi, and although the sequels lean further away from the original's horror, the franchise still represents a link between the two genres that is indelible. It essentially created an entire sub-genre of film and video games.

Thematic Poignancy: A+

So much has already been written about this film’s themes I won’t even pretend to give an exhaustive analysis of them here. But upon watching this movie for approximately the 82nd time this was what I picked up on:

The artwork that started everything.
There is the obvious parasitism. The male-rape was genius at the time, a way to take the horror conventions that had been victimizing women for so long and turning the tables on the male viewers in an unexpected way. Fear of pregnancy for both sexes, especially rape-induced, furthers takes that horror to another level. Thrown in for good measure, we get the soullessness emotionlessness of machines, the fear of artificial intelligence, and the destructive boot heel of bureaucratic greed.

The art design of H.R. Giger uses the set and creature designs to visually reinforce the themes and motifs.

Entertainment Value: A-

This movie was a low budget borderline B-movie at the time it was made. This forced direction Ridley Scott into using scale models, practical effects, and physical sets. The result helps make this movie relatively timeless. We are seeing a return to this sort of production today as filmmakers begin to realize that an over-reliance on graphics actually dates a move in a way that a practical, physical effect never will. This works well for the most part, but the low budget could not be completely disguised in a few scenes. The unconvincing android head of the science officer is chief among them.

“Alien” is a hugely entertaining and memorable film. Voted onto many “Top Movie” lists. What else is there to say?

Random Notes and Final Grade: A+

*The alien does look pretty fat and slow moving in light of the later movies, but I can’t fault this film for it. This is the origin.

*This anecdote is one of my absolute favorites about this film: “For the filming of the chestburster scene the cast members knew that the creature would be bursting out of Hurt, and had seen the chestburster puppet, but they had not been told that fake blood would also be bursting out in every direction from high-pressure pumps and squibs. The scene was shot in one take using an artificial torso filled with blood and viscera, with Hurt's head and arms coming up from underneath the table. The chestburster was shoved up through the torso by a puppeteer who held it on a stick. When the creature burst through the chest a stream of blood shot directly at Veronica Cartwright, shocking her enough that she fell over and went into hysterics. According to Tom Skerritt: "What you saw on camera was the real response. She had no idea what the hell happened. All of a sudden this thing just came up.” –Wikipedia

* Crew expendable.


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  2. Even though the special effects in this film (and others of its era) are seen as less-than by today's standards, they have so much more charm, more personality. The ship feels like a real, dirty place where the alien could be hiding in one of a thousand dark corners. Watching films like this makes me nostalgic for the days were special effects were indeed special and not just computer drawings.

    (that's why I'm excited that the new, new Star Wars will be using puppets!!!)

    Anyway, I had no idea about the surprise blood burst. I'm totally going to watch that right now!!! Thanks for the info!!