Friday, June 01, 2012

Zaki's Retro Review: Alien (1979)

Note: After last year's very successful run of retro reviews looking back at Twentieth Century Fox's Planet of the Apes franchise, I thought I'd give it a go with another iconic Fox brand, Alien, as we start the clock counting down to the much-anticipated release of Prometheus, director Ridley Scott's hush-hush Alien quasi-prequel.
Like the grotesque creature at its center, the Alien franchise didn't spring to life fully formed in 1979. Rather, it emerged in separate, distinct stages. I doubt very much that writers Dan O'Bannon & Ron Shusett had any inkling when they first came up with the idea for a film about space truckers terrorized by a space monster that it would have a shelf life that would carry it through several more installments over the next few decades, and expand its reach into all manner of licensing, merchandise, and tie-ins.

At its inception -- the egg stage -- Alien was nothing more than a modernized riff on It! The Terror From Outer Space and other disposable outer space schlock from the 1950s. In fact, so low had O'Bannon and Shusett (who would go on to pen 1990's Total Recall) set the bar for themselves that they would have been content to sell the idea to low budget movie maven Roger Corman for a cheaply-made, quickly-forgotten version of their project. Fortune clearly favored the pair, however, as three events occurring in rapid succession ended up assuring Alien's place in the pantheon of sci-fi greats.

First, it was purchased by producers Walter Hill and David Giler, who set the project up at Twentieth Century Fox via their Brandywine production shingle. Second, George Lucas' Star Wars hit theaters in '77 and dropped a goldmine in Fox's lap. Suddenly, anything remotely space-related had gold dust sprinkled on it, and Alien was the lucky beneficiary of that largesse. Thirdly, and arguably most importantly, director Ridley Scott, then a relative newbie with only a handful of credits to his name, was recruited to helm. There were so many pitstops along the path where things could easily have derailed, but serendipity smiled, and the resultant mix of old school scares filtered through a new school vision struck the perfect chord.

Set in the year 2122, Alien begins when the massive mining vessel Nostromo, its crew of blue collar space miners in suspended animation for their long space voyage after acquiring various exotic ores, is detoured from its return to Earth after receiving a signal beacon from an uncharted planet. From the beginning, Scott displays absolute confidence in his craft, allowing the knot of tension to be pulled ever tighter. The silences are allowed to sit. The mood is allowed to build (this is also helped along by Jerry Goldsmith's dissonant-yet-harmonious music score, very much in the vein of his Planet of the Apes score a decade earlier).

The slow, deliberate walk of Nostromo captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt), executive officer Kane (John  Hurt), and navigator Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) as they trudge through the fog-enshrouded planet is a masterpiece of  tension-building conveyed almost entirely through implication. Tracking the signal to a derelict vessel, they find the desiccated remains of an enormous alien who appears to have had his chest ripped open from the inside. Tracking further, they find the ship's hold full of row upon row of what appear to be giant eggs, one of which promptly opens and deposits a spider-like growth on the face of the investigating Kane.

(As an aside, kids, when you see a giant alien egg making funny noises and opening up, don't STICK YOUR FACE ON TOP OF IT and look inside.)

After lying unconcious for several days, the comatose Kane finally revives, apparently none the worse for wear. But in the midst of a celebratory meal, his chest rips open in an orgy of gore and viscera, and out pops the end result of his encounter with the business end of a facehugger: an alien creature with jaws within its jaws and acid for blood, that subsequently escapes into the ship, rapidly growing larger and more lethal as it whittles the Nostromo's crew of seven down to just one: Sigourney Weaver's Ripley, ship's warrant officer, whose role as the tough-as-nails heroine is at least as iconic as the monster she made her reputation squaring off against.

With thirty-three years of hindsight behind us, and many of the twists and turns a part of the pop culture firmament by now, it's a little difficult to encapsulate just how impactful Alien was when it first debuted. It's not as if the story was anything revelatory (the late O'Bannon had been quite open about how liberally he cribbed from the immense catalogue of extant sci-fi out there), but what elevates the material (really just a variation on the hoary haunted house flick -- albeit transposed to outer space) from the realm of also-ran is the painterly precision with which Scott wields his brush.

So much of filmmaking is a crapshoot, but every once in awhile, the elements pulled together in front of and behind the camera make for a kind of cinematic alchemy. Alien is one of those instances. Let's start with the production design, which deploys two wildly divergent aesthetics to depict the worldly and otherworldly realms. Production artists Ron Cobb and Chris Foss, brought in by O'Bannon early in the process, give the Nostromo a grounding in reality that owes as much to Kubrick's antiseptic 2001: A Space Oddyssey as it does to Lucas' grimy "lived-in" universe of Star Wars.

This makes for a stark, dark contrast with the "Alien" end of the production coin. As dreamed up by the Swiss artist and sculptor H.R. Giger (again roped in by O'Bannon), whose specialty was in depicting macabre grotesqueries, the world of the alien ship and the many stages of the monster appear to have been pulled kicking and screaming from out of our collective nightmares. From egg to facehugger to fully-grown alien, it's a marvel of movie engineering that's lost none of the unease its initial sight engendered in terrified auds, and it effectively situates the film's title as both description and described.

Of course, no discussion of Alien can get very far without ample mention of Sigourney Weaver, who is second-billed to Skerritt, but whose continued presence through three subsequent installments gives the series its human pulse. Weaver's effectiveness in the role comes from the tenuous balancing act of conveying both steely determination as an officer, and vulnerability as a woman. This makes for a richer character in the process. Speaking to this, perhaps even more than her confrontation with the alien, it's Ripley's encounter with psychotic crewmate Ash (Ian Holm), culminating in an attack that borders on sexual assault, that is the one of the film's most viscerally frightening moments.

And indeed, the theme of sexual assault is layered throughout, with Kane's "rape" and impregnation via the alien egg and facehugger giving a horrifying added dimension to what is an omnipresent human fear. It's not just about being killed horribly. It's about being forcibly violated, and dying from the inside. Given the sudden prevalance of lethal STD's in the decade subsequent to the film's release, there's a resonance to that nightmare, and I'd argue it's at least part of what continues to give it potency so many years later.

In the end, there was no better man to bring Alien to the screen than Ridley Scott. His confidence behind the camera is readily apparent in how methodically he lays out the scenario and allows events to follow to their inevitable conclusion. With her shipmates all wiped out, it comes down to one final confrontation between Ripley and the monster. While Scott initially wanted a far darker coda, with the creature dispatching Ripley and making the final log entry in her voice, the studio prevailed on him to come up with something a little less off-putting. Thus, Ripley survived (though the franchise would get its super-dark ending a few sequels later).

Alien was released on May 25, 1979 (exactly four months before I was released), with a hard "R" rating and the tagline, "In space, no one can hear you scream." When all was said and done, it did...pretty well. Not Star Wars bucks, mind you, but with a global haul of more than a $100 million against an $11 million budget, this one could safely be filed under the win column for the studio. However, even with that very solid return-on-investment, it would be seven years before Fox would decide to go back and franchise the property.

But it would be worth the wait.

To Be Continued...

1 comment:

RobRoy said...

You forgot to mention the tinny, screeching, ear piercing sound design.

This movie SOUNDS scary too!

Great review! I'm getting so amped for Prometheus. Can't wait to read your reviews for Aliens and Alien Cubed, er, Alien 3.

Oh, and no more zombie apocalypse posts. Thems scaaaaary!