Sunday, October 14th, 2007 Horrorthon Posts / Horrorthon Reviews

You still don’t understand what you’re dealing with, do you? A perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility. I admire its purity: a survivor, unclouded by conscience, remorse or delusions of morality.

1979 (*****)

This movie is perfect. It is flawless. (Actually it has one flaw; see below.) As I continue my “Masterpiece Series” I find the rhetorical challenge gets worse and worse: how can I “review” these things? I went a little overboard with Psycho so I promise to try to keep this post clean and to the point (much like the movie).

1) The Monster Movie

What’s amazing about Alien is that there’s nothing to it, really. It’s a monster movie. The monster kills the people, one by one. It’s what one critic calls a “cast-attrition thriller”; the template children learn as “Ten Little Indians.” It’s an extremely scary monster; maybe the scariest ever. One look at it makes every victim (except one) freeze in place from pure ice-cold terror. And when it kills you, it’s a horrible death. (Veronica Cartwright’s extended, multiple-stage scream gives me goosebumps every single time I watch this, and I’ve watched it as many times as some people have watched Friends.) Additionally (as befits post-Exorcist, post-Hammer movie examples of the form) the monster is mysterious, unpredictable. It changes its size and shape. It ends up in places you don’t expect (like, inside you, or, later, inside the vehicle you thought you were using to get away from it) and then jumps out when you’re not ready for it. Sometimes it doesn’t kill you (according to the extended release or the deleted scenes on the disc) but does something even worse; something so bad that it makes you beg to be killed (“Quickly!”) when they eventually find you. You can’t outrun it; you can’t hurt it (and don’t want to, since it bleeds acid that sprays all over the place and melts through sheets of steel); you can’t out-think it any more than you can “out-think” a lion that’s stalking you across the Serengetti plain; and it will keep coming after you until you finally, desperately blow it up, slightly more than one minute before the end credits roll.

That’s it: that’s Alien. That’s all there is to it. Over the years, director Ridley Scott has enjoyed confounding critics and interviewers by insisting that Alien has “no theme; no message; no inner meaning.” He scoffs at the idea of character development: “Who’s got time for ‘character development’ with that thing coming after you?” The seven characters (of whom one is a traitor, of course) are stock types, and each meets a fate completely consistent with his or her basic identity: the dumb guy dies because he makes a really stupid mistake; the brave guy (“I’ll volunteer to be in the first group to go out”/”Yeah, that figures”) sticks his face right into it; the panicky woman freezes and can’t move when she faces it; the bad leader makes a wrong turn at a crucial moment and pays the price about twenty seconds later; the headstrong guy rushes right at it and buys the farm; etc. etc. The screenplay gives each person only one name and (famously) doesn’t even bother to distinguish between male and female characters, stressing that each could be played as a man or a woman without affecting the story in the least. (The fact that the most heroic character is played by an actress was apparently controversial during production but allegedly Scott insisted.) You never get the slightest hint of background or detail about who these people are. They are seven “types” with single names, trapped in a vast enclosed space with the worst monster ever. Even if you don’t understand English, you’ll still be able to follow the entire story and have the wits scared out of you.

That’s the whole point: there is absolutely nothing in the movie that represents an attempt to “improve” or “deepen” the idea. The monster has no “motivation” at all (especially with the removal of the scene I mentioned above, which begins to explain why the Alien does what it does). Nobody is “confronting their past” or “dealing with their demons” or anything like that. There is no “magic,” no secret key or lore or scroll or Bible verse or incantation or talisman; the alien ultimately bites it because (like all matter in the universe) it’s susceptible to a fusion reaction. There is no “looking within yourself” or “believing” or “using teamwork” or anything like that. The absolute brilliance, the stunning achievement of the movie is to strip away every possible element that could be seen as “improving” or “explaining” the nightmare. It is what it is, boldly, without apology. There’s nothing to it at all, except that it’s perfect.

2) The Sci-Fi Movie

My job becomes more difficult here. because this is Horrorthon, but Alien is not just a monster movie: it’s a science fiction movie, and that’s just a completely different discussion than the one I outlined above. I mentioned that the characters and the monster are trapped in a vast, enclosed space. That would be Weyland-Yutani Commercial Towing Vehicle U.S.C.S.S. Nostromo (registration number 180924809), a cathedral-sized private-sector “tugboat” spacecraft hauling twenty million tons of unspecified mineral ore back to earth from somewhere out in deep space, far enough away that the small crew spends the three year journey in suspended animation; the non-sentient onboard computer, “Mother,” wakes them when they get close to their destination. Mother is also programmed to interrupt the journey “should certain conditions arise,” which is how the story begins: obeying perfect Aristotelian Unity of Time, the camera prowls through the freezing, deserted corridors of Nostromo and glides into the control room at the exact moment that the ship comes in range of an unidentified signal (erroneously identified as a “distress call” but ultimately decoded as a “warning”) that awakens the ship’s systems and triggers the procedure for reviving the crew.

I mentioned how remarkably simple and clean the “monster movie” portion of Alien turns out to be. The “science fiction movie” elements are completely different: they are sophisticated to a degree that’s unmatched anywhere except Star Wars and (possibly) Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (which this movie enthusiastically emulates). There’s too little embellishment to the horror elements of the narrative (as I explained) to make critics or film students happy; but there’s way too much sci-fi sophistication. Nobody except Kubrick has ever gone to this much trouble to create a space-travel environment for a story. You don’t have to pay any attention if you don’t want to, but Nostromo and its personnel, equipment and technology are worked out in staggering detail. Dan O’Bannon, the original screenwriter, had a background in computer technology (and did some graphics work on the first Star Wars); Ridley Scott is a technical genius who learned his craft making television commercials and who personally storyboarded the whole movie; Ron Cobb (hired by Scott) was an industrial illustrator who developed the design of the Nostromo’s world down to every hydraulic chair mount and wall symbol (they actually make sense according to a system Cobb developed) and computer interfaces and life-support /propulsion systems and room layouts and crew facilities. It’s amazing that they went to so much trouble for a one-shot story like this: it’s the kind of detail usually reserved for multi-episode storytelling like Star Trek. They didn’t have to do any of this, but they did.

[Rather than annoyingly filling up the Horrorthon page with images like last time, I made a Nostromo gallery to show you what I’m talking about.]

The sane world, the waking world is represented by Nostromo (Joseph Conrad reference duly noted); the nightmare world comes from the twisted imagination of painter H. R. Giger, whose biomechanical, Freudian dream imagery is represented by the Alien itself as well as the doomed spaceship (piloted by an unrelated other alien species) where the trouble begins. (see amusing exchange with Johnny Sweatpants.) (Hiring one designer to create the Nostromo world and a completely different one — an insane Swiss painter — to design the alien portions of the movie was another brilliant Scott move.) Giger’s work makes one recognize that the movie’s title is an adjective as well as a noun: the unsettling, Lovecraftian strangeness of it all could be the most important element of the movie’s visual texture.

3) Perfection

Here’s where I throw in the towel because there just isn’t space to even list (let alone elaborate on) the elements in the movie that reach such incredibly high levels of quality, meticulousness and innovation. The photography (Derek Wadsworth BSC); the editing (Terry Rawlings); the music (best Jerry Goldsmith score ever, plus Scott brilliantly replaced Goldsmith’s “closing theme” with the second movement of Howard Hanson’s “Symphony #2 ‘Romantic'”), The modelmaking (Martin Bower, fresh off Space: 1999); the visual effects (Brian Johnson, also from Space: 1999 and about to join ILM and win Oscars for The Empire Strikes Back the following year); the superlative, Royal Shakespeare Company-level acting (Tom Skerrit, Sigourney Weaver, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Veronica Cartwright, Yaphet Kotto, Harry Dean Stanton); I could go on. David Fincher (who made the underrated Alien 3 as his first feature) called Alien “one of the five most perfect movies ever made,” and Fincher is no stranger to the concept of technical artistry as the major armature for superior filmmaking. A lot of Robert Altman types “disapprove” of this kind of “slick, overdone” technical skill but it’s just jealousy: they know they can’t do it, so they insist it’s not important.

What is important (returning to my opening point) is the zen wholeness of the work of art, as exemplified here. It doesn’t “mean” anything (although it does, actually, and dozens of critical essays and academic readings have found intricate layers of significance in this movie including Freudian dream imagery, Marxist social commentary, gender themes, ’70s anti-corporate messages, morality tales etc.); it’s just extraordinarily superb, and that’s the whole ball game; but there’s nothing extraneous to the central task of scaring the audience, and if we didn’t all celebrate the wondrousness of that, we wouldn’t be here on Horrorthon to begin with.

[* As promised, the “flaw” I mentioned above: when Ripley is re-activating Ash, she moves his head after re-connecting the fiber-optics and the movie switches from “prop head” to “Ian Holm’s head poking through a hole.” It’s a mis-matched cut! You would think Scott would cover the mismatch by inserting a reaction shot, but he doesn’t. In the director’s commentary, at that moment, Scott rather defensively says, “Not a bad cut.” But it is!]