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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Alien (1979) Horror Alien

Alien (1979) - The main reason most blogs do not review the classics is because so much has been written that it is impossible to be original. Seriously what is there to write about this horror science fiction masterpiece that is loved by genre aficionados everywhere? Not being a professional writer I would not even know how to approach this from some fresh new angle. So instead I am going to give an attempt at least, to talk about what this movie has meant for me. In 1979 I was finishing my freshman year of high school, a pimply faced dweeb who already really liked the horror genre. Growing up in Boston meant I had an every Saturday dose of the "Creature Double Feature" so already had a background in seeing monster and horror movies. Sure they were the old films of the 50s and 60s but every week they were there to fill our imaginations. We were very poor as a family so going to the movies was a rare event. So I can't say that Alien was the first horror film I saw in theaters, I remember I sneaking into the theater as a boy and saw and was terrified by the Exorcist (1973), and did the same thing for Jaws (1975) so I already had the horror bug. What was unique I think is the fact that I was a teenager, trying to figure out what it was I was going to define myself as. Its a time when I think we see grab hold of many of the things we will love and honor for the rest of our lives. (Can you love and honor a genre film?) Looking back many of the films I love, whether good or bad I saw in my teen years. I do have to admit something though, Star Wars is not on that list. I don't think I saw it until VHS in the eighties and since I was drunk most of the eighties it just never made my canon. Alien though is a different story. I remember the buzz around this movie and how everyone talked about the chest bursting scene. How some kids bragged about not turning away. A startling scene for sure, even by today's standards but nothing compared to the stomach turning torture porn displayed on screens now. Still at the time it was state of the art and everyone wanted to see this movie. I remember loving every minute of it, a well thought out and executed science fiction horror movie. It also contained the iconic imagery of H. R. Giger's designs and the movies first real woman hero ( I know this is an arguable point). There were countless stories about Sigourney Weaver and how this role redefined women in horror and science fiction. I have seen this film countless times since then and have enjoyed it every time.
Written primarily by Dan O'Bannon there are several influences he cites primarily Planet of Vampires, The Thing from Another World and Forbidden Planet. O'Bannon worked on Dark Star(1974) with John Carpenter wanted to use a Hitchcock style and not show everything. Boy that's a lot of references in a short amount of time. You see that a lot in extras on the DVDs Hollywood people constantly referencing people the admire, worked with, or wish to work with. There were several years and many people working on this script. It was sort of in the works when Star Wars hit and was a giant hit. The studio wanted to follow up and this was a script that was pretty complete that could be the next space film.
Directed by Ridley Scott who has a good if somewhat mixed track record. This was early in his career and he does an excellent job setting the mood and pacing the film. Since I watched the special edition release in 2003 I saw a slightly different version of the film. Scott in his introduction was pretty clear that he felt the special edition with added scenes would not add to the story, more just give you more to think about. In fact I don't think directors like when there are "Special Editions" and they are expected to change the work they have already completed.
We all know the story basics by now, the deep space mining ship Nostromo picks up a signal of unknown origin on a small planetoid it is passing. The ship computer wakes the crew from hyper sleep to investigate. When one of the crew is infected with a face hugging creature he is brought back on board. In the most startling scene the seemingly recovered crew member has an alien pop out of his chest and go scurrying off into the ship. It grows really fast and the searching crew looking for it is killed off while looking for it. Eventually our heroine must face it one on one to survive.
Primarily the added scenes add some more depth to the film but kill the pacing a bit. There are a couple places where they actually ruin things, on is when Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) is searching for the cat Jonsey. He enters the room with the chains hanging from the ceiling. Washing his face with water the added in clip shows the alien hanging in the chains. The original is much more effective, the alien settles down behind Brett before we ever see it and is only revealed when it attacks him.
Another really large give away is a scene after Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) sets the self destruct for the Nostromo, she is moving through the bowels of the ship and hears a moan. She find Brett and Dallas (Tom Skerritt) cocooned in the alien silicon. Dallas pleads to be killed. This reveal more spoils the second movie Aliens where it is a major reveal to the alien behavior. Here it certainly adds depth to the creatures but where this is basically a survival horror film it is not needed and probably why it was cut in the first place.
I notice in this viewing how well cast and foreshadowed the Ash character was. Ian Holmes does an excellent job with his quirky but not outwardly menacing role as the android with the agenda to bring back the alien. He wants the investigation of the alien vessel. When he learns of the alien he is either reporting back to the company and they have every intention of bringing back the alien alive. The crew is expendable if necessary so this piece of information is an explosive reveal in the film. Early in the film Parker and Brett are talking about getting full pay shares since they are doing this unusual investigation which is really outside the limits of there normal work. Ash says to them "You'll get exactly what's coming to you."
He really begins to tip his hand a bit more when the away team is investigating the signal. Ripley continues to use the computer to try to decipher the signal, she says she wants to call back the team but the signals have gotten too static filled to communicate. She suggests to Ash that she should go out after them, he says nervously that they will be back by the time she gets there. So does he already know that there is an alien species out there? Does the company know ahead of time what they are getting this crew into?
Then when the crew returns with the facehugger on Kane (John Hurt) he is the one who breaks quarantine and manually opens the airlock letting the away team and the alien onto the ship. She confronts him about his actions and his motivations are clear in his comment that "I do take my responsibilities as seriously as you. You do your job let me do mine." This is long before he finally flips and attempts to kill Ripley by shoving a magazine down her throat. We also learn he is a synthetic robot so he is probably acting on programming and not making independent decisions. Ash and the company are as much of a bad guy as the alien is. They challenge the idea that human life is the most valuable above all else. Instead they choose the killing machine alien over the crew. Ash certainly repeatedly foreshadowed this but not in a too obvious way making the reveal of his motive very effective.
In talking to friends about this film I have gotten several reactions to the fact that Ripley risks a lot to save the cat Jonsey. My first reaction to saving the cat is "Fuck the cat" but one friend suggests that it is a more honest representation of Ripley and how a woman would treat the ships pet as opposed to how a male action hero would respond. I don't necessarily by this sure it could be in Ripley's character but I am not sure it is because she is a woman. Do you think the writers intentionally had the cat sequences to define the differences between a male and female hero? Was it a way to have Ripley be a strong character but not just a character that act like male roles more traditionally seen at the time? They certainly didn't just want a women playing a traditionally guy role just acting and making decisions as a man would. They wanted to write her to be a strong women making decisions that fit her character and they were succe3ssful in this.
So what do you rate one of your favorite all time movies? Now since I watched the special edition I do have to take off a fraction of a point for the reveal of the cocooning. Of course it is a recommended film and in the Zombiegrrlz rating system you should own this movie. Did I mention that this review is in support of the zombiegrrlz podcast. Check them out they do a great job.
Rating (9.5) 5.0 and up are recommended

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