A Perfect Movie Organism

alien1979theatricalreleNext year marks the 40th anniversary of the greatest sci-fi film ever. Or at least, the greatest one in my book.

I’ve seen 2001: A Space Odyssey a number of times, often under the influence of assorted imbibements. George Pal’s 1960 version of The Time Machine was my favorite movie growing up, and the Star Wars franchise has provided a lot of funtertainment. But the film I keep returning to again and again for aesthetic and psychological reasons that are so primal and deep they’re difficult to grasp—is Ridley Scott’s original Alien.

I recorded the slightly longer Director’s Cut version of the 1979 film on my DVR recently, and weirdly, have watched it a half dozen times in the last two months. Needless to say, it gets better with every viewing. But what is its pull? On the surface, it’s a bare bones concept that barely qualifies as science fiction: space mining crew investigates signal on distant planet, accidentally allows monstrous alien creature to board their ship and kill nearly everyone. Dan O’Bannon and Ron Shusett had a scary B-picture in mind when they sold their script to producers Walter Hill, David Giler, and Gordon Carroll at Fox. But with Ridley Scott’s masterful direction entwined with the late H. R. Giger’s creepy-beyond-belief concept art, a haunting, gorgeous score from Jerry Goldsmith and one of the best casting jobs ever, the film is a gripping, endlessly fascinating nightmare that puts its sinewy arms around you and won’t let go. Still more frightening than any space film ever made, it’s also UNLIKE any space film ever made.

The tag line the Fox publicists finally settled on was an instant classic: “In space, no one can hear you scream.” In its womb-like art direction and quiet, measured approach, the sense of isolation in space permeates every moment—beginning with this dialogue-free introduction to the towing ship Nostromo:

The seven crew members emerge from their cryogenic cocoons to enjoy a communal breakfast before learning they’re not even close to Earth, and it’s in this scene where the true genius of Alien is on display. These are not the zombied astronauts from 2001, the cartoony heroes from Star Wars, or even the obnoxious jarheads from subsequent Alien sequels. These are genuine blue collar people who happen to be working their daily jobs in outer space. Watch this clip and check out the concerns and attitudes of Harry Dean Stanton and Yaphet Kotto. They could just as easily be on a graveyard shift at a Monsanto plant.

Stanton later said that Scott wrote out a biographical sketch for his character that ran five to six pages, including how many missions he’d been on, how he got along with his parents, etc. None of that info was used in the film, of course, but it gave Stanton embedded feelings that infused his smart-alecky character. Sigourney Weaver, in a later interview, praised Scott’s vision, which is that “space is a real place: filthy, greasy, and grimy.” Hardly the cold, antiseptic environments present in many a science fiction film. In the first ten minutes, we feel like we know every one of these characters, and like spending time with virtually all of them. Which makes the subsequent horrors all the more affecting.

The now-famous scene of the alien creature birth-bursting out of John Hurt’s stomach while at dinner is not just a thoroughly shocking moment that caused audience members at a Dallas preview to flee to the lobby and bathrooms to vomit, but a simple, dynamic plot point that sends the entire story smashing into a wall. Oddly, while it’s the absolute definition of the “first turning point” in dramaturgy terms that normally occurs a half hour in, this one falls dead center in the middle of the film. The second half basically becomes a “ticking clock”, as the crew tries to find and eliminate the creature while it’s gradually hunting them. Scott’s decision to show as little of the alien creature as possible adds to the characters’ terror and sense of isolation, and makes the experience very scary for us. What little we do see of the alien is so ghastly it lets our darkest imaginations run wild. And as the tension mounts, as they are throughout the film, the performances are pitch perfect:

After a brilliant plot twist that reveals Ian Holm’s Ash character to be a company-embedded robot with a hidden agenda to bring the alien home at all costs, the final third of the movie goes into complete overdrive, a breathless hide-and-seek game between Weaver’s Ripley character and the beast, with the imminent self-destruction of the ship providing a second ticking clock. Add to that sped-up camera work, shooting steam machines and strobe lights, and the finale comes as close to a mix of terror and sexuality as you’re likely to experience. After the climax and post-climax, we’re left with heroine Ripley back in her cryo-chamber, drifting back to sleep with her cat, the audience finally safe again.

On every single level, Alien works, even with models and miniatures employed instead of CGI, even with computer interfaces no more advanced than early Commodores. As Ash’s robot head utters before it’s blow-torched, the alien is a “perfect organism…I admire its purity.” I’ll say the same for this incredible, timeless film.

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