There are few films that I can watch repeatedly with the excitement of the first time I witnessed it. Mad Max: Fury Road, and American Psycho are on that list. Then, there are fewer films I can watch over and over again, and pick up a new bit of information upon each repeat viewing. This list is thankfully shorter, but you still might call me dim. Fight Club and The Thin Red Line are just a few, and I still find it shocking that everybody is in the later.
John C. Riley is in The Thin Red Line?
Somewhere in the same mental filing cabinet there is a list of movie(s) that I can enjoy watching with the excitement of the first viewing experience, and pick up something new each time I see it. The list is shorter and sweeter, and filled to the brim with perfection. The list is Alien and it’s the list for me. Well, hopefully because I created it.
In the past month, I have, as a passive viewer, watched Alien maybe 4 or 5 times. It’s comfort to me, it’s nostalgia, science fiction, horror and Sigourney Weaver wrapped into one. I think for many people it was the film introduced to you by your dad. It’s the kind of movie that I can play in the background while I try to get work done. Yesterday, for the first time ever I sat down and actively watched Alien for work. I was horrified, and not in the Xenomorph sort of way. I was horrified by how much I have missed over the years. If someone came up to me 48 hours ago and asked me slightly above average difficulty questions about Alien, I would have been shot. Assuming this is one of those situations.
To hear John and Jerry discuss the Alien movies, you can find episode 4 on iTunes
Just give Parker a damn raise already. The man is right; taking on this specimen is not in his pay grade.
What is the duty of the Nostromo crew? What are they doing in space in the first place? Why did they really go and investigate that distress signal? I couldn’t have answered these questions a few days ago. I like to think it’s because the movie has a bunch of stuff going on, and one of the scariest monsters in cinematic history to distract the viewer. But I guess I just wasn’t a true fan then. The first act is filled with so much subtle information that even the most active viewers might find themselves glossing over key tidbits. This subtle information through dialogue and action all help to create the greatest science fiction/horror hybrid ever created. The movie serves to reward the repeat viewer. Watch Alien, primarily the first act, and pay close attention to how Ian Holm portrays Ash before the audience realizes he’s an android who works for the Weyland Corporation. Woops, have you not seen Alien? It’s been out for almost 40 years. Why are we still talking about this?
Good point, why are we still talking about this? How are we still talking about this? There are plenty of papers that discuss the themes of feminism within Alien, and there are a lot of people who too eagerly want to discuss the aspects of forced sexual penetration and how it’s portrayed throughout the movie. It can hardly be labeled as “imagery,” I mean, seriously. Look I get it; I know H.R Giger was obsessed with wieners. I don’t want to talk about it anymore. And please put the gun away, I already answered your questions.
Ridley Scott, with the help of Dan O’Bannon, Ronald Shusett, and H.R. Giger created the greatest sci-fi/horror movie yet. Why should we still be talking about Alien almost 40 years later, what’s made it last?
Fill in the blank
Simply put, what makes Alien legendary is the jet-black Xenomorph beast. It’s one of the most terrifying monsters in movie history. When it is fully evolved, it is not a force to be messed with. The alien is fast, deadly quiet and has acid for blood. Take a second to think about another iconic movie monster, let’s say the great white shark from Jaws. It’s bigger than a normal great white, and it has those glassy black eyes that would be horrifying to look at in water or on land. But at least the audience can understand the shark; it’s not a mysterious threat that we can’t fathom. Most of us have seen a shark before. Jaws is about primal fear, man vs. a beast that hasn’t had to change for millions of years. Jaws is the precursor to Jurassic Park, both literally and figuratively. Jurassic Park serves as the bridge between Jaws and Alien. Humans vs. a threat we know, Humans vs. a threat we can understand, Humans vs. the unimaginable.
In Jaws man would not want to be in the water with the enemy. Now take step back and think about the enemy in Alien. It has acid blood, amongst other equally disturbing features. So even if you did kill it, it could kill you, or destroy the main thing that’s keeping you alive, your space ship. Remember, Ripley is fighting this thing, which she barely understands, in space. The life force of the alien could away eat your tin can.
What also makes Alien the movie, and the alien iconic is the fact that it’s constantly evolving. Its science fiction in the sense that the the audience is learning at the same time that the crew of the Nostromo is, in real time. There is no information consciously withheld from the audience that does not need to be. The science department, which soon becomes the killer robot department, barely understands what it’s dealing with. What allows the film to spill over into horror is the evolving enemy that hides in the shadows, killing off the cast one by one.
The life cycle of the Xenomorph is kind of like the movies in the franchise. The face huggers that burst out of the eggs, represent curiosity and discovery like the themes in Alien, Then the chest buster that explodes out of John Hurt’s chest, the baby aliens, represent a brutal more action filled approach, like James Cameron’s take on Aliens. Then there is the fully-grown alien drone, or Xenomorph, which means swift death like Alien 3, and not the death of Ripley. I mean the death of a franchise. If the title of the film after Alien 3 contains the word “resurrection” in it, and the main protagonist is brought back to life as a cyborg clone or something, and THEN the next film in the franchise is a prequel to the original film, you’ve messed up. Or, no, no, you killed the franchise.
But hey, somewhere between Face Hugger, and Alien vs. Predator David Fincher got his break. So, it’s not a total loss after all.
This isn’t about the Alien franchise. This is just about Alien before fans new about a queen, and before I knew about that incredibly vast expanded universe that exists outside of the films. This is just Alien, and this is just about one monster. It’s about a very relatable human crew that just wants to get home, and then suddenly everything stops. Every second after the iconic dinner scene is a moment of survival.
I love the horror genre, but it’s an aggressive, opium filled, love hate relationship. I seek out horror movies, but I am almost always severely disappointed by them, and then I seek them out again. I always think about what I would have done differently to make a scare more apparent. I’m taken out of the moment, and I never step back in. Then several days later, while I’m still thinking about how much I didn’t like the movie, (I guess the movie is doing its job, or I’m just a lunatic), I think about what it would be like if I were in the protagonist’s shoes, and I had to experience that situation myself.
Jeepers Creepers to me is not that scary of a movie. However, if I were to actively think, and put myself in the shoes of Justin Long’s character, (it doesn’t seem that hard. Nor does it seem hard to put myself in the shoes of Justin Long. That seems like a very attainable level of success), it would be much, much scarier. Driving across the country with my sister while a flying Spawn rip-off is on my tail? No thanks. This is just one way I cope with horror movies sucking, especially recent ones. This is also something I’ve been told is not unique to me.
This is what I’ve been told nearly everybody does when they watch a movie. This is what I’ve studied; therefore characters, for some reason, are important. You’re supposed to understand them and empathize with them. You’re supposed to be in their shoes for the entire movie. I for one, feel the disconnect, I’m distracted by so many other things happening on screen. I know that the disappointment occurs because I am actively setting out to chase a scare, to feel the fear of the unknown, and that’s where the disconnection rests. I have paid for my ticket and I am waiting for the scare.
This is why Alien is different. Alien is scary because of the cinematic delivery, it is also horrifying to think about being Ripley, alone on the escape ship with a cat and midnight black lobster monster.
Alien is packaged as a science fiction movie, especially the first act. The opening shot of a green ringed planet feels like a film from two years prior to 1979. The second shot of the Nostromo drifting past it says. “This isn’t going to be Star Wars. If it were, it’s Star Wars wrapped in isolation and fear.” Ridley Scott makes it a point for the Nostromo to become a character too. Every click, beep, door lock opening, warning alarm, and burst of fog, become tiny pieces of dialogue for the Nostromo. We’re introduced to the deck and hallways of the ship before we meet the main characters. The Nostromo is not just a part of the setting. The Nostromo is the character that dies right after Joan Lambert.
After a few brief introductions, and Parker asking for a raise several more times, the crew receives a distress call from the nearby Saturn looking planet, LV-426, and they go on to investigate. The audience is given another nod towards the science fiction genre when the three explorers are on the planet and they’re given a vast landscape shot with three tiny lights in the bottom of the frame, which are of course the forward-thinking adventurers. It’s also worth mentioning the use of shaky cam/found footage when part of the crew is heading towards the distress beacon on the ship.
There isn’t a disconnection with the feeling of being afraid because I don’t know that I’m about to be afraid. I thought this was going to be like Star Wars. When you realize it’s a science fiction movie, that’s when the horror begins. The sequence of events really starts to roll when the crew (Ash), brings the “contaminated,” Kane back onto the ship. Then we watch as the evolutionary process begins, and a morbid sense of discovery emerges.
The constantly evolving enemy is one of the foundations of horror. Fear stems from a lack of understanding, and once you understand your enemy you can work out the ways to defeat them. The understanding never occurs in Alien, it’s just a quick jump to extermination. That’s when horror ends, and usually that’s when the movie ends as well. Most of the time. But now we understand that there will always be a sequel so it’s never over. Alien ends in a way that makes the viewer feel like this was meant to be it. After the climactic battle with Ripley and the Xenomorph, she records her thoughts and goes to sleep. After a quick dissolve, we’re looking at stars accompanied by a lulling score, and then the credits. It’s a dream after a nightmare.
I tried to refrain from using the word unprecedented throughout this essay, but I’m finding it difficult now. Using the word unprecedented in an essay about film is basically the same thing as any person asking the question “What is Art?” It’s just dumb. Everything is art, and everything at one point in time is unprecedented. But the evolutionary line of the alien us unique to this franchise alone, and we witness the horrors of the beast at the same time that the crew does. Back to horror, the slimy insect-looking monster that attaches itself to Kane first horrifies the audience. After that, the audience is treated to the dinner scene. Which is easily the most iconic scene in the whole entire franchise.
The cast had no idea what was going to happen when they appeared on set. They knew that something was going to happen to John Hurt. Then it happened, and the Chest Buster was born. This doesn’t feel like science fiction to me. It’s the most horrific captivating scene ever captured on film. The alien was birthed in Hurt’s chest, and exploded its way out in front of his hosts friends.
Alien works because it’s a fill in the blank enemy that we all fear. The Xenomorph can be whatever you need it to be. When the movie was released to U.S. audiences in 1979, a few things were going on in the world. I assume. The Iranian Hostage situation proved that fixed safety of an American embassy is flawed. An American embassy in a hostile Iran is kind of like, I don’t know, being stuck on a space ship in the middle of space. The Unabomber was in full swing, which made checking the mail for the second time in American history terrifying. The first time would have been to receive your draft card in the mail during the Vietnam War, which had only ended a few years prior. Alien also features a scene that is eerily like what U.S. soldiers, referred to as “Tunnel Rats,” had to do during the Vietnam War. The Cold War was on all our minds, and the events at Three Mile Island certainly did not help that.
Of course, you can argue that these events happened in 1979 and the pre-production process for Alien must have started a year or so before, but this is about the audience’s reception to the film. Alien wasn’t literally made to say, “This is how I felt about Vietnam. This is how I feel about the world.” That’s why that “What is art?” question is so dumb, and counter intuitive. Therefore, Alien is smart, and worth studying.
Alien is art, it is entertainment, it is a window into the history of the era, and it is just as relevant today as it was 38 years ago. There, I finally dated myself on this essay. Ridley Scott makes movies that last.
The United States will always have enemies, regardless of times of war, or times of peace. What makes time, and technology terrifying is how they work together. The combination of those two things will inevitably create or aid an enemy that we cannot understand. Technology evolves faster than humans’ ability to understand it. You wake up in space from a nice freezer nap, then next thing you know a robot is trying to kill you by cramming a rolled-up magazine down your throat. I guess that scene was co-directed by H.R. Giger.
World War Two, and the lesser remembered Korean War, provided us with the last visible enemy before we entered the guerilla era of military conflict. In Vietnam, the enemy was burrowed within the population, and that’s just as true today.
The biggest issue in Alien is whether they should bring Kane back on to the ship once the Face Hugger has latched its little claws onto him. Of course, they let him back on, and the events unfold the way that they do. I guess it was a case of “the illusion of morality.” But suppose they hadn’t. A) The movie would have been over, and the horror and action would have been replaced by a lot of paper work. And B) the majority of the crew would have gone home, and the aliens would have to deal with their civil war, like in some part of the extended universe I don’t grasp. But the Nostromo and its crew would have made it back to earth, without a quarantine issue. Maybe Parker would have gotten that raise.
If you were to ask the average American today in 2017 what the greatest threat to United States is, I would argue nine times out of ten that they would say, “Radical Islam.” This essay is not about that, nor is it about political agendas. The point is that the enemy changes, if you asked the average American the same question 20 years ago, the answer would have been different.
If you could ask the same question in 2019, people would say, “Replicants.” If you asked the same question in 2122, well you get the idea. It would all come full circle and this argument would be over. Ridley Scott is the cinematic Philip K. Dick.
The Chest Buster in a matter of hours? Days? Evolves into a fully-grown killing machine that is bigger than the average human. Then stalks, and kills almost the entire cultural melting pot of a crew. What makes the Xenomorph interesting is that it’s not entirely too big. There is something terrifying about going toe to toe with enemy that is about your size, but entirely different in appearance.
The alien shifts quickly, it stalks you in the air vents, it surprises you just when you think you’re safe. And anyone or any fear can become the Xenomorph, it’s the perfect fill in the blank. People dislike their jobs; well guess what, in Alien, specifically for the crew, their job is trying to get them killed. The Weyland Corporation will stop at nothing to bring the alien back to earth. This isn’t just the Jason Voorhees slowly, but always following you villain, this is a silent, fast killer, you don’t understand. If you’re able to defeat it, there are a million more waiting.
I know this argument can be applied to most horror movies. For instance, the 1956 version of, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a clear metaphor (or satirical take), on the Red Scare. However, because that movie is grounded and a specific period, it causes it to become stuck in that era. Because Alien fuses two genres seamlessly, and because of the use of technology, it’s hard to pinpoint when this movie takes place. (I know that in the opening slate the filmmaker tells you it takes place in 2122. I know that because I mentioned it earlier). Alien could take place in a dystopian future, however we don’t make it that far to really find out, which works to the movies advantage. All we get is a microcosm of humanity with an imminent threat that almost becomes the victor.
This is what makes Alien work. It’s fear, isolation, and despair, with just the right amount of fleeting hope to make a horrified audience content with the outcome.
Once you think Alien is just a science fiction/horror cross over, it’s too late, the next enemy has burst out of its egg and onto your face. And when that happens, which it will, I implore you to sit and actively watch Alien for work. It will make you slightly more prepared.
In space, no one can hear you scream, but when the next explorers find your audio recording, you will be studied forever.
- John Pilchard