“Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.” That's how the haunting robot scientist, Ash (Ian Holm), describes the monster in Alien. It's also how I would describe Ridley Scott’s filmmaking. The embryo in his mind was a monster movie in the vein of Jaws, The Thing from Another World (1951), or It! The Terror from Beyond Space, from which Scott and screenwriter Dan O’Bannon took the major plot beats of an alien hitchhiking onto a ship full of human drama, leeching the life from lonely crewmen in air ducts, and succumbing to an airlock. It's how the movie seems so recognizable from afar. But up close, this rendition will bite your face off. Alien is so subliminally brutal that even its many imitators fail to grasp how hostile it is to humanity's idea of itself. When the alarm blares and the steam skulks in, the structure of the film holds up the film as equal parts bug hunt and Freudian nightmare. The film takes a simple premise and fills itself with subtext to force a reexamination of our place in the whole universe. The Alien knows nothing of happy endings or a character’s right to a timely, cinematic death. It dismembers your senses because the young Scott wanted it to (he storyboarded the movie himself). He escalated a creature feature into a celestial moving painting that devolves into a fever dream of tension, sound, and fear. Few films have ever matched its dramatic terror.
B-movies always kept a pretty girl around, and the really talky ones like the original The Thing loved to put them at the center of a lot of verbal conflict (so did Star Wars), from which Scott’s quibbling crew gets a lot of their spunky dynamic. But it’s so different to have Sigourney Weaver in the lead of this kind of movie, and O'Bannon recognized how the terror could change with the point-of-view to make something new. It’s in comparison to Ellen Ripley that all the images acquire their power: she turns a monster into a cosmic rapist because of how we fear for her. She distorts the crew dynamic around her aloof idea of romance, which is really the cinema's idea that she accidentally bought into (the audience does it on purpose). She causes even simple interactions to have new depth because of her social standing in the crew’s little universe. Even in comparison to H.R. Giger’s designs and Derek Vanlint’s exquisite cinematography, Weaver is the element that makes Alien most powerful. Vanlint and Scott favor extreme close-ups and reflective surfaces to keep us focused on the story told not just by the action but by her sweat and eyes. She never monologues about her feelings. Her character exists almost entirely in the physical.
She’s third-in-command of a mining vessel on its way back to earth, stacked with a cast of character actors that has never been equaled in ensemble sci-fi, including Weaver, Tom Skerrit, Holm, Harry Dean Stanton, Veronic Cartwright, John Hurt, and Yaphet Kotto. The onboard computer, called Mother, wakes the crew from cryo-sleep to answer the distress beacon of a ship stranded on the surface of a planet. The sinewy interior of the Derelict stretches around them, more hollowed-out ribcage than ship, allusions that would fit as much in Bava's bony horror facades as Bunuel's creepy montages. In an inner sanctum, Kane (Hurt) wades through ovular little landmarks, like totems on a foggy shore. When he gets close, the leather skin peels back to reveal the first of Giger’s horrors: a fleshy spider, like two hands sewn together, with an incestuous tail and moist, vaginal mouth. The monster inserts itself orally onto Kane. The team, including Captain Dallas (Skerritt), carries him to the outer hatch of their ship, the Nostromo, and requests permission to board. In Ripley’s founding act of characterization, she exercises protocol to refuse them re-entry. The two men invite the horror on board against her judgment; the way the alien hatches out of Kane during dinner, in a scene with no music and only the raw reactions of the actors off-handedly dealing with the weirdness, is a nightmare that the cinema still hasn’t woken up from.
Giger knew what scares us. With this Xenomorph (literally meaning "alien-shaped"), he designed something not only unnervingly foreign but even more mind-pricklingly familiar. The thing has recognizable forms, the bones of humans mixed with an alligator's jaws, hands like a mother spider, the creepy soullessness of an eyeless snake. Truly scary stuff colonizes your brain – this alien feels not just like a scary thing but a scary thing in your own home. Like a spider in your bedsheets, this creature is alien in the way things are when you’re a little kid, a thing not of your world. Joseph Conrad (author of the dark post-colonial novel, The Nostromo) knew all along that the scariest things are the ones that remind us of ourselves. Giger put the knowledge to good use.
The future Scott implants with this creature is not idyllic like Star Trek or touristy like Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s a grunge-noir maze of beige panels and CRT monitors and steam. The Alien’s blood is a corrosive acid, meaning it would cost them the ship to shoot it (assuming they could find it). That detail makes the ship close in on them like a submarine; Scott always uses these details of biology to create even more tension and isolation and fear. It costs them more than their own lives to bring it aboard in the first place. It's spirit-draining (its first act is to make the male crewmen its breeding stock). The monster dissembles them, their bodies and their roles. Being killed by it seems bad, but better than being desired by it.
The scariest scene may be one that occurs purely through sound. The Alien slips its tail behind Lambert (Cartwright) and snarls suggestively into her trembling face. Cartwright has a way of breaking down vulnerability, with eyes that always look like she’s about to cry; doing so has a kind of unwanted, eerie sexiness that’s unique to her. Scott weaponizes that. As Ripley runs down a corridor, she hears horrible animal grunting and Lambert’s painful screams. We know by the sounds, and by Ripley’s reaction to the corpse, whose bloody legs have been unclothed and broken, that the Alien raped her, in whatever way it could. Scott took visual fetishes and implanted them in the audience. He made it part of our psychology (you can watch a deleted scene showing the Alien's sexual advances in more detail, where struggles with the suit made the decision to turn the scene into pure, curdling audio a necessity that turned into the film's advantage, as adversity often does).
When Ripley cries desperately for affirmation, the name of the computer becomes a Freudian plea (“MOTHER!”). There’s a strangulation scene where Ripley, surrounded by pornography, is being suffocated by a man with a rolled-up magazine, his eyes rabid. He’s a robot and that makes it so much worse: he’s the drive in humans to hurt each other, which comes out even in a replication of humanity. He’s us with fewer subroutines. Only Ripley’s concrete affirmatives hope to mask all this spiritual terror. She combats her own desire to be attracted to the captain, as though anyone falling in love would be too much to take in a world where the monster is a scaly voyeur that kills with oral sex. She fights her fear, not just against what the universe expects of her in that position, but what she expects of herself.
The final encounter particularly remains burned in my mind. Ripley sees the creature but doesn’t scream. She doesn’t run. She buckles into a suit and to the sound of her own breathing looks at him swathed in steam and she sings, “You Are My Lucky Star.” When Gene Kelly sang it to Debbie Reynolds, it was one of cinema’s greatest exhales. Do you know what cuckoos do? They lay their eggs in the nests of other birds; their babies push out their siblings and starve the rest. Singin’ in the Rain is the nest that song used to live in inside my mind and Alien is the cuckoo because now I can’t hear it the same way. The set design elevates the scene with light and sweat. The Alien is missing the beaming, gleaming eyes, though in flashes of light it seems to have the ghost of them in a skull hidden by evolution and instinctual rage. Ripley’s locked fates with a creature not of pure evil but pure appetite, of insatiable foreignism. There’s no escape for her, even if she survives. So she sings.
The prosthetic effects by Carlo Rambaldi (who would go on to make the puppet in E.T.) have only improved with age. It’s not because they still look realistic, but because they don’t need realism to be creepy. The Alien now looks even more like a guy in a suit, just as the space vampire in It! The Terror from Beyond Space does. The difference is that seeing that it’s a rubber suit activates subtext in Alien. It takes the disenfranchisement even further to see the fakeness, as it does for the dog-suited man who looks right at the camera in a breath between blowjobs in The Shining. It’s less realistic than if it was rendered in slick CGI and this makes it more monstrous because we can see ourselves in it. Groundedness is what makes it actually scary, rather than just a "scary thing." Alien often feels like an audience being stalked by itself.
A deleted scene completes that illusion. Since it was cut for pacing reasons that I agree with, I don't necessarily suggest viewing the director’s cut, which has the scene included, but I suggest that you watch the scene so that the mythology is a complete picture in your head. In it, Ripley on her way off the ship at the end discovers her crew, still alive, their bodies being painfully transmuted into more eggs (in the theatrical cut, we just assume that they died, as horror movie victims do). This not only completes the body horror but the biology behind Scott’s purpose in this movie: the Alien is made entirely of us. James Cameron gave the universe a sigh of relief by creating the Queen to lay the eggs: she conveniently allows us to dismiss the ideology behind the horror and amuse ourselves with being attacked by a monster we’re not responsible for. But Scott wasn’t going for convenience. He tore Ripley apart to make her kill the crew herself, and he tore us apart to imagine being condensed to our leather skin and finger bones and genitalia. Remember that compartment full of eggs at the beginning, the room that Aliens would like you to think is just a nest? In Scott and O'Bannon's aesthetic, that’s not a room full of a queen's eggs – it's the crew of the Derelict, melted down to their parts, waiting to consume other kinds of curious people on a planet now dead.
All of this stuff in Alien that’s about our image and not just our safety has secretly inspired a lot of modern body horror that has very little to do with franchise slashers: from Under the Skin to Audition to Enemy. It’s the element of dissociation – introducing a gender problem, victimizing the audience to its own psychology – that allows Alien to be more than a slasher film. One thing that Alien did lend to even the lowest horror fright night movie is the “false scare,” such as when the orange tabby cat, Jonesy, jumps out at them while they’re looking for the monster. But it works in Alien because the monster itself rarely jumps out (he only does it one time, in the air duct, in the scene that fans have christened the “Happy Birthday!” scene because of the Alien’s outstretched arms; in keeping with the subtext, I prefer to call it the “Come to Daddy” scene). The cat may be a false scare in the sense that it isn't deadly, but the scene doesn't deflate the tension because they know that the monster is around and that the space is still dangerously confined (so does the audience). The false scare doesn't change the situation, as it does in so many movies when it happens before anyone knows that they're in a horror movie yet.
Unlike most slasher villains, this one has the power to be universal: it doesn’t seem like one aberrant junkie or a vengeful spirit but a true aspect of human nature. We can see ourselves in it. It has the same anger as the machines made in our image, the same drives as those of us who lose control and hurt each other, and the same symbols of constant universal killing instincts that humans have carved into walls for as long as they've existed. Scott takes a simple formula – the ads called it “Jaws in space” – and he unearths from it the reason we make slashers in the first place. Critics have talked about the phallic implications of Michael Myers’ knife. Well, here’s a monster that is a living castration ritual, a rape fantasy, an engine of inhibition. Its intentions may not be pure, but Ash was right that its iconography is.
The sequels kept looking for a way to advance the plot without touching the symbol. Cameron looked for an action movie hiding in there, David Fincher for a revelation, Jean-Pierre Jeunet for a fetish. Scott’s prequels have tried to make prequels to his images rather than to his story; he’s tried to recapture what dismembered our conscience and not just our attention, though he’s never quite found it. That’s probably because the nature of a prequel requires him to make connections and write lore, squeeze a plot in there and try not to be too derivative. Alien is the film that took someone else’s bone structure and built more biology on it. It made a nest in a genre and starved the rest of them out. All Scott can do is try to copy it, or autopsy it, in an attempt to make more. He’s found increasingly messy ways to assess what it was made of, some I even enjoyed. But he’s never made it live again.
This article is a re-upload from Film Objective, April 13, 2019
Image is a screenshot from the film: ©20th Century Fox
Cast & Crew
Dan O'Bannon (screenplay and story)
Ronald Shusett (story)
|Brett||Harry Dean Stanton|