Greetings, readers, Bill here. The office still has me bent over the the desk with a stress ball crammed in my mouth and to tell the truth my mental and emotional states have not been particularly high lately. But, as Luther so perfectly put it, “Hier steh ich; ich kann nicht anders.” I’m kind of hoping to turn things around to the point where I don’t come home from work too mentally drained to write, but instead can write in the evenings to help leave the work day behind me, to keep the office from becoming a monkey on my back that rides me home and makes me miserable through the evening hours. I started Radiation-Scarred Reviews in the first place as a form of self-therapy; why shouldn’t I press-gang it into serving as such again?
That being said, it’s movie-time; while I’m normally adverse to covering films that have had thousands of gallons of ink (or pixels) spilled on them, on the grounds that I rarely have anything novel or worthwhile to say about these films that has not already been repeated ad nauseum, this film has been on my mind as of late; I’d actually had a screenshot of the Alien Queen from the sequel to this film pop up in my Tumblr feed and it got me thinking about how she’s without a doubt my favorite monster of the last thirty years, and you know how trains of thought go; before long I was thinking about the Alien franchise as a whole, and felt the urge to revisit where it all began. And if I’m coming back to writing after a month away and a downward spiral into depression and self-loathing, that’s kind of like an act of rebirth; what could be more appropriate, then, then reviewing one of the most traumatic birthing videos ever made?
Spoilers, as always, ensue.
An indeterminate period in the future, the cargo ship Nostromo is hauling twenty million tons of mineral ore from deep space back to Earth for processing. The enormous star-freighter is manned by a seven-person crew, who spend the voyage in suspended animation, the ship on auto-pilot. The crew is woken from their induced sleep when the ship picks up a signal being beamed from an uninhabited planetoid; following standing orders from the corporation they work for, the Nostromo disengages from its ore-containers and lands on the planetoid.
Three crew members – Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt), Executive Officer Kane (John Hurt, of HELLBOY and 1984) and Navigator Lambert (Veronica Cartwright, of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS and THE BIRDS) – investigate the source of the signals, discovering an enormous, derelict spaceship, clearly of non-human origin. While exploring the ship, Kane is attacked by a scuttling, arachnid-like creature that emerged from a leathery egg in a room containing many such eggs. The creature latches on to Kane’s face, inserting a tube down his throat. He’s rushed back to the Nostromo, despite Warrant Officer Ripley’s (Sigourney Weaver, of GHOSTBUSTERS and AVATAR) warnings that doing so violates anti-contamination protocols. The creature cannot be forcibly removed from Kane’s face without severely injuring him, and its corrosive blood means it cannot be killed without damaging the ship — possibly catastrophically.
Within a few days, however, the organism detaches and dies on its own, with Kane seemingly none the worse for his experience. Unfortunately, it turns out that the tube down Kane’s throat had been an ovipositor, and the organism had implanted an egg or embryo of its own into Kane’s body; swifting growing into a serpentine, distinctly-phallic larval form, this new creature, this xenomorph, erupts violently from Kane’s chest. Swiftly maturing into what might be termed an imago form – a spiny, blue-brown-black eyeless horror with multiple slavering jaws and long, spidery limbs, trailing a scorpion-like tail behind – the alien begins to pick off the crew of the Nostromo one by one as they struggle to find a way to destroy the creature.
I don’t know where to begin with my analysis. There’s so much going on, and a lot of it has been addressed at extreme lengths, but some of it hasn’t been addressed quite as thoroughly.
ALIEN’s genesis can most immediately be traced back to 1973 and the film DARK STAR, a collaboration between director John Carpenter and screenwriter Dan O’Bannon. A blend of dark comedy and science fiction described by Roger Ebert as “a berserk combination of space opera, intelligent bombs, and beach balls from other worlds,” DARK STAR is a story of ordinary working-class men in a futuristic setting; their blue-collar job, the destruction of unstable planets that might imperil future human colonization of the galaxy. During one sequence of the film, the men adopt an alien (represented by a repainted inflatable beach ball to which clawed feet had been attached) as a sort of ship’s mascot, only for the creature to wander around and cause trouble.
While DARK STAR’s beach ball may have provided the germ of ALIEN’s xenomorph, ultimately DARK STAR’s contribution was more the idea of spacemen that weren’t Captain Kirk or Flash Gordon, but simply ordinary people doing what to them is an ordinary job that happens to take them into the depths of interstellar space. The second half of ALIEN, in which the crew is stalked by the ravenous alien beast, owes more to an unpublished short story of O’Bannon’s, in which gremlins terrorize the crew of a B-17 bomber during the Second World War.
In 1976, drawing from DARK STAR and the B-17 story – as well as numerous science fiction films and stories produced over the preceding decades, including IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE (in which an indestructible alien monster invades a spaceship bound for Earth, and must be eliminated before the ship reaches its destination, which is done so by exposing the creature to the vacuum of space), A.E. Van Vogt’s Voyage of the Space Beagle (a sequence in which a panther-like creature is brought aboard a spaceship and proceeds to help itself to the crew, and another sequence in which crewmembers are infected with hungry parasites) FORBIDDEN PLANET (a spaceship is warned to avoid landing on a planet; the crew are killed one by one by a largely-unseen entity after landing) and Mario Bava’s PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES (while both Scott and O’Bannon have denied seeing PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES prior to the production of ALIEN , similar sequences of human astronauts uncovering the skeletal remains of giant alien humanoids are suggestive). One could also trace the plot structure of people dying one by one in an isolated environment with no hope of rescue to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, the 1974 film adaptation of which was used by Scott to convince Harry Dean Stanton to accept a role in the film – Stanton had opened his audition with the comment, “I don’t like sci fi or monster movies.” O’Bannon called this first draft of the film ”Star Beast.”
The script complete, the film was pitched to potential investors as “JAWS in space,” an apropriate comparison given both films’ reliance on keeping the titular monster out of sight for the duration of the running-time, allowing brief glimpses and the impression of lurking horror build tension in the audiences.
I’m not going to go on at great length here, because this is the sort of thing that’s covered extensively whenever anyone talks about ALIEN, and eventually one gets sick of hearing about how the horror of ALIEN is primarily psychosexual, that the alien is frightening because its method of reproduction is a cipher for homosexual oral rape or that the film is a Freudian representation of the abject dread with which the vagina and all it expels is beheld. These lines of thought have been discussed to death and I have no worthwhile commentary to add to the discussion.
You don’t see people talk about the claustrophobia and extreme sense of isolation with which the film is so thickly imbued all that much.
The Nostromo is a working ship, and everything we see reflects that, particularly the cramped quarters and narrow hallways. That’s the thing about rocketry – every cubic inch of space, every ounce of material, requires x amount of fuel to propel it. X amount of fuel takes up y amount of space, requiring more fuel to move the fuel we’ve already got…it quickly spirals out of control, and as such real-world spacecraft have tended towards packing light and cramming as much as possible into as small a space as possible. The Apollo command module was smaller than the average Soccer Mom SUV on the road today. People tend to fixate on how well-used and beat-up the interior of the Nostromo is when talking about the gritty texture of the film, but every aspect of the ship’s design and architecture speak to its functionality. It’s a very practical design, and I don’t think designer Ron Cobb (STAR WARS, CONAN THE BARBARIAN) is given enough credit for his part in making the film scary. Set-design was Cobb’s department on ALIEN, while H.R. Giger handled the xenomorph and the design of the alien ship. Giger is always lauded for his work on the film, while Cobb, Chris Foss (who did spaceship work on the film) and Jean “Moebius” Giraud (concept art, especially the designs of the spacesuits) is rarely mentioned, which I think is a damn shame. ALIEN represents a shared vision between not just Giger and Scott, but O’Bannon, Cobb, Foss, Giraud as well.
And those narrow hallways and tight decks seem so much smaller once the full-sized alien is roaming them – capable of casually compressing itself into small spaces and crawling through openings seemingly too confined for its lanky, seven-foot frame, there is no place on the Nostromo it can’t get into at will. The Nostromo is a far more comfortable environment for it then it is for us. The alien has appropriated our environment and made it its own.
It also brings to mind fears of resource allocation; the Nostromo is stocked with food, water and atmosphere for seven, assuming those seven spend the vast majority of their time in stasis. With an eighth passenger on board, even one (like the xenomorph) that doesn’t seem to require food or water, those scant resources are threatened; the longer the crew of the Nostromo spends out of statis, the more food, water and air they use up. In the original “Star Beast” script, the xenomorph’s first act is to destroy the food supplies of the ship, an act which unfortunately did not make it to the finished film.
Most notably, in the final act of the film the xenomorph corners Ripley in the Nostromo’s shuttle, a tiny, cramped vessel with realistically enough room for only a single person. It’s in this tiny space that the final battle between humanity and alien otherness takes place, and it’s only by blowing out the hatch and opening the interior of the shuttle to the unbearable vastness of empty space – only be eliminating the claustrophobia – that the alien can be defeated.
What really seems to get short shrift in most reviews I’ve read of this film is the isolation. I would argue, vehemently, that there is no greater fear held in the human psyche than that of being truly alone. Man is a social animal; he requires a family group, a tribe, something – some group to which he can belong and with whose members he can interact on a regular basis. Isolation can destroy a human being, mentally and emotionally. It’s why solitary confinement is a punishment. Loneliness fucks with a person’s head like nothing else, and it’s the first and strongest prerequisite of a successful horror story.
It’s profoundly lonely in space. These seven human beings are years’ worth of travel away from the next nearest human beings. There is no possibility of rescue. No chance for reinforcements. In the face of this alien, this intruder from somewhere Outside, they have themselves and only themselves. And with each new death, the loneliness grows stronger and stronger.
Exacerbating this, the crew of the Nostromo divide themselves up – even before the arrival of the xenomorph, they are divided against one another, however subtly. A minor early subplot has engineers Brett and Parker (Harry Dean Stanton and Yaphet Kotto, respectively), who arguably have the most important jobs of the crew in that they keep the ship functioning, arguing with the rest of the crew regarding shares of the dividends of the ore they’re hauling — Brett and Parker, being the bluest of the blue-collars, are being denied full shares despite their vital role in maintaining the ship in an environment where a single loose bolt can mean the difference between life and horrible, freezing, asphyxiating death. Ripley’s final words to Brett and Parker before the arrival of the xenomorph are a sarcastic reassurance that they’ll get “exactly what’s coming to [them],” and a weary “fuck off.”
Once the xenomorph is on board, the crew fractures further; first splitting up into teams of three to pursue the larval entity, hoping to trap it; later on, once the beast has molted and achieved its adult form, it forces the crew to divide further. Brett goes out alone. Captain Dallas goes out alone. Eventually just Ripley is left, alone with the alien.
I’ve also had it argued to me, and I think there’s a lot of merit in this, that the most frightening thing about the alien is not its life-cycle or its appearance but in what it reduces people to. The presence of the xenomorph aboard the Nostromo reduces the human crew to a state of semi-barbarism, jury-rigging weapons and squabbling among themselves – going back to what I’d said a moment ago about isolation, from the moment Kane and his little visitor are brought on board, the crew begins to really fracture into tribes, fighting among themselves about the right way to deal with the unwanted alien visitor (and you’ll note that their solutions tend to rely on brute force rather than intellect or guile) and fighting against the alien for possession of the narrow scrap of territory that is the Nostromo. It’s not as pronounced as it is in, say, THE HILLS HAVE EYES or DELIVERANCE, but I think ALIEN carries a definite notion of the thin line between genteel human civilization and screaming animal savagery, “Nature, red in tooth and claw,” is a very thin one indeed.
THE ALIEN ITSELF
I’d like to spend a few paragraphs talking about the Alien itself; I would argue that the xenomorph species as a whole comprise the most effective and visually-arresting monsters committed to film in the last half-century, and perhaps ever. The xenomorph is, in some ways, a frighteningly plausible entity; nearly every facet of its biology is lifted straight from the horrors forged by Mother Nature herself. Its method of reproduction resembles that of the Tarantula Hawk Wasp, a large wasp that implants its larva into paralyzed spiders and caterpillars. The secondary set of jaws are essentially a pneumatic, weaponized variation on pharyngeal jaws, found in many fish such as eels. Its overall anatomy blends diverse elements from arachnids such as spiders and scorpions as well as elements from snakes.
This resemblance to snakes and arachnids is not, I believe, coincidental. It’s a controversial idea, but a number of evolutionary biologists and evolutionary psychologists (and forgive me, readers, I may be getting in a little over my head; I have no formal training in evo-psych, but I’ve read up on this particular facet and find it fascinating) have suggested that some human phobias are preset; specifically, some studies have shown that human beings fear snakes and spiders more readily then they fear a loaded gun being waved in their face.* The idea behind this being that an aversion to snakes and spiders (many of which are venomous and can make us very sick or kill us) was an evolutionary advantage to our savannah-dwelling ancestors millions of years ago – the Australopithecines who went, “Durr, I’m going to pick up this funny legless lizard” didn’t live to breed.
Combining elements of spider, scorpion, and serpent anatomy, existing as a mockery and corruption of the human form brought about by parasitism and being, overall, a physical manifestation of how much remains Unknown (in both the physical and the metaphysical universe), it is no great stretch to call the xenomorph as it appears in ALIEN an embodiment of all of humanity’s worst fears. The fact that plasticine casts of human and snake bones were encorporated into the design of the suit hammers home this unsettling sense of physical monstrosity, of the human body twisted into something horrible.
I’ve heard it argued that ALIEN is one of the founding films of the “body horror” subgenre that found its greatest voice with David Cronenberg; I would agree, though I would argue that the body horror on display here is less that this enormous, serpentine parasite grew inside a man’s body and then chewed its way out of him, but rather in what the imago alien represents; it’s physique is loathsomely recognizable as human, albeit distorted in ways that are uncomfortable to view.
There’s so much to talk about in regards ALIEN; I haven’t even touched on how incredible the soundtrack is, especially in its judicious use of heart-beats in place of music in certain scenes, nor the corporate malfeasance element to the plot which feels as relevant today as it did 34 years ago. At this point, this review is nearly three times the length of my usual reviews, and I don’t want to rope myself into writing some definitive textbook on the subject of ALIEN. I think it’s time to wrap things up here.
Final Analysis: For my money, no better horror film has been made in the years since ALIEN, than ALIEN itself. Certainly, John Carpenter’s take on THE THING is a strong contestant, but it lacks a certain tension that ALIEN carries woven within it. With an incredibly strong cast, excellent pacing (and you know me, readers, I’m becoming more and more prone to complain about bad editing and pacing then anything else) that makes the film feel much shorter than its nearly two-hour run time, magnificent set-design and what is perhaps the most stellar monster design of the last half century, it’s no surprise that ALIEN has garnered the accolades it has and will continue to do so, I expect, for another 34 years and beyond.
Overall, I give ALIEN (1979)…
FIVE BARRELS OF TOXIC WASTE.
*This hypothesis remains hotly-debated, however, especially given that in large parts of Asia and South America snakes and spiders are part of peoples’ regular diet, and viewed with less fear and more mouth-watering delight.