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May 1, 2017 | by  | in Film | [ssba]

An ode to Alien (1979)

My favourite quote in regards to Ridley Scott’s masterpiece comes from Chris Taylor’s (highly recommended) book How Star Wars Conquered The Universe. In it, producer David Giler says, “Alien is to Star Wars what The Rolling Stones were to The Beatles.” Alien is the badder, nastier version. Indeed, in 1979 very little serious nastiness had come from the space genre, but heavens above did that change after a vicious intergalactic beast latched itself to John Hurt’s unsuspecting face. Where Star Wars was groundbreaking and dazzling, Scott chose instead to take the special effects in a far more realistic but equally flooring direction. The gargantuan space freighter the Nostromo is a heartless, hulking monolith representing the industrial nature of humankind at this point in the future, and the theme of corporation does not stop at the mere visuals.

Likewise, the crew is far from the lovable rag-tag band we all know and love from George Lucas’ trilogy. There is bickering about bonuses, tension in the ranks, and conflicts of interest — you know, all the best team dynamics you need when a giant beast is scrambling through the air vents devouring your fellow crew mates. What is perhaps most interesting about the cast of characters is that Ripley, in Sigourney Weaver’s signature performance, doesn’t emerge as the protagonist until the second act. In the beginning, each of the cast are dealt to equally. It is only when half a dozen of them are killed off that Ripley begins to take charge, and once she does she cements herself as one of the most iconic sci-fi characters of all time. Here’s someone facing a threat that is entirely alien, without the necessary skills or knowledge, but who survives on pure force of will and tenacity. Her opponent is equally tenacious however, and the xenomorph is still incredibly effective today (granted you don’t Google image search what the prop looked like out in the open; clearly the close ups and dark lighting were used for a reason).

However, it is the small effects that elevate this film as well. All of the lighting is expert: the heavenly white chamber that the crew are brought out of hypersleep carries heavy connotations to human birth; the steamy, slightly sickly and sterile canteen conveys heavy artifice; and then there’s every single puff of smoke and rich colour to the fire and alarm lights in the third act that pump one’s veins with a medically alarming dose of adrenaline. Visually every aspect is splendid, especially the art direction from H. R. Giger, who I suggest you Google only out of morbid curiosity. Rumour has it he was put in the far most corner of the offices where the film was being worked on because no one particularly enjoyed his company, and when you see the symbolism (or just direct portrayal) of various genitals in his work it’s not hard to see why. Still, it makes for such a multi-layered piece of film and science fiction.

On the one hand you have a film which is just like a Rolling Stones record; it’s 40 years old but still gets people moving because it’s a pure banger. I adore watching it with people for the first time because there are at least half a dozen scenes that induce a visceral reaction every time a coconut. But then beneath that is a deeply psychological horror story wherein there is a gender struggle and a basic narrative involving the invasive “other”. There’s a reason the xenomorph’s tongue is phallic, and there’s a reason its method of reproduction is a perverse and violent version of human pregnancy. Further still is comment on human greed in the wake of commercialism, as the crew of Nostromo is sacrificed by their higher ups in order to bring the xenomorph back to earth and weaponise it. There’s even a development (SPOILER ALERT) where Scott begins to explore an idea he’d bring to the forefront in his adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? re-titled Blade Runner — the idea of what makes us human. When the science officer Ash is revealed to be a traitorous company android, all kinds of questions are raised. As it turns out in Ripley’s case, to be human is to crawl tooth and nail, against the clock and against all odds, to survival.

I first saw this film on a family holiday in my very early teens when my uncle exclaimed over dinner “you’ve never seen Alien?!” I think my mother and father’s parental techniques were subsequently called into question and said uncle swiftly departed to the rental store. Now I’ve seen Alien at sleepovers, movies nights, in lectures theatres, the planetarium, and most recently in a proper theatre for the first time on Alien Day last Wednesday, and at no point in the foreseeable future can I see it losing any replay value for myself, or any long-time or first-time viewers.


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