Kicking off the Ridley Scott Blog A Thon with my piece on the Alien, that was earlier published at Passion For Cinema. This movie was what began to define Scott’s style and techniques, and stands out as one of the best in the sci fi horror genre.
* Spoiler Alert
There are many ways in which one can look at Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi horror flick . It could be “Jaws in Outer Space”, considering we have an alien on the loose, knocking off every one. Or an “Outer space slasher flick”. Or it could be a more horrifying version of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. For me however the movie was something that was closer to the tagline “In Space No One Can Hear You Scream”. Having seen both Alien and Aliens, the latter version though horrifying , was more like an adrenaline filled video game, where you had aliens coming at you from all directions, and you had to shoot them. Aliens was faster, more adrenaline filled, and more visual effects, in typical James Cameron style. Alien however moves at a more slower pace, and it takes time for the horror to develop.
The movie is about the crew abroad the Nostromo, a kind of freighter spaceship that is carrying a cargo of mineral ore mined in outer space and returning to earth. The ship is headed by Capt Dallas( Tom Skerritt), and other members include second in command Ripley( Sigourney Weaver), navigator Lambert( Veronica Cartwright), engine room operators Brett( Harry Stanton) and Parker( Yaphet Kotto) the only black member of the crew, Kane( William Hurt) and Ash( Ian Holm). The onboard computer which awakens the crew members and which communicates with them is nicknamed as “Mother” a pun on its name MU-TH-R 182. On their journey back home, they get an SOS call from an unknown origin.
Dallas leads the crew into investigation of the source, and they crash land on an unknown, rocky, barren planet. As Dallas, Kane and Lambert lead the exploration, they come across an alien craft that seemed to have landed there. Kane discovers a pod of eggs in the craft, and as he explores one of them closely, an unknown life form, breaks out, and attaches itself to his face. The crew comes back to Nostromo, and try to remove the life form attached to Kane. After several unsuccessful attempts the creature finally comes off. Ripley wants to destroy it immediately, but Ash the scientific officer wants to preserve and study it. Everything seems fine as Kane recovers and the crew is having their meals at the mess along with Kane. But in a shocking scene, Kane begins to choke, sputter, and undergoes spasms. As the crew members try to hold him down, his chest bursts open, and a small tiny creature comes out, and emitting a squeal runs away, to the shock and horror of the crew members.
Alien is a movie that combines sic- fi with horror, but Ridley Scott’s narration is different. In fact while the opening shot of the spaceship travelling is clearly influenced by Star Wars, a major part of the movie seems to be quite influenced by 2001: A Space Odyssey. Slow pacing, minimal amount of dialogue and not much thunderous back ground music either. At times it is said silence is the more frightening than anything else. Scott totally downs the background music, and the horror here is emphasized through long silences, the drone of the ship’s machines. In fact very rarely does the background score by Jerry Goldsmith rise to a crescendo out here. If we take the movie’s most shocking scene, here the effect is achieved only through the actions of the characters, not the music. In fact the only long drawn action scene is in the climax where Ripley takes on the alien.
Also Scott builds up the audience curiosity about the Alien, by not showing it in full, for a major time, except in the ending scenes. This was again a Jaws influence, where for a greater part of the movie Spielberg never shows us the actual shark, just emphasizing on the hidden danger. Also throughout the movie Scott uses the low lighting, jerky camera movements to emphasize the overall gloomy tone. If we take the opening sequence, where the camera actually pans inside the spacecraft, we see the interiors, the video systems, the computers , it does resemble the Star Wars craft, but for most part you just have a kind of deathly silence. That’s what really brings the scare factor.
Just imagine yourself in a room, totally quiet no sound, except some droning of machines going on. At one end it is claustrophobic, another end it’s scary. Alien scares here because of the sense of claustrophobia the viewer feels, it’s as if you are totally enclosed, there is no escape route anywhere. Also when the crew members first get up in the opening scene, we see that their bunks are coffin shaped, and they are in a kind of deep hyper sleep. I would rate this as one of the finest opening scenes, because in a nutshell, it sets up the movie, gets into the mood, and the audiences know they are in for a scare fest.
Scott however manages to combine the silent, slow death with more gory stuff. Apart from the famous head bursting sequence , the other macabre scene is when Parker, attacks Ash as he grips Ripley, and then knocking his head off discovers he is an android. And it becomes even more macabre, when Ash’s severed head is attached to a wire, and he begins to speak.
Alien however is not just merely a kind of outer space slasher flick. In a veiled manner it does attack the corporate world, as in the scene where Ash informs Ripley, that the company has advised to bring the life form back, at the expense of the crew. Nostromo is a mining ship, which brings back the mined ore from various planets, and is somewhat metaphorical for those times when the miners digging for gold were being exploited in harsh working conditions. Parker and Brett, the two working class engine room operators, are resentful that they are not being paid much, though they do the real dirty work. Ash here represents the corporate honchos who just override everything else for profits. It is established that Ash is an authority by himself, when he overrides Ripley’s request to observe the quarantine procedure, while letting Kane, Dallas inside. And when Ripley wants the alien to be destroyed, Ash again overrides her, saying it should be studied. Even though Dallas is the captain, he has no authority over Ash, as he tells Ripley when she protests against being overridden
Look, I just run the ship. Anything that has to do with the Science Division – Ash has the final word…It happens, my dear, because that’s what the Company wants to happen…Standard procedure is to do what the hell they tell you to do
Nostromo was named after a famous Joseph Conrad novel of the same name, which incidentally also dealt with capitalist exploitation. Interestingly even in Aliens, James Cameron, brings out a clear anti capitalist stance, with the working class crew getting into an argument with one of the corporate representatives.
Alien though an original script did have a large number of influences. The major influence would however be Howard Hawks 1951 sci fi movie, The Thing From Another World where members of a crew working at an Arctic research center are stalked and killed by a mysterious alien. There was a more successful version of the same story by John Carpenter in 1982, The Thing, one of the best horror flicks again. Alien was a tribute to the B-Movie sci fi horror genre of the 50′s, but in a more slicker and gory version. Alien also had much more natural dialogue, much faster, overlapping, unlike the highly stilted, theatrical style of earlier sci fi movies. 20th Century Fox however was not much enthusiastic about the project, but with the runaway success of Star Wars, they showed renewed interest in it. Ridley Scott would again make another land mark sci fi classic with Blade Runner.
I would always rate Alien as one of the best in both sci fi and horror genre. It’s not just the gore and visual effects, but the way Ridley Scott actually induces that claustrophobic feeling, the slowly and leisurely way he builds up the horror. This was one of the rare movies that actually made both critics and audiences go wow. While 2001: A Space Odyssey was critically acclaimed, it did go over the heads of many people, because the antagonist there was the computer, something you could not really feel. Scott took some of the 2001 elements but gave audiences a more visible and scary antagonist. While normal audiences loved the shock, the horror, and the final action scene, critics were impressed by its pacing, its narration, and the more deeper layers it had.