We should be in the golden age of cinematic imagination, shouldn’t we? Computers should have unlocked the visual genius of dozens, maybe hundreds of filmmakers, who astonish us with incredibly realized, fully formed worlds again and again and again. But what was the last film you saw that actually did that? That through special effects and design created something you’d never really seen before?
Of last year’s movies (2013) the most visually spectacular was Gravity. Meticulously it recreates reality. It is a hyperbolic reality – there are scientific problems with parts of the story (though the most vehement critic, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, just seems annoyed that someone made a space movie without having paid him to be a consultant); but it takes your breath away. It looks fully realized. It looks real.
The great strength of Alien is that it looks real. The alien itself has a level of plausibility hitherto unknown in filmmaking*. More so, the design of the ship – both the Nostromo that the space truckers pilot and the odd crescent-shaped crash-landed ship on the alien planet – have a sense of reality to them. They’re aged. They’re worn.
*With the understanding that a) there’s no real plausible way it could have grown that much bigger without some kind of food supply, and b) there’s no way it could have drooled so many fluids without constantly drinking. I guess having a two-jawed system means constant lubrication…
Even more so than Star Wars (which has a lived-in quality completely absent from the thoroughly mediocre prequels), Alien‘s environments do not look like they were just pre-fabbed seconds before they came on set.
Alien‘s story is familiar, probably even to those who have not seen it but have stumbled onto the countless rip-offs it spawned. A group of commercial space truckers are awakened early from their cryogenic sleep to answer a distress call from an uncharted planet. They arrive, and find an ancient crashed ship with a mummified pilot in the center of an enormous chamber, his chest opened up from the inside. In the next enormous room, dozens of leathery things like eggs sit, things moving inside them.
What happens next is totally expected, only it isn’t if you’re following the story. The early minutes of Alien give no real hint as to what will follow – the first twenty minutes of the movie are standard spaceship stuff, along with chatter among the crew about how much money they hope to make (the mechanics are particularly disgruntled about their share).
Everyone knows what Alien is. And you can assume everyone who went to see it initially knew it was a horror film – after all, “In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream.” But the movie doesn’t force its hand. It increases the plausibility of the horror by not jumping up and down and shouting boo. It is among the most patient of horror films, waiting a full hour before anyone is killed.
Of course, the movie also made Sigourney Weaver’s career. She plays Ripley, the second officer, and of all the fairly flat characters, she is initially the one easiest to dislike. She doesn’t seem to get along with the rest of the crew, and even tries to keep the three who go out to the derelict alien ship off the Nostromo, for quarantine purposes.
When I call the characters flat, it isn’t a dig. They are all people on a long and tiring work stint. They aren’t a crew of friends, just professionals. Contrast this with the crew of Ridley Scott’s semi-remake/expansion prequel, Prometheus: punk rock geologist, coward/snake-penis enthusiast biologist, emo science douche who sulks like a little baby when the most important scientific find in human history doesn’t go just as he hoped, corporate Nordic ice queen with jungle fever, and Guy Pearce in terrible old man makeup. One might argue they are more distinctive than the crew of the Nostromo, but their major distinction is largely that they’re crappy. Rapace’s Ripley-a-like only stands out by not having much to stand out with (except maybe she’s a Christian? I haven’t seen it since in the theater).
For a movie made thirty-four years ago, the question needs be asked: how does Alien hold up? When I re-watched the film (the first time since before high school*), I was ready to feel dismissive after the first few shots. The initial shot of the Nostromo towing its cargo through space is terrible. It looks like one of those shots of tie-fighters in Star Wars (for anyone who has seen the movie on VHS, unrestored), where there are clear matte boxes surrounding each ship. But once Alien begins its long traverse into the Nostromo, forcing its slow, methodical rhythms on the audience, it weaves its spell. There may be weak individual shots, particularly of the fight between Ash and the rest of the crew when it is revealed…what is revealed (which is a complete surprise in the film, and such a strange thing to happen that it deepens the horror. Even the world these people thought they knew is suddenly alien to them). However, the Giger-designed sets and monsters are as hauntingly beautiful now as ever.
*Jack believes we watched it in early college together, and I was dismissive. This doesn’t sound right to me, but if it is the case, I would like to go back in time Terminator-style and smack myself in the head for being young and wrong.
In fact, I think considering this movie in terms of “whether it holds up” is looking at it from the wrong perspective. The real question is, does the audience of today hold up to the film? It is not a hand-holder, and it is not a thrill-a-minute ride. Its power comes from the slowness of its action and plot, from the long, still, silent minutes. For a monster movie, basically a haunted house film transported to space, Alien expects a certain level of intelligent patience from its audience. And it pays them back with gut-churning horror.
*The green poster used in this post is a fan-made poster, prints of which can be ordered here.