Screening Log #27: Alien (1979)

Written by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett
Directed by Ridley Scott
Starring Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Ian Holm, and John Hurt

 

 

 

Spurred by the recent unveiling of a teaser for Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, I found myself wanting to revisit Alien. Scott’s second and third films, Alien and Blade Runner, stand as two of the most highly regarded science fiction films ever made, so his return to the genre is highly anticipated… not least by people, like myself, who hold the Alien franchise close to their hearts.

Alien plays out like a classic haunted house horror film crossed, in places, with a darker, grittier version of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (what film isn’t related to that touchstone in my mind these days?). Scott has stated in interviews that 2001 was the film that demonstrated the potential of science fiction for him, and some of the aesthetic of Alien definitely exhibits ear marks of this influence. Much of the internal space of the Nostromo, the ship crewed by seven unlucky folks in the film, is the same leathery whiteness as Kubrick’s austere interiors in 2001, however, lurking beneath this immaculate facade are the labyrinthine dark corridors, the pipes and steam vents and industrial accoutrements of an interstellar towing vehicle. This structuring of the ship makes for an interesting parallel to the conscious and subconscious mind, the faculties that any thriller manipulates, encouraging the inky blackness to slide its tendrils into conscious minds in the form of fear and anxiety.

The crew of the Nostromo are woken from a cryogenic sleep by their ship’s main computer – never a good sign – to respond to a perceived distress call emanating from a near-by planet. After disembarking to investigate the source of the signal, Kane, cheekily named and played by John Hurt, is ambushed by an organism that leaps from a large pod and attaches itself, rather inconsiderately, to his face. He’s brought back to the ship by Dallas, Tom Skerritt, and let in by Ash, a disquieting Ian Holm, despite protocols calling for a twenty-four hour decontamination period, stalwartly championed by Ripley, a now inconic Sigourney Weaver. What follows is Kane’s unwilling experiment as an incubator prior to the alien bursting from his chest like the worst-ever stripper in a novelty cake, and this alien then growing and slowly killing off the remaining members of the crew. Scott builds tension in these sections by employing longer tracking shots that manipulate, and exploit, the viewer’s point of view expertly. The long shots without cuts allow anticipation to grow while Scott alternates between placing the viewer in the perspective of the character to limit what the viewer sees and withholding this visual information by focusing on the face and reactions of the characters. There’s also a token cat-scare in there for good measure.

The xenomorph of the film represents the dark side of evolution, a creature Ash calls the “perfect organism” whose “structural perfection is matched only by its hostility”; the xenomorph is the result of nature sharpening its Darwinian claws against the vastness of space and time, the darkness of our subconscious fears manifest. Ridley Scott’s film, in its technical precision and structural economy, is very much a similar sort of beast.

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