Friday, May 12, 2017

Summer School: 'Alien' (1979)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's big returning franchises.

What is there left to say about Alien? It's one of the most influential and acclaimed sci-fi movies of all time, and 38 years after its release, the same director is in charge of a heavily hyped new installment in the series. It's been analyzed and praised in every possible way, including by me, and watching it again didn't necessarily give me any important new insight into its greatness. But at the same time, it's always a pleasure to sit down with again, even for someone who rarely watches movies more than once (even movies that I love). I was reminded of how impressive Ridley Scott's direction is, down to every little detail, and how perfectly nearly every aspect of the movie comes together, from the writing to the acting to the set design to the costumes to the special effects. These days, Alien is a huge corporate franchise and a pop-culture phenomenon, but the first movie established nearly everything important about the series with ingenuity and limited resources.

Given how iconic the alien itself has become, it's easy to forget that the creature doesn't show up until nearly an hour into the movie, and even then it's onscreen sparingly for the rest of the time. Like most good horror movies, Alien builds tension via what it doesn't show, as the small crew of the Nostromo grows more agitated and afraid by their inability to capture and/or kill the alien, which is picking them off one by one. Even before the alien itself appears, there's a sense of eerie emptiness to the large ship with its spartan crew and the dark, abandoned planet emitting the distress signal. I'd like to think that even audiences seeing this in 1979, without any knowledge of what's to come, would be in suspense during that slow-building first hour, which culminates in the horrifying and brilliant scene of the alien bursting out of John Hurt's chest.

And speaking of Hurt, the cast in this movie is fantastic; people think of Sigourney Weaver as the star of the franchise, but she's just one equal member of an ensemble up until the last half-hour or so. She's great, of course, projecting a cool competence as Ripley, who's constantly undermined and underestimated until she takes charge. I was struck this time by Ian Holm's brilliant performance as Ash, giving small sinister hints from the very beginning as he subtly sabotages the crew's efforts to avoid the alien and leave the planet. Even when Ash goes full-on evil, Holm keeps his performance chilly and clinical. Tom Skerritt projects macho cool as the cynical captain, Harry Dean Stanton and Yaphet Kotto have great chemistry as the wisecracking mechanics, and Veronica Cartwright is tough but vulnerable as the crew's most empathetic member. Even the cat is good.

The ship looks believably grungy and lived-in, as do the crew members' outfits. We're so used to clean, antiseptic sci-fi locations in modern movies that it's refreshing to see something that actually resembles a human working and living space. Almost all of the special effects hold up remarkably well, and many of them could easily match up to current CGI. Scott's camera roves and rambles through the ship, giving a great sense of the space for later when the characters are running from the alien (or trying to track it down). Pretty much everything about this series as it developed got really big really quickly: big budgets, big casts, big ambitions, big ideas, big running times. But Scott achieves the most out of any of the series' films by keeping things small and contained.


adam bucci said...

you left out the influential; design and art direction this movie had. everyone seems to stop at HR Giger's design for the alien, planet and alien craft, and they seem oblivious to the incredible work done by Ron Cobb (interior design), Chris Foss (nostromo designer) and möbius, who designed the look and feel of the crew's wardrobe and spacesuits.

it feels like every sci-fi movie that followed alien had to have a crew clothed in jumpsuits and sneakers in a creaky, poorly lit space craft that seemed to drip water everywhere.

if you can find it, Scanlon and Gross' 'The book of alien' is a great reference material as to how the look and feel of the movie evolved.

Josh said...

I agree that all the design work is excellent, including the ship and the wardrobe. Like I said, it's great to see a sci-fi environment that looks like a place where people might actually be living and working, and not just a pristine movie set. There's far more greatness to this movie than I could ever fit into a short blog post.