Alien (1979)

*. Well, this is another one of those movies that is so well known, has had so much written about it, and has become such a cultural touchstone that there’s really not a lot of point in my trying to add anything to it. I don’t think I can say anything new or offer much in the way of fresh thinking.
*. Now, with that out of the way . . .
*. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen it, and I can’t remember when the first time was, but my most viewing came after just having watched AVP: Alien vs. Predator (2004). (This was an accident. AVP happened to be on at the gym so I got on a machine and plugged myself in for the duration. I don’t always recommend this as the best way to watch a movie, but AVP is good workout fare.)
*. Seeing the two films so close together really brought home the matter of how much faster everything moves in the twenty-first century. The action in AVP never stops, and we keep skipping around different arenas to watch the franchise-monster deathmatch playing out. Alien was made at a very different time, though it’s worth noting that even in 1979 the studio suits were concerned that the film got off to much too slow a start.
*. In any event, I think the effect of hindsight, looking back on Alien from our own accelerated culture (and subsequent entries in the franchise), makes the sedate pace stand out even more. Here is Erik Lundegaard, writing in 2003: “The most startling thing watching Alien again is its pacing. For the first 45 minutes, little happens. It’s all slow, exquisite build-up, which makes the second half seem all the more horrific.” And here is Roger Ebert, who was cool toward Alien when it first came out (“basically just an intergalactic haunted house thriller set inside a spaceship”), but considerably more appreciative a couple of decades later, when he included it among his list of Great Movies: “One of the great strengths of Alien is its pacing. It takes its time.”

*. Usually the matter of pacing is related to the idea of a slowly developing sense of dread, and it’s interesting to compare Alien to Psycho in this regard, where we also sit through half a movie before something happens. And in both cases the bomb that goes off is a seminal moment of film horror, not to mention the most explicitly violent scene in the movie. (As with a lot of notoriously extreme horror films, we don’t actually see much gore or violence in Alien. As Ridley Scott says, “The most important thing in a film of this type is not what you see, but the effect of what you think you saw.”). After seeing Janet Leigh getting carved up in the shower, and John Hurt giving birth, we are on edge for the rest of the film because we know a certain line has already been crossed and now we’re on the other side.
*. There’s another point I want to make here with regard to this median climax. In most of Alien the violence is edited out. We never do see what happens to Dallas, for example (unless you watch the deleted scene of him being cocooned). But the creature bursting out of Hurt’s gut is different. As Jason Zinoman in Shock Value puts it, “When the alien bursts out, something strange happens; the camera stops. The bright lighting does not darken. The audience gets a straight-on look at the monster. It is grotesque: bloody, slippery, and obscene. Once it appears, the monster looms in the center of the frame, while the crew freezes, gaping at this bizarre, freakish creature, unable to turn away. They don’t run or hide. They are fascinated. Like us, they are an audience, helpless, frightened, and too curious to realize they are in danger. For the first time in history, revealing the creature is not an anticlimax.”

*. But I think the pacing serves another purpose too. This is to ground us in the reality of the environment. Much has been made of the dirty realism of the Nostromo: its cramped cabins and quarters and especially all those dark corridors with their exposed tubes, ducts and wiring, with water dripping from the walls and jets of steam going off for no reason at all. This isn’t the gleaming future of 2001 or Star Trek, with shiny hallways and doors that whisper open automatically. Instead it’s a blue-collar grease trap that doesn’t look remotely aerodynamic, held together with elastic bands and chewing gum.
*. That part of the realism is just design, but there’s a realism too in the dialogue, which is often just technical “gobbledegook” (Scott), but which sounds good. Grimiest of all are the untermenschen Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton, who are only worried about getting paid.
*. The pacing contributes to this sense of realism because space is a place where nothing happens. The crew might as well be in their cryo pods asleep on such a long voyage because what is there to do? They don’t even seem to be having sex. Some romance was originally hinted at between Dallas and Ripley, but that scene was cut, along with a number of other action scenes. Scott seems to have wanted less going on. Why? Because real life is dull. I mean, the life of a long-haul trucker is boring enough, but long-haul intergalactic miners? It’s just days of tedium followed by a few minutes of blind panic.
*. People complain that the crew doesn’t respond to the creature in a very professional or sensible way, but in their defence they’re really out of their league, don’t know what they’re up against, and have probably never had company of any kind on board before. All things considered, I think a group of anti-social loners come together reasonably well.
*. Does that seem like I’m being harsh on the crew? Not as harsh as Kim Newman, who calls them “bitching incompetents who’ve obviously signed up for the trip because no one on Earth can stand them.”

*. The theatrical poster has always bugged me. The alien eggs don’t split apart at the bottom, light doesn’t spill out, and what is that grid-like structure? It doesn’t correspond to anything on the alien ship does it? And while it’s true that in space nobody can hear you scream, when is that ever put to the test here? As Scott points out during his commentary, even the ship makes a roar going through space, which he realized wasn’t accurate but was just something he wanted on the soundtrack.
*. The room that houses the ship’s computer, “Mother,” is pretty funny. What do you think all those lights actually do?
*. Why does Ripley include Ash in her roll call of the dead crew at the end? I don’t think robots die, at least in the sense in which she’s using the word.
*. It’s a movie that has been likened to a slasher flick in space, and in at least one respect there is a connection there. That connection is the ’80s linkage of horror and sex.
*. The first alien critter, dubbed the “facehugger” by fans, looks a bit like a crab with a snakey tail. I choose the word “crab” deliberately, as it could also be an overgrown pubic louse. It face-fucks John Hurt in the film’s most disturbing scenes, with its tail providing a bit of erotic asphyxiation.

*. Dead and turned over, it turns into one of the place settings at Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party, all juicy oysters and clams when it’s opened up. That this creepy pussy-creature sits on Hurt’s face, gripping his head with its legs, is bad enough, but it then really turns the gender tables by impregnating him (Parker makes jokes about eating pussy while not knowing that pussy has been eating the man sitting next to him). Reproductive horror reaches its climax here, though the inspiration for it seems to have been Dan O’Bannon’s Crohn’s disease.
*. On reproductive horror, it’s worth quoting from David J. Skal’s The Monster Show: “The culture’s growing but guilty hostility toward birth is transformed into a monstrous fetal parasite hostile to the culture itself. Alien was a validation of something already suspected: that reproduction was a kind of death, a devastating insult to the body and personal autonomy; that sex and technology had come together in a weird and ugly way. Relief came only when the beast was aborted from the mother-ship’s body, sucked away by the vacuum of space.”
*. The mature alien creature, or xenomorph, is more masculine. It’s a bloody penis, though there is some confusion here as well. Ebert sees it as “unmistakably phallic in shape” but then cites the critic Tim Dirks’s description of its “open, dripping vaginal mouth.” Personally, I don’t think it has a vaginal mouth (dentata or otherwise). I think its head shooting out from its other head is an erection analogy: a toothy exposed glans dripping with pre-ejaculate. Fun fact: its jaws were made of shredded condoms.

*. This may seem a bit over-the-top, but (a) it’s actually less blatantly sexual than Giger’s artwork, and (b) I don’t think there’s any getting around all the sublimated sex in this film. Veronica Cartwright’s death presumably involves some kind of quasi-sexual impalement (the alien’s tongue reaching up between her legs). Even the scene where Ash, for whatever obscure reason, tries to kill Ripley by rolling up a magazine and stuffing it in her mouth, is pornographic. Presumably that’s a skin mag (nice to know those are still around a few hundred years from now), as there are various centerfolds stuck to the walls. Scott says of the scene that it’s “the closest thing to seeing a robot have sex.”
*. And again all of this merging of horror and sex is reminiscent of ’80s slasher horror, with Ripley, improbably dressed in skimpy underwear, appearing as the virginal last girl. She’s the one who doesn’t want to invite the stranger in. She’s the Goody Two-Shoes who has to do everything by the book.
*. A big difference, however, is that the Nostromo is not a campus sorority. The characters aren’t oversexed teenagers but middle-aged men (most of the actors were in their 40s, and looked it) and a couple of younger women (Weaver was 30). Hormones have cooled, and all that’s left is the aforementioned loneliness of the long-distance hauler. Could we imagine any of these guys having family? In the director’s cut of Aliens we learn that Ripley has a little girl back home, but that wasn’t in the theatrical release and I think it was wise to leave out, just as it was wise to leave out her romance with Dallas in this film. Meanwhile, Ash refers to the xenomorph here as “Kane’s son” (or son of Cain?), which turns it into a parricide.

*. David Thomson: “Alien is not just a monster movie, or science fiction, or horror even. It is a study of the loneliness of the human species, dismaying and moving because of unknowns it is on the point of disclosing.” I’m not sure what the last part of this means or is referring to, but I like the way Thomson highlights the theme of loneliness.
*. Is this another version of Solaris then? Do the crew dream the alien into existence? It seems fitting that it first intrudes on to Mother’s consciousness (or radar) as they sleep. The xenomorph then is the embodiment of their collective fear not just of sex but of relationships in general, of the other. The loneliness of the human species.

*. Newman thought it was a stupid story saved by its design and other disparate elements coming together. I actually think the story is decent, and has a great hook. The cast are all solid too, but I agree that the design takes it to another level. Giger’s organic technology works on so many levels, and the way the ship is a kind of gothic cathedral with the xenomorph as its resident gargoyle adds to the blending of ancient and futuristic visual cues introduced with the slowly revealed hieroglyph title. I particularly like how the corridors seem to pass seamlessly from the industrial to the biological, as though the crew are always just a doorway away from being stuck in a giant digestive track (Thomson calls the corridors “intestinal,” which I think is a good word).
*. I remember being less impressed when I was a kid. I wanted to see more of the monster. Now I’m glad we don’t. I also thought it pretty dull in places when I was younger, but not the usual places. I didn’t mind the slow start, but I thought it dragged a bit at the end. Now I see it as having a pace that I enjoy more. But then, I’m older now.

*. One thing I’ve always disliked is the strobe light effects at the end. Those are really too much. And why do they start to go off in the shuttle? That really bugs me. Everything is fine and then Ripley sees the alien and all of a sudden she’s in a disco. I get that Scott wanted to conceal the monster as much as possible, and crazy light effects are traditional in horror climaxes (the swinging lightbulb in Psycho has been endlessly repeated), but it just strikes me silly.
*. It went on to become a franchise, spawning an increasingly improbable series of sequels and prequels. Today we speak of an entire Alien mythology, as though that’s a good thing. But recently going through all of them again, I have to say that Alien remains the one that stands up the best. Success in the film biz has a long tail.

2 thoughts on “Alien (1979)

  1. nscovell

    I love the Alien film and see it as one of the best sci-fi horror films of all time, although at times I think Aliens is better. I just love the queen alien, she is so awesome… and hot.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      I remember being blown away by Aliens when it first came out, as I think most people were. It seemed like Cameron was really setting the standard for SF action films. But when I re-watched it recently I felt a little disappointed. Part of the problem might have been the half-hour of extra material they added for the special edition. I find this movie, however, holds up really well.


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