Prepping for PROMETHEUS: Ridley Scott’s ALIEN (1979)

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Why am I excited about the upcoming Prometheus?  Easy: it belongs to the Alien franchise, which is my favorite Hollywood franchise.  There are better ones (the Bourne series, the Back to the Futures), but none light my horror geek’s imagination in quite the same way.  Whereas most horror film series hinge their sustainability on ever-more graphic violence (see: the Saws, Friday the 13th‘s, Nightmare on Elm Streets), at its best, the Alien pictures craft their scares for adults.  You can sense an attempt to blend hard-sci-fi principles alongside gushing blood and disintegrating bodies, and this instinct is rare, not just in horror movies, but in popcorn entertainment period.

So, let’s backtrack before we Yanks get Prometheus (it’s already open in Europe) and assess the Alien pictures, one by one.  First, a caveat: I do not count the Alien Vs. Predators – my whole family being raped and murdered before my very eyes is only slightly more horrifying a notion than being forced to watch those two screen abortions.

With that out of the way, let’s head back to 1979, shall we…

Alien remains the Swiss Watch of Twentieth Century Fox’s Alien franchise for a very simple reason: it looks so damn good.  This was the second feature film from director Ridley Scott, but you wouldn’t think it, watching Alien; he’s already an old pro.  From the realistic spaceship designs to his atmospheric lighting of the derelict spacecraft that contains the alien eggs (the scenes with the crew descending down glistening, inky-black corridors have an uncomfortable sexual undercurrent, and they come before a combination hand/vagina/penis mouth-rapes John Hurt’s unlucky crewmember), Scott gives his thriller the grandeur of a 2001: A Space Odyssey.  And knowing what he’s up to doesn’t diminish the effect – you may be able to spot the matte paintings detailing the Nostromo or the landscape of desolate planet LV-426, but they still carry the savage artistry of a Brueghel or a Bosch.

In retrospect, Scott was offering a crash-course in first-time filmmaking.  His prime lesson: elevate safe material.  Despite what you might hear on the wonderful Blu-ray documentaries about the film, the Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett script (with uncredited assists from producers David Giler and Walter Hill) is no great shakes as a piece of literature.  It is a terse, efficient slasher picture (Halloween featuring a space alien instead of a mentally disturbed human) with seven thinly sketched characters and purely expositional dialogue.  Other than the famed chestburster scene and the revelation that Ian Holm’s science officer is a ruthless Company android ordered to bring the alien to Earth at any cost, it doesn’t revolutionize the sci-fi genre; in fact, whether the cast/crew wants to admit it or not, much of Alien comes cribbed from the 1958 shocker It! The Terror from Beyond Space.

And that’s okay, because the script’s limitations allow Scott to let his imagination run rampant.  If he was adapting Shakespeare, he might feel more bound to the page, but this is a junky bloodbath; a visual fabulist of his caliber can only improve the written material.  Were the script better, I doubt Scott would have looked to Heavy Metal comics and Ron Cobb for the massive, bulbous oil rig that the Nostromo tows along (the refineries look like threatening, metallic vegetation).  I doubt that he’d have felt the freedom to pare the dialogue down even further and instead rely on his prowling camera to tell the story, turning long chunks of the movie into the most exciting Michelangelo Antonioni picture that Antonioni never made.  I doubt that he would have pushed his characters’ anonymous natures as far as he did, using their collective blandness to toy with our hero expectations (“Well, Tom Skerritt gets top billing, but he’s so boring, and while Yaphet Kotto is more aggressive, he’s far too selfish…”) until Sigourney Weaver’s assumes the role seemingly by default (read: the alien kills everyone else).

And I sure as s—t doubt that he could have gotten away with the (still) frightening alien villain, a nightmare concoction of teeth, saliva, acid blood, and bizarre body protrusions that can’t help but look like sex organs.  But that’s the thing: no one thought that highly of the project in the first place to care what Scott did, as long as he a) came in under budget and b) made a ton of money afterwards. The best part is, it’s a win-win situation.  O’Bannon and Shusett’s words look better because the end result is so good, and Scott looks better for redeeming subpar material.

I’ve heard it said that younger generations have trouble with Alien since it’s spawned so many imitators that have diluted its impact, some good (John Carpenter’s brilliant The Thing), some not-so-good (any sci-fi horror with a “Vs. Predator” affixed to the title).  I disagree, and in a sense, I think the film is now ripe for rediscovery.  Even if Prometheus wasn’t looming in the distance, I’d say pick up Alien.  Get lost in it: its silences, its scares, its expertly calibrated mood.  But watch out – this one bites.

Scariest scene:  Where to begin?  Kane’s two big scenes (alien makes a mess entering his body, alien makes a bigger mess leaving his body), Sunday in the Ducts with Dallas, the horrifying moment when the alien advances on Veronica Cartwright to do God-knows-what.  However, I’m going to go with the flick’s virtuoso last twenty minutes, which finds Weaver’s Ripley creeping about a primed-to-self-destruct ship, trying like hell to avoid the alien.  We barely see the creature in these final moments, but that doesn’t stop Ripley from scaring herself – and us – completely silly.

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