Prometheus is coming. It sounds so dramatic when I say it like that, a mixture of myth and anticipation that turns what is essentially just another summer movie into something magical. I might as well whisper about unicorns lurking in the woods or monsters under the bed. Sadly, Prometheus is probably not that special, but it is a surprising possible entry into a series that deserves some attention: the Alien movies.
I've always had a soft spot for the entire Alien quadrilogy, despite the merits of each individual film (or the films compared against each other). It is a rare franchise that had four entries by young directors, all of whom went on to do frankly amazing later work. All four are visually and tonally distinct, taking the core concept in wild, interesting directions with each new installment. Not only that, they're all fairly worthy of examination. Love or hate the twists and turns of the series, it would be a very short-sighted person who didn't recognize that the Alien movies make up a singularly unique franchise: one that until now has never gone back to the well.
With Prometheus just a few months out and my resolution to stay almost entirely ignorant of what it's about holding up okay, I figured now was a good time to instead take a look at the movies it maybe-sorta-probably is a prequel to, as much for the sake of getting up to speed as I really just want to revisit them and talk about them. The series will run every other Friday (on the weeks my ongoing Bond series does not) and should take us all the way up to the release, with time to maybe possibly squeeze in the execrable Alien vs. Predator movies. But first? The masterpiece.
What can be said about Alien that hasn't already been said? Ridley Scott's first masterpiece, from an amazing script by Dan O'Bannon, David Giler, and Walter Hill. Truckers in space. The run down beauty of the Nostromo. The eggs. The face-hugger. The horror. At this point I assume anyone who likes movies has at least seen Alien, and if not what the hell is your excuse? It's truly one of the greatest movies of all time.
What strikes upon re-watching it (probably for the fifth and sixth time?) to write this piece is just how perfectly its pacing unfolds. By the end of the 1970s, the idea of dystopian, socially conscious sci-fi was starting to give way to a world where Star Wars ruled. Alien manages, from the beginning, to present something different, taking the lived-in aesthetic that so distinguished that first Star Wars movie and grounding it in something much darker and more adult.
It's easy to comment about how scary Alien is, but to be honest what's more significant now is how slow the movie actually unfolds. The cargo ship Nostromo is the kind of place where nothing happens, most of the crew in suspended animation for most of their vast voyages through space. When they uncover the suspicious signal that points them to a crashed ship, the initial reaction among the crew is that going is a giant pain in the ass and they'd rather not bother to risk the trip for something that isn't going to make them any money. They go anyway, but only when it's pointed out that they have a clause in their contracts that says they have to investigate any potential signs of sentient life. Company orders.
What's amazing is that this first 45 minutes don't even set up Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver, for the handful of people who lived in some sort of Dogtooth seclusion their whole lives) as the heroine. This a true ensemble cast, with Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt) and XO Kane (John Hurt) taking up the brunt of the main-character screen time, shortly followed by science officer Ash (Ian Holm). It's only when they land on the planet and Kane is attacked by some creature that emerges from one of the eggs they find on a crashed ship that the dynamic starts to change. Dallas and Ash are company men through and through, ready to bring Kane and the face-hugger that's got him back on the ship for examination and retrieval. That leaves Ripley as the sole voice of reason, going from the unlikable hard-ass to the sympathetic voice of rationality with a subtle shift that's surprising to see play out.
That face-hugger is, from the start, the defining creature for this series for me. Sure, there's the xenomorph itself, but the face-hugger is a beautifully simple prop that manages to be instantly understandable to an untrained eye and play upon a number of psychological terror points. It has all of the too-long appendages, slimy ridges, and acidic blood of its larger brethren. It obscures the vision, it chokes the victim, it is impossible to remove. The probe that it injects down the throat of its victim is part body horror, part rape fear, balancing the two into a deep violating image. The face-hugger is in many ways the perfect alien: inhuman, unknowable, terrifyingly strange.
It also manages to ruin everyone's day when poor John Hurt gets a case of the chestbursters and out of him comes a coiled worm of a creature in what is probably the best sudden turn in genre movie making ... ever? Up there with 'Luke I am your father," and five times as gross. From that point on, what was just a strange series of events becomes a hunt for a dangerous alien, one that quickly begins growing. And hunting. The switch from moody science fiction to stalker horror is pretty obviously telegraphed over the course of the movie, but by the time everyone's gathering weapons and instruments to try to track this thing down, you're involved enough in their world to care that they don't get massacred and have a decent sense about how vulnerable and defenseless this ragtag group of people really are.
What's most amazing about the way Alien is constructed, and how it plays upon a sense of dread, is that the alien isn't even really the scariest part. Once Ripley decides to figure out why Ash and the leadership were acting strange, she ends up discovering that the ship's computer (Mother, a remote terminal spouting orders like a cloistered oracle) ordered that the company they work for (unnamed in the film, but it's Weylan-Yutani, a name that will become much more important in the upcoming films) sent orders that the return of the first alien being took precedence over all over missions--including the lives of all the crew. The betrayal is further driven home by the sudden attack by Ash, ready to kill Ripley to keep her from sharing what she knows with the crew. It's only when they fight back that the truth is revealed: Ash is an android, company property and loyal to the end. It's twisting the knife of a movie that already feeds heavily on ideas of trust and violation to slip the sudden, unexpected synthetic life in there.
It also raises questions we'll probably get to later down the road, but can be brought up here: the world of Alien is obviously futuristic, but not amazingly so. Ships move slow, equipment breaks down and has to get repaired. Everything feels very real. So the sudden revelation of an android brings into question everything about this world. We're shown such a small slice of this universe, and it gives us a very narrow idea of what humanity's place is in this setting. If sudden intrusions can so jostle our perceptions of what might be true, what else lurks out there in this universe, in other ships or on other worlds, that nobody is telling us about? We share Ripley's growing uncertainty that anything is to be trusted.
And I think that's really the biggest achievement Alien offers us. It creates a world and a heroine we can root for, that develops organically out of the trappings that so easily could have been just another horror movie. There's a reason Ripley has endured as a cinema icon, why the rest of the movies made her as much (if not more) the center of the story as the xenomorphs themselves. She is the center of this world, both audience surrogate and forceful, well-defined character in her own right. That's a feat whose difficulty transcends any genre, or any medium. I wouldn't go so far as to call Alien a character piece, but as a foundation for a franchise and as a classic in its own right, its successes hinge entirely upon her being the pillar upon which this universe hangs.
Theatrical vs. Director's Cut:
All of the main Alien movies come with alternate cuts, most of them reasonably significant or extended from their original theatrical form. While I hope to get into the merits of all of them and why they exist the way they do in the upcoming articles, Alien is a strange beast because it's director's cut really ... isn't. Scott made an alternate cut for the DVDs at the request of the studio, but it amounts to little more than a few nips and tucks, alternate takes, and one or two new scenes.
The only one of note is that Ripley, towards the end of the movie, discovers several members of the crew cocooned up on the wall, a scene that doesn't exist in the theatrical version and I'm a bit torn about. It sets up the sort of nesting behavior we see more of in Aliens, sure, but it also manages to ground the disappearance of the crew into concrete terms. Part of what makes Alien work so much is that once things start going bad, we rarely get all the information. People disappear and we're left to assume the worst. I feel that is, in some ways, more effective.
There are five minutes of new/alternate footage in the director's cut, but also a bunch of trims of longer scenes and stuff dropped in favor of the 'new' alternate versions, so in reality the director's cut is a little less than a minute shorter than the theatrical version. For someone who doesn't have Alien memorized, it's an almost completely negligible change in the movie, and thus I would say there's no reason not to stick with the version that has spent the past 33 years as a landmark piece of cinema.
The Tao of Ripley:
I love Ripley. I think she's one of the greatest characters in popular culture. Hell, I even named my computer Ripley in homage (also because it has annoying green LEDs that look very Alien-branded, but I digress) to her general badassery. And while I think she's a great example of women in fiction (in part because she's mostly just treated as a person and not as 'the girl') every movie has two very standout moments:
- the big heroic moment where Ripley is the toughest mofo in the galaxy, usually involving big guns and sweaty muscles; and
- the moment where because she's often the only woman in these movies (or the significant one) and because Sigourney Weaver was quite the looker, they see fit to put her into something skimpy or put her in a sexually-charged situation.
To try to represent both sides of this, I hope to give you juxtaposing images of what Ripley is in these movies, the images of toughness and the images where she's the woman in peril from the thing with a giant stabby dick for a mouth. Because for every image of unreasonably tiny panties, we get a giant flamethrower. The question is whether that's exploitative of Ripley as a female character. Can you have empowered women and still go for the cheap T&A vulnerability? I don't know the answer. I know that Ripley is cool, and sometimes she gets almost naked for no good reason. The level to which you're okay with that is probably as varied as the people who watch the movies.