Well, now that the Oilers are out of the playoffs i can get back to work.
And considering Alien: Covenant is only a week or so away i figured it would be good to use the opportunity to re-watch and review the Alien series in preparation for it.
Naturally we start with the first of the series; I would say i was about 11-12 when i watched Alien for the first time, and to my shame my initial reaction was that of disappointment. The fact that the film only had one of them and was a horror film through and through left me in the dust, i wanted to see dozens of the things machine-gunned down by tough space marines, i wanted loud bangs and set pieces, i wanted Aliens.
Later on in my teens I purchased the excellent special editions of both Alien and Aliens sometime in 2005, and of course watched Aliens to death (which i had already done with a VHS copy of the extended cut, much to my sister’s irritation) but it wasn’t until Halloween of that year when i found myself alone that i decided to watch the director’s cut of Alien by myself.
All i can say is that it is amazing what a bit of a shift in perspective and context can do to a viewing experience. I was absolutely blown away by that viewing, i was creeped out, i was thrilled, and i was most certainly intrigued by what i had seen far more than what my young mind was capable of appreciating when i had first seen it.
Once again it’s been 12 years since that night, and i was curious as to whether the film would hold up to yet another drastic change in perspective…
Much like Apocalypse Now, Alien is a triumph of atmosphere; The film’s editing, sound design, production design, and thematic leanings are all attuned to creating and maintaining a sense of creepy unease and dread.
The movie draws itself out with very slow pacing, taking times to use empty and used space to hint at uncertainty. The seemingly abandoned ship, the throw away shots of people doing mundane things like smoking cigarettes, and small details like Ripley’s nose bleed before a violent confrontation all contribute to a pervading unease that engulfs the film.
The sound design plays a huge role along with the pictures in unsettling me as a viewer, unexpected hisses and sharp noises go hand in hand with quietness. A barely audible heartbeat motif is used much in the same way the music to Jaws was, signaling the Alien’s presence subtly and also like Jaws it is taken away in an attempt to make the scares more unpredictable toward the end.
Phalluses and vaginas and other blatant sexual imagery is used to cause discomfort, with the Alien’s head being the most obvious use. However more subtle touches like the barely noticeable human skull encased within the creature’s face, or the facehugger’s grossly human fingernails, and how the ship is both bright, dark and ultimately uninviting with its heavily artificial architecture.
Going along with this is a superbly crafted horror atmosphere, that eschews slasher thrills. It’s horror is more skin crawling and insidious than visceral and gory; with its use of body horror elements mixed with sexual violence, like the facehuggers latching onto your face and shoving a ribbed tube down Kane’s throat, Ash trying to kill Ripley with a rolled up porno mag, or a parasite growing unknowingly in your chest only to announce its arrival with a excruciatingly violent death.
While the films reputation may lead a fresh viewer into thinking that the Alien itself would be obscured, it’s actually the violence committed by the monster that is rendered highly impressionistic by the editing.
Masterful pacing with slow build up, long uncut shots, and quick cuts, along with sound and acting make all of the violence within the film disturbing and uncomfortable to sit through. Kane’s death lasts almost a full minute and despite my familiarity with the Aliens life cycle it is still an incredibly brutal and distressing scene to watch; along with Veronica Cartwright’s demise, despite it happening off-screen the sexual connotations, and her mangled screams render it in a grotesque light.
While Alien is certainly an example of great horror, it still doesn’t get away from some of those annoying horror clichés. Characters splitting up, false jump scares, and contrived sex appeal in Sigourney Weaver’s underwear being about 2 sizes too small all are present and detrimental.
The production design while still being excellent in a majority of places is laughably outdated in others, mostly in the electronics and technology used by the crew. The computers click like they’re run off of actual relays, and CRT monochrome monitors abound. The movie also has a very 70’s vibe to its production, with acting that feels almost ad libbed and production audio that sounds at times muffled.
The pacing, while used effectively may still grate on viewers for being a bit on the slow side; i think this would be especially so for anyone who hasn’t seen Alien but has seen or experienced other entries in the long running franchise (like i had as a kid). The landing sequence in particular is very drawn out and reminiscent of 2001 a Space Odyssey, and may be very taxing on the patience of viewers who are used to seeing people float around in space.
Lastly, while Jerry Goldsmith’s score is suitable creepy it would appear that Ridley Scott chopped it up and placed cues with little consideration to thematic elements within. While the film doesn’t suffer tremendously in the wake of these choices, it will affect a viewer attempting to approach the score and analyze its use within context of the story.
What we ultimately have here in Alien is a sci-fi horror movie that stands in direct opposition to Star Trek’s bright vision of the future. The people of this universe aren’t explorers expanding humanities boundaries, they’re out there to make money and are not eager to explore the mysteries of the universe.
Those that are willing, those that take the first steps are treated to horrors beyond their worst nightmares; indeed Alien cautions us to stay away from the dark unknown lest we face grotesqueries that are only suitable for the unending void of space.
I highly recommend.
OUT OF FIVE