Retro-View: Alien (1979)
If the release of STAR WARS on May 25, 1977 altered the esthetic course of my life, filling my impressionable mind with a sense of universal myth, action, wonder and destiny, the release of ALIEN on May 25 in 1979 transmogrified my vision to include the dark underbelly of the universe. I first heard about the film in 21st CENTURY FOSS, an incredible monograph of science fiction illustrator, Chris Foss. He was one of the original artists hired for the film and the book presented some of his unused pre-production designs. Then I read about ALIEN in the pages of STARLOG and CINEFANTASTIQUE as the buzz started to build. The teaser ads were genuinely scary and unnerving in an age where nobody knew nothin’ about the film. I was aware the script, originally titled STAR BEAST, had been written by Dan O’Bannon, who I was already a fan of after seeing DARK STAR (1974) on a fantastic double-bill with THE SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1958) not to mention his stoned letters to “Heavy Metal” magazine along with his story, “Soft Landing,” after Jodorowsky’s ill-fated DUNE project. I knew ALIEN was supposed to contain shocking images and a well-hidden monster in the days when movie secrets could be well-hidden, so of course I was excited. When finally released in the spring, the film had a “must-see” publicity campaign buoyed by possibly the greatest marketing tag-line in motion picture history: “In space no one can hear you scream.” After STAR WARS had turned space into a playground of grand operatic adventure, ALIEN brought sexual-subconscious horror into the cold cosmos. I was intrigued by ALIEN more than any movie of my youth, perhaps even more than STAR WARS, because of its visceral tragedy disguised as a monster movie. After my brother saw the film, he briefly told me about a scene with the creature bursting from somebody’s chest, which I misinterpreted as the Alien bursting through the floor, into the body and out of said chest. I had to see this thing. Although I was too young to viddy ALIEN by myself, I was never shielded from R-rated fare so I excitedly ended up at the Sacramento Century Domes one night to finally witness the acclaimed, controversial hit of the last summer of the 1970’s.
I was sold instantly by the dark, stark 70mm cosmos and Jerry Goldsmith’s quiet, unsettling soundtrack in six-track Dolby. You could feel the tenseness in the packed theater as the film unspooled in the flickering dark, the title creating a sense of unease when fully revealed. Our first glimpse of the commercial towing vehicle “Nostromo” is a perfect SF image, a vast, gothic industrial spacecraft followed by a long tracking shot into the ship’s multi-leveled, labyrinth corridors. It’s hard to imagine a major motion picture today opening with that level of sustained expectant mood that ends with the lovely montage of Kane slowly waking from hyper-sleep. But it’s that slow build-up that allows the horror to be that much more powerful by the time the creepy, spidery Facehugger springs from its repulsive egg. When the infamous “Chest Burster” made its bloody debut, I was practically aboard the Nostromo, claustrophobic as the poor crew was picked off one by one. I felt profoundly sad for the characters and their fate, particularly Captain Dallas in his nerve-wracking hunt through the air shafts (and those iris doors with their scabbard sonics — like a promise of doom); then anger as we discover Ash is actually an android sent by “The Company” to protect the Alien. This was a smart contribution from Walter Hill and David Giler, layering a 70’s paranoid, anti-corporate meme into the proto-typical monster narrative. The film’s central theme, inherent in O’Bannon/Ronald Shusett’s draft, is made explicit in the film version with the addition of Ash’s statement: “There is an elegant solution: only one of you will survive.” This makes Ripley’s sign-off so powerful. Even the final sleeping beauty image left me with visual relief yet tainted by the malevolence of all that had come before. I left the theater dazed, electrified by the force of those defining images and sounds. I saw ALIEN three more times that summer. Let’s face it, I also wanted to catch a better view of that star beast.
As we all know, H.R. Giger’s bio-mechanical Alien is the greatest, most influential monster in film history. The titular creature would have to be unique and believable if it were to frighten, and when Dan O’Bannon presented Ridley Scott with a copy of Giger’s artbook, “The Necronomicon,” the director knew he had found his lead. Hiring the genius Swiss surrealist to design the Alien as well as the space jockey and his ship was a bold stroke of vision, and Giger delivered so much more than a committee of artists could; the dark heart of his work can’t be duplicated and his fingerprints stand out in the film’s visual design — compare his utterly organic egg with the plastic nature of the sequels. Even though Stan Winston’s ALIENS are awesome in their own right, they lack Giger’s personal touch and disturbing quality. He received a deserved Academy Award for his work in ALIEN and Giger should be receiving checks for all that’s been stolen from his art over the years; it’s astounding that his presence in films has been so rare. He was not well-treated on ALIEN 3, remarking, “Filmmakers are always afraid to collaborate with artists like me, because they think we will cause them trouble. Where as I just want to be creative.”
One of the most important elements to the success of ALIEN is the amazing cast, one of the finest ensembles in genre history. I’ve had a paternal affection for each of these actors ever since my first screening of the film. From the cult characterizations of Harry Dean Stanton to the Shakespearean background of Ian Holm, few actors have left such an indelible whole impression on a single film, with even their perfect names carved in our memories: Ripley, Ash, Dallas, Kane, Lambert, Brett and Parker. Although the script was sketchy in terms of character depth, the starkness allowed each actor to fill the role out with his/her own style. Yaphet Kotto’s brazen blue-collar gruff slams against chilly, reserved Ian Holm while Tom Skerritt’s low-key jocular weariness plays off John Hurt’s school-boy curiosity. Veronica Cartwright acts out the most honest responses in her skittish hysteria — she’s also correct given her horrible end, manifest in her violated gasps. Of course, Harry Dean Stanton quietly steals scenes with his amiable nature, right? And then there’s Sigourney Weaver in her stunning film debut (minus a cameo in ANNIE HALL) who veers from supporting role to action lead by the climax. Although John Carpenter complained that the characters were too cold (an odd critique from the director of THE THING) there’s a familiarity within the crew that breeds contempt — and ultimately concern when it counts. You can feel the bond between Brett and Parker, the mistrust of Ash by Parker (“Don’t follow me, Ash,” he warns him) with Ripley trying to keep the dwindling crew together. All the actors have their moments, including their memorable death scenes, with each constructed like a mini-ballet of horror and suspense; the difference is that you genuinely like the characters, saddened to see our human ranks picked off one by one. At the time, a strong female survivor was novel to most any film and Ripley’s arc from eager officer to resourceful survivor is beautifully realized by Weaver, who would be rewarded for her own journey with a Best Actress nomination for ALIENS (1986). Man, I am still in love with her.
In a flux of cinematic synchronicity, ALIEN was turned down by a host of directors, until Ridley Scott, fresh off the critical success of his first feature, THE DUELLISTS (1977), latched onto the lean script with a vengeance. Instinctively he knew the most important element of the film would be the title character and it couldn’t resemble any known screen monster. Once Scott saw Giger’s visionary art, he said he was never so certain of anything in his life. His beautiful storyboards encouraged Fox to increase the budget and all systems were go. Scott’s studio and production travails are well-documented in the comprehensive DVD documentary and it’s credit to his skill and determination that ALIEN ended up becoming so much more than a standard exploitation film. His style is remarkable here, a hybrid of rhythmic tension, attention to detail, and the remnants of 70’s naturalism, grounding the SF horror in verisimilitude — which is one of its achievements, to make audiences believe enough so that they’re scared. Oddly, the director’s biggest influence was “Heavy Metal” magazine and Tobe Hooper’s THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE in terms of dread and detail. Scott’s touch is so deft, he knows exactly when to use a smooth gliding camera, as in the opening through the Nostromo; a documentary style when the ship roughly lands on the planet; geometric compositions of actors and effects; and rapid movement for the alien attacks. Even the live broadcast from the crew as they trudge towards the derelict ship creates a chilling video intimacy that’s still in vogue today. His mastery is summed up in arguably the film’s most ominous moment, when Brett leans in to placate the skitty kitty Jones as an out-of-focus appendage swings into the background frame. You know that the Alien is a primal cosmic force and that Brett is fucked. Ridley Scott certainly deserved a Best Director nomination; if ALIEN were his only credit, he’d still have a permanent wing in my Film Pantheon.
Much has been written about the nature of Dan O’Bannon and Ron Shusett’s original script versus Walter Hill and David Giler’s rewrite. The screenplays are available and easily comparable. Obviously, Hill and Giler altered the style, stripping it down to Hill’s lean, mean prose. In fact, the very first script excerpts I ever read were from both versions in the pages of CINEFANTASTIQUE (planting a screenwriting egg in me). Certainly, ALIEN reflects Hill’s draft in terms of its terse, tough, contemporary style, while the basic story retains the ingenious, frightening narrative of the original. The Chest Burster is unarguably O’Bannon and Shusett’s singular stroke of evil inspiration; without them, there would be no ALIEN — without Walter Hill and David Giler, there would be no ALIEN as we know it today. Despite the acrimony, the four screenwriters contributed their myriad talents that resulted in an instant classic. Like all great films, the work of many contributes to the whole. The late Derek Vanlint’s cinematography is striking and evocative while Brian Johnson”s majestic SPFX work stands up beautifully, as does Ron Cobb’s technically accurate designs for the Nostromo, beautifully adapted for the screen by Art Directors Michael Seymour and others, rightfully nominated for an Academy Award. Master illustrators like Chris Foss and comic artist Mobieus also added their flourishes. Roger Dickens created and operated the Chest Burster while editors Terry Rawlings and Peter Weatherley provided the apropos cuts and rhythm to make it all flow together. Maestro Jerry Goldsmith was very unhappy the way his music was edited within the film, although it’s undoubtedly one of his most powerful scores that shifts between a howling, vacum-of-space theme and brassy coiling sounds for the Alien. Along with Giger’s iconic work, Carlos Rambaldi helped bring the creature’s deadly extra mouth to life and both shared the film’s sole Oscar for Best Special Effects. O’Bannon was also fittingly credited as “Visual Design Consultant” since he introduced Ridley Scott to Giger’s work and whose DARK STAR influenced ALIEN’s gritty, working-class future, defined as “truckers in space.” And very special praise must go to copywriter Barbara Gips for coming up with the famous poster tagline.
ALIEN was a massive hit upon release, one of those rare moments where a film is instantly designated as a genre classic, though some charged it was merely a high-gloss version of IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND THE STARS. Which it is only on the most surface of levels. After my first viewing, I was doubly obsessed by the film and quickly amassed every artifact I could, from Kenner’s nifty ALIEN Movie Viewer and the controversial 15 inch action figure to every magazine appearance to an entire box of Topps trading cards to the illustrated novel by Dan Simmons and Howard Chaykin to the actual novel by Alan Dean Foster (which contains a cool scene I assume they filmed and lost, with Dallas confronting Ash about the egg inside Kane) and finally culminating with the detailed Foto-Novel (better than any issue of Playboy since it featured Ripley’s strip tease in montage). Images of the deleted Cocoon Scene fascinated me as much as the Kong Spider Scene so I was thrilled to watch the reel thing 20 years later on the comprehensive 1997 Laserdisc set. Yes, I still have them all. It’s bizarro that toymakers unleashed items based on Giger’s bio-mechanic sexuality — what could be more subversive than a monster whose head was basically a penis with teeth?
Obviously, ALIEN had a vast esthetic impact on me. I could go on forever about moments that thrill me to this day, such as Ripley’s voice echoing over the exterior of the Nostromo as it glides through black space; the naturalism of the cast and their overlapping dialogue along with the incongruity of the plastic dunking bird; Lambert’s quiet plea to “get the hell out of here” as they come upon the derelict ship; the electric sound of the undulating egg as it opens; that close-up of Ash’s stoic face as Ripley refuses to let the crew onboard with the downed Kane; the brief camaraderie at their last supper; Brett washing his face in the landing gear mist; the resigned look on Dallas as “Mother” can’t calculate his odds; Ripley telling Parker to shut up as she takes charge; the strobed, squealing Alien as it crawls from the shuttle’s paneling; and so many more. Along with the obvious genre attraction, the skill and talent on display, I was intrigued by the film’s melancholia, the inevitable doom of the characters, a sense of dramatic space tragedy heady for even a Monster Kid like myself, who cried at Son Of Kong’s death as a tyke and more so with the trio of robots in SILENT RUNNING (1972). I didn’t cry for these characters but I identified with their fear and resolve. However, I am moved to briny tears by the late, great Dan O’Bannon telling the story of his first viewing of ALIEN at the Egyptian theater on its premiere night and what it represented to the culmination of a driving vision writ large by the vision of other amazing artists. Unlike STAR WARS, which I only re-visit on special occasions, I can pop in ALIEN anytime and bask in the dark glow of one of my favorite films, the movie that led me into screenwriting and beyond. As the teaser poster advises, “A word of warning…”