|Ellen Ripley, Warrant Officer of the Nostromo, Admiral of the USS Ownage|
Monday night, I was watching basketball—as I do—and one of the weirdest fucking things I've ever seen happened. Stephen A. Smith is an ESPN personality whose presentational style can best be described thusly: If you were jackhammering without earplugs at a My Bloody Valentine concert while fighter jets flew continuously overhead, you'd have to tell Stephen A. to shut the fuck up so you can concentrate. He doesn't do play-by-play, so when he was suddenly shouting at me during a commercial break I was like “GAAAHH” for a second and dropped my remote control. When my composure returned, I realized Stephen A. was talking about Prometheus. And that was a sign that Prometheus hype had gotten out of fucking control. As I'm a man of taste and discretion, I'd gotten my big preparatory geek-out ritual out of the way earlier that day, taking in Alien at Lincoln Center, as part of their pre-Prometheus whole-career Ridley Scott retrospective.
Whether or not Prometheus is any good is something I'll be finding out at some point within the week, but what is certain is that holy balls Alien rules all the ass there is. Its place in history is massive: one of the best science-fiction movies ever made and one of the best horror movies ever made, not to mention one of the best, if not the best, genre hybrids. It established Ridley Scott as a commercially viable feature director (his first feature, The Duellists, was gorgeous and awesome, though nowhere near the hit Alien was). And it gave us Sigourney Weaver (pictured above), and Ellen Ripley, without whom cinema would be lesser.
The thing about movies like that, though, is that every so often critics need to check in with them to make sure they're still all that. Someone I respect greatly recently revisited Bonnie & Clyde (a massively important movie, historically) for the first time in forever and it didn't go so well for him; I like the movie, but can see where parts of it could be jarring. No picture should be an unquestioned classic. Go into Citizen Kane questioning whether it's Citizen Kane. I mean, the answer is invariably yes, because it holds up under even the most powerful scrutiny, but still. It's Citizen Kane because it's motherfucking Citizen Kane, not because it's some special snowflake. Same with Alien. I didn't go in looking to find fault with it, obviously, but I went in ready to scrutinize it as a movie. And I did. And it still fucking ruled.
From a strictly experiential perspective, watching it on 35mm film as opposed to a cleaned-up digital version added to the grittiness of the movie and the rough-around-the-edges scruffballs that make up the crew of the Nostromo. The print was perfectly fine, and seemed like a well-maintained old one (I should be clear: I'm so warped by digital projection and DVDs my ability to accurately assess a print ain't what it once was). The apparent age and lived-in quality of the print only added to the experience.
As for the movie itself, I mean, what can you say. The production design is exquisite even at its most grotesque and decaying, equal parts standard 70s SF (the computer room brings to mind Nic Roeg's The Man Who Fell To Earth, the suspended animation couches Kubrick's 2001, which managed to be 70s SF in the 60s because Stanley Kubrick don't give a fuck what year it is motherfucker) and the groundbreaking, visually pessimistic futurism, all darkness and water dripping from the ceiling with big swinging chains and everything looking all fucked up like a bunch of roughneck sailors have had the run of the place, which is exactly the case.
The camerawork is a lot more flexible than a lot of later-period Ridley Scott, where the compositions are polished and relatively static, even if the colors and subjects within them are gorgeously lush. DP Derek Vanlint's camera actually moves quite a bit in Alien, all to excellent effect, either building tension to the point where you just want to fucking scream, or, toward the end, mirroring the agitation of the ever-dwindling crew.
What I noticed more than anything else this time through is the sound. Ho boy is sound used to great effect in Alien. The pitch of the blips and beeps from the computer and equipment is just so that each one of them is alarming. The score agitates, rather than soothes. The sounds of the ship and the odd non-diegetic cue give the Nostromo a heartbeat, which is sometimes a character's, but really the audience's: it's a nervous speed. Added with the other technical elements, we're already about to fucking lose our shit and we haven't even gotten up to the alien yet.
Before we do, it's important to note that when your premise, at its most basic, is “a bunch of people trapped in an enclosed space with a relentless, voracious alien,” if we don't give a shit about the people we ain't got a movie. The emotional core of Alien is its cast, which is absolutely spectacular. H.R. Giger's creature design is awesome and everything, and the technique is nonpareil, but the fact that this terrifying monster with acid for blood is fucking up people we care about is what elevates Alien from “merely” a technical masterpiece to “holy balls this is amazing” all-time classic status. Due to the logistics of its setting—a spaceship in the middle of space, that lands on an uninhabited planetoid and then takes off back into space—only seven human beings appear in the movie (not counting the Alien, who at the end was played by an actor in costume, and the cat, who was played by a cat, oh, yeah, and one humanoid, too), so there's no extras or anything, just principal cast.
The thing that's great about the cast is that they seem like grown-ass adults, primarily because they all are. Tom Skerritt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton were already well into their 40s at least, John Hurt was just about to turn 40, and the younguns, Veronica Cartwright and Sigourney, were both around 30. They really make the characters seem like a bunch of people who've spent way too much time with just each other for company. They bitch about money, being under-appreciated, and the shitty food just like real workers. The two women, who statistically you'd think would be a natural pair of friends, especially around all these rough-and-tumble dudes, clearly loathe each other, but not in the contrived screenwriter-y kind of sexist way it's usually done, rather in a way that comes out of really good acting based in real human interaction. Especially with a genre piece that's as far out as Alien is in terms of real-life experience—a spaceship that, judging by what's said about distance traveled and time, must not be bound by Einsteinian relativity, not to mention the fact that they run into a fuckin alien with acid for blood—it's essential to ground things as much in reality as possible. That way, whether or not you're sitting there thinking “whoa, this is excellent, organic, naturalistic acting” (if you're a doofball egghead like me) or thinking at all, the emotional impact, the thing that transcends respect for a movie and becomes love, is achieved.
And yes, to paraphrase David Bowie, I love the Alien. It's the rare picture that is enriched by its scores of imitators; watching movies that tried to replicate Alien and then watching Alien again only serves as a reminder of “oh, yeah, this is how you do that well.” Getting back to the above discussion of historicity, Alien is Alien because it's Alien, not because people say it is. If that one sequence where we cut from the dummy severed head to [name of actor redacted] playing his final, harrowing scene talking in hushed awe about the structural perfection of the Alien, and then back to the dummy severed head is jarring because the dummy severed head isn't [redacted], you know what? Fuck it. Some of the effects look like they were made 30+ years ago because they were made 30+ years ago. This is the way of the world. The movie still fucking rules. It's still scary as hell. All other SF, horror, and SF/horror pictures must genuflect. Prometheus got one big spacesuit to fill.