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Reviews > My Week With Alien, Part 1
tederick | 4 Jun 2012 | 1,088 Views | 5 Likes | 0 Dislikes
My Week With Alien, Part 1
I stand by the Alien films. Yes, even that one. Yes: that one too. What eventually becomes clear in looking at Alien, Aliens, Alien3 and Alien Resurrection is that each one is something unique and extraordinary in its own way; the first two might both be classics of science fiction, and the first film might itself be one of the best films of all time, but even the almost-always-dismissed latter chapters are more influential upon the culture of science fiction and filmmaking on their own terms than most movies, television series, and comic books could ever hope to be. Yes, warts and all, and flaws taken to the point of strength, the Alien franchise has been, and shall remain, one of the most absorbing catalogues in movie history. Appropriately to the legacy of the first film, the Alien series is a house with many rooms - and I find myself wandering them often.
I feel like I’ve been writing about Alien all my life. When I opened my site, tederick.com, and began publishing reviews to it, one of the first things I did was a canvas survey of the Alien franchise. (Internet fanboy waxing philosophical about the Alien movies? Groundbreaking, I know.) What’s interesting about the process of analyzing Alien over the years is not that it was one of my first kicks at the film writing can; it was that I couldn’t leave it alone. My original Alien scribblings, now retired, are the only four-part review I’ve ever written which, over the course of the next decade, grew to six parts, without any addition in the number of movies. (No: the Alien vs. Predator movies do not, and will never, count.)
At the very end of that ever-burgeoning series of articles, I asserted my hope that someday the franchise would continue, with (as has been, till now, the requirement) a new director at the helm of yet another radical re-interpretation of the core mythology of Alien. In this regard, I am, of course, disappointed; but as a consolation prize, a Prequel (?) to the original Alien, by Ridley Scott himself, marking the director’s first return to science fiction since Blade Runner, ain’t bad. For the week leading up to Prometheus, I am digging into my Alien archives to offer a comprehensive look back at each film, concluding with my review of Prometheus on Friday.
First, let’s look at Alien, a process which seems entirely perfunctory (see above re: internet fanboy waxing). Alongside The Godfather and Citizen Kane, Alien must be highly ranked on the list of the most-analyzed films of all time, but I never seem to run out of things to say about it. For this and all other pieces in this series, I’ll be working from the Alien Anthology blu-ray set, which (with the possible exception of The Lord of the Rings) is the current high-water mark for home presentation of classic works of cinema. The Alien Anthology is built on the back of the already-exemplary Alien Quadrilogy DVD set, which was released in 2003; that solid foundation was tweaked upwards another 10 or 15 percent for the high-definition re-release. Every single thing ever released in support of an Alien movie is in the Anthology box somewhere, going all the way back to the laserdiscs and VHS sets. The Alien Anthology ain’t just geeky; it’s flat-out fetishistic.
My experience of Alien has been a strange one. I was far too young to ever have seen Alien in theatres; my first experience of the film was a pan-and-scan VHS copy taped off television passed to me by my best friend when I was in grade 8, after I’d seen a portion of the conclusion of Aliens on TV one night. Moving from that fuzzy copy to a proper letterboxed VHS to a DVD to a blu-ray over the years, my process of witnessing Alien has been a slow and painstaking one of ever-increasing clarity and depth, like staring into the bottom of a deep pool of water, and only slowly perceiving all the colours and shadows. Which is a long way around to get to saying that when I first saw Alien, inoculated with Alien half-knowledge via its subconscious saturation in pop culture (remember Spaceballs?) and comparing it at the age of 13 against the robo-Olympics of James Cameron’s sequel, I found the film slow, stale, disconcertingly primal, and equally disconcertingly nascently sexual.
Which, oh lord, it is. Let’s begin at the end, and talk about what the raw, unmitigated subtextual (and at least partially textual) sexuality of the Alien universe can do to a 13-year-old boy. Even if I was years away from viewing what happens to Kane as some sort of grotesquely extended rape, or look at the underside of a facehugger and see the vulva that H.R. Giger quite insistently put there, the more overt elements of the text aren’t really the point. Alien swims in a kind of neoclassical Freudian nightmare world, where everything is obscurely sexualized in a dangerously unsexy way. The sex of the Giger/Scott filmic concoction is an entirely violent horrorshow, perhaps reaching its apex when berserk android Ash – for absolutely no reason beyond he’s just so fucking fucked up – grabs a rolled-up magazine and forces it as deep as it will go into Ripley’s mouth.
With the Alien, Ridley Scott – and H.R. Giger – and, it must be said, cranky-pants Dan O’Bannon, one of the original writers, who conceived the creature’s lifecycle – forever ended the conversation on the subject of creature design for film. What else could ever, has ever, or will ever, come close? Everything since is derivative of Alien; that we might arrive at a state where we mock the Newborn in Alien 4 for not being anything other than yet another derivation of Alien seems almost like a back-handed compliment. Of course the alien’s creepy human baby is a weak derivation of – yes, Ash – perfection. Once Giger took whatever the hell lives in his frigid Swiss head and used it to forever bend our perception of the Other as realized in film, the pipe ran permanently dry.
Alien overflows with bizarre sexual deviance. It’s in the creepy skin of the thing: the ribs (for her pleasure?) on the walls of the derelict spacecraft; the egg chamber that waits for the one surviving sperm (poor Kane) to arrive so that gestation can begin; the bloody dildo that springs free of John Hurt’s ribcage about half an hour later. It’s in the horrifically penile alien tail, which snakes between Lambert’s legs just as she is about to succumb to predations which are, in a fit of horror pique, only heard, not seen. There is a deleted scene on the blu-ray in which Ripley and Lambert discuss open sexual liaisons among the crew; it’s a matter-of-fact approach to adult life, excised from the film but still pregnant in the subtext, that these 7 people, cocooned together, nearly naked, for vast stretches of sleep, would naturally have taken to one another in various hetero-and-homo-sexual pairings just to keep those ageless stretches of time and space from driving them all bananas.
In other words, sex is everywhere in Alien, and nowhere all the same, and this supplies a red beating engine to the film’s more classical disturbances: a haunted house, in the dark, in which some damn thing is lurking. Scott’s strategy in staging and revealing the horror is at least partially responsible for another of my initial reactions to the film, which is that it was too slow; it is too slow, for at least the first half, in a manner that upon first viewing can nearly seem maddening. It is only upon subsequent reflection and re-view that the tightly-knotted first act of Alien is revealed for the subtle marvel that it is. Slightly massaged in Ridley Scott’s director’s cut for the blu-ray (I have difficulty landing upon which version I consider superior; the theatrical cut’s lack of the cocooned-Dallas sequence is a big bonus, but the director’s cut has that magnificent Lambert-Ripley slap), the first act of Alien is still a lugubrious tone poem to the hellshock weirdness of LV-426 – or Acheron, as it was properly called (but never specifically named) in Alien 1. It’s sight-and-sound phantasmagoria, perched halfway between 2001 and Star Wars; but when it lands, it presents Alien as the third and final point of a holy science fiction trinity.
So the crew awakes – and here’s big-bearded Dallas, clearly in charge, who nonetheless seems so profoundly regretful throughout that one wonders if he had a premonition of the crew’s demise while drifting through hypersleep. Everyone patters and riffs off each other like extras in a Robert Altman film, except that they’ve landing a spaceship on a storm-drenched rock, and off goes the away team to explore the beacon. And meanwhile, there’s this woman on the ship, and her name is Ripley. Now, there’s ample reason to suspect that Ripley was an accident – by which I mean, the Ripley we know and still talk about was an accident. Alien was written gender-neutral, and while one suspects that the significant male cast members would always have been male – Dallas, Kane, Parker – the rest of the crew had their genders designated by either side of a coin flip, per an instruction on the screenplay itself.
But I don’t buy it. Even leaving aside Ridley Scott’s career-long demonstration of truly strong, agented female characters, there’s all that sex to contend with; that the Alien lifecycle is a strange, gender-combined perversion of the reproductive process would not only not have escaped Scott, but was likely to have been one of his driving design influences. Years before there would be any notion of a Queen in the Alien lifecycle – the Alien in Alien is, in every regard, asexual – the structure of the story nonetheless clearly spells out, to Scott and Giger and ultimately to Sigourney Weaver too. Alien is a story in which masculinity – penile, penetrating, and violent – cannot possibly be the solution.
And there’s Lambert. I’m fairly in love with Lambert, giant sniveling wuss that she is. She de-evolves from topically annoying to flat-out basket-case over the course of the film, but in so doing, she scares the bejeezus out of us in her despair. Lambert is just so unnervingly, touchingly human. Think about that, right now, in 2012, when any of the principal characters, male or female, of a genre movie – even, most recently, Lisbeth Salander and Katniss Everdeen – are, for any trappings to the contrary, essentially superheroes. Not the crew of the Nostromo, and not Lambert, most of all: human, human, human through and through.
The only exception to this, other than (obviously) Ash, is Ripley herself, who has a single scene in the first act of the film to establish everything we need to know about her thereafter… and it is rather superheroic, isn’t it? In the guts of the ship and surrounded by jets of extremely noisy steam, Ripley – framed solo, against Derek Van Lint’s deeply honeyed, near-unsurpassable lighting of the ship – has a tough-Sally pow-wow with rascally Brett and Parker… and damned if she doesn’t tell those boys to fuck right off.
All other hints of the Janet Leigh trick yet-to-come, with “main character” Dallas meeting his unforecasted doom in that unnervingly metal-sphinctered ventilation pipe, are cut clean out of the picture. (A romance between Ripley and Dallas evidently never made it past the screenplay stage, to the final film’s inestimable credit.) Aside from telling Parker to go fuck himself, Weaver defines her character in near-Japanese sense of negative space: she is who she is purely by not being who she is not. The performance pyrotechnics – some more visceral than others, in the case of that particularly spectacular gout of blood that ejaculates all over Lambert when Kane dies – are left to the others. Even when moving her largest lever of the plot – refusing re-admittance to the ship for the infected Kane and the rest of the landing party – Ripley doesn’t beat her chest, or lean on sex, or break down into emotional nincompoopery. She merely is – and what she is, is right. Warrant Officer Ripley, third in command; clever, pragmatic, professional, and right. Ripley, as a character, isn’t “tough” or “powerful.” She is simply empowered.
It comes down to that final scene, in which this queasily sexualized universe finally gets its only legitimate dose of T&A, when Ripley strips down to the actual smallest pair of white undies I have ever seen, only to eventually do battle with the Alien who is, against all odds, still alive and locked with her in the escape craft. Does Alien, at its most vulnerable moment, finally doevetail into audience-churning, lust-slaking exploitation? The classic Final Girl against the slasher killer, mano a womano?
Nah. Ripley was never gender-neutral. She doesn’t pick up a machine gun or even a good spear; she doesn’t “fight.” She just outthinks the creature; she even, for a long minute, seems like she might be willing to merely outwait it. She climbs into a space suit – singing, for heaven’s sake – and when she can no longer risk keeping the Alien alive one second longer, she blows it out into space.
It’s difficult to look back on Alien without the ocular lenses of its successors, particularly Aliens; they had so much to say about both Ripley and the Alien that one can have a hard time finding one’s way back to the beautiful simplicity of the original thing – the version without a Queen, and without a daughter; the version where it was just Him and Her. There was this ship, see. It went somewhere it shouldn’t; it brought back something it shouldn’t. And one by one, the strength and knowledge and sweet, passionate life of all seven of those people drained out into the surviving strength of one woman. And her name was Ripley.
Next time it’s war. Bring your machine gun and join me tomorrow for Jim Cameron’s Aliens.