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Five Favorite Films: Alien (1979)

July 9, 2011
  • Dir. Ridley Scott
  • Released by 20th Century Fox
  • Written by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett
  • Rating: ****

Dan O’Bannon passed away recently, and although he has a respectable list of Hollywood screenwriting credits, it’s certain that his most influential work has been Alien. The story that O’Bannon and Ronald Schusett conceived appears at first to be a rehash of any number of science fiction stories and films from the 1950s (and basically a horror version of the O’Bannon-penned John Carpenter sci-fi comedy Dark Star). However, unlike those tales, their monster on the loose would not be a metaphorical Communist trying to corrupt American society from within. Instead, it would be a far more personal and disturbing threat: a rapist.

Although the script would see numerous rewrites by the film’s producers, the essential horror remained the same: there is something lurking in the shadows intending to violate you. Although the xenomorph life cycle would lose its power to unsettle as the series dragged on over the decades, the initial idea of a creature that replicated itself by forcibly impregnating its victims was almost too much for audiences of the time to take.

Director Ridley Scott was fully aware of the sexual undercurrent to the script, and he had no qualms about exploring and exploiting sexuality throughout the film. O’Bannon introduced Scott to the surreal, nightmarish, and disturbingly-erotic art of H.R. Giger, and they agreed that a piece from his Necronomicon collection would be perfect for the monster. Giger revised the design for the film, playing up the biomechanical physiology and the intentionally phallic appearance of the head and tongue. The costume designers augmented the horrific-erotic nature of the monster by covering it in a lubricant jelly.

Beyond sexual undertones, the film also touches on sexual politics. O’Bannon deliberately refused to assign gender to any of the characters in the script, and Scott opted to make the anti-traditional decision of casting a woman in the heroic lead role. Since the script lacks any of the conventional damsels in distress, the male and female characters in the film are truly presented as equals. Scott went so far as to suggest that some or even all of the characters could be bisexual, thus eliminating the need for direct sexual tension between the humans. Indeed, the only way that the movie exploits gender directly is by having a man be the one impregnated by the alien.

While Giger’s designs for the alien and its spacecraft employ obvious representations of both male and female sexual organs, and while Scott plays with gender roles in his casting choices, a controversial addition from the Brandywine producers unintentionally led to the inclusion of a character without gender. While the android character was initially a hackneyed “traitor in our midst” character (a la Donald Pleasence’s Commie spy in Fantastic Voyage), Ash would prove to be another rapist figure under Scott’s direction. In attacking Ripley, Ash attempts to use a pornographic magazine as a phallic tool, which is Scott’s way of implying that the apparent male gender of the robot is as artificial as the rest of it. Ash’s admiration of the alien further emphasizes the longing that Ash has to engage in sexuality. Like the monster, Ash wants to rape the humans, but unlike the monster, he lacks the equipment to do so.

The alien itself often lurks in shadows and dark corridors, waiting for the moment to strike. Scott often chooses to turn away at these moments and show the aftermath, leaving the act of rape/murder to the audience’s imaginations. The obvious exception to this approach is the chestburster scene, which is shown in all of the glory gory required to corrupt the image of birth. This “haunted house movie” technique was influenced by Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which Scott admitted to using as a template. Even beyond the disturbing implications of the story, Scott masterfully employs scare tactics throughout the film, even managing to pull off the old screeching-cat gimmick without compromising the film’s integrity.

The alien is hardly ever seen until the end of the film, in which we get a number of lingering shots of its head interspersed with voyeuristic shots of a terrified and scantily-clad Ripley. The implications of the moment are obvious, but far more disturbing is the fact that the scene invites us to join in the alien’s lustful observations. Is Scott testing the audience to see if we will unintentionally relate to the monster, thus revealing some of its horrific tendencies in ourselves?

Moving away from the themes of the film, I would like to say that second-time film director Scott delivers a beautiful film here, fully employing the visual skills that he developed as a commercial director. He makes the lovely design work by Ron Cobb and H.R. Giger look even better than they did in the initial illustrations, and he manages to create a lingering mood of terror even as he adopts a very deliberate pace in the vein of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. His work is enhanced by the excellent effects teams and the alternatively romantic and chilling score by Jerry Goldsmith (borrowed somewhat from his score for Freud).

Also vital to the film’s impact is the cast, all of whom bring verisimilitude to the story. The decision to portray the characters as truck drivers in space makes them far more relatable than the noble spacefarers of earlier science fiction films. Sigourney Weaver stands out as Ripley, whose analytical reasoning ensures that she is the one who will stand the greatest chance at survival. The rest of the small cast (Tom Skerritt, Yaphet Kotto, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, Ian Holm, and John Hurt) are all spectacular in their own right, as is the ultra-tall, ultra-thin Bolaji Badejo as the alien. Considering that they are quite literally the only actors in the whole film, it is amazing that they can carry the story so well.

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From → Film Criticism

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