Water, My Ass! Bring This Guy Some Pepto-Bismol!
Perhaps it was from discussing the styles of Ridley and Tony Scott a few weeks ago in my review of The Hunger (1983). Perhaps it was from being injected with a heavy dose of science fiction following this year's Comic-Con (which included reading Philip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly and watching the Richard Linklater adaptation). Whatever the case, when I reached for a daily DVD to watch, I grabbed Ridley Scott's Alien (1979). I hadn't watched the film in a number of years, probably close to a decade, and I had yet to experience Ridley's director's cut (2003) so I figured it was time to revisit the crew of the Nostromo as they embarked onto Scott's second feature film.
For those of you unfamiliar with the plot of the film, the Nostromo is a space vessel making its way back to Earth following a mining expedition. The crew, which includes Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt), Executive Officer Kane (John Hurt), Navigator Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), Officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), Science Officer Ash (Ian Holm) and engineers Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) and Parker (Yaphet Kotto), have been placed into hibernation for the long trip home. Mid-route, the crew finds themselves awakened after the ship's computer receives an encoded distress signal. The crew's employer has urged them to investigate the transmission, which leads Kane, Dallas, and Lambert onto a foreign planet where they find a crashed alien ship. Kane encounters one of the species' eggs and is placed into a coma. The rest of the crew brings him back onto the ship (never a good idea), an alien emerges from Kane's chest, and the rest of the movie is spent trying to evade the ever-evolving creature.
Re-watching Alien, I was struck by how ominous and slow the first hour of the film was. Even the director's cut, which features additional scenes as well as "tightened" pacing is tensely slow. The first ten minutes share more with Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) than they do with the genre it created: sci-fi horror (Predator, Pitch Black). Scott utilizes Jerry Goldsmith's quiet, but foreboding score to complement his long tracking shots down the catacombs of the ship. Unlike Kubrick's space vessels, however, the Nostromo is dirty and used, like a Peterbilt semi-truck with rockets attached. Scott's pacing is used to great effect, pulling the narrative slack tight until, like Kane's breastbone, it breaks with the violent emergence of H.R. Giger's brilliantly designed alien.
If the first half of the film is science fiction, the second half smoothly switches gears into the horror genre. The evolution conceit of the alien's design keeps us constantly on our toes, never knowing what to expect in the dark halls of the ship. Will it be a small, spider-like creature that grabbed Kane's face or will it be in the form of the small phallic-worm that emerged from his chest? When Brett, the first crew member to meet his demise, is killed we are struck with our worst nightmare: a creature not only horrific but nearly impossible to spot due to its bio-mechanic design, making it blend seamlessly into the black PVC pipes and duct work (an effect utilized quite well in the final segments and paid homage in the invisibility cloak of the Predator). Scott shows us little of the creature, much like Steven Spielberg did in Jaws (1975) only four years previous and, for the most part, this is quite effective in manufacturing dread.
Yet, Scott's framing also has its flaws. Once Ripley has been established as the sole survivor and activates the Nostromo's self-destruct mechanism, hoping to flee to a emergency escape shuttle, Scott's eye for style, with the aid of some script oddities, trip the narrative a bit. For instance, there is a strobe-lit sequence when Ripley finds the alien near the crew's cat and decides to deactivate the self-destruct. Scott frames the alien and cat in a very tight close up, so we become unsure of the geography. Where is Ripley spatially in relation to the alien and cat and to the shuttle? Why is she trying to deactivate the self-destruct? I found myself re-watching the sequence a number of times and came to the conclusion that Ripley had left the cat near the shuttle and had become frightened at the fact that she would have to face the alien with only a few minutes before the ship would explode.
The ship's self-destruct mechanism struck me as strangely designed. Is this the most convoluted self-destruct mechanism ever produced? There's a series of four rising cones that must be activated in addition to two levers on a wall. Moreover, the logic to the system is that once it becomes activated, you have ten minutes until the ship is blown to kingdom come and five minutes to deactivate the mechanism. Yet, as Ripley discovers as she reaches the six minute till fireworks mark, the system is not only difficult to shut down in a few minutes, but impossible to deactivate in a few seconds. Thus, Ripley is forced to board the shuttle and evacuate the Nostromo and, due to the alien's physical attributes, does not notice that it is hiding along the wall of the shuttle.
Ripley's boarding of the shuttle, only to discover the alien inside, brings me to the final shaggy aspect of the film's design. I'm able to accept that the alien is on the shuttle and that it has hidden, but why not attack Ripley right away? Throughout the film, the alien has exhibited "structural perfection...matched only by its hostility." It took down five members of the crew, including Dallas and his flamethrower, with its double-jaw and wicked tail. Why is it playing it safe in the ship by hiding? When it finally does decide to attack, it moves slowly and awkwardly. Has Ripley wounded it, or has it simply decided to go into survival mode?
I have a feeling the alien's lack of movement has two causes, one within the story world of the film and one motivated by the film's production. First, from a production standpoint, the actual alien suit was cumbersome and Scott's framing is prime evidence that the alien fulfills its horrifying function when seen in small doses. This said, its depiction in the final moments are probably motivated by producing the strongest feeling of suspense without sacrificing the effect of the creature's design by tipping the audience off that it might be an actor in a suit. With regard to the motivation from the story or diagesis, Ash the science officer makes a note that temperature change can affect the creature. Perhaps Ripley stunned it with the air vents on the shuttle?
I'm not trying to bust through the chest of the film by criticizing its plot points to death, I just think it loses some of the foundation of the facts established in the science fiction portion of the film once it fully goes into horror mode. I love Alien and, like Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby (1968) before it, Ridley Scott knows how to utilize pacing and mise-en-scene to amplify horror. Other than some slips in the third-act, it's near-perfect, one of the finest horror films I've ever seen. Moreover, the film marks the beginning of Ridley Scott's Hollywood career, which would reach perfection in Blade Runner (1981) only three years later. I hope, after his hit-and-miss track record of the last decade, that Ridley makes a return to the form of his early films with his forthcoming Robin Hood (2010). Of course, I'd love to see him make Alien 5 with Sigourney Weaver back in ass kicking mode, but I have a feeling that we'll see pigs fly before that happens.
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. He has previously written for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and UWM Post and is the 2008 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.