Monday, May 7, 2012

Director Spotlight #7.2: Ridley Scott's Alien

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. May’s director is the eternally meticulous Ridley Scott.

Grade: 97 (A)

There’s a long and complicated history with Alien: originally conceived by screenwriter Dan O’Bannon when he was dissatisfied with the film of his earlier script Dark Star, the script was nearly relegated to Roger Corman B-movie territory until director Walter Hill  and 20th Century Fox took interest in the project. Hill heavily reworked O’Bannon and Ronald Shushett’s script with David Giler, but he was uncomfortable working on a special-effects heavy project. After a number of A-list directors (Robert Aldrich and Peter Yates among them) were deemed inappropriate, Hill and his fellow producers viewed Ridley Scott’s The Duellists, and they decided that the budding director’s atmospheric, painterly style was perfect for their new project. They were right: Alien is a masterful breakthrough film for Scott, one that demonstrates his technical mastery and ability to enrich an already thematically complex script.

NOTE: There’s going to be heavy SPOILERS in this write-up. If you haven’t already seen Alien…what’s it like living in a cave?

When an unknown planet sends out a distress signal, the crew of the nearby spaceship Nostromo is woken from hypersleep to answer the signal. They consist of cool-headed Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt); highly intelligent Executive Officer Kane (John Hurt); hard-edged Warrant Officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver); coldly rational science officer Ash (Ian Holm); skittish navigator Lambert (Veronica Cartwright); and the consistently complaining Chief Engineer Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and his technician Brett (Harry Dean Stanton). When Dallas, Kane, and Lambert explore the planet for the source of the signal, an alien (nicknamed a “facehugger” by the fans) attaches itself to Kane’s face. The crew bring Kane back on board, only to be picked off one by one by a creature far more horrifying than they could ever imagine.

The Duellists showed a major talent in the making; Alien fulfills that promise. Scott directs the film like he’ll never make another again: from the opening credits onwards, an atmosphere of impending doom and dread hangs over the proceedings. We’re introduced to space as a desolate, cold, unnervingly quiet place in one of the most striking credit sequences in film history. Scott gradually pulls the audience into the world of the film: he shows the Nostromo’s exterior, then uses several slow tracking shots to explore the interior. With the opening minutes, Scott establishes A. the coldness of space, B. the uneasy feeling in the air, C.  the tactile, dirty quality of the ship, and D. the claustrophobic space of the ship, which will be important later on when the crew is forced to run everywhere, searching for the space monster, as it lets us know roughly where everything is. There’s a clear weight and verisimilitude to the situation. It doesn’t hurt that the sets themselves are incredible, or that Scott’s atmospheric lighting gives off a spooky feeling from the beginning. When the central characters are finally introduced, sleeping in a bright white chamber, the contrast of the brightness to the darkness of the rest of the area shows a relative comfort while still maintaining a moody feeling that something’s not quite right.

Scott has a reputation as a technical director more than as an actor’s director. It’s not entirely undeserved, but here his casting choices are pitch-perfect to the point where Scott argued on the film’s commentary that he barely had to direct the actors. The character dynamics are clear from the very beginning. Dallas, as played by a wonderfully understated Skerritt, is a man with a laidback charm, a consistently calm demeanor, and a look of utter exhaustion on his face- he’s tired of all the bullshit, and he just wants to do his job. Yaphet Kotto and legendary character actor Harry Dean Stanton, meanwhile, sell their lower-class struggles- they clearly resent being paid less than everyone else, and they clash with a number of the other crew members (particularly Ripley).

Veronica Cartwright wasn’t thrilled to play one of the more panicky characters of the film, but Lambert serves as a terrific audience surrogate: she’s the first person who realizes just how much trouble they’re in, and the look of fear on her face is perfect. John Hurt has less screen time than most of the characters by necessity, but he leaves a lasting impression of intelligence and practicality. Holm, meanwhile, pulls off one of the most difficult roles in the film: he and Scott leave a handful of clues throughout the film that there’s something a bit off with Ash. He’s twitchier, less relatable than other characters, and seems to make the wrong move at every turn (with clearer purpose as the film progesses).

Scott cast each role to perfection, and each actor in the supporting cast brings everything they have to the role: Stanton’s regular-guy likability, Skerritt’s cool-guy charm, Cartwright’s nerviness, Kotto’s irritability, and Holm’s chilliness all form a terrific, varied group. Scott, meanwhile, brings his technical mastery to the table and lets his actors simply react to the terrifying events happening around them (more on that later). Scott also utilizes his casts’ expressive faces to great effect- the looks of horror on at the alien’s exploits grow more pronounced as the film continues. No one looks as if they’re expecting anything that’s happening, and that’s key to a horror movie.

Speaking of expectations: imagine, for a moment, that you’re unaware Alien is the first in a four-part franchise, and that Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley (known only as “Ripley” in the first one) is the only character in each installment. It’s difficult, considering how iconic the character and the film have become, but it’s also key to the film’s success. Weaver’s Ripley isn’t the warmest character around: she’s very hard-edged, and she has no time for other characters’ bullshit. Parker and Brett clearly resent her, and Lambert isn’t too fond of her either, particularly after Ripley nearly locks her, Dallas, and Kane outside the ship because of standard operating procedure. She’s doing her job, but it’s easy to see why some might find her cold. She’s particularly short with Ash after he lets Kane inside with the facehugger on his face- he’s just risked their deaths to save on crew member.

Considering how much everyone clashes with her, it’s easy to see how one might have thought back in 1979 that she would be among the first to die. Scott plays with audience expectations here: it’s easy to label her as being a bitch, and it’d be widely expected for her to die when the facehugger goes missing, or when the group splits up to find the new alien, or when Ash’s true nature is revealed. By the time there’s only a few characters left and Ripley is by herself, looking for her pet cat Jones, separated from the other two survivors, it’s as if Scott’s saying “Yep, she’s next”, only to pull the rug out from under us as the other two are killed.

At the end of the day, Scott is on Ripley’s side. He admires her leadership, her toughness, her intelligence, and her rationality. If everyone had listened to her in the first place, they’d likely all have lived. She’s not an overzealous officer- she’s a survivor. Ripley is one of the greatest female characters in film history, if not the greatest. Her toughness and intelligence isn’t punished by the filmmaker. She’s resourceful where other “final girl” stereotypes are lucky. She’s more flawed and complete a character than most horror movie “final girl” characters, she’s not pure or chaste, and she’s resourceful where most “final girl” stereotypes are merely lucky. She has to fight chauvinistic characters like Parker and Brett to establish her authority, but she proves herself right when she’s the only one smart enough to stay alive. What’s great is Weaver plays her with a combination of steeliness and feminine vulnerability without ever telegraphing what’s coming next. She would expand on the character in her equally masterful performance in James Cameron’s follow-up Aliens, for which she was finally nominated for an Academy Award. She should have had that recognition for this- it’s a performance for all time.

Scott brings many of his old influences to the table: Kubrick is still evident with the presence of classical music, deliberate pacing, coldness, and long takes, only now it’s 2001 that provides the biggest influence in place of Barry Lyndon (best homage? The Nostromo’s explosion echoes the Stargate sequence near 2001’s end. Scott also brings the influence of Orson Welles with his expressionistic lighting, intricate cinematography, and often jarring editing. New to the fray: Star Wars, both in terms of special effects and the sense of a tactile, dirty spaceship as opposed to a pristine future; old B-movies like Forbidden Planet in several plotting elements (this comes more from O’Bannon than Scott); old, atmospheric horror movies like The Haunting (Alien is often referred to as a haunted house movie in space); and the more visceral modern horror movies (Scott screened The Texas Chainsaw Massacre before filming the movie, and the film was aptly pitched as Jaws in space).

Scott has always been just as inspired by literature, paintings, and music as by film (he gravitated to Alien only after his dream project, an adaptation of the classic romantic tragedy Tristan and Isolde, fell through). It’s appropriate, then, that the Nostromo’s name is taken from the book by Joseph Conrad, whose The Duellists was adapted by Scott. The Duellists was photographed so strikingly that it looked like a classic expressionist painting, and while Alien’s futuristic setting contrasts with the earlier film’s Napoleonic-era setting, Alien has the same distinctively artistic look. Each shot could be framed and hung on a wall. Scott’s love of classical music- its pacing, its use of crescendos, its intricacy- shows through in Alien as well, be it through Scott’s use of Goldsmith’s minimalistic score or his own deliberate pacing.

Studio executives complained that little happened in the film’s first 45-minutes, but Scott’s purposefully slow pacing lets the audience drink in the world of the film. Scott establishes the wonder and awe of space travel in several early scenes, which only heightens the impact when everything goes to hell. Scott lets the characters and audience see the wonders and horrors of the unfriendly planet and it’s derelict spacecraft very gradually- there’s a wonder to the discovery, but something’s not quite right. Scott’s use of blue light combined with mist, dust, and smoke has become a bit of a joke among his fans: my cousin and I frequently joke that he owns the world only Blue Mist Machine. It doesn’t change how strong the effect is at adding to mood of dread already established by H.R. Giger’s creepy designs, the spectacular sound design (hissing, howling, humming and beeping that all sounds very particularly selected), the rest of the film’s cinematography (heavy use of tracking shots, long takes, and close-ups, with peppered use of shaky camera effects and POV-shots), and one of the best scores of Jerry Goldsmith’s career.

Scott doesn’t fully explore the history and mythology of the craft, the planet, or the aliens (xenomorphs, as they’re dubbed in later installments), but we get everything we need to know. Something terrible happened ages ago, and the petrified corpse of the space jockey sitting in the downed craft’s seat gives us a little bit of information. There’s hieroglyphics that give a sense of an intelligent ancient culture, plus some idea that these creatures are mass-produced considering the technology that surrounds them (biomechanoid, as Scott describes it). There’s heavy rumor  that Scott will explore the origin of these creatures and this civilization in his new film Prometheus (OK, the trailer makes it pretty clear that’s exactly what he’s doing)., but the little bits of information here are more than enough for Alien. The space jockey’s chest looks like it “exploded from the inside”: without telegraphing exactly what’s going to happen, Scott gives little clues as to how shit’s about to go down.

As with The Duellists before it, Alien shows Scott’s command of gradual pacing and long build-up throughout…right up until something has to happen. When Kane finds the thousands of alien eggs, there’s a sense of wonder mixed with horror as he gradually explores the territory. It makes the lightning-quick violence of the facehugger’s jump all the more shocking. Scott uses this throughout: everything’s quiet and relatively peaceful as Kane finally looks like he’s recovered, and then the famous “chestburster” scene happens. The search for the alien is slow and deliberate until it attacks someone very suddenly, or there’s a fake scare (the film has the only successful use of the “it’s only a cat” trope I’ve ever seen). Dallas’ death scene gradually builds with a crescendo until it’s over very suddenly. It isn’t until the film’s final thirty minutes where the pacing picks up into a breathless finale.

Back to the “chestburster: how perfect is that scene? It’s already hard to expect what’s going to happen, as we haven’t seen the actual alien yet, and Ash’s comment that the dead facehugger probably “isn’t a zombie” sounds like a hint. Everything looks like it’s going to be OK (though we all know that can’t be)…and then Kane starts coughing, retching, and convulsing. None of the actors knew exactly what was going to happen, so when the thing pushes its way out of Kane’s chest, they share our revulsion. Scott might not be the originator or de facto auteur of the body horror movement (that’d definitely be David Cronenberg), but he supplied the movement with its most memorable moment.

More on the body horror element: there’s a number of uncomfortable psychosexual elements of the film. The film’s title refers not only to the creature itself, but also the fact that something alien can be introduced to the body (or the ship). The characters are introduced, their awakening serves as a creepy, far too clean birth in a pristine womb (the sleep chamber) that contrasts the more viscerally horrifying (and bloody) birth scene later on (chestburster). Beyond the unnatural births, H.R. Giger’s designs and Ridley Scott’s director provides a number of frightening scenes of violation or outright rape of the body: the facehugger rams a tube down Kane’s throat and plants its seeds in his stomach. The titular alien is undeniably phallic (the penetration of Kane’s stomach is more than just a birth), while the mouth is an unnerving mixture of a penetrative phallus and a gooey, dripping vaginal orifice. It extends beyond the actual alien: when Ash is revealed to be an android, his milky white blood resembles semen more than blood. Plus, there’s the fact that his attempted murder of Ripley feels like a rape waiting to happen: he corners her, cuts her off from everyone else, and tries to smother her mouth with a pornographic magazine rolled up into a phallic shape (Scott describes it as “the closest an android comes to sex”).

The juxtaposition of sexual imagery and violence serves Scott’s repeated interest in mortality more pronounced. There’s a chance of death outside the ship, as space is a cold an unforgiving place. The eggs and the chestburster scene symbolize a simultaneous birth and death. The alien seems almost indestructible (it has acid for blood and grows to man-size in no time at all, for god’s sake), whereas the crew’s mortality is all too clear, and it’s all important in Ridley Scott’s world. Kane’s death is brutal, messy, and undignified, and the need to jettison his body out into space brings real fear and sadness to the other characters. Alien is one of the greatest horror movies of its time: it’s terrifying and viscerally exciting, but there’s real weight to the death of the characters (see also: Carrie, Halloween).

The fear of death becomes more pronounced as the film progresses: a pulse is used in a few death scenes to show the characters fear. When Dallas asks Mother how to deal with the alien, he types, in a defeated fashion, “What are my chances?” (the answer: DOES NOT COMPUTE). He’s as cool as a cucumber until he realizes he’s about to die, at which point his breathing quickens before he meets his tragic fate. Lambert’s death is perhaps the most horrifying: we don’t see the actual event, but the close-up on her face beforehand and the sound of her screams echoing down the corridor is more than enough to sell the moment. By the time Ripley’s all alone, everything is invested in the survival of one solitary survivor, so any confrontation with the alien brings mind-boggling terror (particularly when it reaches one of my all-time favorite music cues here at 4:30).

Scott ties together fear of mortality with the cold, unfeeling demeanor of technology and corporate interest. Alien is one in a string of science-fiction films that predict a world run by companies rather than politics (speculation turned reality), and one of the many 70s-era genre films to suggest that the people in charge don’t have the world’s best interests at the front of their minds (another parallel to Spielberg’s Jaws). Parker and Brett’s complaints that the company has screwed them over in terms of pay gives some idea as to how the world works, but it becomes more clear when survivors Ripley, Parker, and Lambert learn that the company knew that the signal from the planet was a warning rather than a distress signal, and that they were putting themselves in grave danger. The company is more interested in weaponizing the alien than keeping their people alive (“crew expendable”, as the order reads), and Ash the android is sent to look after their interests. He looks human, but there’s a cold lack of consideration for human life that mirrors corporate interests- his sinister final words to Ripley and company: “I won’t lie to you about your chances, but you have my sympathies”.

The film reaches its masterful peak in a “fourth act” final scare that tops even the final moments of De Palma’s Carrie. Ripley has escaped, and it looks like everything is OK, but Goldsmith’s score insinuates that something’s not quite right (plus, you know, it’s a horror movie, and it feels like there’s one more bit around the corner). Ripley’s femininity was clear before, but here Scott leaves her at her most vulnerable- in her underwear, ready to go into hypersleep (she was originally going to be naked, but Scott couldn’t do it without receiving an X-rating). The phallic monster stalks her. She’s resourceful enough to dispose of it, but she first retreats to an infant’s lullaby (“you are my lucky star”) to calm herself, tying back into the themes of birth, death, and their interconnected nature. The final moments echo that: she’s safe, “the final survivor of the Nostromo, signing out”, and she’s retreated to the safety of the womb of hypersleep…but she hasn’t been rescued yet, and chances of rescue are remote. James Cameron’s spectacular sequel would answer lingering questions before two more unsuccessful sequels extended the mythology too far, but there’s no indication that there’s a sequel around the corner. Imagine, for a moment, that it stopped here. Ripley could simply float out there, forever, never to be found.

Alien was a runaway success, making $100 million dollars. It effectively started the careers of both star Weaver and director Scott. The talented filmmaker moved onto an adaptation of Dune (what I wouldn’t give to see that happen), but it was not to be. He then switched to another, more ambitious, more personal project: Blade Runner.

Final note: be sure to see the original 1979 cut, not the 2003 “Director’s Cut”. Scott has said that the revised edition was nothing more than a marketing ploy by 20th Century Fox, and that the original was the version he prefers. The “Director’s Cut” has a number of interesting scenes added, but they were better off left as deleted scenes for a DVD release, and the infamous “cocoon” scene stops the final thirty minutes dead in their tracks.

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