Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Alien (1979)

I can’t remember when I first saw Alien, and so watching this again as a countdown to Prometheus, the story holds few surprises. Kind of like Empire Strikes Back, I can’t remember not knowing that Darth Vader is Luke’s dad, I can’t remember not knowing that Kane will “give birth” during dinner! However, that doesn’t mean that I can’t enjoy it, because the film is magnificent.

One of the things that makes the film so great is the setup. What makes the setup so good is that the crew of the Nostromo are just ordinary folks, they just happen to live and work on a spaceship. Bret and Parker are concerned about how much they are going to be paid, Ash is more interested in the distress call, and as Captain, Dallas is trying to get everyone to work together. As the camera moves around the ship, we see how grimy, functional and lived in a lot of it looks, and the fact that all of the sets were built makes it all the more real. In fact all of the rooms in the Nostromo were built as one big complex, so the cast couldn’t just pop in and out of a room for filming, they had to wind their way through several other rooms and corridors of the Nostromo to get to where they had to be. This just enhanced the feeling of claustrophobia and in turn affected the performance of the actors.

As well as the design of the sets, the design of everything alien is amazing. Unsettling as a lot of H.R. Giger’s work is, anything else just wouldn’t have been, well, alien enough. Not only does the alien look creepy and macabre, the life cycle is horrific too. Playing on our fears of rape and not being in control of our bodies, the host is impregnated, the alien then gestates inside the body before the victim eventually “gives birth” to the creature. As the creature matures and starts picking off the crew one by one, the tension mounts and is helped by not really seeing the alien very much. Rather, we only see flashes of it, and it is lit in such a way that we can’t really tell what we’re seeing, only that it’s gruesome yet elegant, but lethal.

Ridley Scott is often credited with being a very visual director, and for Alien he story-boarded the whole film himself so he knew exactly where he wanted to put the camera. The result is a film which really puts the viewer right in the drama, and is often a visual feast. One thing in particular that I noticed on this viewing was the amount of lens flare, very often there are obvious lights shining directly at the camera; years before J. J. Abrams thought of doing it.

The cast is all amazing. Tom Skerritt brings a sense of authority to Dallas despite being a laid-back captain; Yaphet Kotto is larger than life as Parker, but his facade of bravura soon falls following the chest-burster’s appearance. Of course the star of the show is Sigourney Weaver, carrying the final 20 minutes of the film all by herself (well there’s Jonsey as well but he doesn’t say very much). She’s quite an unlikely hero in this first film where the situation is thrust upon her; here she is not the ballsy Ripley that we see in the later films. Where she is fantastic as the kick-ass Ripley, she is equally great as the warrant officer who is overtaken by events out of her control.

An amazing film, with so many iconic scenes, putting a new spin on what is essentially an isolated haunted house story. Combine this with Ridley Scott’s style and some amazing visual effects, and Alien is rightly considered a classic that is up there with the greats of cinema history.