Its just a classic really isn’t it? Regularly appearing in the top 50 films ever made, Alien, directed by Ridley Scott, burst out of its egg for the first time in the Summer of 1979. On a personal level this is nicely paradoxical for me, since it was also a point in time when I was gestating in my mothers womb. Twas an unplanned pregnancy I’m told…… but I think its amazing what a few bottles of cider and a cosy night indoors, listening to a Leonard Cohen record can bestow.
Since I’m therefore also 40 years old myself this year, I thought it was only fitting to briefly divert away from video games to one of my favourite films. Like most people my age, I only came to know of this films existence through its spectacular sequel Aliens, which I watched when it was first aired on British TV in 1990 after begging my Dad to stay up and watch it one Saturday night. I kept it on a Scotch VHS tape and it was always my favourite of the series for many years but as I’ve grown older, Ridley Scotts original 1979 movie has since grown on me a lot more.
Throughout my own 40 years here on Earth I’ve often heard people say how wonderful it would be to travel back in time and visit the 1970s. This is usually in reference to their favourite music such a Abba or Led Zepplin or sometimes with reference to their favourite football team, yearning to watch them again ‘back in the day’ at a time when going to the match only cost a few shillings and players never dived or faked injuries. I tend to nod my head in agreement but only for different reason, which is my love for films and indeed the 1970s produced some of the best. Furthermore, the whole decade was utilised by the film industry as a stepping stone towards the mass production of what we now refer to as the ‘Blockbuster.’
Cinema had changed drastically in 1970s. Its often mentioned that cinema reflects the prevailing attitudes and underlying emotions of a given society. In the 1970s, America was rife with social upheaval and cynicism, since it was struggling to come to terms with Vietnam and the Watergate scandal (to name only two) Here, in the UK, I’m told that we were enduring with perpetual discontent due to economic malaise.
Cinema became the greater escape for Western people and throughout the 1970s, the art of film making appeared to react by becoming subversive. It became less bourgeois, more adventurous and less conservative. After the success of Easy Rider in 1969, the Hollywood film studios opened their arms out for fresh ideas and new directors. Some of the new directors were young working class colleague graduates fresh out of film schools scouting for their first jobs. They were fearless and had a natural desire to produce movies that weren’t afraid to portray a more gritty and darker projection of society. They had no qualms about making films about modern crime syndicates, vigilantes or serial killers. There was a longing for actors to star as characters who were underdogs or anti-heroes. The studios also became more bolder and daring with their budgets, allowing directors to explore terrors deep underwater or beyond the stratosphere. Whether it was grimy B-movies or Blockbusters there were no longer any boundaries drawn. On the one hand of the spectrum was the underground birth of mainstream pornography and the other, a rebirth of satanic horror and Sci-Fi. Throughout the decade, these gestations, whether moral or immoral, proliferated to become immensely profitable for the studios and loved by audiences worldwide, for the simple fact that they offered a few hours escape from reality. As per usual what the audience wants the audience gets and during the second half of the decade, Hollywood responded by producing films that would become bigger and better. The only problem for the studios were the production costs, since these were also beyond the stratosphere. It became common place for Hollywood to produce some movies here, in England, in order to reduce such costs.
One perfect example would be Alien.
Almost all of the sets in the movie including the Nostromo and the unknown planet was built entirely in Shepperton Studios England. This includes the most expensive set of the film which was the “Space Jockey.” Scott divided the production of the movie into two groups; the first was a team solely involved with the ‘human’ element of the story such as the ship and its crew and secondly, a team solely involved with producing any aspects related to the ships “8th Passenger” , be it the planet , the Space Jockey, the egg , Facehugger etc….The latter team was captained by the Austrian conceptual artist H.R Giger, whose dark, macabre and visceral imagination had caught the eye of Scott. The adult alien creature was the first to be designed and yet its not until the end of the film where we actually see its whole body albeit a few seconds. Throughout most of the film we only see parts of the creature, mainly its telescopic mouth and fangs. Indeed this motion picture was virtually Dracula or Jaws but set in space. The original title for the film was ‘Star Beast’ but was later changed to Alien as it was a more elusive title which didn’t advertise or pre warn the audience about what behaviour the creature would display.
Earlier that year, the entire story of Alien was sketched out on paper by Ridley Scott personally in a long series of story boarded illustrations. He completed it in a space of 3 weeks and presented it to 20th Century Fox. The script for the film had actually been presented to them a few years before but was overlooked and forgotten about. (That was until the global success of Star Wars and then all studios went space mad). The original budget for the film was 4.2 million USD but 20th Century Fox were so impressed by the scenes conveyed in the sketched storyboards, they doubled the budget to around 10 million. The story boards had assisted Scott to demonstrate the full scale and effects of what could be achieved. Furthermore they allowed the studios bosses to realise how simple and straight to the point the movie was intended to be. (Scott has since joked that he truly demonstrated the value of a pencil when making Alien)
Hence one of the greatest aspects of Alien is its streamlined simplicity embedded within its own originality. There isn’t much thought required by the viewer; the audience is left to simply react throughout. The opening soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith reels in the audience during the brief opening credits with a gentle but eerie instrumental score which is quickly overpowered and subdued by an unnerving sound that we can only presume to be the the cold harsh vacuous nothingness of space. It serves to provide a subtle pre warning of any forthcoming hostility the movie may reveal.
Scott then takes his camera and slowly introduces us to the spaceship , the Nostromo, via a whistle stop tour of its dormant, submarine like claustrophobic interior. We’re informed via a simple synopsis that the ship is a commercial towing vessel and its crew of seven are returning to Earth with a refinery of twenty million tons of mineral ore, which nicely explains why the whole thing looks like an industrious floating version of Sheffield. The interior of the ship appears to be a real inhabited place of work and rest, almost as if its the cab of a giant articulated lorry. The ship doesn’t have the smoothness, cleanliness or officialdom of those ships seen in Star Trek or 2001: A Space Odyssey. From the get go the audience is subconsciously told; “this is a real ship worked by and frequented by real people.” The film really begins when the crew are awoken from cryogenic sleep as a result of a Mayday distress signal received from an unknown origin on a non-colonised planet.
The alien egg in the film was also utilised for what has now become one of the most recognised movie posters worldwide and was clever way of both reeling in curiosity and hiding the creature from the audience until they watched the film. The egg used in the movie was actually made from fibre glass to allow for its contents to be seen. There was no CGI back then…..everything had to be physically crafted and a lot of spontaneous creativity was always welcomed. In the film,the excited embryo we see fluttering in the egg was actually Ridley Scotts hands in oven gloves flapping in water. The fleshy lining of the eggs interior was actually cows intestines delivered into the studio from a local butcher.
The goal in this film was for everything to look real as opposed to fiction. The greatest trick any film director can pull over the audience is making the unbelievable appear to be believable. Stephen King once said that fiction is actually the truth inside a lie, which I think this helps explain the films success. The visions bought to life in the film were astounding for its time and the out worldly environments displayed all looked alive, as a living yet hostile ecosystem. Whether it was the respiratory gas being ejected from the tops of the spacesuits, the moisture oozing from the insides of the derelict spacecraft or the condensed water dripping from the hangar of the Nostromo, the science behind the fiction was perfected before the scares even began. Its no surprise that the final product won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects.
All that was required as a final ingredient was a flawless cast who could produce some great natural method acting performances. The calm but directive Captain Dallas played by Tom Skerritt contrasted smoothly with the ships cold and clinical Science Officer called Ash. His character was written in the stars for Ian Holm and its impossible to think of who else could have played the part. The character of Ash provided an unexpected twist in the movie which added an alternative source of distress to the ships already distressed crew. It makes a good excuse for a second viewing just to see if there were any missed giveaway signs that he was a “product” of the Company, in league with Mother. His departure from the story will of course be the most memorable, giving the term “Milky Way” a totally new meaning.
The ships 2nd Officer, Kane, is the first character we’re introduced to, as he awakes and sits there in his meditative state, giving us time to become accustomed to him. John Hurts performance as Kane was effortlessly astounding. What’s more remarkable was the fact that he was only bought in to play the part after filming had already began. The original actor was taken very ill on the first day shooting started. Scott then found himself going to a hotel meeting with Hurt that night to cast him as an urgent replacement and the next morning he was on set. His participation in the film will be mostly remembered for his body motions and grimaces during the ‘last supper’, which quite literally became one of the most gut wrenching scenes in cinema history. Upon the films release in May 1979, people in America were walking out of the cinema. During filming, none of the film cast knew what was going to happen in that scene either – They were told something would happen but not what exactly. They were kept in the dark for around 5 hours whilst the film crew and gory makeup artists rigged John Hurts body with the ships dormant stowaway. The reaction of actress Veronica Cartwright, who played the ships navigator Lambert, was the icing on the cake, not just in that scene but throughout the movie. She didn’t have the conventional look of your usual Hollywood actress, but rather that of a worn out check out clerk in Sainsburys. She appeared quirky, emotionally drained and helpless. All of this of course made her character more successful since she appeared more normal and believable. Scott utilised the character of Lambert as a conduit between the audience and the camera. His clever film direction therefore manipulated the audience to react to scenes in the same manner as she did. Whenever Lambert portrayed feelings of helplessness, fear and vulnerability, so did we.
Other members of the cast which helped make the crew look believable was the tag team duo of Parker and Brett, played by Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton respectively. They did a great job of representing the blue collar aspect of the crew. We’re made aware at a very early stage of the film that they’re at the bottom of the hierarchy in terms of seniority and the senior crew members are constantly subjected to their claims of being overworked and unfair pay. Parker is the muscles of the two whereas Brett more so the subtle brains. The pair are managed and overseen by Warrant Officer Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver.
Alien was Sigourney Weavers first ever movie. What’s ironically interesting is that although she played a senior character higher up in the crews hierarchy of command, when the camera stopped rolling she was still regarded as the newbie actress with little experience. In the real world there was a real hierarchy amongst the cast, based on their on screen acting experience which bought about a certain degree of scepticism of whether or not Weaver was actually good enough in certain scenes. Regardless of this, Scott persevered, as he was certain the role was for her and I think its safe to say the casting team had a eye for talent. Not only did she nail it but 9 years later, Weaver would go on to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress in a Leading Role for Gorillas in the Mist. Both the roles of Ripley and Lambert had originally been written as male characters but were changed prior to production as it would of course been more realistic to add female crew members. Its hard to imagine what the film would have looked like without the two actresses. In fact I believe it wouldn’t have been half as successful. The fact that the main protagonist was a female actually gave this film a breath of fresh air inside, what has always seemed, an alpha male controlled industry.
But what about the horror and our friend, the alien? I mentioned earlier that we don’t actually see that much of the ships 8th passenger. We believe we do, but we actually don’t. This was indeed done deliberately. The film was edited in a way to make us become more fearful of what we don’t see or can’t see, rather than what we do see. With the exception of Kane who dies at the Last Supper, we don’t really see the unpleasant deaths of the other crew members in great detail. Even when Ripley discovers Parker and Lambert massacred, we don’t really see them. Instead we see the fear and repulsion on Ripleys face and we’re left to guess what the alien did to them, as she fights back her tears as she sprints towards the self destruct chamber. We’re left to imagine with our own devices what their gruesome fates were and nothing is more scary than our own imaginations. Quite often our own anxieties are comprised of what could happen as opposed to what is happening, which is why quite often in life our own worst enemy is the enemy within ourselves. Maybe that’s what the Alien symbolizes for us all? A dormant manifestation of our fears and anxieties which will hatch open when we attempt to push ourselves towards ambitious goals perhaps, which always presides with our inner conflicts with self doubt?
The scenes of tension and mystery throughout this film are second to none. The crews walk around the space jockey genuinely appeared alien and we were left guessing as to what the hell it actually was. Kanes slow descent down the egg nest in unison with Jerry Goldsmiths score is quite simply unearthly . Before we have time to take it all in we then see Kane walking through the elusive mist and peering down into the egg. Bretts hunt for Jones the cat (here kitty) is also a scene of great tension as the audience already senses his fate after being split up from the group. Its only through the fearful eyes of the cat that our guess is confirmed. The air duct hunt also demonstrated great directing. We see the crews plan to flush out the alien fail when Dallas panics and all we can see is the serpentine blob on the motion tracker get closer and closer. As one by one each crew member is picked of we pen ultimately see Sigourney Weavers career as a newbie movie actress proliferate in front our very eyes. She steers Ripley into that of a natural leader who becomes more direct and dominant over the other remaining crew members.
Sure, over 40 years the movie has dated a little. The green computer screens in the Nostromo look very reminiscent of the old BBC Micro computer monitors used in British schools across the UK in the mid 1980s. I’m also certain that smoking cigarettes in a spacecraft would be prohibited. Any communication made between Mother and Earth would now be made by video link rather than a green text message. The explosion at the end of the movie would be done much better now thanks to CGI but regardless of the movies age its without a doubt that Alien has and always will be regarded as a classic. Scott has always commented that the film was really a B-Movie but made well. He stuck to the plan of his storyboards and wasn’t afraid to ruthlessly edit large scenes from the movie. A directors cut of the film was released around 15 years ago and it was very clear why some scenes were removed. The one scene in particular was when Ripley discovers the Alien nest with Dallas and Brett glued to the wall. It interrupted the frantic pace of the films climax and removed the ‘edge of your seat’ feel with regards to the self destruct countdown. It also contradicts any logic behind the deaths of Lambert and Parker. Why would the alien have killed them but not Dallas or Brett? It needs more live specimens to guarantee more chance of its species survival after all.
The legacy Alien has created has inspired not only a franchise of itself but many other non related titles which I won’t go into. I enjoyed Prometheus and the questions it attempted to answer surrounding the genesis of the Alien but I felt that the film had no soul and subsequently I had no connection or care for the well being of its dull characters. (I can only remember the name of one character and its David the android)
The franchise has also produced many video games, most of which were inspired by the sequel Aliens along with Predator. Most of them haven’t exactly been great. The best games in my opinion were the ones based on Alien 3, whether it be the 2 dimensional platform style home release in the mid 1990s or the 3D arcade shooter entitled Alien 3: The Gun, which was an Operation Wolf style shooter set in the prison of Fiorina 161. Like most arcade games it was deliberately difficult, designed so that folks have to keep pumping in more money to avoid the feeling of disappointment or feeling like a loser when the ‘Continue’ countdown screen appeared for all impatient spectators waiting behind you to see.
In 2014 we finally saw the the release of Alien Isolation which put the player in the shoes of Ripleys daughter Amanda, who, like her mother has become a flight officer. She is trying to find answers regarding the missing Nostromo and crew. The whole game takes place on a torn apart space station filled to the brim with desperate humans and rampant androids. Amandas mission is to navigate her way through the station without causing too much noise, to prevent detection from the Alien. This survival horror game was orchestrated to inflict a high level of fear and tension so its best avoided if you’re not a fan of games that induce scares or anxiety. You can pick it up along with all its DLC releases all for around a tenner now in the UK and although its slow and repetitive, its worth a play through if you’re a fan of the original movie. One of the DLC chapters actually allows you to step in the shoes of Ripley in the Nostromo. There’s also the option to toggle the presentation of the whole game so that it has the old 1970s grainy movie look and since its in first person view its almost like being in the film!Furthermore, if there’s one game screaming to be released in VR then Alien Isolation is a sure contender.
Well, that’s a wrap from me. Evidently I could talk about films and games all day long and before you know it , the Days Gone. (See what I did there)? If you’ve been living on a another planet for 40 years and haven’t seen Alien yet, you may want to add this to your to see list.
Thanks for the entertainment Mr Scott and Happy 40th Alien!
An English Centrist, signing off…………