Remembering Alien

I saw Prometheus last week, and had intended to blog about it - after all, for someone of my generation, a sort-of-prequel to Alien by the same director (Ridley Scott) is quite a big deal. 

But these days I try to stay positive on this blog and concentrate on the things I like about a book or movie, rather than the things I don't.  And it turned out that the only thing I liked about Prometheus was Michael Fassbender's haircut. It's a very good haircut, and if I were a younger man with nicer hair I might even attempt to replicate it on my own head, but that isn't really enough to fill a whole post, is it?

So rather than going into detail about the many things I disliked about Prometheus, I thought I'd go back and try to remember all the things I did like about Alien.

Alien was released in 1979, and is part of a crop of movies which I saw between the ages of 13 and 18 and which had a huge influence on my imagination. Presumably they seemed so powerful because of the age I was - I have seen better films since, but none that sunk in quite so deeply.  

Since I'm a children's author and this blog is seen by Younger Readers, I should stress that Alien is an 18 certificate, and quite right too.  For the same reason, I shall assume that some of you won't yet have seen it, and avoid 'spoilers'.  (I didn't avoid them myself - by the time I caught up with it I'd read the book and pored over the concept art and knew it pretty much off by heart, but it must work far better if some of the surprises actually come as surprises.)

The story is about as basic as a story can be.  The crew of the spaceship Nostromo answer a mysterious distress call, which leads them to an alien wreck on an uncharted moon. Inside the wreck lie a clutch of alien eggs. The creature which hatches from one of the eggs gets aboard their ship when they take off, and starts picking them off one by one.  Apart from the unique and frankly icky way that it gets on board, the whole plot is basically indistinguishable from a 1950s B-movie like It! The Terror From Beyond Space. The script was famously stitched together from two other projects by the writers Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett: one called Memory about astronauts exploring an alien temple and discovering something horrid, and one about gremlins causing chaos on a World War 2 bomber which was re-written to provide the second act. (It's also a bit like O'Bannon's earlier script for Dark Star, in which the alien lurking in the spaceship's air-ducts is played strictly for laughs). It could easily have ended up as a ropey Roger Corman exploitation movie, instead of which it's now a widely acknowledged classic and has spawned a whole parade of sequels and spin-offs.  The main reasons, I think, are as follows.

It's Slow.

At least it is at the beginning.  Not slow as in 'boring': slow as in 'gradually building sense of dread'.  This is a film that trusts its audience's attention span. It takes a while for the crew to emerge from suspended animation and realise why the ship's computer has awoken them. The laborious process of detaching the Nostromo from its payload and setting it down on the storm-lashed moon is shown in detail, building up a sense of the ship and the way the crew work together. The trek across the surface to the alien derelict takes ages too. By the time the scary stuff begins to happen we're completely immersed in the world which the film has built. And that's largely thanks to...

The Production Design.

What attracted me to Alien in the first place was its look, not its story. I'm pretty much allergic to horror movies (I've still never watched The Thing or The Fly or anything with zombies in, and I don't suppose I ever will). But I'd seen some stills from Alien and was prepared to put up with a bit of gore and scariness if that was the price for looking at all this wonderful stuff for two hours.

The film draws on the work of some of the greatest SF illustrators and conceptual artists of the time, including Moebius, Chris Foss and H R Giger, who had all, like Dan O'Bannon, previously been involved with Alejandro Jodorowsky's doomed and loopy attempt to bring Dune to the big screen.  Marshalled by ace art director Roger Christian, they do sterling work, and Ridley Scott understands this and lets his camera explore the sets - notice the way it prowls the silent corridors of the Nostromo before any of the characters appear on-screen.  The script gives us very little information about the future society which launched this craft, but the sets and costumes tell us everything: we're in a grungy, battered, industrial setting, a long way from the gleaming interiors of most previous movie starships.  Similarly, the script has little to say about the alien planet or the things the crew find there: the production design throws strange images at us and lets us try to work it out for ourselves...

Much has been written about Giger's designs for the alien itself, but it's hard to explain just how bizarre and, well, alien they looked back in 1979.  I can remember being quite seriously creeped out by a picture of the creature (which you never get a clear look at in the film).  It was just a photo that had been taken as (I suppose) a costume test, with no background or lighting.  It quite clearly showed a man in a rubber suit.  But there was something indefinably unsettling about its elongated, eyeless, transluscent skull, and the strange spines which reached out of its back.  The same aura of unease hung over the planet and the wrecked alien ship, which were also designed by Giger. The symmetries were all wrong. There was a strangely biological look to the rocks and the crashed ship, and a strangely mechanical look to the biology.  For the first time, the alien stuff in a movie actually looked alien.  (It was also, perhaps, the last time; Giger's creature was still pretty scary by the time of Aliens* (1986), but by the end of that movie it had started to become familiar, and its power to shock has been lost.  Nowadays you can see similar biomechanical wierdies in children's books like Chris Riddell's Alienography. When I dug out the picture that thirteen-year-old me had found so scary and showed it to my 10-year-old son, he said, "Awesome." But he didn't mean it literally.)

Just as important for the film's feel - more so, perhaps - was the human technology; the spaceship interiors where most of the action plays out.  Designed mainly by Ron Cobb (with costumes by John Mollo and Moebius) the ship has a grimy, lived in air which seemed utterly convincing in '79, and still does, if you accept the clattering keyboards, boxy cathode-ray monitors and clunky computer graphics on the bridge (how completely, compellingly futuristic it all looked at the time!).  It was, I think, one of the first movie spaceships with a ceiling, which adds greatly to the claustrophobic atmosphere. Cobb's pre-production drawings, with their architect's accuracy, fascinated me as a teenager because they looked so real - I loved the way that someone that someone had expended all that thought and skill and detail on an imaginary spaceship.  (He gives a nice interview about the process here at The Den of Geek.)

A Ron Cobb drawing of the Nostromo's flight deck. There's more of his work here.
There is actually no attempt to make the Nostromo look like a real spacecraft . The upper decks resemble an overgrown B52, the lower ones are like some ancient, rusting tramp-steamer, and although the crew spend their long journey in freezers like the astronauts in 2001, there are no spinning sections to help explain how the ship generates its gravity.  But since 1979, most spaceship interiors have looked a bit like this, and the ones which don't feel somehow wrong...

We Care About The Characters

Not that much, perhaps - none of them is much more than a stereotype: Dallas the world-weary captain, Brett and Parker grumbling about their bonuses down in the engine room - but they are competently drawn stereotypes, and well-acted by a great cast of English and U.S character actors. We can identify with them, and don't want  to see them scoffed by the Big Bad. Crucially for the film's feel, they are not explorers. They are not scientists or highly trained astronauts or the officers of some galactic federation. They are just ordinary, blue-collar workers doing their ordinary space-jobs. They are annoyed when they have to make a detour to investigate the signal they've picked up.  They are interested, but not especially fascinated, when they encounter the alien wreck.

Again, the production design does much of the work of building the characters.  All we know from the scrappy dialogue and a brief onscreen caption is that they are towing a giant refinery through interstellar space on behalf of a company called The Company, which has presumably found a way to turn a profit from towing giant refineries through interstellar space.  We don't know anything about their backgrounds, or even their first names.  It's left to the designers to provide the details of their lives: the shabby, litter-strewn communal spaces, the rumpled uniforms, covered with patches and name tags and corporate badges. Space travellers hadn't looked like this in films before: we were used to the clean-cut military types from Star Trek or Forbidden Planet. In Alien only Ian Holm, as the science officer, retains a sort of quasi-military neatness, and we mistrust him from quite early on.

There is a Remorseless Logic... the creature, at least.  It's life-cycle makes a dreadful sort of sense, and look at the way that the tail of its first, parasitic incarnation tightens around its victim's neck when someone tries to cut it off him.  It feels like behaviour that a real animal might have evolved. Actually, of course, it's the sign of a competent writer noticing and fencing off a potential plot-hole.  Perhaps when it turns out to have spaceship-eating acid for blood it's too obviously a screenwriter's answer to the question 'why can't they just shoot it?', but whatever: it makes a change from 'bullets just bounce off it!'

There Are No 'Big Questions'.

Where did we come from? Where are we going? Is there life on other worlds?  Is there a God?  These are questions which movie SF, at its most portentous, often asks. But since it's a pulp genre mostly concerned with mad robots and people running about in corridors, it seldom manages to answer them very well.  Alien simply sidesteps all this. You want themes and subtexts, it's got 'em, from the evils of corporatism to a whole bubbling stew of Freudian anxieties about sex and parents. The critic Andrew O'Hehir claims convincingly that it's "a film about human loneliness amid the emptiness and amorality of creation. It's a cynical '70s-leftist vision of the future in which none of the problems plaguing 20th century Earth—class divisions, capitalist exploitation, the subjugation of humanity to technology—have been improved in the slightest by mankind's forays into outer space." But on the surface the only Big Question it troubles itself with is, "Who will get eaten next?"

Similarly, the film-makers never do that thing of upping the stakes, which is a feature of almost all big SF films (and virtually every episode of Dr Who). There is a hint that the Company would like the alien for its weapons division, but there isn't any sense that Earth is in peril, or that the characters are fighting for the future of humanity, or of the universe.  It's a small story: perhaps the smallest story ever to be made into a big-budget SF movie, and Alien is all the better for it.

*Aliens (directed by James Cameronis a thoroughly excellent sequel, and for my money the best of all the 1980s many action movies.  The later sequels and spin-offs - Alien Resurrection, Alien vs Predator, Alien vs Abbot & Costello, etc. - all concentrate on trying to replicate the original's slimy shocks, to less and less effect.

You can read my thoughts on Aliens here. The blog Strange Shapes is an excellent archive of Alien-related info (I think it's where I found these Ron Cobb pictures.)


Meijers said...

For a review not of Prometheus, you hit quite a few nails on their heads in reference to Prometheus. I know, it is not Alien, far from. It just shares the director and the fictional universe. But for a movie that was presented as a new mythology I must agree to understand the why of an Alien review instead.

Cary Watson said...

Excellent post. You're bang on about the world-building being one of the keys to its success. Most sci-films don't create environments that look like people might actually live and work in them. The worst example of this are the Star Wars films: most of the interiors look like Marriott hotel lobbies. The other original aspect of Alien is that there was no obvious hero. I remember watching it for the first time and thinking that the captain would, of course, be the hero. Whoops! Once the captain went bye-bye it raised the tension even higher because there was no leader to focus our hopes on. I still wonder, however, how the alien went from facehugger to jumbo-sized in what seems like only a few hours.

Philip Reeve said...

Thanks, Meijers. I didn't set out to talk about Prometheus, but it's impossible to avoid the comparisons. And Cary, I rather like the pristine look of the ships in 2001 and Star Wars (although the Millennium Falcon was a bit scruffy, wasn't it?) . I suppose one can assume that in the Future there will be all sorts of special tidying robots and easy-to-keep-clean wall-coverings and things. In a way the 'tramp steamer' look of the 'Nostromo' is ridiculously anachronistic - but of course it feels real, which is what matters. You're right about the beastie's growth spurt, but I suppose the pace of the movie is accelerating fast at that point and it's easier to forgive the odd lapse of logic.

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed reading this. Alien really is fantastic on so many levels, but my favourite by far is the space jockey. It's a pretty small element of the film - only there briefly, never explained, never touched upon again. We don't learn anything more about it than the Nostromo crew themselves could have - we just stumble across it, fossilised in that enormous chair. As first contact goes, it's pretty jaw-dropping (and, because it's a fellow victim, disturbing and portentous).

Then, of course, there's a scene in Prometheus which utterly ruins that wonderful moment of cinema. Tears it in half, throws it out the window and watches as cars run over it in the street. (And it was going so well up until then - I quite liked the millenia-old hologram of them running down the corridor, which suddenly resolves itself into the present with the helmet-cam-view discovery of the creature's severed head).

I must object, though, to your assertion that the crew aren't particularly engaged by the discovery of the derelict. My other favourite scene is when you see its bizarre (yet clearly artifical) shape poking over the ridge, on grainy video footage from the exploration party's helmet cams. Lambert is terrified and wants to go back, but John Hurt is pleading, saying "We must go on! We MUST go on!" I like the idea that an ordinary Joe would grasp the significance of what they were discovering.

Prometheus, on the other hand, has the most unengaged and indifferent captain ever to grace science fiction, who acts more like a school bus driver than the skipper of the first expedition to discover alien life. You're going to be a household name, you twit!

Philip Reeve said...

Thanks! The reason I titled this 'Remembering Alien' is because I realised while I was writing it that it must be a least 25 years since I actually watched the film - I expect there is a lot I'm misremembering. I must have forgotten how keen John Hurt is to explore - which of course is why it's perfectly in character for him to go sticking his nose into ominous looking gloopey eggs... Another example of the very tight & intelligent script.

Unknown said...

I came across this entry (5 months late, I'm sorry) and really enjoyed your post. I saw Alien on a VHS copy from our local video store when I was a teenager, and I think it nearly messed me up. (I understand now why the age restrictions of films need to be heeded.) The creature was so very different from anything else I had seen, and as a result, part of me never wanted to hear the word 'alien' again. Well, nearly 23 years later and I have the urge to watch Alien again after reading your post. But, maybe not at 23:20. I'll wait for the sunshine.

Philip Reeve said...

Thanks Andrew, I'm glad it brought back memories, hopefully not too traumatic... I watched it again after reading this, and aside from a bit of soggy pacing towards the very end it was every bit as good as I'd remembered.

petersmith said...

The other original aspect of Alien is that there was no obvious hero.

Philip Reeve said...

That's true! By the time I saw it, I'd read the story and was well aware that Sigourney Weaver was the main character, but I think the original audiences, coming to it fresh, assumed Tom Skerrit was the hero, and were a bit nonplussed when he suddenly... wasn't.

SF Said said...

What a great post! I think your analysis is spot on. I saw Alien around the same age, and it had a great influence on me too.

I loved your post about Moebius as well, and that article you linked to - those 1970s French sci-fi comics are still among my all-time favourites. I've been re-reading some this year, Caza and Druillet as well as Moeibus - they stand up incredibly well...

Anyway, I'm very glad to discover your blog!

Philip Reeve said...

Thanks SF! Yes, I keep coming back to the films of that era - they were a much bigger influence on me than most books, if I'm honest. I'm not as well up on comics as I probably should be though - *hurries off to Google Caza and Druillet'...

Varjak Paw is great, BTW!

Anonymous said...

Stumbled upon this post after looking on your site to see if your mortal engines series would be turned into a movie series.

Quite happy to have found myself sidetracked! As an early 20 something I have been fortunate to have read your Mortal Engine series during my early teens! In the last few years I have also watched Prometheus and admittedly have yet to see Alien. For me Prometheus felt very drawn out and on the most basic level didn't leave much to the imagination. I did appreciate being exposed to the myriad of philosophical questions and the graphics did indeed make my heart race. Sometimes I feel with the higher quality of graphics the less we are left to ponder.

Anyway this is just a quick note to say thank you as I shall be watching Alien sometime soon and that your devouring cities have inspired me!

Many thanks,

Philip Reeve said...

Thanks Vanessa! To me it still feels as if Alien came out only a couple of years ago; I forget that there are grown ups to whom it's an old, old movie which they've never seen. That must make Prometheus a very different kettle of fish. I do recommend both Alien and Aliens, and I'm glad you enjoyed Mortal Engines!


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