Monday Editor’s Pick: Alien (1979)

by on July 10, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Mon July 11 at 6:50*, 9:30 at BAMcinématek [Program & Tix]

With BLOODBATH Dan O’Bannon | 1970 | US

*Intro/book-signing with Jason Zinoman & Diane O’Bannon

 

BAM kicks off an awesome  mini-retro celebrating “actor, writer (sometimes credited, sometimes not), and director Dan O’Bannon, a leading, if unheralded, figure in the creation of modern horror,” with an appearance by O’Bannon’s widow Diane and New York Times writer Jason Zioman, who will be signing copies of his new book Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror.

 

Benjamin Strong for L Magazine:

Alien is, after all, just a genre film — albeit a perfectly executed B horror movie disguised with an A-picture budget that paid for, among other things, artist H.R. Giger’s set and monster designs, without which the movie is wholly unimaginable. To this day, the lion’s share of hosannas for Scott go to Blade Runner, but Alien is just as mysterious and immersive in its dystopian details. Every aspect of Scott’s filmmaking contributes to our foreboding sense that no two things (and thus, no two species) are entirely distinguishable. The Nostromo’s dank hulls provide easy camouflage for the parasitical intruder, but Scott doesn’t stop there. Through a suggestive use of lap dissolves, he continually lays one murky image over another. Meanwhile, machines emit animal noises, and vice versa, and both sets of sounds bleed into the strains of Jerry Goldsmith’s menacingly ethereal score. Finally, so precise is the timing of Brian Q. Kelley’s editing that this reviewer, to his complete embarrassment, twice leapt from his seat during a press screening, despite the fact that he had previously seen the film a dozen times and knew exactly when the shocks were coming.

 

 

Over at Indiewire, Drew Taylor calls Zinoman’s book “The Must-Read Film Book of the Summer”:

Much has been written about the film revolution that took place during the 1970’s – when the studio system crumbled in inconceivable ways and a brood of bold young filmmakers, most of them wily, many of them bearded, forever changed the landscape of the film industry. But far less has been written about the seismic shift in genre films during the same period. Thankfully, Jason Zinoman, a crack film writer for the New York Times (he did last weekend’s great John Carpenter profile), has come forward to present a compelling and well researched look at those films in “Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror.”

 

Zinoman looks at the genre revolution through a prism of films and filmmakers, with all the biggies present and accounted for, weaving intriguing micro-narratives into a larger, big picture thematic context.

 

…But the most surprising part of “Shock Value” may be the unlikely protagonist Zinoman finds in Dan O’Bannon, most famous for his role as co-writer of Ridley Scott’s intergalactic spook show “Alien.” O’Bannon is first introduced as a squirrelly classmate of John Carpenter’s at USC, where the two worked on the short version of “Dark Star” before expanding it for theatrical distribution. The dynamics of the Carpenter/O’Bannon friendship were complicated, and after “Dark Star” was finished, the two distanced themselves from each other, with Carpenter becoming more spiteful and boastful when “Halloween” proved to be an indie smash several years later, regularly calling O’Bannon to brag. (O’Bannon hadn’t had as much luck, spending several years designing the infamous Alejandro Jodorowsky version of “Dune.”) According to Zinoman, O’Bannon was a socially awkward genius, plagued by a fiery temper and felled by increasing health problems related to living with Crohn’s disease. It’s a compelling, and ultimately, tragic narrative, with O’Bannon coming off like a visionary who was integral in shaping this period of genre film but never fully awarded the credit he deserves. Well, consider that amended.

 

You can read the NPR Interview with  Zinoman here.

 

Becky Sayers on the Dan O’Bannon Alien script for The Bloodsprayer.com:

A great deal can be discerned simply by knowing the original title of O’Bannon’s screenplay: Star Beast. The word “beast” implies a certain degree of ferocity and animalism – a concept that becomes important when analyzing the role of the alien itself. In some ways, Alien may appear as a dualistic piece: Man vs. Animal, Man. vs. Science, Man vs. The Unknown, etc. All these views place the human being in direct opposition to another force: the Other. In O’Bannon’s story, however, these dualisms ultimately don’t matter. The division between animal and man is completely shattered. The facehugger uses the human as a host, ultimately birthing a creature that is part human and part alien. One may even say that the beast is just as much an alien as it is a human being. This is why the word beast works better in this example than alien. While the creature is indeed alien to the crew, it is more accurately just a ferocious animal. In fact, it’s the only animal that equals the human being’s ferocity, cunning, and physical ability.

 

In O’Bannon’s script, the alien is simply following its nature – and its nature happens to involve the process of destroying the body of another species and using it to reproduce. Can the alien be blamed for acting according to its nature? It was the humans after all that decided to explore space, a world in which they do not belong. The unintended consequences of such exploration could be deserved. The discovery that human beings may not, in fact, be the only contender at the top of the food chain subverts many traditional concepts of the human’s world.

 

In summation, nihilism is all about deconstructing mores and ripping the meaning out of physical forms. In Alien, the human body has no sanctity – it’s merely a capsule, a tool, to breed more destruction. In Dan O’Bannon’s original script and in an alternate cut of the film, the alien actually rapes Lambert, one of the female crew members. In the theatrical cut, only a scream is heard. O’Bannon’s initial inclusion of the rape furthers the nihilistic attitude toward the body. Not only can the alien forcefully impregnate the body, it can also satisfy bestial desires with no moral tethers. The alien can do everything a human being can do (think, kill, feel, rape, procreate) and for the most part, it can do it better.

 

In the end, Alien presents an austere theme: the more humans embrace technology to uncover the universe, the more they learn how unimportant they are. In the face of cold technology, they are useless warm-blooded beings. In the face of alien creatures, they are pathetic victims. It is these themes found in Dan O’Bannon’s story that make Alien so timelessly terrifying.

 

 

Manohla Dargis for the Los Angeles Times:

At once graphically elegant and viscerally effective, the future conjured up by Scott was dystopian to the core. The blue-collar crew members don’t just have to wage war against an unknown monster; they have to fight a far more familiar enemy — namely, the faceless, heartless owner-boss who is perfectly willing to sacrifice them on the altar of profit. The sense that HAL 9000 (the computer from “2001”) was now unabashedly working for the Man imbued “Alien” with an unease that seemed of a piece with a downbeat decade defined by recession and paranoia, and still suffering from a throbbing Watergate hangover. The film’s famous tagline — “In space, no one can hear you scream” — somehow seemed a perfect coda for the wider culture, but also fit, as it turned out, with Scott’s lonely worldview.

 

Serious as a heart attack, Scott has made a career out of paranoia, existential dread and doleful endings. That makes him somewhat of an anomaly in Hollywood, as has his unabashed fondness for powerful, independent-minded female characters. Initially written to be played by a man, the film’s other famous creation, of course, is Ripley, the role that turned a little-known theater performer named Sigourney Weaver into a zeitgeist figure as big and fearsome as Giger’s monster. Like her shrieking, shape-shifting foe, Ripley has evolved over the years, mutating from a scrappy survivor to a wrathful mother (in the second film, “Aliens”) to a shaved militant battling contagion (in the third) to the sacrificial lamb of a franchise gone terribly awry (in the fourth).

 

Mostly, though, what had gone missing in the years since the first film was the essential terror that hums through much of Scott’s work. Not the fright induced by monsters with slithering tentacles and rapacious spikes, but the chilled-to-the-bone fear that no one can hear you scream, no matter where you are.

 

Keith Uhlich for Time Out New York:

After 30 years, the “Boo!” and gross-out moments are permanently cemented in the cultural psyche—from the face-hugger’s leap out of the translucent egg to John Hurt’s dinner-table stomach burst. So what’s left to discover about Ridley Scott’s great deep-space horror show? Mainly it’s the sense of pace and craft that the once-promising director would soon trade in, post–Blade Runner, for empty, pretense-laden spectacle. When Scott introduces us to the crew and corridors of the interplanetary mining ship Nostromo, he emphasizes silence and languor, the better to immerse us in the cavernous physical and mental playground that the alien (designed by Oscar-winning Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger) will use to its merciless advantage.

 

It’s the creature’s instinctual murder spree that makes the immediate impression, but that would be nothing without the simmering tensions among the human counterparts. At times, Alien plays like an upstairs-downstairs comedy of manners, complete with disenchanted, proletarian grunts (Harry Dean Stanton and Yaphet Kotto’s union-men mechanics) and effete, eye-rolling snobs (Ian Holm’s above-it-all science officer) trading class-specific aspersions. What it all comes down to, of course, is Sigourney Weaver in her underwear facing off with a drooling, phallus-shaped nightmare made flesh. The dissertations practically write themselves.

 

 

Andrew O’Hehir for Salon.com:

Unlike its increasingly baroque series of sequels, Ridley Scott’s original 1979 “Alien” is 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. Although it has often been described as being a haunted-house movie set in space, “Alien” also has a profoundly existentialist undertow that makes it feel like a film noir — the other genre to feature a slithery, sexualized monster as its classic villain.

 

…When I first saw “Alien” I could see no connection between it and Joseph Conrad’s great novel “Nostromo,” a philosophical adventure yarn about a corrupted Latin American revolution — the naming of the ship just seemed like a little literary in-joke. (Nostromo is the name of a revolutionary leader in the novel, not of a vessel.) But nearly a quarter-century later, “Alien” has acquired a classic quality of its own, and seems to offer some of the uncategorizable fatalism and pessimism of the book, even if it’s an entirely different kind of story. Decoud, Conrad’s authorial figure in “Nostromo,” regards the universe as “a succession of incomprehensible images,” and during his imprisonment turns suicidal, reflecting that “in our activity alone do we find the sustaining illusion of an independent existence as against the whole scheme of things of which we form a helpless part.”

 

I think that accounts for the dread we still feel at the end of “Alien,” when Weaver, memorably clad in that bikini underwear, locks herself (and her irresistible cat, Jonesy) back into that plastic egg for the long ride home. She has survived, but toward what end? And the world she is returning to is the one that betrayed her in the first place.

 

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