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'Alien' (1979) - the movie 'Prometheus' must live up to

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A retrospective on the enduring power of Ridley Scott's 1979 SF horror Alien, which the director is now tasked with equalling or surpassing - whether he likes it or not...

Alien (1979)

Unless you've been hiding under a rock on LV-426 for the last eighteen months it can't have escaped your notice that after more than three decades since first introducing the word 'xenomorph' into popular culture, and scaring a good few cinema-goers in the process, director Ridley Scott is returning to the universe of inaudible screaming that he fashioned with Alien (1979). Though not strictly a prequel to his celebrated classic, or so the director would have us believe, the upcoming Prometheus is definitely set in the same universe and, as Scott himself puts it, shares "strands of Alien's DNA, so to speak."

As a massive fan of Scott's original film, I'm genuinely excited about a new Alien movie for the first time in years (having suffered through Alien Resurrection (1997), which even a screenplay by The Cabin In The Woods (2012) co-writer Joss Whedon couldn't save, and the duo of lame AVP efforts) and so to celebrate the imminent release of what is sure to be a worthwhile addition to the series let's take a look back at one of the greatest science fiction/horror flicks ever made to remind ourselves why the Blade Runner (1982) director helming another xenomorph (-esque?) picture is indeed cause for celebration.

Still from the 1979 'Alien' trailerMy earliest memory of Scott’s haunted-house-in-space movie is of seeing the trailer in front of whichever horror movie my friend Nick and I were watching on that particular Saturday afternoon in the opening months of the 1980s. The most striking thing about it was that for the first thirty seconds it did, well, not much at all. For nearly half a minute, an eternity in the world of trailers, it alternated between a tracking shot across the surface of a planet that looked as though a three year old had built it, and a close up of an egg, while white lines slowly formed the word 'Alien' at the top of the screen. In silence, no less.

Conventional wisdom would suggest that this should have been the kiss of death for a trailer, and consequently the film, and have our fingers itching to hit the fast forward button (if it didn’t require virtually standing on to operate it as was the norm back in the day), but as Scott would prove in the movie proper, there’s nothing like silence and seemingly mundane situations to lull you into a false sense of security.

The xenomorph surprises Tom Skeritt in 'Alien' (1979)Flashing up the now classic 'In Space No-one Can Hear You Scream' tag-line, accompanied by a blood-curdling scream of terror, Scott suddenly hit us with a quick fire montage of claustrophobic corridors, people running, vast alien spaceships, people running, and then at the very end the briefest glimpse of what was at that point possibly the scariest and most awesome creature that I had ever seen - or, to be more accurate, thanks to the split-second that it was onscreen, that I hadn't seen. No matter how much we rewound and freeze-framed the creature, it stubbornly remained a blur of motion and teeth. But the trailer had done its work - we were desperate to see this movie.

After what seemed like half a lifetime (and occasionally was back then, thanks to movies sometimes not being made available on the new video format for months or even years) we finally got to load the rented VHS tape into the huge VCR; our chests close to bursting with anticipation, we hit the 'play' button.

Alien didn’t disappoint, and has continued to deliver every single time that I’ve watched it over the years. Ridley Scott took future Return Of The Living Dead (1985) scribe Dan O’Bannon’s air-tight concept and fashioned a creepy, atmospheric, scary and at times brutal movie. It’s a slow burner, no question, but when it does explode at periodic intervals, it does so with enthusiasm and gusto (not to mention guts, in its most visceral and memorable sequence, which genuinely took actress Veronica Cartwright, the Nostromo's navigator Lambert, by surprise, her onscreen reaction one of genuine shock and disgust).

For the best part of the first hour, Scott lets the movie drift along at a leisurely pace, introducing us to the seven crew members as they and the camera roam the Nostromo’s endless corridors (in a manner not dissimilar to Kubrick's similar meanderings around the Overlook Hotel's interior the following year in the late director's interpretation of Stephen King's classic novel The Shining). The strongest of these characters, initially anyway, are Yaphet Kotto’s Parker and Harry Dean Stanton’s Brett, the underling maintenance men and the ship’s very own dark and sardonic Laurel and Hardy. The combination of Parker’s smart mouth and in-your-face attitude, and Brett’s almost mute existence, save for a few lines of dialogue - mostly Stanton saying "Right" - infuse the deep space odd couple with real life and invite our emotional investment in their well-being.

You just can't get ahead at Weyland-Yutani...

Though I didn’t see it coming the first time around, on subsequent viewings it’s blindingly obvious from the get go that Ash (Ian Holm – nominated for a Best Supporting Oscar for 1981's Chariots Of Fire) isn’t all that he seems. From his ultra-stiff posture in the cryogenic sleep tubes, to his over-familiarity with the minutiae of Parker's employment contract when he's angling for a larger percentage, to his odd little run-on-the-spot early in the movie, almost as if he’s trying the manoeuvre out for the first time to see what it feels like, there's something about the future Bilbo Baggins that's not of this (or Middle) earth. When he does finally go off in the second half of the movie, the look on Holm’s face is disarming, his emotionless determination to force a rolled up magazine down Ripley’s throat (the movie's second pseudo-rape scene after the initial facehugger encounter) sending genuine chills down my spine.

Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley needs no introduction, of course, but this isn’t the Ripley we have come to know and love from Aliens and beyond. This Ripley begins life as an unremarkable member of the crew just looking to do her job with the minimum of fuss. It’s only when she is forced to step up to the plate and undergoes her metamorphosis from Warrant Officer to Alien Ass-Kicker that the character really comes alive. Ironically the exact moment that this happens is captured in a beautiful shot that wasn't in the original print of the film, the now infamous deleted scene (restored for the 2003 Director’s Cut) where her eyes visibly harden just before she lets rip with a flame-thrower after coming across a cocooned Dallas (Tom Skerritt) and Brett towards the end of the movie.

As impressive as the human actors are in the film, however, the real star of this horror show is Swiss artist H.R. Giger. Famous for his erotic biomechanical art, his designs put Alien head and shoulders (and teeth) above any other creature movie, with the sets alone drawing my breath with their horrific beauty. The organic interior of the Space Jockey’s ship is simply stunning, lined with bones in a style reminiscent of the Catacombs in Paris, where six million bodies are buried, their tibias, fibulas and skulls stacked several feet deep and arranged into intricate patterns for miles on end.

Giger's 'Space Jockey' in 'Alien' (1979)The Space Jockey itself is deserving of a mention, not least because of its appearance in Prometheus. A creature unlike anything I’d seen on screen before, and much bigger than the three crew members who examine its blown-out ribs (an effect achieved by using three children, two of them Scott's, shot against the twenty-six foot tall prop). This not only foreshadows Executive Officer Kane's (double Oscar nominee John Hurt) ultimate fate, it also very effectively conveys a sense that these insignificant human beings have stumbled upon something far bigger than they can conceive, a feeling that is reinforced when we enter the egg chamber, a vast and seemingly endless cavern lined with row upon row upon row of eggs, all covered with an eerie luminous blue mist (thanks to lasers supplied by Holoco, a company then owned by rock legends The Who).

Then there’s the creature itself, the eponymous alien (played by seven foot two Masai graphic artist Bolaji Badejo, who was discovered in a bar by one of the team of casting directors. who had originally been considering Peter Mayhew - best known as the Wookie Chewbacca in Star Wars - or the role, along with several rake-thin fashion models).

Not content with just one menacing killing machine, Giger leapt with grisly enthusiasm on the idea of an entire life-cycle for it (devised by script-writers Dan O'Bannon and Ron Shusett), managing to tap into several primal human fears in the process. First up is the face-hugger, a spider-like creature that wraps its acid-filled appendages around your face, effectively suffocating you as it forces itself down your throat in a horrific act of alien rape. Then there’s the chest-burster, which emulates the human birthing process, albeit taking a more direct and painful route to the outside world and playing on the fear of having something, quite literally in this case, alien growing inside us. Finally there’s the classic insect-like alien in all its adult glory, playing extremely effectively on our fear of, well, being hunted down and ripped apart by a huge, virtually unstoppable creature.

Harry Dean Stanton needing a bigger boat in 'Alien' (1979)

As breathtaking and awe-inspiring as they are, the sets and aliens alone wouldn’t make this a classic movie; this is where Ridley Scott comes into his own, breathing life into the ship and cranking the tension up to unbearable levels at times. The sequence where Brett goes looking for Jones, the ship’s cat, plays out for some four minutes, the camera slowly stalking him as he searches the dark corridors, chains rattling lazily in the artificial breeze, water dripping from the ceiling. We know that something is going to happen here, and it does, eventually, but not before Scott has kept us on the edge of our seats for a while, shredding our nerves in the process.

Scott pulls the same very effective trick with the scene where Dallas is scouring the air vents, trying to flush out the alien. Putting us right in his face, and ratcheting up the claustrophobia in the process, Scott slams the tension levels into the red as we see the blip representing the alien first appear on the monitor, and then move slowly, oh so slowly towards him, his eyes wide, desperately trying to see where the creature is.

Though James Cameron produced one of the better examples of an effective sequel with Aliens (1986) and future Hollywood mover-and-shaker David Fincher managed to produce a decent second sequel in the form of Alien3 (1992), especially given the interference and drama that accompanied the production (it's an audience splitter, but I think the work-print of Alien3 included in the Alien Quadrilogy release is a fine, if slightly flawed, movie), none of the movies in the Alien universe have come close to the horror and the tension of Scott's original, and for this reason alone I am very much looking forward to Prometheus.


Related:

A critical analysis of all things Prometheus
Alien (1979): Possibly the scariest trailer ever made
Meryl Streep's lost place in the Alien franchise?
Space misfits: Nostromo crew back-stories revealed
'Prometheus' HD trailer continues to look familiar...
The Russian heritage for Ridley Scott's Prometheus?
Some thoughts on the 'no-show' (?) xenomorphs in 'Prometheus'


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