G E N R E A N D A L I E N
It was a perfect tag line. It gave movie audiences in 1979 the perfect hint of what they could expect from the new film from the studio that brought them Star Wars. Somehow, the filmmakers were going to combine the spectacle of that science fiction space opera and the terrors of what might be out there. This would be Alien.
The film's posters and trailers also emphasized an intriguing image, that of an egg about to hatch, and the hint of something about to come out of it. Could this also have been a warning about something frighteningly sexual? The very title of the film, Alien, is a word so simple and yet imbued with a dark sense of otherness.
Expectation was high, but nothing really prepared the public for what awaited it in theaters that day in May. An entire generation has grown up since the film was originally released, many of them introduced to its sequel, Aliens, before ever seeing this film. As a result, many of those who did not see Alien in its initial run have only seen it in the shadow of a very different film. If Alien combines the space opera with horror, Aliens instead mixes horror with the thrills of a war movie, creating an adrenaline-filled roller coaster ride. This creates expectations for the first film that is not consonant with what it delivers. On the other hand, no one who saw the film in its initial run, or at least before the sequel, could ever forget the sense of fear and shock that they had.
It is easy enough to say that Alien has the semantics of a science-fiction picture and the syntax of a horror film, but it is how these two ideas are combined that have made this movie a modern classic while so many others (including its most obvious antecedent, It: the Terror from Beyond Space) have faded into relative obscurity. The first question is what type of each genre is this film? As I have mentioned earlier, Alien looks like an example of a space opera, a subgenre of sci-fi that places its characters on board vehicles capable of traveling between star systems. As a horror film, however, it is one of the most effective examples of a monster movie. There are some interesting ways in which these genres blend.
Leo Braudy contends that one of the main reasons why a genre reading of cinema tends to work is because the conventions within the genre allow audiences to connect more closely with the material. Nuances can then be introduced because of the familiarity with the conventions. Alien has many of the touchstones of popular science-fiction, but its mechanics are those of a horror film. In fact, the horror elements are the more generic aspects of the film, though the science-fiction configuration alters them in such a way as to often be almost unrecognizable as such. In fact, the film departs significantly from expectations of a science-fiction film of the era, but it conforms rather closely to the conventions of the horror genre.
For one thing, the commercial towing vehicle Nostromo is a rusty old bucket, dirtier, nastier and much more impersonal than the ships seen in George Lucas' Star Wars, which seem positively cozy by comparison and a far cry from the antiseptic interiors of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is also one of the most elaborately created settings in film history, highly textured and detailed. The effect is almost Gothic, perhaps even a science-fiction equivalent to the rococo architecture seen in Last Year at Marienbad. When we are introduced to it, the ship is quiet and empty. It is a gargantuan house, waiting to be haunted. It is also a house that can not be left, which actually solves a major narrative problem one often finds in horror movies (as is so tartly put by Jeanine [Annie Potts] in Ghostbusters, “Well, just don't go in there!”).
The Nostromo's crew are not scientists or space explorers, as is usually the case in science-fiction films. They are interstellar teamsters, just trying to get their job done so they can get home, squabbling about their shares and other union issues. One of the main advantages of the film is its cast, consisting primarily of established character actors. Captain Dallas is played by Tom Skerritt, and through much of the film it can easily be assumed that he would end up being the heroic character before the end. However, it soon becomes apparent that he is far from a hero. He's bored, irritable and extremely lazy. First Officer Kane, played by John Hurt, is the more optimistic type. Science Officer Ash, a chilling performance by Ian Holm, is cold and aloof. In fact, until he is revealed to be an android (or “synthetic” as they're referred to in Aliens), one could easily assume the character is a closeted homosexual; he certainly pays little mind to the females of the crew, often with an air of suffering and condescending when he does so. Veronica Cartwright plays Navigator Lambert, who seems whiny and perpetually annoyed. Then there are Parker and Brett, played by Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton, respectively. Brett is a pretty quiet guy, mostly serving as Parker's sidekick. Parker, on the other hand, is boisterous, loud and very funny. Kotto's performance is one of the film's best, and it is one of the few areas where the film breaks from its brooding tone to allow some humor. Rarely has a union shop interplay been so succinctly displayed than in Parker's line to Dallas, “Can I finish my coffee first?”
Of course, there was also Warrant Officer Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver, who had only bit parts in previous films. Who was she, and what was she doing in this cast of known faces? It would not have been so strange to assume that she's going to be offed soon.
Not much information is revealed about any of these characters. In fact, we never find out what any of their first names are. This is a common aspect of the science-fiction genre, where often characters are known mostly by a single name. Their clothing is extremely impersonal, with men and women clad in the same ugly jumpsuits. In a way, the characterization of the crew replaces the atmospheric barrenness one finds in such classic science-fiction as 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Andromeda Strain. Their language is emphatically blue-collar, however, with plenty of profanity. This is an element that, again, is more consonant with horror than science-fiction.
An interesting anomaly for the horror film is the complete lack of any sort of overt sexual behavior among the crew of the Nostromo. One brief reference to sex exists in the film (an aside Parker makes to Lambert), there are pictures from porno magazines pasted on to a kitchen wall, but any sexual tension among the crew is purely subtext. Much of the reason for this is because of the nature of the beast, so to speak, as will be discussed.
The film is called Alien, and it is, in this author's opinion, the one of the most effective and fascinating movie monster of all time. Its first appearance in the film is as an egg, which is as clear a symbol for reproduction as any. It's life cycle is a source of great interest in the film, something which is more science-fiction than horror. It then achieves a spidery hand shape that forces itself onto (and into Kane) implying a rape. It then bursts out of Kane, a phallic form erupting from his chest. This scene is one of the main set-pieces of Alien, a horrific perversion of birth that is among the most shocking moments in cinema history.
Its next incarnation, and for the remainder of the film, is vaguely anthropomorphic, although until the end, it is rarely seen except in quick glimpses. Scott had commented that the creature possibly mixes its genetic material with that of its host in order to adapt to different environments, an intriguing idea only explored in David Fincher's Alien³, where the alien gestates in a dog and is a quadruped with canine movements. It also explains the creature's biomechanical similarity to the “space jockey” form seen in the derelict. Ash alludes to this when he refers to the creature as “Kane's son” after its attack on Brett.
The alien itself becomes the most overtly sexual element of the film. In many ways, it seems to be comprised of reproductive organs. Designed by Swiss surrealist painter H.R. Giger, the alien is a monster that is both beautiful and horrific in its physical form. It has an exoskeleton that looks like a human rib cage, a long tail and an extremely textured body surface. It's head is a nightmare come to life, a phallic form with vagina dentata at one end... and if that wasn't enough, it has a shooting jaw, which is another phallus with a mouth on it. It is also covered in a viscous slime with a very similar consistency to semen. Its attacks on the humans have more in common with rapes than they do with murders, the apotheosis of which is reached during the attack on Lambert, which is not seen but heard. There is shot of the creature's tail moving between her legs, but then we cut away and hear on the intercom her screams of pain, sounding remarkably like a horrible orgasm. The alien represents an unbridled libido set loose in what is an otherwise sexually sterile crew. The infamous “strip-down” scene, in which Ripley gets ready for hypersleep at the end of the film, has the alien voyueristically observing her. This is an interesting reversal of a common horror film trope. Most of the time, the malevolent force punishes sexual activity, while here it seems to be sexuality itself that is killing the crew.
The film is structured as a horror film as well. There is a slow ramp-up of tension until the attacks start to occur, and although Kane's death is a surprise when it happens, Brett and Dallas' deaths are telegraphed to the audience. This was done on purpose by Scott so that the finale of the film would be as surprising as it was. Ash is revealed not only to not be human, but to have been aiding the alien, which sets up the desperate final act. Ripley is set up to be killed, as she goes off by herself to get the cat of all things. The fact that Weaver was a relative unknown at the time and her stupid, sentimental actions, made it quite clear to the audience of 1979 that she was going to die. Its attack on Parker and Lambert were then a big revelation to the viewer.
The Ash subplot was added to the film in order to beef up its second act. It is often considered one of the weakest aspects of the film. This is not, in this author's opinion, entirely true. That Ash is attempting to preserve the creature for the Weyland-Yutani Corporation is a plot point that would reappear in all of the subsequent films in the series, and Ian Holm's performance adds significantly to the feeling of unease one has in the film. Furthermore, the effect of Parker knocking off Ash's head is one of the most alarming in the film because it is so unexpected. This is a strange amalgam of both science-fiction and horror genres. Furthermore, the implication in this film, and many of its sequels, is that corporations are the dominant governing force on earth, a very science-fiction idea that isn't really explored in the film itself, but an interesting concept nonetheless.
Ash finally acts by attacking Ripley, whom he sees as the greatest threat to his charge, which is the alien itself. His confrontation with her also has strange sexual elements; he attempts to suffocate her by forcing a rolled-up magazine into her mouth, a perversion of fellatio. One can almost characterize the film as being a constant sexual assault on Ripley, which is one of the main reasons why when the contest becomes between the two of them, Ripley is at her most vulnerable. That Ripley, who is the sole human survivor of the Nostromo is a woman is significant, an inversion of the science-fiction trope in which the hero is typically male, but that is characteristic of the horror film, which often places women in danger, usually requiring a male to protect her. Alien, however, takes away all of its male characters save the alien itself (and Jones the cat, perhaps significantly a “pussy” male). Even before the deaths of her male shipmates, however, Ripley has demonstrated a very competent presence. Genders were not assigned to characters until late in the writing process, and in many ways, she could be considered as being coded as “male,” (this is an aspect of the character that James Cameron would build upon by fusing it to Ripley as a mother figure in Aliens, the most militaristic film about motherhood ever made).
One of the most telling signposts of a film's genre often is its music. Jerry Goldsmith's score as it appears in the film falls completely into the horror genre. That this was not always so is interesting; originally, Scott requested that Goldsmith pen a score that would have a strong romantic main theme, no doubt attempting to initially recreate the tone that worked so well for him on The Duellists (sic), which featured a lush score by Howard Blake. Goldsmith complied with Scott's wishes, and while these original main and end titles graced the LP, they do not appear in the film. Goldsmith re-scored the opening title sequence at Scott's request, replacing the graceful Nostromo theme with the eerie textural rumblings of the alien planet sequence.
This is a significant change, one which is one of the few alterations that Scott asked for from Goldsmith that works in the film's favor. While Goldsmith's theme is very good, and works quite well in several places in the film, it wouldn't have introduced the film properly. There would have been too much of an association with a space opera as the romantic symphonic idiom had been popularized by John Williams in his Star Wars score two years earlier. While the opening of Star Wars has a bold and brassy Korngoldian feel do it, putting the audience in the proper mindset for a swashbuckling fantasy adventure, Alien's quiet, understated title sequence prepares the audience for something much more sinister... it is the opening of a horror film.
In contrast to the main Nostromo theme, most of the rest of the score is a gloriously avant-garde composition, using Goldsmith's trademark echoplexes, scratching strings, distant woodwind tonalities and bizarre “primitive” effects for the creature itself. Goldsmith makes use of an interesting “ticking” motif which marks the passage of time (this would be lifted by James Horner in his extremely derivative score for Aliens). The main theme appears from time to time in order to establish what bits of human warmth there are in the film, most effectively during Kane's funeral and Dallas' final interface with Mother. The tone is not all that different from some of the darker effects that Goldsmith used in his classic science-fiction score for Planet of the Apes, although it is much more melodic and tonal in general than that work, and may be considered something of a larger scale variation on his Oscar-winning score for The Omen or his experimental music for The Other, which are as horror as one can get.
One of Goldsmith's most effective cues, “The Droid,” for the sequence in which Ash's true nature is revealed, was mostly dropped in the film in favor of Jimmy Shields' eerie sound effects and tracking in some music briefly from elsewhere in the film. On the original DVD edition of the film there were two isolated score tracks, and one can hear this cue properly synchronized to the visuals. It is clearly a masterful piece, and one that emphasizes the creepiness of Ash in particular, but in many ways emphasized the science-fiction aspects of this particular plot twist. Just as the famous two-note motif for the shark does not appear in Jaws when the shark fin is revealed to be two kids playing a prank, it would have been inappropriate to overscore this moment, and so this plays out, again, more as a horror film moment than as a science-fiction film moment.
Scott and editor Terry Rawlings fell in love with some of their temp score, and several of Goldsmith's best cues are jettisoned in favor of music from Goldsmith's own score from Freud (which doesn't work any better than the original material Goldsmith wrote, but isn't entirely out of place here) and the finale and end credits have Howard Hanson's second symphony, The Romantic, playing over them. This last bit is perhaps the biggest error Scott made in creating this film. Hanson's music doesn't fit the film at all, while Goldsmith's end title would have been a much more satisfying conclusion. While the cue wouldn't have had the symmetry with the opening that it would have had before the main title was re-scored, it has thematic continuity with what preceded it and is clearly more consonant with the idiom of the rest of the score, much more so than Hanson's flowing piece. The Hanson piece doesn't really fit the tone of either the science-fiction or horror genres (although Williams would reference a different part of the same symphony in his score for E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial three years later), while Goldsmith's would have given the film a science-fiction sendoff, perhaps the only musical reference to the genre that would have survived the final mix.
Alien was beautifully photographed by Derek Vanlint in anamorphic Panavision, yielding a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Widescreen has a long history in both the science-fiction and horror genres. Forbidden Planet was one of the first science-fiction projects to be treated as an event film, and it was shot in the anamorphic CinemaScope process (which yielded a 2.55:1 aspect ratio) and its roadshow presentations featured a stereophonic soundtrack. John Carpenter's Halloween, which broke box-office records for an independent production (and would have been a fairly recent memory for the filmmakers), famously used its wide proscenium in order to allow its malevolent “shape” stalker to lurk in its corners.
There is no way to explain to somebody who has not seen this film in a theater how impressive it looks when projected. When the so-called “Director's Cut” of the film* was re-released in Hallowe'en of last year, I brought some of my friends with me to see the film. My friend Tim commented that the wide frame seemed to be used in order to emphasize not the claustrophobia one might expect from the confined space the Nostromo represents, but instead to showcase its gargantuan size. Its corridors are long and its chambers cavernous. Although we were intimate with the film's story and its twists and turns, the sheer scale of the film was breathtaking. The use of the horizontal framing, the high-key lighting and the fact that Vanlint allowed those beautiful elliptical lens flares to travel gracefully across the screen give the film a visual majesty above and beyond the ground-breaking sets and effects. It also managed to allow the titular creature to come from anywhere, thus fusing the unpredictability of the mise-en-scene of Halloween with the roving nature of the photography of Robert Wise' horror classic The Haunting. Nowhere is this best exemplified then the sequence in the Narcissus at the end, when the camera is resting on the alien for several minutes before the audience (and Ripley) become aware of its presence.
Alien is a film that continues to fascinate because the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The science-fiction milieu grounds the more horrific elements in a way that was, and remains, completely original. I will sign off with a quote from the Heavy Metal comic book adaptation of the film... “It ends as it began... with the ship... and silence.”
* Scott himself has commented that the original version of the film is his preferred, but that he recut the film slightly at Fox's request for the re-release. My preference, and the text that this paper is on, is the original 1979 edit of the film, which is thankfully preserved in pristine condition on the new DVD edition of the film along with the 2003 version. Both DVDs of the film are essential, however, as they contain different features.