July 17, 2009

Rear View: Alien.

"You have come for knowledge. There will be pleasure.
For knowledge is sexy. There will also be pain.
Because knowledge is torture."

- Jeff Noon, Vurt, 1993

Thirty years ago the release of Alien completely changed science fiction film. Its pioneering design and hyperrealism became a template for futuristic visions in the decades that followed, spawning novels, comics, video games, toys, and an additional five films (including two crossovers with the Predator "franchise"). Its visual impact and the plausibility of the plot, combined with a new, more violent aesthetic to create a story far removed from the sterile, shiny surfaces of the classic space operas in whose wake it arrived. Though Star Wars had introduced rundown settings and rumbustious machines two years prior, that film's plot remained true to the conventional romantic romp in space - as was the case with Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, the more immediate attempts to cash in on the success of Star Wars. While Alien certainly benefitted from their success and particularly the reinvigoration of the genre they signified to film producers, it was a fundamentally darker creation which provided a breakthrough for a new subgenre, ostensibly labelled science fiction but significantly different in several important ways.

It depicts a dark dystopian future technocapitalist society, where omnipotent dictatorial and mercenary business conglomerates grapple for control over people and machines. Its aesthetic obtaining suggestive power and inspiration from various areas of contemporary culture, with a particularly obvious connection to Punk in its films' artificial revolt and exaggerated expressionist violence. It also parallels the rise of the literary genre later known as Cyberpunk, and its disrespectful attitude towards genre conventions, as well as innovations in fantastical art and comics - something exceptionally explicit in the case of Alien, a film designed by some the leading pioneers in those fields. As principal Cyberpunk writer William Gibson pointed out, this scientific fiction didn't deal so much with the future as with the time it was created in, extrapolating tendencies and phenomena already in existence - gone was the utopian future in which humanity had rid itself of the dark, turbulent 20th century's burdens.

No other genres attach so much importance to visual presentation as science fiction and horror films do - and Alien is both. But it was only during the 1970s and 1980s that they achieved a level of realism and persuasion to match the visions of filmmakers, and begun to erase the boundary between what could be imagined on paper and realised on screen. Alien achieved a greater degree of realism by as intensely as possible transferring its fantastical script to the screen; its audience was provided with a visualisation so powerful it appeared to be real. Its plot coupled the intimate with the clinical, while quite intentionally seeking to shock with the same brash attitude as Punk - a revolt that reverberated beyond popular music, in art, literature, film, and continues to resonate in mass media and popular culture. Under the guise of Punk it was suddenly possible (if not permissible) to exaggerate and enhance beyond the normally acceptable. With its shocking clarity and frank violence, Alien also serves as an example of how the film industry can assimilate a subculture and incorporate a school of thought.

Though a great success, Alien was born from disaster. In 1975, Chilean enfant terrible Alejandro Jodorowsky was preparing to make a film based on Frank Herbert's 1965 science fiction novel Dune. The second director among the quartet who'd attempt to adapt the novel, in a process protracted well over a decade, Jodorowsky envisioned a massive project, calling for enormous sets and gigantic scenes, entire armies battling each other in the desert. He assembled a pre-production team in a large Paris office, and among the many famous artists whose participation Jodorowsky was able to secure were three relative unknowns who'd go on to create Alien: Dan O'Bannon, Hans Reudi Geiger, and Jean "Mœbius" Giraud. An old acquaintance, the French comics artist Mœbius had been hired by Jodorowsky to provide storyboards for Dune, having already permanently altered the aesthetics of science fiction comics through Métal Hurlant, the magazine he'd helped found in 1974. Swiss surrealist Geiger had been hired by sheer fluke to create sets, when Jodorowsky came across one of his exhibition catalogues while negotiating Salvador Dàli's participation in the project.

Dan O'Bannon was hired to create special effects on the strengths of his contribution to Star Wars, and the 1974 feature Dark Star he'd conceived with fellow USC student John Carpenter - but only once Douglas Trumbull (who'd created special effects for 2001: A Space Odyssey, but turned down Star Wars) revealed himself too expensive for Jodorowsky's taste. But O'Bannon only arrived in Paris in time to witness the bloated project collapse. Jodorowsky's approach to failure was to change direction entirely, and when his remarkable version of Dune was cancelled he simply moved on. Geiger and Mœbius too returned to their established careers. For O'Bannon, who'd planned the next several years of his life around the project, it wasn't as simple. He returned to America, broke and homeless, and begun channelling his frustration into screenplays - one of which, Star Beast, would morph into Alien with considerable help from producers Walter Hill and Ronald Shusett. Both O'Bannon and Hill considered directing the film themselves, but their final choice fell on Briton Ridley Scott - after mulling fellow American Robert Aldrich (The Flight of the Phoenix, The Dirty Dozen), and Britons Jack Clayton (The Great Gatsby) and Peter Yates (Bullitt).

Though a successful set designer and commercial film maker, Scott had only one feature, the 1977 period drama The Duellists, to his name. He was not only new to the science fiction genre but somewhat of an outsider in the film business. (Curiously, Scott would become the third director to tackle Dune, working on that film for seven months in between Alien and his next feature, Blade Runner.) However, Alien's success relied more on the creatures spawned by Geiger's extraordinary imagination. The son of an introverted pharmacist, Geiger had become known for surreal airbrushed images of "biomechanoids," symbiotic interconnected organic bodies and machines. Frequently imbued with fetishistic erotic imagery, they were likely inspired by Geiger's catholic, sex- and gun-obsessed youth in the shadow of atomic Cold War paranoia, as well as a lifetime of suffering night terrors. When director Scott engaged Mœbius, whose comics as a fellow draughtsman he admired, to design costumes and spacesuits for Alien, Mœbius hinted at Giger as someone capable of creating a truly alien creature.

Eager to redeem himself after infamously creating a "space monster" in the shape of a beach ball with claws for Dark Star, Dan O'Bannon commissioned Geiger to devise a "monster" for Alien that wouldn't even remotely resemble "a guy in a rubber suit." In February 1978, director Scott accompanied by a couple of the film's producers visited Geiger, who by then had completed almost thirty conceptual paintings for the project in roughly three months time. Convinced that the artist was indeed the man for the job, they invited him to Shepperton, where the film was to be made. So Geiger, assisted by his future wife Mia Bonzangio, came to work directly on the creature which would win him an Oscar for best visual effects, and with which he would henceforth be intrinsically linked. Ironically, Alien also won three awards for best original score, despite the fact that much of Jeremy Goldsmith's original music for the film was rejected by director Scott, patched with interspersed segments from a score Goldsmith had composed for John Houston's Freud in 1962, and excerpts from the first movement of Howard Hanson's second symphony. Regardless of the film's success and the awards, Goldsmith apparently never forgave Scott.

Basically a story about things that go bump in the night - before they kill you - Alien is an exploration of human ignorance, negligence, and greed. The crew of an interstellar tugboat, hauling a massive ore refinery back to Earth, hatch from their artificial sleep upon intercepting a nearby distress call. Obliged to investigate, they trace the signal to an alien shipwreck on a small planetoid where one of the crew manages to become impregnated by an alien creature whose main circulatory fluid just happens to be a universal solvent, and whose offspring hatches explosively from his chest, grows rapidly in size and strength, and proceeds to eliminate the crew one at a time. The slow pacing of the film, reminiscent of thrillers past, is its greatest strength. The suspense is allowed to build slowly, there's no instant gratification of the kind common today. Effects are used sparingly, the realism intensified by the fact that the alien creatures mostly appear in brief fragments, with the handheld camera-work done by director Scott himself lending the film a certain cinema vérité quality.

Much of the dialogue was improvised, further adding to the realistic tone, as did the small ensemble of character actors with few instantly recognisable stars. Populating a spaceship with older actors (the median age of the cast was 40) of practically equal stature also made it almost impossible to surmise their fate, and guess beforehand who would or wouldn't survive the ordeal. The rumour that only John Hurt, portraying the unwittingly impregnated second mate Kane, knew what would happen in the infamous "chestbuster" scene is partially true. It had been explained to the cast, but not in great detail. They weren't told that real animal guts would be used, hence the scene was shot in one take, with four cameras set up to capture the quite genuine reactions of surprise, revulsion, and shock. The parasitoid nature of the alien creatures serve as a very powerful metaphor for non-consensual reproduction - rape, actually - and the fact that a man is subject to it broadens the threat to include all of mankind. Everyone is at risk, not just of death, but total corruption of the human body.

This aspect is contrasted with the complete disregard of the crew's employer, the Earth-based resource conglomerate, whose intent of bringing a specimen of the alien creatures back to Earth is kept from their employees - they're expendable, mere tools, simply "doing their job." Here perhaps lies the clue to why the spaceship, Nostromo, and its shuttle, Narcissus, are named after characters that appear in the stories of Polish-born British writer Joseph Conrad. For though Alien has little in common with Conrad's fin de siècle novels, conceived at the apex of the British Empire, they all share a critical view of the excesses of imperialism. The names of the vessels serve as reminders of humanity's hubris, as signifiers of colonialism. They remind the audience that the conglomerate is interested solely in resources, not research; in expediency, not empathy; in profit, not progress. And that no amount of spacefaring Mates are to be spared when there's a dollar to be made.

With the exception of West Germany, where the film received the camp subtitle "Das unheimliche Wesen aus einer fremden Welt" (The Eerie Creature from an Alien World,) and Hungary, where the slightly more philosophical "A nyolcadik utas: a halál!" (The Eighth Passenger: is Death!) was added, around the world the title was commonly appended with the line "the 8th passenger," which is misleading, particularly as the as the spaceship in question is no pleasure craft nor are the people aboard mere passengers. Theirs is a working vessel, they are its crew - hired grunts doing the bidding of an unscrupulous employer. They are, truth be told, mercenaries hired to harness vast profit, not adventurers or explorers. The titular alien is therefore - at best - a stowaway. But while depicting the people who do all the heavy lifting in space is unusual, Alien is truly remarkable for possessing a female protagonist who's not a damsel in interstellar distress. Perhaps not entirely surprising, given director Scott's unabashed fondness for powerful, emancipated female characters. But third mate Ripley is also Alien's least sympathetic human character, one the audience would consider least likely to survive right from the very beginning.

Ripley's no rebel, she's no lone wolf. On the contrary, she's the only crew member consistently playing by the book, insisiting on following the rules despite being relentlessly thwarted by the cowardice of her colleagues and the ulterior motives of their employer. Ripley is a stickler for the rules, until they no longer apply. At which point she's forced to rely on her own intelligence and initiative instead. An early draft of the script featured a male Ripley, but during rewrites all the characters became androgynous, allowing not only for less rigid casting but also strengthening the idea of humans as incubators, mere tools. Meryl Streep were among the actresses approached, and Veronica Cartwright - who ended up portraying the anxious junior navigator Lambert - was originally cast as Ripley. But the part ultimately went to the (then) rather unknown Sigourney Weaver, whose breakthrough this quite unique part ensured. Unique until the very last act, that is, when for no particular reason Ripley romps around in skimpy togs that are supposed to pass for underwear, and the camera lingers on her waistline. Although this in itself is an interesting comment on how people can become mere cogs in the machinery of economic power. At least Ripley's affair with the ship's captain was dropped from the final version of the film.

Cinema can provide the illusion of exploring new, unknown worlds offering the audience new, unique knowledge. This is particularly true of "scientific fiction" aiming to depict an imagined, future, or contemporary universe. It's also true of the psychological thriller, delving into the past, or detective stories, or various types of horror films. They're all variations of the same, mystical plot: an undiscovered world penetrated by the curious in their quest for obscured knowledge. What makes their quest so suspenseful is the question what attaining this knowledge will entail. Will it be a blessing or a curse, will it involve life or death? Films about forbidden or obscured knowledge can serve as reminders or real scientific risks and problems, but most often dispense ominous warnings regarding the quest for knowledge itself - as do many other contemporary as well as ancient convention shaping stories and myths. The idea that the established order of things is connected to a "higher order" can be discerned lurking behind this cautious stance. If one is altered, or affronted, so is the other.

An exaggerated thirst for knowledge thus becomes something suspicious, capable of provoking a deities' anger or "nature's" revenge. The disrupted order then necessitates restoration, often through ritualised punishment, or a "purifying" sacrifice - in Alien's case, the death of practically every character. To persist in obtaining the obscured or secret despite such obstacles further represents the quest for absolute knowledge. In such cases, it's not merely the story of the lure of the forbidden, but also of the power that resides in owning or performing the exceptional, the astonishing. The attraction lies in possessing knowledge that no one else has previously possessed. In this sense, Alien is as critical towards science and the quest for knowledge as practically every science fiction film before it - yet not nearly as openly hostile as the sequels that followed it. It's likely no coincidence that the ships' science officer turns out to be a rogue; the sole member of the crew attempting to engage the alien creature with curiosity and logic is very much a product of science itself. Not only the sole representative of science aboard, the android Ash - an archetypal evil scientist - is an embodiment of the principles that guide science in Alien's universe.

Curiously, despite the seeming aversion to science, the film commits few scientific faux pas, rarely straying from the boundaries imposed by the universe it imagines. There is of course the plausibility of the alien creature itself, in particular its incredibly rapid development from chest-bursting parasitic banshee to fully fledged bipedal killing machine. Even an unknown, alien biology is unlikely to run counter to natural laws - so called because they appear to be unbreakable practically everywhere. The alien creature's accumulation of mass in particular appears to skirt the first law of thermodynamics, as the audience never actually witnesses it consuming anything it kills - or anything else of substance. There are of course life forms on our planet known to utilise other species as incubators, or increasing their size by ingesting large quantities of liquids. But these traits are rarely combined among them, and certainly not on the scale of the film's antagonistic xenomorph. (Never mind that it would have to be made of teflon to have acid for blood.)

However, keeping in mind that Geiger's creation is a biomechanical symbiont, it may have been designed as a living weapon capable of adapting itself to whatever environment is happens to be deployed in. Though the audience never sees its metamorphosis - in order for the suspense to build - it may acquire part of its bulk from mechanical items it comes across. That would certianly explain some of its vacuum cleaner-like appendages. Indeed, the alien wreck from whence it came may not be a simple transport but something akin to a bomber, lost on its way to egg the face of an enemy with the contents of its deadly hatchery. After all, the plot does suggest that the Earth-based conglomerate, whose interest include not only mining but also armaments, appears not only aware of the alien creatures' potential as biological weapons but in fact possesses some prior knowledge of their existence. This still leaves plenty for continuity fiends to gripe about, but most (f)actual errors in Alien require a level of specialised knowledge not commonly found even among science fiction fans. (Like the fact that the density of the planetoid where the alien wreck is discovered is quite improbable in relation to its reported gravity.)

For the most part, Alien's creators manage to conjure forth a believable setting for their story. Genre conventions, such as practical artificial gravity aboard spaceships, or ventilator shafts sturdy and large enough to spelunk in, do not detract unduly from the logic of the plot. Neither do the scenes with sound in space - something few science fiction films bother getting right, likely because of the importance of sound to their human audiences - even though, as copywriter Barbara Gips pointed out in Alien's legendary tagline, "In space no one can hear you scream." But they still like to hear your spaceship go wooossssh!

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