Alien

Alien ★★★★★

I can't stay away. Every few months, I find myself called back to the Nostromo to try and figure out what it is about Alien that makes it so perfectly immersive and enjoyable. I haven't come close to being able to definitively state it yet, since Scott and crew do so many marvelous things here, but for this rewatch I focused on a few things that make Alien stand up so high among not only the rest of its sequels, but of a majority of sci-fi, past and present.

Who's on First?
Probably the most fascinating thing about this watch was realizing that Ellen Ripley does not become the primary protagonist until after the hour mark - more than halfway through the picture. How on Earth do Scott and O'Bannon pull this off? Somehow, Ripley is given less development (at least explicitly) than literally any of the other characters, yet when she finally does come to the focal fore, the audience is brilliantly coerced into picturing her as having been the star all along. It's perhaps one of the most deft treatments of a character I can recall ever seeing.

For the entire first half of the film, we get to know all the other crew members, even if it's through vaguely archetypical roles: Dallas, the stoic leader; Parker, the confrontational womanizer; Brett, the sycophantic loser; Lambert, the nervous pessimist; and Ash, the ominous company man. Who is Ripley? If anything, I suppose she's 'Dallas lite,' but she really just remains in the background - always present, but never explored. And yet, when she does step into Dallas' role, it's instantly apparent that Scott, O'Bannon, and Weaver have so subtly been establishing her - even if only through silent comparison with the rest of the crew - that it's the most natural thing in the world to accept her as the protagonist, and even to retroactively integrate her role as more prominent than it actually is in the first half.

So what's the secret? Is it Weaver's comparably extraordinary femininity that makes her stand out (apologies, Veronica Cartwright)? Is it the fact that by not explicitly presenting character flaws like the rest of the crew, she is heroic by default? Some, all, none? Regardless, not only is delaying the sympathetic dependence of the protagonist on the audience a brilliant move in keeping the picture from getting stale or overbearing, it breathes life into the emotional arc of the film, tickles the brain with its unconventionality, and generally makes Ripley (and Alien, by extension) a fascinating character study outside of the genre elements that are the superficial draw of the picture.

Sitting Alone in a Cold, Dark Room
I can only imagine the amount of text devoted to Giger's designs in Alien (and justifiably so), but as much as he is given credit for the unique look of the film, I found myself appreciating several of the non-Giger aspects of Alien'svisual design. Scott's use of low-angle lighting (especially in close-ups)- while a horror-movie standby - works especially well here and, thanks to the established technology of computer consoles and futuristic furniture, is automatically accepted as in-universe design aspects instead of directorial sleights of hand. In effect, Scott realized a future that is inherently scary - nearly everything is functionally conducive to adding a subconscious sense of dread. Alien does not become a horror movie when the monster element is introduced; the horror element pervades every aspect of the world Ripley, Dalles, et al live in - an inescapable fact of life instead of an introduced threat or atmosphere at the whim of a plot point.

Likewise, of course, is the set design itself. I believe Trumbull (or an associate), on one of 2001's audio commentaries, explained the Discovery One's design as primarily functional, and then accessorized, leading to a stronger inference by the audience that those accessories must be functional as well. The thought of designing a sci-fi set any other way seems counterintuitive and foolish, and it's clear that Scott and the art crew of Alien felt the same way. The ship exteriors, interiors, and furnishings are all so complicated in detail that it should come off as a big hot mess, but throughout the picture, little details emerge - specific examples of functionality are given - that make the prospect of the Nostromo being a standard, blue-collar, industrial vessel easily believable. Warning signs, branding, non-Chekov's gun-related tools lying about...other than being set light-years away, it's easy to see the Nostromo as an evolutionary extension of an oil rig, with its even-now industrial clutter and technical accessories foreign to the general public.

For a brief tangent I would like to say one thing about Giger's design of the Xenomorph. While it's still perfectly effective after all this time, a dozen or so watches in I like to play a game of 'what-ifs,' and I came up with one for the Xenomorph. Instead of a man in a suit - which Giger was able to mask so well with the creature's biology and functionality - I wonder how much creepier it might be if the Xenomorph was instead controlled like a large marionette. Perhaps it's just me, but there is something inherently creepy and, yes, alien, about the almost boneless way marionettes move around - liquid yet jerky, bordering-on-uncontrolled movement, never resting. For a recent example, see Giant God Warrior Appears in Tokyo. I'm not sure if it could have been done logistically, but it's fun to imagine how terrifying too-terrifying really is.

Po-tay-to, Po-tah-to
Ash. Alien. Android. I might be getting into semantics, but it struck me that perhaps the Xenomorph is not the titular alien of the picture, or, at the very least, not the only one. The Xenomorph, for all its visceral horror, is the easy villain of the piece, the nameless, soulless force of nature that is an easy scapegoat for our basis of fear. Ash, in my opinion, is the true horror of Alien, more terrifying because he looks. just. like. us. That surreality of an assumed man, with faults and emotions that get the better of him, turning out to be absolutely inhuman - made all the more horrifying because there are nearly no clues beforehand of his real nature, especially on a first viewing (at least, for me, one of the greatest cinematic surprises of all time).

And make no mistake - Ash is pure evil. Sure, he might get his orders from Mother, but Scott and O'Bannon make it very clear that we are not to sympathize with him in any way, shape, or form. There is no guilt, no First Law, no remorse. He is the uncompromising reckoning of the crew. He is a non-man, an alien in human disguise, whose only goal is the protection of the Xenomorph. He is a traitor, a spy, a saboteur; actively crippling the human element in favor of the Xenomorph's safety. All this is made even worse when realizing that (in a science fiction film) he is the Science Officer - someone to be trusted, and even more completely so considering the nature of the threat presented to the crew. The enemy you know is eminently preferable to the one that you don't.

Of course, as I find myself doing too often, I could also point out this aspect of 'Ash as the real alien' as another Cold War analogy (it's either the Russians or Jesus with me, isn't it?). He's a sleeper agent, and like in The Thing, so well hidden that - should the crew have survived long enough - his existence could feasibly have resulted in the same end as the very embodiment of paranoia (obviously picked up on by Cameron when developing Ripley and Bishop's relationship in Aliens). While the comparisons pretty much end beyond Ash's ability to blend in with the actual humans of the crew, it's this line of thought that makes me consider him (and Ian Holm's flawless performance) as important to the richness of Alien - in providing a secondary antagonist who not only extends the shelf-life of the Xenomorphic threat, but supplements its visceral terror with a psychological one - as Ripley's delayed ascension to the fore.

Aboard the Narcissus
And I could go on. And on. And on. The sexual connotations of the Xenomorph and really all of Giger's designs. Goldsmith's score, and especially the lack thereof (although I will say one of my only issues is that he occasionally belies the lo-fi and grungy nature of the setpieces by being a bit too uptempo and vibrant). How most of the above causes Alien to feel so full, so layered, that picking out the distinction between acts a pointless endeavor. In the end, Ridley Scott and Dan O'Bannon, along with the cast and crew, manage to turn a b-movie idea into something so much more. I'm not sure if I've used the phrase before on Letterboxd, but I'm more than comfortable in saying Alien is a cinematic masterpiece.

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