Undead Cinema: Alien, a Space Horror

Alien_movie_poster          I love films that make us cry, I love films that make us laugh, but horror films for some reason rarely resonate with me. I just am not a fan of red karo and absolutely gratuitous bloodbaths built solely to give the actors a messy wardrobe. So when horror films come along that are not of that sort, I am willing to give them a shot.

What did you just film?
What did you just film?

          Originally cast as “a haunted house in space,” we are already well and aware of the general premise of Alien. Ship lands on planet. Alien impregnates crewmember. Alien explodes from chest fifty-five minutes in, (a scene which took the actors by surprise) and the rest of film shows crewmember after crewmember getting taken out. Ripley escapes by exploding ship and then ejecting alien out of escape pod airlock.
My mother says that when she went to see the film, she dropped me off at daycare and that it was the first film that she was glad I was not with her, because it terrified her enough to scream in the theatre twice and my mom still tells me to zip it when I cough while the movie is playing. Even the tagline, “In space no one can hear you scream” has been ripped off and replayed and rebuilt by any number of homages and hombres that it is now part of our lexicon for something scary.
Now initially, I am sure you are curious how this film ties into nerd-dom as a whole, beyond the fact that it led to a very different sequel that spawned the clash of Aliens vs. Predator in comics and toys and such but that is actually a very different tale for a very different day.
dune-poster-1          If we talk only about the first film, Alien, then we get to talk about some very different things, like sandworms and spice. Yes, The Kwisatz Haderach of Dune’s Arrakis was the inspiration for Alien or “Star beast” as it was initially known. The deserted planet of Alien’s LV-246 was inspired by the empty world of George Herbert’s desert planet, Arrakis, from the Dune series of novels. When the funding for the Dune movie with Mick Jagger Salvador Dali, and Orson Welles tanked in 1975, the writer, Dan O’Bannon needed money, so he took work on ALIEN, originally titled Star Beast. I still think a Dune with Dali would have been bad-ass.  But concerning, the references that Dune had on ALIEN, even the ship jutting from the ground is an homage to the sandworm, something we are meant to feel right next to. That is why we must descend into the belly of the beast to retrieve the life from inside. The script writer, Dan O’Bannon had the chest-bursting scene and the name as the first things on script. Everything else about the film was built around the most famous scene in the movie. The scene happens roughly halfway through the film because the setup is for a two hour movie. The first hour is purposed to be boring, yet odd and then 34:30 seconds in, the facehugger pops on screen.  It is another twenty minutes of time before the terror’s next stage occurs in the cocoon of John Hurt’s character, Kane.

The Big Reveal!
The Big Reveal!

If I asked you to name a ship set that is built as one single stage and not a bunch of cutaways, you would be wrong to think that the Firefly series had the only set like that. Soundstages are big whopping deals and such a configuration is totally fine if they only have to build it once for a series that will be doing a lot of filming, but solid set ships are usually required for the shape of the ship to have multiple levels(which requires making sure the walls are structurally solid rather than just visual fronts) and ramps and ladders and hallways and all of these are nightmares in that they limit filming options. Low ceilings remove the overhead capabilities for camera crews to produce. Sets with defined walls minimize side trucking and tracking shots for dialogues in hallways. They define fourth walls that are unbreakable. Plus they are gawds-awful expensive for mere seconds of camera time.

Action Hero or Living Dead homage?
Action Hero or Living Dead homage?

Nowadays, ad-libbing is something most actors and directors are fairly fine with, so long as you do not deviate from the general direction of the script and so long as it is kept to a minimum. But back in the late 70’s and early 80’s, ad-libbing was a faux pas, something unprofessional or as a practice, never during actual audience time. Yaphet Kotto, the African American actor probably more famous for his role as the mastermind in the 007 classic Live and Let Die, was so positive that his big name success could keep him alive that he decided that instead of dying quietly, he was going to fight and kick and scream and battle the beast. The directors told him that the alien was coming from the wrong direction so that they could catch his reaction when the alien snuck up behind him. If it worked with the chest-bursting scene, it could work with a later part of the film.
The film seems to be broken up into 4 major points, and this is the quick version for people who have seen the film before. Point one is the build-up to the monster itself. We are just waiting to find out if the alien is good or bad or shiny or what-have-you. Once the monster is out, we are at the second plot, waiting to see which camper at crystal lake buys it next. At the third point we find out that the company wants to keep the alien at the expense of the crew (doublecross) and then finally we watch our heroine save herself and the cat.
In an interesting turn of events, Alien does two things right next to each other that make me like the film. Rather than killing off the “token black guy” (Parker)and the “whiney cheerleader”(Lambert) at the beginning of the film to give us more combat, the film assumes that Lambert and Parker are the latter survivors because they were not willing to risk their lives. Most films kill off the non-hero characters because the writers can’t make them interesting enough to carry the scene, but the audience has no interest in going toe-to-toe with the beast, and thus Alien allows us cowardly audience members to empathize along with the characters. It is the cowardice of Parker and Lambert and their need to save each other that gets them both killed. Parker is too concerned with Lambert’s well being to notice the bug and Lambert can’t kill the bug without hitting Parker as well.

Knock Knock! Space Shark!
Knock Knock! Space Shark!

The actual survivor of the first film, Sigourney Weaver’s character, Ellen Ripley, is so inept at getting rid of the monster that it is only a mistake of the Alien that finally does it in. There is this ambushing, creepy-crawly strategic master, who is an impossible-to-catch monster that is finally destroyed only after the victim joins it in an escape pod. However, before that destruction, the victim almost joins it out an airlock, the victim gets her weapon caught on the airlock door with a rope extending for the bug to easily climb back to the pod, the victim button-mashes the controls on the console to close the door and then finally figures out how to work the pod engines. If the bug simply had not assumed that the engine thrusters were access points, incompetent Ripley would be dead as well. This is our survivor, the heroine who is not trained for action movies. In the sequels she will gain a lot of chutpah and head into the dragon;s lair, but in this film, none of the heroes survive and this is why it is a horror film and an empathetic one at that.
While it lacks the buckets of blood associated with traditional horror movies, much of the same formula to “keep the monster hidden to allow the audience to fill in the terrible blanks” works here. Alien is a film that takes the horror genre and puts it in the Science fiction category, paving the way for films like Event Horizon, Hellraiser: Bloodline, Leprechaun 4, Supernova, Pitch Black, and Pandorum.

We Come in Peace
We Come in Peace

While many space horrors are simply extensions of previously successful horror franchises jumping the proverbial shark, Alien made the assumption that the terror is already out there rather than being carted along with us. We always hope that first contact with an alien will be like a Star Trek movie, but it is much more likely that the same need humanity’s prejudicial preconceptions and need to expand will drive the outsiders to war with us. HG Wells assumed our initial meetings will be bad when he wrote War of the Worlds,  along with Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, both versions of the NBC/ABC produced “V” series, among many others
Alien has a casual pacing that keeps the movie from feeling slow. There is a fair amount of dialogue establishing the audience calibration to character normality, but that is to be expected in most science fiction, so that requisite information is not an unknown factor in the expectations of the viewer.
Is Alien still being used and or referenced in comics and science fiction? Yes, movie magicians are challenged every time they make a non-humanoid monster to come up with new ways to subvert the humanity of an alien in prosthetics and design. The extended version of the film, Alien, has the monster crab-walking on all fours. The helmet’s lack of eyes makes the monster seem creepy because if “eyes are the window to the soul,” then if the monster has no eyes, then it has no soul. The adline for the film “In space, noone can hear you scream” is still used as a reference to not only the soundlessness of space, but the separation the characters have from outside rescue. Even the entrance of the film as first a facehugger and a chestburster is original and unique. Any torso-exiting creature is an homage to O’Bannon and H.R. Giger’s epic reels of magic.

Legos are toys for kids!
Legos are toys for kids!

facehugger lego          However, are people still showing us as the characters of the Alien franchise in costumes and conventions? Yes, although they are either as the chest victim Kane or as the bug. It is a testament that the film is still commemorated with such a minimalistic necessity for costume changing other than the big scene. The sequel with Cameron has more costume dress, but it wouldn’t even be possible without the Alien genesis film. Alien costumes tend to be paired as the guy wearing the alien suit, with the girl as Ripley. I have even seen a halloween costume where the guy dressed as Kane and had his baby in a harness built to look like she was chestbursting. It was horror cute!

Raising the Kid right!
Raising the Kid right!

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