Alien Ridley Scott (USA; 1979;) Sigourney Weaver
viewed Star and Shadow Cinema 14 July 2022; ticket £7
It’s all in the bun
Derived from Philip K Dick’s novel ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’, Ridley Scott produced a scenario for Blade Runner’ that scratched a little through his cinematically designed surface to suggest troubling ethical philosophical issues with otherness, in particular the idea of the replicated copies of ourselves.
But although contriving a sense of probing the idea of what it might be to be considered human, ‘Blade Runner’ is remembered and etched into the public consciousness for the externalities of its design. ‘Blade Runner’ is characterised by its lighting effects – squeezed piss yellows and lurid hues, and a design carapace that moves the characters between dystopian exteriors and high post modern gothic interiors, whilst stopping at various stripped down functional settings in between time.
With the production of ‘Alien’, which precedes ‘Blade Runner’ in his filmography, Scott successfully piloted his ad-man approach to filmmaking. Unlike ‘Blade Runner’ ‘Alien’ comprises a scenario in which most of the value of the film is in the sets and the creation and depiction of the ‘monster’. The fact that it is set in ‘outer space’ on the good ship Nostromo feels extraneous to the action which is simply a monster-from-another -world horror story in the tradition of H P Lovecraft. The horror trope dynamics of Scott’s script would work just as well in the sort of settings favoured by Lovecraft: large old house with extensive subterranean vaults and caves.
The plot consists of horror staples/stereotypes: an impregnating monster that like the pupa of some insects, implants itself in a convenient host out of whom the emerging/birthing creature has to eat its way. The creature also seems liable to change shape at one point exploding out of the belly of one of the crew looking like a psychotic vicious penis with teeth. But equally central to ‘Alien’ are the sets which on this spaceship flip between ‘2001’ type squeaky clean tech backgrounds and a proto Victorian industrial gothic look. There are moments when it looked like the good old ship ‘Nostromo’ was steam driven. This wrought density of its patina allows for the familiar horror movie hide and seek games to take place against a menacing tangled background from which at any moment the wee beastie may erupt.
And that is about it. The characters are all mechanical contrivances selected to represent types including a ‘robot’ who fools everyone as to his android provenance. As most of the rest of the characters are robotically inclined it’s unsurprising none of the crew notices. The robot crew member seems to exist for the audience’s satisfaction of seeing it well duffed and truly mangled as part of the rather prolonged finale. The dialogue as befits the nature of the crew is either ‘arch’ or ‘action banal’ and the same may be said of the camera work, with its shot reverse shot and bolted in tracks and zooms exploiting the possibilities of ambiguity in lines of sight.
‘Alien’ has many of the attributes of junkfood. And like the ‘Big Mac’: it works. The industrially assembled hamburger has conquered the world with its mixture of sugar and salt glooped over a salad and pickle dressed paté packed into a sesame bun. It has fatal attraction. ‘Big Mac’ is of course a manipulation of our sugar and salt receptors which have developed over the course of natural selection to reward foods high in these contents, which for most of our history have often been scarce and hard to access. Food tech changed all this. Sugars and salt are now cheap and easy to make manufacture and sell: which is what MacDonalds do. The Big Mac crude mix of sugary and salt tastes and its yielding texture temporarily overwhelms the mouth’s sensory neural system, guiding the consumer into reward cycle loop as they return to seek the familiarised pleasure of ‘Big Mac’ gastro fix and taste supersaturation.
‘Alien’ is assembled using a similar recipe to the ‘Big Mac’, aiming to strategically overwhelm the emotional systems of the viewer. Scott, with his background in advertising, understands the basics of manipulation and association. His manipulative skill was ably demonstrated in his ‘Hovis’ advert, in which exploiting nostalgia, and Dvorak ‘New World Sympathy (re-arranged for brass), his ad sold tacky mass produced brown bread, by associating it the ‘real McCoy’ product made in a village bakery. ‘Alien’ instead of using taste sensors exploits our fear sensors. Scott activates and rewards them with contrived stimulae, manipulating them with a series of cinematic tricks: explosive sound and visual FX, series of intercuts between big close ups and indeterminate backgrounds, intercrew tension and monsters. The shock lies in the rapid activation of the audience’s fear sensors the which give out the usual signals of: wait and see/flee, but physically being seated simultaneously anchors and countervails the emotional fear charge.
Like the Big Mac, Alien is well assembled, with Scott’s adman flair for delivering and selling product. It’s success perhaps owes something to the fusion in Scott’s script of mythological beasts and our culture’s nascent insecurity about the gynaecological aspirations of micro-biologists to synthesize life. But for all the popularity of Alien, it’s surprising to see it deemed: “culturally historically aesthetically significant….” by the Library of Congress and ranked by Empire as 33rd greatest film of all time. Selling product is obviously more important than making films to these people, though of course Scott did set in motion the profitable ‘Alien’ franchise of some 7 films. So there is something to be said for it industry wise, though as cinema ‘Alien’ barely holds a candle to Don Siegel’s ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’. And incidentally Siegel’s film was produced in 1956, the same year Ray Croc purchased the US franchise rights for McDonald’s and all its products from the McDonald brothers, and changed the world for ever.