Alien – A cinematic masterpiece
‘The film which you are about to see is an account of the tragedy which befell a group of five youths…. had they lived very, very long lives, they could not have expected nor would they have wished to see as much of the mad and macabre as they were to see that day. For them an idyllic summer afternoon drive became a nightmare. The events of that day were to lead to the discovery of one of the most bizarre crimes in the annals of American history, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.’
In 1974 Tobe Hooper would produce an exploitative nightmare, both on set and on screen that would change horror and cinema forever. A film that was both frugal and visceral in its violence. The audience was presented with the madness of its set design of the macabre and sound design that drove home the insanity that is to be the next 80 minutes of their lives. ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ (Every word of the title a story in itself.) is part of the permanent collection of New York City’s museum of modern art.
‘In space no one can hear you scream’.
In 1979, 2 years after ‘Star Wars’, another film that changed cinema forever and how the viewing public went to cinema, Ridley Scott gave us Alien. Ridley Scott says from the beginning that ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ was a big influence on ‘Alien’ (As was ‘Star Wars’.). ‘Alien’ is very visceral in its moments of violence which are few and far between and often only seen in part leaving the viewer to imagine there was more than they actually saw. The set design is ground-breaking like ‘Texas..’ and part of the set design was skeleton like in form, also like ‘Texas…’.
I often hear ‘Alien’ described as ‘A haunted house story set in space’, which it is. However to view ‘Alien’ as purely that, is to view ‘Romeo and Juliet’ as a romance set in Verona.
‘Alien’ is a film about you and me… Working stiffs. Well you… YOU, reading this may be a working stiff. I’m a bum who views this review as one of my eight pieces of work a month to claim a healthy lifestyle. They are miners and truckers transporting ‘20,000,000 tons of mineral ore’ through space. Their job is to monitor and maintain the equipment to make profit for the company they work for. The 6 human crew members are a company team with middle management and physical workers. Discussing company procedure, arguing over pay and maintaining their class in the company structure. They are not trained or prepared in any way to deal with the violence they are about to experience. To the company they are just another resource, a human resource as part of attaining company profit. This is why the company uses a contractor in the form of Ash, an android who may have malfunctioned to see if the Nostromo can pursue other avenues of profit. Workers, the human resources often experience changes in what is expected of us and the crew of the Nostromo may have to add being food in their job description. There is one thing I will never understand though, why does the Nostromo have a self-destruct…? Space pirates?
‘Alien’ is a work of art. When I say work of art I mean it transcends its genre. It is not just a movie, not just science fiction and not just horror. It could comfortably fit in whole, or in part in an art gallery. The set design from the interior of the Nostromo, Mother, A CPU made of flashing lights, the cryo sleep chamber, that opens like the petals of a flower, a large cavernous room with water falling rain and the clink of chains hanging from an unseen ceiling. To a gigantic alien vessel that looks like the carapace of a living creature, with a dead giant looking out through a giant machine and large underground space covered with egg shapes below a surface of lasers and smoke. There are visual builds here that I would say to this day are untouched in their beauty and lavishness. This fantastic workmanship is caressed with the camera work and lighting it so deserved.
I would like to end this by comparing 2 elements of ‘Alien’ with its much loved sequel ‘Aliens’. A film which is truly entertaining and has a climax that has rarely been matched but it does no transcend its genre. Firstly the opening sequence of ‘Alien’, leading to the awakening of the crew from cryo sleep. This takes over six and a half minutes and the viewer delights in every second. This includes the title sequence where the title of the film appears in parts with space moving in the background. The appearance of the Nostromo very, ‘Star Wars’ opening shot with the Star Destroyer. Then we go to inside The Nostromo, with its gorgeous set design, where often the lighting is built in to the set itself. There a little perpetual motion toy, paper blowing from a slight draft announcing things are coming to life. A computer whirs to life and half the time we see what’s on the screen reflected in the visor of a space helmet. We then move into the cryo sleep chamber where everything has soft edges and the crew are in pods in a circle which as I mentioned, open like the petals of a flower. The crew awaken slowly and time is shown to pass through intermittent transitions of shots fading over each other. Six and a half minutes during most of which the camera is in motion.
In Aliens the introduction of the Sulako and the waking of the crew from cryo sleep takes just over 2 minutes. It has small shout outs to the original scene and its fine but it does not transcend its genre.
The other element I would like to point to is how doors look. In Alien they are these multi sided, more than 4 affairs that move in different directions. When they are moving through the ducts of the ship there are these door like things that are circular leaf shutters like the kind you find on a camera lens or a high end cameras. The scraping sound when they open and close is orgasmic.
In Aliens the doors are not memorable.
And that’s it really. My top 10 films is fluid based on how I feel in that moment but Alien is the one consistent film that remains in that list whatever.