Wednesday, July 20, 2011

ALIEN (Ridley Scott, 1979, USA)

Seven human commodities to be traded in the free market, devalued and expendable, purchased at the cost of one dark entity...the almighty dollar. Ridley Scott adapts Dan O'Bannon's terse screenplay into equal parts terror and corporate fait acompli, transforming the haunted house tropes into science fiction, future echoes imbued with a healthy dose of prescient Wall Street morality.

Ridley Scott limits the cast of characters and imprisons them in the dank and grim confines of an industrial spaceship, to be stalked by the perfect predator: a creature that invokes fear of the Dark Ages, whose elongated appendages and multiple rows of jagged teeth could have clawed its way from a Hieronymus Bosch painting. Scott lights the hallways and rooms with chiaroscuro delight, allowing fear of what is not seen to override the senses. Sounds echo and reverberate surrounding the victims with a cloak of terror. ALIEN is a horror film impregnated with science fiction elements, as the film’s structure utilizes horror tropes but sets them in the future: here, technology is only a trapping of suspense, not a means to scientific ends.

The script is taught and well-paced allowing character discovery and interaction to become believable, which is necessary to create audience frisson; otherwise, the crew would be reduced to a bucket of raw chum. But there is an electric charge to the script that powers certain character’s motivations, and this sublime subplot equates human life to a monetary equation where an alien organism is worth more than seven lives (or more!). Like HAL 9000, the mother computer seems caught in the perplexing nexus of pure reason, diminishing culpability by reducing lives to binary code and stock market evaluations. It’s a brilliant touch that heightens the melodrama by creating a backlash among the crew, internal friction against an enemy never revealed on screen! The true alien becomes the faceless men and women of the “corporation” who are truly inhuman.

The story spins on the cliché of a billion dollar spaceship endowed with a self-destruct mechanism, a deus ex machina plot device that is as inane as it is idiotic. Why would a spacecraft that is obviously built for interstellar travel have a hardwired program that could allow a disgruntled employee (or malfunction) to obliterate its investment? And not only is this computer program difficult to begin but becomes impossible to defuse! Modern rockets are built with a mechanism to allow it to explode if it goes off-course with the flick of a switch: if needed, this would be an emergency procedure. Instead, it’s a lame plot mechanic to create suspense as Ripley rushes about the ship attempting to abort the final countdown. The denouement unfortunately becomes the weak link to an otherwise strong chain of events.

ALIEN has spawned generic and pretentious sequels but still stands as a classic of two genres.

Final Grade: (A)

3 comments:

Shubhajit said...

One of the greatest sci-fi movies ever made, no doubts whatsoever - and horror too. So yeah, this remains a masterpiece in 2 genres. The pristine white interiors played a vital role in forming a high contrast (tonally) with the disturbing and terrifying series of events that occur within it. Though Aliens too was a decent movie and a huge hit, its the original that I like most in the Alien franchise - and that too by some distance.

Chase Kahn said...

Yeah, I don't really understand why most (it seems) prefer James Cameron's "Aliens" to this.

A thoroughly enjoyable action film, sure, but Ridley Scott's film is haunting and indelible in a way that "Aliens" doesn't really approach.

Rob said...

Thank goodness you didn't haul out that old criticism of Ripley stripping down to her undies for the last 15 minutes or so. Far too much has been made of that I think. Although her unwillingness to leave Jonesy behind at all costs seems like a convenient plot device. Come to think of it...that damn cat got Harry dean Stanton killed as well!

I think modern audiences like Aliens better because it's got that quick-edit video game thing going for it, while Alien is more of a slow burn. I enjoy both (and even the third film), but when all is said and done, I consider H.R. Giger's ideas and designs to be the true star of the films!