Wednesday, July 11, 2012

IMA Summer Nights: "Alien" (1979)

"In space no one can hear you scream." 

Sometimes great movies can spring forth from a well of tainted motives. "Alien" is a watershed, a lodestone, often called one of the most influential (and copied) films of the last half-century.

What it is not, though, is the act of pure cinematic creation that most people ascribe.

Director Ridley Scott, making just his second feature film, planned to do a period costume drama, perhaps an adaptation of "Tristan and Isolde." Then he saw "Star Wars" and realized that space adventures would be the new big thing. He quickly jumped aboard pop culture's sci-fi bandwagon.

The other movie genre that was doing gangbusters in 1979 was horror films, particularly the slasher variety in which young, comely females are stalked by a seemingly unkillable killer whose gruesome, thrusting slayings have a not-terribly-subtle undertone of sexual penetration.

Scott and screenwriter Dan O'Bannon simply took the two hottest things going in Hollywood and melded them together. (O'Bannon would go on to underscore his horror movie bona fides by penning the zombie flicks "Dead & Buried," "The Return of the Living Dead" and "Lifeforce" over the next six years.)

As if to leave no doubt, the tagline for the movie's poster (above) seemed tailor-made to appeal to "Star Wars" fans who were old enough to buy tickets to an R-rated horror flick.

None of this, however, detracts from the boldness and artistry of what they created. If "Alien" is just a slasher film in space, then it's one executed with flawless craftsmanship.

In Scott's hands, the commercial space barge Nostromo becomes a vast, haunted landscape filled with inky pools of shadow and dilapidated equipment. Despite a lack of character development, each of the actors managed to create a distinct, memorable presence.

Sigourney Weaver, practically a movie novice, calmly embodied the role of the level-headed warrant officer Ripley (we didn't even learn her first name until the 1986 sequel). Ripley was also one of the first action-movie female leads ... though she's something of a stealth protagonist. Up until the point where Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt) perishes at the talons of the alien, most audiences members assumed he was the main guy.

And how can we fail to mention the unforgettable alien -- or should we say, trio of aliens: the insectoid "facehugger," the phallic "chestburster" and the full-grown creature, which (to quote myself) "is so black and spider-like, it seems less like an organism than null space brought to life."

Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger, who created the alien designs, is as much responsible for the success of the "Alien" franchise as anyone. Though it must be pointed out that after "Aliens," the series became more and more mercenary -- finally pairing up with the "Predator" flicks for a profit-pursuing crossover.

And of course, this summer has brought us "Prometheus," Scott's breathlessly awaited prequel to "Alien," which has left audiences as baffled as the original left them terrified. (My own take: narratively, "Prometheus" is a mess, but still a worthy cinematic experience.)

Whatever the highs and lows of its offspring, "Alien" was truly the mother of invention -- or, at least, inspired amalgamation.

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