The horror, the horror

The new director's cut of "Alien" reminds us the film is a powerful purveyor of existential dread, not just haunted-house thrills.

Topics: Movies,

The horror, the horror

Unlike its increasingly baroque series of sequels, Ridley Scott’s original 1979 “Alien” is a film about human loneliness amid the emptiness and amorality of creation. It’s a cynical ’70s-leftist vision of the future in which none of the problems plaguing 20th century Earth — class divisions, capitalist exploitation, the subjugation of humanity to technology — have been improved in the slightest by mankind’s forays into outer space. Although it has often been described as being a haunted-house movie set in space, “Alien” also has a profoundly existentialist undertow that makes it feel like a film noir — the other genre to feature a slithery, sexualized monster as its classic villain.

From the first minutes of the film, as cinematographer Derek Vanlint’s camera crawls through the empty corridors of the space freighter Nostromo, the mood of dread and confinement is almost unbearable. Nothing is happening: Random computer-screen data is reflected on the visor of an empty helmet; one of those little plastic bobbing-bird toys dips its head rhythmically into an empty glass. Finally we reach the crew of the Nostromo, sleeping in their plastic eggs — like so many of the film’s images, this is a symbolic or semiotic foreshadowing of the horrors to come — and watch them slowly wake, groggy and pallid, like babies born prematurely old.

Watching these scenes on the big screen, for the first time since cutting high school in May 1979 with a few friends to see the film on the Friday it opened, I recognize how few horror movies I’ve seen before or since that ever manage to capture such a tangible feeling of menace. “Alien” was only Scott’s second feature and it remains his best, even compared to “Blade Runner” (which is a more important film, in the sense that it affected not only the future of movies but the future of urban design). In one sense, seeing “Alien” now is bittersweet: I remember how energized I felt by the emergence of a director with such limitless talent and potential, and by what seemed to be his devotion to creating an all-enveloping sensual, emotional and intellectual experience. (Even the better efforts among his later films, like “Gladiator” or “Black Hawk Down,” feel like dazzling showmanship with nothing to say.)



Strikingly, knowing what’s going to happen — and one can only assume that the audience for “Alien: The Director’s Cut” mostly won’t be virgins — does little to dampen the experience. If anything, this digitally cleaned-up and remastered version, with a rejiggered six-track stereo soundtrack (and one grotesque, never-before-seen scene in the Alien’s “nest”), makes you appreciate the delicacy of the film’s symbolism, the masterly composition of shot after shot, and Jerry Goldsmith’s subtly unsettling but never ham-handed score.

Almost every horror film since “Alien” has ripped it off in some way, but most of the imitations have focused on details — a slimy killing-machine monster that is both vaginal and penile; the dripping, cavernous interiors of the Nostromo; those immensely influential H.R. Giger “biomechanical” designs — and missed what you might call the overall Zeitgeist of the film. Well before a trio of crew members is lured out of the Nostromo into that fallopian-tube alien spacecraft where John Hurt will stumble into a mist-shrouded nest of throbbing, thrumming eggs, this movie is already a dank, sweaty, claustrophobic zone.

The Nostromo’s crew is unwashed, itchy, hungry and underpaid. They smoke incessantly; the place must smell horrible. (This is a ’70s vision of the future, let’s remember.) Scott shoots these early scenes almost like cinema-vérité documentary, and Dan O’Bannon’s screenplay is clipped, forceful and telegraphic. Mechanics Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton bitch about money and deliberately slow down a repair job. The two women onboard, the soon-to-be-iconic Sigourney Weaver and the soon-to-be-forgotten Veronica Cartwright, are at each other’s throats almost immediately. As the Kenny Rogers-lookalike captain, Tom Skerritt is a perennially hassled, ineffective leader. Then there’s Ian Holm as Ash, the phlegmatic science officer with a little secret. (What a cast this is!) In deference to you young ‘uns who haven’t seen the film, let’s just suggest that the Alien, as fearsome as it is, might not be the movie’s real bad guy.

Once Hurt is brought back from the ill-fated exploration with that tentacled thing stuck to his face, it’s true that the plot of “Alien” doesn’t offer many surprises. (Although I was struck by the way Scott almost makes you feel sympathy for the creature during its final confrontation with the scantily clad Weaver. It’s taking a nap! And, hey, it just wants to live!) But the pell-mell, heart-stopping rush toward the finale, the one-by-one massacre of the crew, is made possible by what has come before. The Alien itself may be unknowable and unfamiliar, a force of interplanetary nature, but it only got on the ship because of human ignorance, laziness and greed.

When I first saw “Alien” I could see no connection between it and Joseph Conrad’s great novel “Nostromo,” a philosophical adventure yarn about a corrupted Latin American revolution — the naming of the ship just seemed like a little literary in-joke. (Nostromo is the name of a revolutionary leader in the novel, not of a vessel.) But nearly a quarter-century later, “Alien” has acquired a classic quality of its own, and seems to offer some of the uncategorizable fatalism and pessimism of the book, even if it’s an entirely different kind of story. Decoud, Conrad’s authorial figure in “Nostromo,” regards the universe as “a succession of incomprehensible images,” and during his imprisonment turns suicidal, reflecting that “in our activity alone do we find the sustaining illusion of an independent existence as against the whole scheme of things of which we form a helpless part.”

I think that accounts for the dread we still feel at the end of “Alien,” when Weaver, memorably clad in that bikini underwear, locks herself (and her irresistible cat, Jonesy) back into that plastic egg for the long ride home. She has survived, but toward what end? And the world she is returning to is the one that betrayed her in the first place.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 14
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Pilot"

    One of our first exposures to uncomfortable “Girls” sex comes early, in the pilot episode, when Hannah and Adam “get feisty” (a phrase Hannah hates) on the couch. The pair is about to go at it doggy-style when Adam nearly inserts his penis in “the wrong hole,” and after Hannah corrects him, she awkwardly explains her lack of desire to have anal sex in too many words. “Hey, let’s play the quiet game,” Adam says, thrusting. And so the romance begins.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Elijah, "It's About Time"

    In an act of “betrayal” that messes up each of their relationships with Hannah, Marnie and Elijah open Season 2 with some more couch sex, which is almost unbearable to watch. Elijah, who is trying to explore the “hetero side” of his bisexuality, can’t maintain his erection, and the entire affair ends in very uncomfortable silence.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Charlie, "Vagina Panic"

    Poor Charlie. While he and Marnie have their fair share of uncomfortable sex over the course of their relationship, one of the saddest moments (aside from Marnie breaking up with him during intercourse) is when Marnie encourages him to penetrate her from behind so she doesn’t have to look at him. “This feels so good,” Charlie says. “We have to go slow.” Poor sucker.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and camp friend Matt, "Hannah's Diary"

    We’d be remiss not to mention Shoshanna’s effort to lose her virginity to an old camp friend, who tells her how “weird” it is that he “loves to eat pussy” moments before she admits she’s never “done it” before. At least it paves the way for the uncomfortable sex we later get to watch her have with Ray?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Hard Being Easy"

    On the heels of trying (unsuccessfully) to determine the status of her early relationship with Adam, Hannah walks by her future boyfriend’s bedroom to find him masturbating alone, in one of the strangest scenes of the first season. As Adam jerks off and refuses to let Hannah participate beyond telling him how much she likes watching, we see some serious (and odd) character development ... which ends with Hannah taking a hundred-dollar bill from Adam’s wallet, for cab fare and pizza (as well as her services).

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Booth Jonathan, "Bad Friend"

    Oh, Booth Jonathan -- the little man who “knows how to do things.” After he turns Marnie on enough to make her masturbate in the bathroom at the gallery where she works, Booth finally seals the deal in a mortifying and nearly painful to watch sex scene that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about how much Marnie is willing to fake it.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Tad and Loreen, "The Return"

    The only sex scene in the series not to feature one of the main characters, Hannah’s parents’ showertime anniversary celebration is easily one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the show’s first season. Even Hannah’s mother, Loreen, observes how embarrassing the situation is, which ends with her husband, Tad, slipping out of the shower and falling naked and unconscious on the bathroom floor.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and the pharmacist, "The Return"

    Tad and Loreen aren’t the only ones to get some during Hannah’s first season trip home to Michigan. The show’s protagonist finds herself in bed with a former high school classmate, who doesn’t exactly enjoy it when Hannah puts one of her fingers near his anus. “I’m tight like a baby, right?” Hannah asks at one point. Time to press pause.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Role-Play"

    While it’s not quite a full-on, all-out sex scene, Hannah and Adam’s attempt at role play in Season 3 is certainly an intimate encounter to behold (or not). Hannah dons a blond wig and gets a little too into her role, giving a melodramatic performance that ends with a passerby punching Adam in the face. So there’s that.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and Ray, "Together"

    As Shoshanna and Ray near the end of their relationship, we can see their sexual chemistry getting worse and worse. It’s no more evident than when Ray is penetrating a clothed and visibly horrified Shoshanna from behind, who ends the encounter by asking if her partner will just “get out of me.”

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Frank, "Video Games"

    Hannah, Jessa’s 19-year-old stepbrother, a graveyard and too much chatting. Need we say more about how uncomfortable this sex is to watch?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Desi, "Iowa"

    Who gets her butt motorboated? Is this a real thing? Aside from the questionable logistics and reality of Marnie and Desi’s analingus scene, there’s also the awkward moment when Marnie confuses her partner’s declaration of love for licking her butthole with love for her. Oh, Marnie.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Vagina Panic"

    There is too much in this scene to dissect: fantasies of an 11-year-old girl with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, excessive references to that little girl as a “slut” and Adam ripping off a condom to ejaculate on Hannah’s chest. No wonder it ends with Hannah saying she almost came.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>