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.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 7
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    AP/Jae C. Hong

    Your summer in extreme weather

    California drought

    Since May, California has faced a historic drought, resulting in the loss of 63 trillion gallons of water. 95.4 percent of the state is now experiencing "severe" drought conditions, which is only a marginal improvement from 97.5 percent last week.

    A recent study published in the journal Science found that the Earth has actually risen about 0.16 inches in the past 18 months because of the extreme loss of groundwater. The drought is particularly devastating for California's enormous agriculture industry and will cost the state $2.2 billion this year, cutting over 17,000 jobs in the process.

       

    Meteorologists blame the drought on a large zone (almost 4 miles high and 2,000 miles long) of high pressure in the atmosphere off the West Coast which blocks Pacific winter storms from reaching land. High pressure zones come and go, but this one has been stationary since December 2012.

    Darin Epperly

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Great Plains tornadoes

    From June 16-18 this year, the Midwest was slammed by a series of four tornadoes, all ranking as category EF4--meaning the winds reached up to 200 miles per hour. An unlucky town called Pilger in Nebraska was hit especially hard, suffering through twin tornadoes, an extreme event that may only occur every few decades. The two that swept through the town killed two people, injured 16 and demolished as many as 50 homes.   

    "It was terribly wide," local resident Marianne Pesotta said to CNN affiliate KETV-TV. "I drove east [to escape]. I could see how bad it was. I had to get out of there."   

    But atmospheric scientist Jeff Weber cautions against connecting these events with climate change. "This is not a climate signal," he said in an interview with NBC News. "This is a meteorological signal."

    AP/Detroit News, David Coates

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Michigan flooding

    On Aug. 11, Detroit's wettest day in 89 years -- with rainfall at 4.57 inches -- resulted in the flooding of at least five major freeways, leading to three deaths, more than 1,000 cars being abandoned on the road and thousands of ruined basements. Gov. Rick Snyder declared it a disaster. It took officials two full days to clear the roads. Weeks later, FEMA is finally set to begin assessing damage.   

    Heavy rainfall events are becoming more and more common, and some scientists have attributed the trend to climate change, since the atmosphere can hold more moisture at higher temperatures. Mashable's Andrew Freedman wrote on the increasing incidence of this type of weather: "This means that storms, from localized thunderstorms to massive hurricanes, have more energy to work with, and are able to wring out greater amounts of rain or snow in heavy bursts. In general, more precipitation is now coming in shorter, heavier bursts compared to a few decades ago, and this is putting strain on urban infrastructure such as sewer systems that are unable to handle such sudden influxes of water."

    AP/The Fresno Bee, Eric Paul Zamora

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Yosemite wildfires

    An extreme wildfire burning near Yosemite National Park forced authorities to evacuate 13,000 nearby residents, while the Madera County sheriff declared a local emergency. The summer has been marked by several wildfires due to California's extreme drought, which causes vegetation to become perfect kindling.   

    Surprisingly, however, firefighters have done an admirable job containing the blazes. According to the L.A. Times, firefighters with the state's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection have fought over 4,000 fires so far in 2014 -- an increase of over 500 fires from the same time in 2013.

    Reuters/Eugene Tanner

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Hawaii hurricanes

    Hurricane Iselle was set to be the first hurricane to make landfall in Hawaii in 22 years. It was downgraded to a tropical storm and didn't end up being nearly as disastrous as it could have been, but it still managed to essentially shut down the entire state for a day, as businesses and residents hunkered down in preparation, with many boarding up their windows to guard against strong gusts. The storm resulted in downed trees, 21,000 people out of power and a number of damaged homes.

    Debbie Arita, a local from the Big Island described her experience: "We could hear the wind howling through the doors. The light poles in the parking lot were bobbing up and down with all the wind and rain."

    Reuters/NASA

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Florida red tide

    A major red tide bloom can reach more than 100 miles along the coast and around 30 miles offshore. Although you can't really see it in the above photo, the effects are devastating for wildlife. This summer, Florida was hit by an enormous, lingering red tide, also known as a harmful algae bloom (HAB), which occurs when algae grow out of control. HABs are toxic to fish, crabs, octopuses and other sea creatures, and this one resulted in the death of thousands of fish. When the HAB gets close enough to shore, it can also have an effect on air quality, making it harder for people to breathe.   

    The HAB is currently closest to land near Pinellas County in the Gulf of Mexico, where it is 5-10 miles offshore.

  • 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>