So hi. I am Nicholas. You may know me as the really funny one from the Nerds on the Rocks podcast, or maybe from the best nerd-punk band around, Robots and Racecars. In any event, I am here to be your guide to the A-Z of geek cinema. Every week, I will be writing about a movie, going down the alphabet, starting this week with Alien.
And what IS geek cinema, you ask? Well, really, it’s anything I want it to be. I realized naming it as such allowed such a broad reach that I can basically justify writing about any movie I want, and it would fit. In other words: I’m going to write about movies, and you’re going to read them and comment, and then we’ll have a nice cup of hot chocolate.*
So sit back and remember: it’s only a movie. Anyway, without further ado:
Ok, that might be a bit strong of an opening statement. But give me a chance, I can back it up with SCIENCE. And also words.
Released in 1979, Alien was director Ridley Scott’s second theatrical feature, and a breakout role for Sigourney Weaver. It has since become regarded as a classic of modern cinema, both for its use of tension and mystery to enhance the horror aspects of the script, but also for what it DOESN’T show. The titular creature, which first appears in that scene everyone who’s heard of the movie knows about where John Hurt gains a new orifice, is mostly only seen in glimpses and quick flashes throughout the film. A slithering tail, moving chains, a shadow on the wall, all used to build tension to the moment of attack, most of which is done off-screen as well.
All this is to say that Ridley Scott directed the hell out of the film, using all sorts of tricks to get across the sense of foreboding that the creature and its ship of origin engender. It’s something that I feel was lost in the later entries in the franchise. Cameron’s Aliens was more of an action/war movie, Fincher’s Alien 3 was more desolate and claustrophobic, and Jeunet’s Alien Resurrection was… something; it seems like only Scott really went for the mystery aspect, the ineffableness of the alien and its creator/captor/unknown relation.
The “jump scares” that define the horror genre were prevalent, yes, but there was also a weird sexual undercurrent which was brought to the film, mostly through HR Giger’s very phallic designs, but also in how Scott chose to shoot the alien attacks. This tension between horror and sex is what drives a lot of the terror in the film, as Scott himself has said. You can never be sure what the alien wants. Its entire reproductive cycle is predicated on a rape of sorts, and, in a scene that was cut from the theatrical film, you find out it hasn’t been killing all the crew members, it’s been cocooning them up, presumably for reproductive purposes. It’s almost as if they’re being transformed INTO the eggs from which the primary facehugger emerged. I feel like the sequel’s introduction of the Queen/hive aspect actually killed a little bit of the mystery and weirdness of the alien, but that’s for another time.
The paranoia and fear of the unknown are prevalent through the whole film, from the time they land on LV-426 through the very end of the film. This carries over into the surprise reveal of Ash as an android, a plant from the Weyland-Yutani corporation, that reveals the crew was expected to not return. The company knew the creature, or something like it, was there, and expected the crew to be “infected” and had charged Ash with protecting the creature and making sure it came back to Earth/the company in one piece. This is a major reveal in the film, but one that does not come out of nowhere. Ash shows less empathy for the crew than he does for the organism growing inside Kane from the moment he’s brought back onboard after being impregnated. This ties in to the sexual undercurrent as well, in that Ash is a non-sexual being, presumably, and he has the least to fear from the alien. There is a hint of jealousy on his part too, that the crew could interact with the creature on such a base and primal level that he never could.
All this is to say that Alien still holds a lot of power to terrorize and fascinate, even now, more than 30 years later. I am DEFINITELY looking forward to the sorta kinda maybe prequel, Prometheus. It looks to be along the same lines as Alien, in that it’s about the unknowable aspects of the other denizens of the cosmos. Humanity is going to space, but what we find there is so beyond us we can’t even comprehend. And in space, no one can hear you scream.
NEXT WEEK: a modern noír.
* There will be no hot chocolate.