Monday, 18 June 2012

Alien (1979)

I know a guy who's never seen either Blade Runner or Indiana Jones. His geek-cred is high, he's got nothing against Harrison Ford, it just never happened. Don't judge. We all have movies like this -- "how-did-you-miss-that-one?!" movies we reveal only to our closest friends. And here's my confession: I'm a sci-fi junkie, a horror whore, and I love me a hefty dose of cinematic girl power, but I didn't get around to watching Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979) until last Saturday. And let me tell you: if Alien gave you the slip, too, go out and grab it now. You want this movie in your life.

This guy didn't watch Alien and look what happened to him.

The doomed ship Nostromo intercepts a signal which appears to be a mayday. When the crew dons their spacesuits to check it out, they stumble upon an alien (but not THE Alien) ship's booby-trapped cache of unearthly eggs. Kane (John Hurt) is unfortunate enough to set off the eggs' security alarm and gets a tentacled space squid stuck to his face. His shipmates haul him back to the Nostromo, where they manage to kill the face-snuggling alien (still not THE Alien). Unfortunately, it laid an egg in Kane's innards, which Nostromo's crew discovers when an alien baby (THE Alien!) bursts out of his stomach at dinner like it's the prize in a John Hurt pinata. The alien proceeds to pick off the Nostromo's crew one by one until badass Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) throws it out an airlock so that she and her cat can go home, already.

Nice kitty.
Alien is awesome. 100% awesome. Which makes it sort of difficult to review without sounding like a twerpy fangirl. So let me put on my feminist hat and dutifully point out that it is not just awesome but also characterized by an unusual birth-is-hell-and-babies-are-evil subtext. I'm not just talking about the male-pregnancy nightmare outlined above: the ship's computer, "Mother", gives her crew a Hal of a time. Rosemary's Baby (Roman Polanski) did a similar thing back in in 1968: I think it's a little telling that the Don't Spawn trope didn't hit theatres until after the advent of the Pill.

Another thing I really dug about Alien was its commitment to realism. I know that's a bit of a stretch in a movie with "Alien" right in the title. But I buy the film's world: it doesn't have the squeaky-shiny newness that characterizes so much sci-fi. The Nostromo is weathered and ramshackle, and for that matter, so is its crew. Their tired faces and dingy clothes have seen better days and it makes them human and vulnerable. This is something Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) also got right (think, there was a time George Lucas got things right).

There wasn't really anything I didn't like about Alien, although I find it really weird the way the picture quality of movies made between 1975 and 1990 is consistently more dated than movies made decades before. I'm not sure whether it's because the hair and makeup of that era is less "classic" than the 40s-60s (in space, no one can hear you scream, but they can see your shitty perm) or because the less-than-seamless switchover from film to video was kicking off. Whatever: none of that would have been Ridley Scott's fault, and he's turned out a humdinger here.

I give Alien a 5/5. It's all that and a cherry on top (and by a cherry I mean a Harry. A Harry Dean Stanton. Yay!) Watch it. For real. Just do it, okay?

Space trucker by day, lingerie model by night.
FINAL GIRL: Signourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley (everyone just calls her "Ripley", thank god, as "Ellen" is conspicuously less badass). Ripley is characterized as largely asexual: she has no love interest and she spends 9/10 of the film wearing a shapeless jumpsuit. (I imagine the gratuitous underwear scene pictured above was demanded by studio bosses in post-production). Ripley's an outsider even among the crew from the beginning of the film, less an underdog than a reviled stickler for procedure. This is the Final Girl by way of the career woman, not the virginal teenager, and it's damn refreshing. Too bad nobody listened to her about those quarantine rules....

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