Category Archives: Alien

The Alien Movie Matrix

I’ll present my detailed, spoiler-filled review of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012) one week from today, here on the blog (so see it before then; twice if you can…).

While watching the new film, keep in mind this matrix, and see how many categories Prometheus fulfills.  This may be one manner of judging how much of an Alien “prequel” the Ridley Scott film really is.  Does it live or die by the conventions of the established series, or does it feature new tropes and ideas?

Alien (1979)
Aliens (1986)
Alien3 (1992)
Alien Resurrection (1997)
Company Man
85, Bishop
Comic Relief
Parker, Brett
Morse, 85
In awe of the alien
Joseph Conrad
Alien Queen
Failed Mission
Dallas in the
vents trying to
flush out alien
First engagement
with aliens in
sub-level 3
Prisoners attempt
to entrap alien
Military attempts
to breed and control
aliens as bio weapon.
Ship/Facility Destroyed
LV-426 Colony
Evacuation pod
New Alien Life Form
Space jockey
Adult alien
Queen Alien
Dog Alien
Surprise Death/Attack
Kane chest-bursted.
Alpha-male Dallas killed
half-way through.
Ash decapitated.
Bishop pulped  
 by Queen
on Sulaco.

Andrews dragged 
 through Cafeteria ceiling

Before Prometheus: Five Reasons Alien (1979) Endures

Ridley Scott’s Prometheus opens tomorrow and my review of the new film will appear here on the blog the morning of Tuesday, June 19th (so go see it before then so we can talk about it…). 

But given the arrival of a 2012 movie that connects explicitly to the Alien (1979) mythos, I realized that today represents the proper time to go back and gaze at the reasons why the original film is so terrific and influential.
Here are my five reasons why the originalAlien endures more than thirty years after its release.

1. Revolutionary production and art design, translated into revolutionary sets, costumes and miniatures.

Alien truly pushed the science-fiction “space” film forward into a new realm of imagination.  Director Ridley Scott’s movie eschewed the stream-lined modernism and “neat,” minimalist future-look of such films as Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (1969) as well as TV programs like UFO(1970) or Space: 1999 (1975 – 1977).
The film offered instead a world that was grungy, messy and recognizable…both lived-in and dirty.  It’s true that Star Wars (1977) represents a crucial step in this direction, having created a universe that – in terms of visuals – suggests a rich and storied past.  But Alienwent whole hog into a world where coffee mugs rested on computer consoles, where pornographic pin-ups were hung up beside work stations, and where characters wore sneakers and ball caps when not asleep in cryo-tubes (or “freezers” in the vernacular of the film).

This visual aesthetic has famously been termed “space truckers,” and it’s indeed a crucial element of Alien’s mystique and appeal.  In director Ridley Scott’s capable hands, outer space was not some glorious final frontier.  Rather, it was just your monotonous, unglamorous day-job.  In this future, the average blue collar space traveler still worked for the Man (Weyland-Yutani), and was still trying to get his fair share of corporate wealth and make a living wage. And he still made it through the day on coffee, cussing and swearing when things break down.

Alien, which features a great and very believable monster, would not have succeeded if the elements of the film that involved “futuristic” mankind – his ships, his clothes, his environs – did not reflect a reality the audience could understand and readily identify with.  The recognizable world of the main characters, in fact, makes the alien world all the more disturbing and frightening.

2. The alien itself.

Perhaps this aspect of the film is the one that is actually most difficult to reckon with today because we’ve seen the Alien xenomorph in so many settings and films since the first film came along.  We’ve had three direct sequels, plus two AVP movies, plus toys and comics involving the alien.
The notion of a monster attacking a spaceship crew was not new, of course when Alien, written by the great Dan O’Bannon, was produced.  By that point — as history-minded film reviewers are certain to remind us — we’d seen It! The Terror from Beyond Space(1958), Bava’s Planet of the Vampires (1965) plus episodes of The Outer Limits (“The Invisible Enemy”) and Space: 1999 (“Dragon’s Domain”) that explored the trope, in many cases quite brilliantly.
But Alien represented a new horizon for “monsters” because of the bio-organic designs of Swiss sculptor and painter H.R. Giger.  This artist’s style had never been captured in mainstream film before, and his work expressed a total (and perverse) blend of human flesh and hard-edged machinery.  In short, the monster in Alien looked like nothing audiences had ever before reckoned with, a fusion of distinctly unlike elements.
There’s more to it than that too. 
Today we take this for granted, but Alien proved so horrifying a film because the monster’s shape and appearance were different every time we encountered it.  We now know the alien life cycle by rote: egg, face-hugger, chest-burster, and adult.  But when audiences first reckoned with Scott’s movie in the last year of the 1970s, none of this information was known. We had no idea what was coming, or how the alien was taking shape.  It seemed to be in a constant state of flux…of becoming
Again, all the stages of the lifecycle are familiar today, but in 1979, the alien seemed like the cinema’s first legitimate extra-terrestrial: a thing that changed and evolved into something ever-more hideous each time we saw it.  The title “Alien” expresses this idea beautifully.  Watching the film for the first time, we really felt we had encountered something not human, and not of this Earth.  Today, we’ve seen so many aliens and so many shape-shifters that we’re inured to the concept.  But Aliengot it right, in revolutionary fashion.

3. Implications unexplored but suggested.  This is the very reason why we are getting Prometheus now.  It’s because Alien dramatized a complete and satisfying story of survival, but more than that, brilliantly implieda larger universe outside the context of the Nostromo’s last days.

Let’s gaze at the derelict ship that the Nostromo finds on LV-426, which has become an important part of Prometheus’sstory-line.  When we encounter it in Alien,it is emitting a distress call (or actually, a warning: stay away).  The characters Dallas, Lambert and Kane investigate the ship and they see the dead pilot, the “space jockey” with a torn-open chest. They also find a giant lower chamber, which must be a cargo hold, given its dimensions and relative lack of instrumentation, furniture, etc.   This hold is filled with alien eggs. The eggs are ensconced underneath a level of fog which “reacts” when broken.  What is this level of fog?  Is it some kind of technology keeping the eggs in stasis?  Was it a safeguard to keep the alien eggs dormant and the (odd) equivalent of the freezers we see on the Nostromo? Who was meant to control it?

And then, of course, other questions are raised.  Who were these aliens transporting the eggs? Why were they transporting alien eggs in the first place? What became of the ship’s crew?   Where were they taking the eggs?  And for what purpose were they transporting this odd – and wholly dangerous – cargo?

One big questioned unanswered: if a chest-burster broke out of the space jockey’s chest, where was the adult alien when Dallas and the others arrived to investigate?  A possible answer is that it had died out already, since in Scott’s original conception the alien was to be like something akin to a butterfly, a “perfect” creature that only could live for a few days
See how this film from 1979 is loaded with implications and questions above-and-beyond the “ten little Indians” template of an alien that kills astronauts on a spaceship? The deeper you delve, the more interesting Alien becomes.
And again, this reflects our reality as human beings, an important aspect of horror films.  We are not privy to all the answers in life.  We don’t always know why things happen, or what fate has in store for us.   Some aspects of nature seem a mystery to us, even with advanced science.  The crew of Nostromo likewise encounters a terrible mystery on LV-426, but that mystery is largely left unexplored as the battle of survival begins.   
4.  It’s all about sex.

Alien is cherished and remembered by horror fans for the gory chest-burster sequence featuring John Hurt.  But the film also features one of the creepiest off-screen deaths of all time, and a discarded idea (or hidden implication) in the franchise. When last we see Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), the xenomorph’s tail is seen winding its nefarious way…up between her legs. Then, the film cuts suddenly to Ripley running down a dark corridor, but we still hear Lambert panting and suffering and some…inhuman moaning. 

So what the hell is going on here? What is the alien doing to Lambert? Does it — by its very “perfect” nature — boast some other form of reproductive ability that it is practicing on her? Is it fulfilling some kind of sexual desire? 
Alienpossesses this queasy, uneasy sub-text involving our human sexuality. On the immediately-apparent surface level, the film concerns a creature that can pervert our reproductive cycle for its own ends. But underneath – if we peel back the layers – there are moments in Scott’s original that appear to involve homosexuality, sexual repression, sexual stereotypes and more.

Consider that John Hurt’s character Kane becomes the first recipient of the alien’s reproductive advances. Whisper-thin, British, and sexually ambiguous, Kane is depicted – at one point in the film – wearing an undergarment that appears to be a girdle; something that is distinctly “feminizing” to his appearance.

Also, Kane lives the most dangerous (or is it promiscuous?) life-style of anyone amongst the crew. He is the first to awake from cryo-sleep, the first to suggest a walk to the derelict, and the only man who goes down into the derelict’s egg chamber. He is well-acquainted with danger as (stereotypically…) one might expect of a homosexual man circa 1979. (Note: I said “stereotypically.” The best horror movies are about shattering decorum and transgressing against good taste and Alien fits that bill.)
Soon in the film, it is Kane who is made unwillingly receptive to an oral penetration: the insertion of the face-hugger’s “tube” down his throat…where it lays the chest-buster. What emerges from this encounter is “Kane’s son” (in Ash’s terminology). But essentially, the alien forces poor Kane – possibly a homosexual male symbol — to act in the role he may be familiar with; that of being receptive to penetration.

Consider Ash and this character’s sexual underpinnings. He is actually a robot – a creature presumably incapable of having sex — and the film’s subtext suggests that this inability, this repression of the sexual urge, has made him a monster too. When Ash attacks Ripley late in the film, he rolls up a pornographic magazine (surrounded by other examples of pornography) and attempts to jam it down the woman’s throat…it’s his penis surrogate.  The implication of this particular act is that he can’t do the same thing with his penis, so Ash must use the magazine in its stead.

Later, Ash admits to the fact that he “envies” the alien (penis envy?) and one has to wonder if it is because the alien can sexually dominate others in a way that the disliked, often dismissed Ash cannot manage.

Also note that when Ash is unable to satisfy his repressed sexual desire for Ripley, the pressure literally causes him to explode.  The android blood is a milky white, semen-like fluid. And it spurts everywhere, a catastrophic ejaculation of monumental proportions. Ash, when confronted with his own sexuality and inability to express it…can’t hold his wad.

The most hyper-masculinized (again, stereotypically-so) character in Alien is Parker (Yaphet Kotto), a black man who brazenly discusses “eating pussy” during the scene leading up to the chest-burster moment. He boasts an antagonistic, adversarial relationship with Ripley, and is the character most often-seen carrying a weapon (a flame thrower), a possible phallic symbol.

In another type of film, Parker might be our hero.  But here he dies because of the stereotypical quality of male chivalry or machismo. Specifically, he won’t turn the flame thrower on the alien while a woman (Lambert) is in the line of fire. The alien dispatches Parker quickly (mano e mano), perhaps realizing he will never co-opt an alpha male like Parker to be his “bitch;” at least not the way Kane was used.

As for Lambert, the most-traditionally (and – bear with me – stereotypically) female character in the film — she gets raped by the alien as I noted above, presumably by the xenomorph’s phallic tail. Again, the alien has exploited a character’s biological/reproductive nature and used it to meets its own destructive, perverse needs.
Which brings me to Ripley. Ripley is a character written for a man but played by a woman (Sigourney Weaver). She is the only survivor (along with Jones the Cat), of the alien’s rampage on the Nostromo, and there’s a case that can be made that the alien cannot so easily “tag” Ripley as either male or female, and that’s why she survives. She is perfect, like the alien is, a blend of all “human” qualities.
Kane is fey (possibly gay), Ash is a robot (and hence not able to express sexuality in a “normal” way), Parker is all macho man, and Lambert is a helpless damsel-in-distres…but Ripley is a tall glass of water (practically an Amazon), and an authority figure (third in command). She is also the only character who successfully balances common sense, heroism, and competence.
Given this uncommon mix of stereotypically male and female qualities, the alien is not quite sure how to either “read” or “use” Ripley. In the final moments of the film, it does make a decision. It recognizes Ripley – the best of humanity whether male or female – as kindred; a survivor. So it rides in secret with her aboard the shuttle Narcissus as they escape the exploding Nostromo.
Note that the alien could likely kill Ripley any time during that escape flight…but does not choose to do so. It knows it is in safe hands with her, at least for the time being. It uses her “competence,” her skill (qualities of itself it recognizes in her?) to escape destruction…again establishing its perfection.

Here, perfection might be measured by how well it understands the enemy, the prey.

So, underneath the scares and underneath the great design, what we get in Ridley Scott’s Alien is the story of a monster that exploits our 1970s views of biology and psychology; causing us (as viewers) to re-examine — perhaps even subconsciously — the sexual stereotypes of the day. The homosexual man is endangered first, the alpha males (Dallas and Parker) are ineffective, the traditional “screaming” female gets exploited (not rescued…), and the most “evolved” human, Ripley (along with another perfect creature – a cat) survives to fight another day.

The strange, spiky and sexual nature of Alien lurks just beneath the surface of the film, and is noticeable even in the set design. Just take a long look at the “opening” of the alien derelict.  Without being too graphic about this, it is pretty clearly a vagina.

And the chest-burster is pretty clearly phallus-shaped. Ask yourself why. Sex, and — sometimes discomfort with sex —  lurks at the heart of this horror film.  This factor makes the film endlessly interesting and worthy of a re-watch or debate.

5. Sigourney Weaver as Ripley.  Ripley is indisputably one of the cinema’s greatest hero-warriors, but she’s more than that.  She represents a critical change in how women were conceived and written in horror and science fiction films. 

Ripley is simultaneously part of the “Final Girl” tradition and a crucial evolution of the archetype.   Ripley survives in the film because she is smart and because she possesses insights the others do not.  She understands why regulations are important, doesn’t succumb to emotion (regarding Dallas’s order to let Kane back aboard the Nostromo), and she is extremely competent on the job.  She takes command with authority, and is able to understand the ramifications of her actions.  She is tough, but never so much that we lose a sense of her humanity.  Male or female, we all wish we could possess Ripley’s qualities.

Ripley was Sigourney Weaver’s break-out role because the actress brought incredible commitment and intensity to the role.  Ripley herself showed that the Final Girl did not need others (particularly men) to rescue her, and that she could combat and even destroy the villain, not merely survive to another day.

So, Prometheusopens tomorrow…and we already know that it will delve deep into the implications of the Alien world. 

I wonder: will it create a monster as memorable as we first encountered in 1978?  Will it feature a character as forward-thinking as Ripley was? Will it boast visual canvas as revolutionary as that which we saw in Scott’s horror film?  Will it carry a subtext beyond the surface story of “space horror?”

That’s a pretty tall order, but I suspect that Prometheus will rise or fall not on the new ground it breaks, but how well it subverts and plays with the expectations we carry into the theater with us.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait…

Alien (1979) Trailer

Collectible of the Week: Alien Resurrection Movie Edition Action Figures (Kenner; 1997)

No bones about it, Alien Resurrection is my least favorite “pure” Alien movie.  There’s something vaguely cartoonish and campy about the affair that I find troublesome and irksome, though I readily admit there are moments and scenes I cherish.

But none of those moments feature Dan Hedaya, I assure you.
At the very least, the crew of the Betty gave us an early glimpse of Joss Whedon’s Firefly concept. and as usual, Sigourney Weaver was terrific as Ripley.
Anyway, in the year of Alien Resurrection’s release (also the year of Starship Troopers), Kenner — a company that had already released some terrific Alien and Predator-styled toys in the early 1990s — released a “movie edition” set of six action figures from the fourth Alien movie.  These were relatively large figures compared to the earlier editions, about six-inches in height.
The toy box described the film’s milieu in rather verbose terms:

The Future.  An old enemy.  The perfect predator.  A zealous assembly of scientists and officials conducting the experimental wedding of human and alien genes…A band of renegade space smugglers and the mysterious appearance of a woman linked to an alien species dangerous beyond calculation!  The result is a peril reborn and more shockingly monstrous than ever before!”

Kenner produced two protagonists for this variation on their Aliens line, the aforementioned Ripley, described as “warrant officer” and “alien behavioral expert,” and Winona Ryder’s android, Call, described plainly as the “mechanic of the Betty Ship.”
The alien side was represented by the warrior (“drone to the Alien queen,”) the battle-scarred alien (“combat ravaged warrior drone“), the Aqua Alien (“genetically enhanced aquatic alien“) and finally, the Newborn (“genetic human/alien hybrid“).

The likenesses on the human(oid) characters are pretty good, and alien drone, Newborn and battle scarred aliens all look pretty awesome, as you can hopefully see.

The aquatic alien was not featured in the film, though there was an underwater scene in the film designed and executed as an homage to The Poseidon Adventure.  I understand that the Newborn alien is pretty unpopular with Alien fans because, heck, why mess with perfection when it comes to these xenomorphs, but it’s certainly a ghoulish-looking thing.

Another nice touch: many of the figures come complete with awesome miniature toys, including facehuggers, a small alien queen, and…a blood-spattered chestburster. 

Now, my son Joel has never ever seen any of the Alien movies…I would never allow that at his tender age.  But he loves the monster action figures, particularly the Newborn and the chest-burster.  Except he just thinks the chestburster is a red-speckled worm monster/baby alien…

Sci-Tech #4: Colonial Marines Edition

Sleek.  Utilitarian.  Streamlined.  And absolutely bad ass.
Those are the words that leap immediately to mind as I describe the technology and hardware  of the Colonial Marines as featured in the 1986 James Cameron film, Aliens. 
As you gaze at some of the images I selected below, you’ll detect precisely what I mean. 
Colonial Marine technology is hard-edged, sharp, and blunt, designed for some very “tough hombres.”  The technology primarily is colored in shades of gray, blue and black, evoking a very strong “no nonsense” vibe.  This technology isn’t about being pretty.  It’s about delivering death from above (and anywhere else).
And, of course, this was intentional. 
The Alien (1979) universe showed us civilian space truckers, but Aliens (1986) calls in the cavalry, Earth’s greatest military fighting unit, to battle the titular xenomorphs.  At least some of this movie technology has become the stuff of fan obsession in the decades since the film’s premiere in the gun-ho age of Reagan and the invasion of Grenada, particularly the impressive M41A pulse rifle, which features a pump-action grenade-launcher on the undercarriage.  I’d love to get my hands on a recreation of this weapon, but they generally cost hundreds of dollars, last time I checked.
The great thing about the Colonial Marine tech of Aliens is that it is both futuristic and recognizable as an extension of today’s weaponry and vehicles.  We recognize everything, but it’s been tweaked a bit and even improved upon.   From drop ships to pulse rifles, from proximity scanners to remote-control perimeter “sentry” guns, Aliens reveals that man’s capacity to wage war remains at the vanguard of his evolution as a species.
But, of course, here — on LV426 — man has met his match, and that’s a critical part of the film’s equation.  The Marines represent America in space: proud, resourceful, and bristling with state-of-the-art military capacity.  But like the soldiers who went into Vietnam and found themselves waging a losing battle against an intractable foe, the Marines here find that even all their weaponry and high tech gear hasn’t prepared them to face this particular enemy.
I’m a strong and firm defender of Fincher’s Alien 3 (1992), but one reason I suspect it never found the widespread appreciation of Aliens is that it eschewed futuristic technology to such a tremendous degree.  It was a bold idea: land Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in a terrain with no weapons and no ready allies, and then — when she has nothing else to fall back on but her wits — examine her courage.  That’s an audacious approach, but probably not a crowd-pleasing one.
I think people really missed that pulse rifle…
The Narcissus Sulaco: a transport ship bristling with pointed outcroppings that resemble spears…or turrets.

In the director’s cut, these sentry guns blasted aliens by the dozens.

A marine’s best friend: the M41A Pulse rifle with pump-action grenade launcher.  Handy for close encounters.

The “freezers.” Note how, in contrast to Alien (1979), these cryo-units ae big and bulky, like the soldiers they house.  Also, instead of being set-up  in a blossom formation (around a hearth, as it were), they are constructed a line…in military formation.
In the Narcissus bay: the drop ship, for “flying the friendly skies.” Not.

All I Want for Retro-Christmas Countdown (2 Days Left…): Kenner’s Alien

COLLECTIBLE OF THE WEEK: Alien – The Illustrated Story (1979)

Back in the mid-1980s, I discovered this Heavy Metal “illustrated story” in a clearance bin at a small book store in Boston. It was in that bin with a stack of about a hundred other copies, each selling for just a dollar. I picked one up (I should have picked up ten…) and have kept my copy in my book collection ever since.

Heavy Metal’s Alien: The Illustrated Story by Archie Goodwin and Walter Simonson was distributed by Simon & Schuster, and it’s a graphic (and I mean GRAPHIC) re-telling of the landmark 1979 horror film…down to all the chest-bursting, gory details. Character likenesses are good; and even the “tech” (of the Nostromo, Narcissus and the Derelict) exhibits a tremendous fidelity to the movie’s production design.

The comic-book adaptation opens with a quote from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, “We live as we dream – alone,” and then launches into the story of the Nostromo’s encounter with a hostile life-form. The comic follows the details of the theatrical release very closely. For example, it doesn’t feature the famous deleted scene with Dallas’s transformation into Alien Egg.

There is, however, some alternate/new dialogue in the Narcissus coda, particularly Ripley’s conversation with Jones: “Funny Jones, you what I think I’ll miss the most? The smell of Kane’s coffee when I first wake up…”

Alien: The Illustrated Story originally sold for $3.95, and it’s a pretty sturdy book. Hell, it’s held up well for thirty years now (about half as long as Ripley’s hyper-sleep journey back to Gateway Station…)!

I still haul my copy out every now and then to admire the gonzo, blood-soaked, highly-detailed art work. I thought it would be fun to share a little of that gruesome good stuff today, especially as Alien celebrates a thirtieth anniversary this year.

Just gazing at this books with the drawings of the Space Jockey and the alien itself, I’m reminded of how Ridley Scott, H.R. Giger, Sigourney Weaver and Dan O’Bannon pushed the frontiers of space horror in a frightening new direction here. The haunted house in space concept had been seen before Alien on several occasions, but never with such visual aplomb and naturalism. I still remember talking to friends and family members about the film, and in particular the harrowing chest-bursting sequence. Today, we know it’s coming, and we sort of take it for granted. But back then, it had people puking in the aisles.

Ah, the good old days!