March 27, 2014

Alien: A Retrospective

Believe it or not Sigourney Weaver’s character Ripley in the Alien movies was written for a man.  That explains a lot.

When they cast Weaver they didn’t change the character.  Other than a pretty face there is nothing feminine about Ripley.  She’s the only one who does not approve of letting Kane (John Hurt) on the ship with egg on his face.  The other female (Veronica Cartwright) is less attractive but fully feminine.  At a crucial moment she cries and freezes, dooming not only herself but the chivalrous Yaphet Koto.

The film’s significance in the history of motion pictures lies in its many shocking developments (not just the one you’re thinking of).

By the time the film was released (1979) it was traditional for scary movies to start with a killing.  Jaws, Friday the Thirteenth and even Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte open with violent deaths.  Alien starts with all seven cast members waking up and having breakfast.  Some aspects of their personalities appear early but nothing to create an emotional bond to any of the characters.  The film proceeds so slowly it could not have first appeared on television after remote controls became common.

The next shock is not just the unforgettable scene that eliminates the first cast member, but that its the best actor in the cast who dies first.  That was a signal that this movie is very different than most of what came before.

Next comes a segment so traditional and predictable it looks stolen.  The ugliest cast member (Harry Dean Stanton) takes a long walk alone, finds the abandoned skin of the alien, gets startled by the cat then killed by the now full-grown alien.

When the handsome man (Tom Skerrit) goes looking for the alien most people could easily predict what would happen next.  He would find himself in a compromised place as the alien approaches.  Some feeble effort to kill or capture the alien would fail.  The alien would close in on him as he scrambles to escape.  He would get out at the last possible moment, being slightly injured with bleeding.  In the next scene Ripley would be tending to his wounds privately.  The conversation would slowly turn to matters other than survival.  Their heads would slowly draw together for a lingering kiss.

In older films they might be interrupted at that point, but by 1979 they might continue to the point of climax or even finish the process before anything else happened.  She could even burst open as Kane had, followed by Skerrit waking up screaming.

It starts out that way.  He climbs through the ceiling and begins searching.  The others view a tracking device that shows the two bodies.  The alien approaches him at increasing speed, drawing nearer and nearer and…it kills him.

The remaining white man was not going to become anyone’s lover, but the revelation soon after that he is under orders to sacrifice the crew to bring the alien to headquarters, followed by the discovery he’s a robot  made Alien a film like no other.

That left a black man and two women fighting the alien.  No one had ever seen that before.

The alien itself was nothing special.  All it did was kill.  The gooey stuff was a small nuance.  The fear that something might attack you at any moment is traditional.  The careful editing was brilliant, but it was the unexpected events that give Alien a unique place in cinema history.

About the Author

Phillip Cole



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