Friday, October 12, 2012
Over the last few years I've been Horrorthonning science-fiction/horror movies a few at a time, but I always knew that doing the genre right meant starting with Alien. Much like the stunt Halloween pulled off the previous year, Alien took an ill-defined genre and exploded it out of some guy's stomach, and the blood spatters on those futuristic walls have been chased by filmmakers ever since.
I've been chewing for a while on exactly what to write about this movie. It took some thought, because as has been mentioned here before, it's quite simply perfect. It's one of those movies that can still hit you unexpectedly with another excellent detail you forgot you'd ever noticed. This shot above was one for me, inside the alien ship but not yet to the big spectacle. Moody, strange and beautiful.
Two things struck me as of this viewing. One was the graceful impact of the movie's title. It's never stated or not, but I like to think the crew's contact with the alien ship and the living creatures within is humanity's first extraterrestrial contact (for the sake of the argument, let's ignore Prometheus). So for the first time mankind is sharing the same air with an animal, a thing from somewhere else and lo and behold it is fucking terrible. And the fearful architecture is so basic: an alien invasion, with a deep, psychological accent on the "in." This new, unknown life form comes with new, unknown kinds of fear -- things even worse than being hunted and killed.
What struck me most of all this time around was something I noticed about the production design. The setting of Alien is nothing less than iconic. You don't drop a story this simple into any old place and have it become what this movie has become. You're not only looking at an industry standard that's been imitated countless times, you're also looking at one of the lead characters in the story.
And of course one of the reasons the Alien-ness comes across with such sickening force is Ridely Scott's choice to use different designers: one for the human world, another (crazy person) for the alien ship and the titular beastie itself. I love Giger's work, but it was the setting of the Nostromo that really got my notice this time.
The legacy of the Nostromo's design is the pseudo-realistic/utilitarian/industrial sort of thing that shows up everywhere in science fiction cinema. Practically any sci-fi movie that isn't a Star Wars flick owes something visually to this film. As such, I think I'd lost sight of exactly what the original ship is. It's not, as I recalled, an extrapolation of existing NASA tech with an overlay of hypothetical industrialization of space. It's got poetry.
I can only think of one other movie that hits this same amazing note, and that's Ridley Scott's other masterpiece Blade Runner: A sci-fi setting that bridges the gap between the elegant practicality of 2001: A Space Odyssey and the lyricism of Star Wars, a setting of unique character, something you can watch decades later and marvel at how it doesn't look dated, because it just looks like itself.
It comes as no surprise, but the mood of this setting/character I'm gushing about is not a happy one. Looking at these exterior shots of the Nostromo, I felt like the ship wasn't built with pipes and vents and rivets as much as assembled from huge slabs of some unforgiving material that was already textured that way, dragged at great effort from some dark orbital quarry.
Compared to the alien ship, the Nostromo feels like home, but her comfort is brooding and oppressive. Even before any creature comes on board, you get the impression the crew just isn't going to win the day. The job sucks, your boss doesn't care, you're stuck on a depressing ship with a cold, cold universe outside.
And it's about to get so much worse.