Thursday, January 15, 2015

On Alien and Aliens #film

For me this story starts when I was in primary school, back in the mid- to late-1980s in South Africa. We were at the arse end of the world thanks to apartheid, so my gentle readers, you must understand that we were always a little slow to get the good stuff. A movie would release in the US, and if it was popular, it would filter through to us a few months later. And it would take even longer for it to appear on VHS for us to hire.

Picture: Wiki Commons
It was probably when I was in Grade 3, 4 or 5, or thereabouts, that I gradually became aware of Alien and Aliens. And I vowed after listening to the boys in my class go on and on about the gory film and the simply frightening alien to NEVER EVER watch the film.

I was pretty good about my resolution too, for many years, until I met and married my husband, who by his own admission is a prime example of what happens when a young, bright mind is raised on a steady diet of horror movies (he makes short surreal horror films now in his spare time).

Somehow I still avoided Alien and most of its sequel, Aliens, but I did see and enjoy Alien Resurrection and watched bits of Alien 3 over the husband’s shoulder. But, quelle horreur! I did not see the film that spawned the whole franchise. Ever. Popular culture being what it is, I’d certainly read enough graphic novels and reviews, and had seen plenty of references to piece together the story. I didn’t think it necessary to see the first film. (Besides, remember that vow I made to myself in primary school?)

Besides, dude, those films were made way before the days of CGI. How the hell could they stand the test of time? Or so I thought.

Conversations were had with fellow creatives. The lads decided “We must have an Alien marathon”. I was dubious at first, but then thought, why the hell not. Perhaps it was time to put it all in context. Especially since we’d improved our home entertainment system profoundly from the days of peering at an old, half-blown CRT monitor we’d inherited from a friend.

I need to also add that Sigourney Weaver is one of my favourite female actors, precisely because she’s often cast in strong roles. Death and the Maiden. Hello.

Okay, so let’s do this.

We (sanely) decided to split the films down the middle, hence Alien and Aliens on one night, and at some point soon we’ll do the other two. Directors respectively are Ridley Scott and James Cameron. Weaver obviously follows through the entire series.

At this point I also need to highlight another reason why I’ve found the Alien franchise so alluring, and the reason is the Swiss Surrealist HR Giger. I’ve held a long love-hate fixation with his art over the years, and his involvement with the film started quite by the by even before he was consulted regarding the design. Screenwriter Dan O’Bannon crossed paths with him while working on the failed Alejandro Jadorowsky version of Dune. So the influence was there while O’Bannon conceived of the screenplay with his mate Ronald Shusett, and they were instrumental in getting him on board by the time they got round to production.

Something else that needs to be considered regarding the success of Alien, was the context in which it came into being. Remember that Star Wars was a huge, rip-roaring success for the SF genre in 1977, so it was also a case of O’Bannon and Shusett being in the right place at the right time with their screenplay.

I’d like to think that the contrast between the two films also played a role in its success. In Star Wars we have a rollicking space opera of epic proportions. In Alien, we are faced with the stark sterility of space, where mankind becomes prey to a superior biological organism. We are stripped of the romance and are faced to face with the primal danger of the hunter and the hunted.

To find oneself toppled from one’s post at the apex of the food chain is a deeply unsettling thought. Add to that the aesthetics of the Xenomorph (as the alien organism is known), and the way violation of others lies at the heart of its very existence (its sexual reproduction results in the oral rape of its host species). All unsettling, this blend of sex and death. What makes it even more frightening is that we are not able to reason with this life, whose sole motivation is so similar to ours – the Xenomorph wants to live, and will make use of whichever resources are available to do so. Humanity is merely a means to an end. And it doesn’t rest well to be relegated to a food source and a form of reproduction, does it?

In the second film, the themes of motherhood are also explored, which becomes rather unsettling when considering the role of the Xenomorph queen and the way she cares for her babies when compared to Ellen Ripley trying to make up for the fact that she missed out on being a mother to her long-dead daughter (floating about in stasis can play havoc with your timeline).

In discussion with the husband afterward, I realised also that another big theme running throughout both movies was that of corporate greed. The Weyland company owns the commercial vessel Nostromo on which Ripley is a crew member. It’s thanks to the company requiring an alien retrieved with complete disregard to the crew’s safety that is pivotal in the catastrophe. (And the reason for Ash countermanding Ripley’s quarantine order becomes even more clear.) In Aliens, an entire colony forfeits their lives so that Weyland can have access to the Xenomorph.

Picture: Wiki Commons
The question is asked: who is the real monster? The Xenomorph whose savagery is born out of natural instinct, or humanity, which will willingly turn on its own kind in order to further its aims?

As for my initial, childhood squeamishness, I went into the film with the expectation that everyone would die except for Ripley. Which was a far more healthier attitude to have. “Will he/she survive?” became more a case of “In what grisly manner and when will this person die?”

Both Scott and Cameron are able directors, who are adept in building and maintaining tension. Despite the lack of the almost ubiquitous CGI we’ve become to know and love for our cinema, neither director gives us overlong, detailed views of the Xenomorph. Instead, use of selected focus, light, sound and framing, the supreme predator is implied rather than revealed, and becomes all the more frightening because our imaginations have to fill in the missing details. (Perhaps our contemporary filmmakers can learn a thing or two from these older films, which I feel in a way are quite superior to the bad rash of Too Much Awesome afflicting contemporary cinema).

What starts out fairly mundane, is gradually unveiled in a full, unrelenting horror, for which we are woefully inadequately prepared. These two films straddle several genres (SF/horror/thriller) at the pinnacle of their craft, and over the intervening years and despite such massive leaps in filmmaking that give us dragons and massive mechs, have lost none of their power to cause us to suspend disbelief.

Oh, and I screamed. I screamed like a little girl at all the appropriate parts. And I loved every minute of it.

“Alien (film)” Wikipedia n.p. 2015. January 13, 2015 <>

“Alien (Creature in Alien Franchise) n.p. 2015. January 13, 2015 <>

1 comment:

  1. Actually -- my experience was similar to yours, if a bit younger. I could not stand gory horror movies as a youngster (still can't, really -- I have a visceral reaction to it), but most if not all of my close friends in my teens had seen and sworn by the Aliens movies (there were only two then back in the late 80s). I wanted to know what they were all about, I wanted to get the endless references my friends made, and so on. Soooooo.... they arranged a walk-through of Alien, during a nice sunny afternoon. One the one hand, I had a friend declaring the score with every death -- "Aliens: one, humans: NOTHING!" -- and on the other, another friend offering to fast-forward all the gory parts so I could at least get the story. I survived.
    Aliens, though -- that was just as awesome as they had promised. Somehow a rising body count is a bit easier to take when most of the characters are fighting back, and throwing one-liners at each other. "Maybe we can make a campfire, roast marshmallows, sing a few songs!"
    Still love these movies. And yes, I think modern filmmakers should take a look and see how much mileage you can get out of a solid script, ensemble cast and practical effects. Still room in there for social commentary, too, as you point out. (The "which species is worse" debate was one my teen friends and I returned to many times as we debated these movies.)
    Thanks for a thoughtful review of two sci-fi classics.