Sunday, June 30, 2013
Movie Review: Alien
My first awareness of the Alien films came when I picked up a special Starlog magazine devoted to the then new film, Aliens. I loved the creatures and the tech, and I would flip through the magazine time and again, without seeing the film, imagining what it all meant, building stories around the pictures. Some years later, when we finally got a nice color TV and a VCR, I started to rent movies on occasion, and two of those early rentals (also among the first R rated films I saw) were Alien and Aliens, back to back. That’s all it took. I was hooked. I loved both films. I think for a long time, because it was faster paced and more actiony, I would have said that Aliens was my favorite between the two. Eventually, I began to say that I loved them both, but for different reasons. Alien was a great horror film, and Aliens was a great action movie. I still think that’s the case. But, I realized a couple years ago that in fact, I really, really like Aliens and I really, really LOVE Alien. Not just a great horror film, Alien is a great film.
In the aftermath of Star Wars, science fiction became more appealing for the folks with the money. And, suddenly the idea of a more ‘lived in’ future (as opposed to the ultra-clean Star Trek/2001 type futures) was acceptable. People in space might not just be variations on our idealized astronaut heroes, but workaday schlubs just trying to get paid and get by…in space.
After the opening titles set the creepy tone, our view slides through the halls of the ship, we see an environment where people might live or work, not too different from your office, your break room, your kitchen. Some cryo-beds open to reveal a handful of everyday folks, a tugboat captain, his crew, and a couple surly mechanics. Not only might I work along side any one of these people, I could very easily be one of them. I hear echoes of myself in Yaphet Koto’s words, in Veronica Cartright, in Tom Skerrit. And I like to think some of the best of me can be seen in John Hurt. The point is, the film takes its time to introduce us to very relatable characters, and puts them in a very relatable environment, even if it is in space. By this tactic, the tensions, the shocks, and the tragedy all become as relatable, thus far more effective than so many horror movies with disposable victims and vacuous ‘heroes.’
It’s a slow burn. About 45 minutes pass before the alien makes its first appearance. But the tension builds and builds so effectively. Sometimes there are jolts and jumps, mostly to give you a bit of relief. Yet, after a brief release, it begins building once again. Even when the trouble really gets going, there are long stretches of silence and fear. The atmosphere is like a character unto itself, seeping into every scene, an invisible elephant in the room. The stark terror and loneliness expressed beautifully by the cast becomes palpable. Alien is a genuine and emotional masterpiece.
Sexuality is both absent and ever present. The alien itself is birth, death, and rebirth. The tension of death and sex, penetration and embrace is lurking between the lines. The creature is beautiful and terrifying as it is mysterious. Is it simply an animal looking to feed and breed? Is it intelligent? Is it a weapon? Is it part of some greater plan? These are questions the movie leaves unanswered, letting you imagine a great deal. There is a larger universe created in the film, with things far beyond our perceptions. But sex and death transcend our ideas of civilization. Perhaps the alien is the very embodiment of nature, giving life and taking it without regard. Does it feel or think? Does it look upon the humans as victims or just a warm spot to put its young? And what evolution brought about such a thing; what is its home like?
Alien plays with your expectations. Who lives, who dies, when and how. It’s all against the prevailing fashion. As is the slow pacing and incredibly long build-up. And I think this factor lends to its popularity and timelessness. Alien is a movie that hasn’t aged, except maybe that the computers look primitive next to today’s ultra-mini touch screens. Everything from the sets and costumes to the cast and script ring true. They seem authentic. And the alien is still one of the most beautiful things ever created for film. It is a work of art, made more impressive by how possible it seems.