Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Alien, the film and comic

In my quest to better familiarize myself with the great genre films out there I rented Ridely Scott's Alien, which I have heard described as "a haunted house story in space." At the same time I came across the comic book adaptation by Archie Goodwin and Walt Simonson, published by Heavy Metal. Watching the film and reading the comic on top of each other was an interesting learning process on the importance of texture in telling a story.

I came into Scott's Alien with a lot of preconceived notions. A major one that was soon shattered was that this was no action film, unlike latter films in the series (my introduction to these movie monsters came from the tie-in merchandise like the video games and action figures of my youth). This is a film that takes its time in very carefully setting up a particular mood for the spaceship Nostromo. The first images in the film is the word "ALIEN" slowly appearing on-screen, starting with abstract lines that only fully spell the word after a few minutes. The opening of the narrative is similarly creepy and obtuse. It just shows a computer turning itself on while one of the crew's space helmets stays on top of ship's machinery. But the little things about that scene make an impact. There's the way that one bit of the ship is pumping up and down in the background d and how the computer's monitor is reflected in the helmet's visor that communicates this sense of strangeness, and the distressing feeling of jeopardy that comes with it.

Scott's ability to create such an intense atmosphere assists the structure of the film, where the alien doesn't become a presence until an hour into the film. Instead we spend time with the working class crew of the Nostromo. There is abundant characterization in Alien but it's a very particualr kind. Screenwriter Dan O'Bannon said he was impressed with Walter Hill's screenwriting technique (Hill wrote and directed The Warriors and The Driver as well as many other films). O'Banon said it resembled "blank verse" in how perfectly simple it was. That simplicity works in Alien as we only learn about the crew of the Nostromo in how they react to the immediate actions taking place in the scene. When a face-hugged Kane is about to be taken aboard we see what kind of characters Ash and Ripley are when they go for completely opposite actions (letting the alien aboard also leads to another plot line involving Ash we see later).

One of the main reasons that precise way of storytelling works is due to the acting. Watch that scene of the crew socializing over breakfast after deep sleep and you see a collection of some of the best character actors in modern film. Harry Dean Stanton and Yaphet Kotto have an immediate chemistry as these blue collar guys. The rest of the actors are able to establish themselves with only a few bits of dialog and actions but I thought Ian Holm did the best job early on as the science officer who seems a (shades of Spock). Of course it's Sigourney Weaver who captures our attention knowing she's the second most important thing of the entire franchise. Her performance presents a type of woman not seen much in sci-fi/fantasy films, then or now. She is focused and capable but spends no time satisfied with herself for standing out, she just is. Her Ripley makes an interesting contrast to both Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), who is more in the "scream queen" vein except this film has no time for royalty, and Dallas (Tom Skerritt), who starts off being the typical male lead although that changes when all intergalactic Hell breaks loose.

There's no doubt when that chaos starts happening, it's the greatest and most remembered scene in the film. John Hurt's Kane is recovering from a facehugger attack and, recalling an earlier scene in the film, the crew is breaking bread with each other and acting very comfortable with themselves. Then a monster bursts our of Kane's chest and quickly scurries off. Listening to the DVD commentary track Cartwright talks about how the cast except Hurt didn't know what the chest bursting would look like and the reactions you see are not those of the characters but the actors playing those characters. The universal pop culture conscience has dulled the novelty of the scene but it's still a brilliant marker between the first half of the film and the second. From there all the capital of mood Scott has built up gets cashed in. The film's pace quickens but not by too much. There is still plenty of space between the kills, space filled by O'Bannon's "characterization as plot progression." There's also a subplot about the entire alien situation being engineered by the Weyland-Yutani Corparation and its dutiful android Ash. This was added in later by Hill and listening to the commentary track O'Bannon makes it clear he didn't like his story being changed to make "a trite political statement." This is a man who wanted to make a film that did one thing, scare the Hell out of the audience with a monster they've never seen before, and nothing else. Fortunately for O'Bannon and the audience that goal is still met with the various characters' deaths creeping in with great suspense and paying off with the alien, H.R. Geiger's equally repulsive and sexy design, bolting onto the screen for only a short while. You never really see much of the alien actually slashing up anyone, usually just the gory aftermath.

The film only really feels fast when Ripley has to reach while the escape ship while emergency self-destruct lights are going off. The claustrophobic sense of the Nostromo is heightened in those scenes of our heroine running down the corridors. All that the film isn't even happy with one climax. Rather, we get another battle between Ripley and the alien on the escape ship itself setting up the "blown into space" offensive tactic that James Cameron would basically repeat at the end of Aliens. Ripley and Jonsey the cat have to enter deep sleep after all that, a simple nap wouldn't be the come down needed after that maddening experience.