Film Club / a Prehensile Tail and a Fancy Mouth

AlienAlien
Directed by Ridley Scott


JOEL
Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
Brain Teeth

So. There’s this comic. Alien – The Illustrated Story. Written by Archie Goodwin and drawn by Walter Simonson: both of whom are pretty big famous comic book people. It came out in 1979 (the same year Alien came out) and was both major critical and commercial success and the first comic to ever be listed on the New York Times Bestsellers list (wow).alien comic 1

In the nicest possible terms let me say tho: erm… I wouldn’t recommend it. Or least not if you’re looking for something that works / is fun to read. Every page feels stodgy and weird. It’s somehow simultaneously manages to read both as both too fast and too slow. Every single page of it just makes you wish you were watching the film instead. This isn’t to blame Archie Goodwin and/or Walter Simonson. I’m pretty both did the best they could. And it’s definitely not to say that you can’t put the Alien creature into a comic and make it work – I mean: growing up the Dark Horse Alien comics extended universe (whatever you want to call it) was like my own personal sweet blue nectar (shout out to all the Aliens: Labyrinth fans in the house).Nah – the reason that Alien – The Illustrated Story doesn’t work is something that I kinda feel gets a little but lost when people talk about Ridley Scott’s little “haunted house in space” movie that ended up changing the face of the cinematic landscape forever.

Yes – Giger’s Alien is probably the best movie monster that has ever been designed/created/spawned and has never been surpassed. And the whole birth cycle egg / facehugger / chestburster / monster is like frankly touched with a diabolical evil genius that makes Lovecraft look like he’s writing with crayons. Yes – it’s great to see working class people just doing to do their jobs and get home alive in a movie (that’s the kind of representation we can all get behind no?). Yes – (OMG) every single cast member is pure fried solid gold: Tom Skerritt. Sigourney Weaver. Veronica Cartwright. Harry Dean Stanton. John Hurt. Ian Holm. Yaphet Kotto. Just having one of these guys in a movie most of the time is reason enough to watch it – but having all 7 just seems kinda greedy. Yes – it’s got your lead female protagonist and a thousand and one think pieces about feminism, fear of penetration, fear of rape, fear of penises and whatever the hell it is that those second set of teeth represent. I don’t know. And yes – it somehow simultaneously manages to be both the best horror film and science-fiction film of all time: which I’ve gotta admit is quite the feat. (Although I’d like to go on record now and say that actually – I prefer Alien$. But that’s probably a conversation for another time…).

But all that aside: the thing that gets a little lost and the thing that reading Alien – The Illustrated Story makes so completely obvious is that: Alien is really really good at being a film. All the scenes. All the movements. All the dialogue. All the action. It all works cinematically in a way that poor Archie Goodwin and Walter Simonson just can’t get close to in a way that I can’t even articulate apart from posting up pictures of the comic and letting you see for yourself and then leaving it to you to think about and consider: how much it works when it’s a movie.

alien comic 2

Seeing a blip on a screen and hearing that distinctive noise (BEEP) just isn’t comparable to seeing it drawn on a page. (Or that brief 1 second moment when the alien opens it’s arms – oh my god).

But – hey: what do you think?


JONATHAN
Barbican Comic Forum
Twitter

One of the downsides of pioneering creativity can be that when people rip off your original idea to a sufficient extent, the “original” work itself looks a bit stale. Even Alien of course owes a lot to 2001 (and yes a little to Dark Star) and along with Star Wars does make you wish for a bit more going on in that movie. Alien itself however not only stands up to the usurpers, but seems to continue to be a deep well of inspiration, largely I think because of its beautiful simplicity. Anyone who tries to build too much on its granite foundation finds that all additions just seem like unnecessary preening, like putting a curly moustache on a tiger, the best anyone could do with the xenomorph concept was to make more of them.
Metroid
Long before I saw Alien I had already felt it’s influence through an array of media. One of its most favoured progeny was the Metroid games, which took the idea of being trapped alone in an alien environment too its logical next step. It has a female protagonist (Samus) who starts off almost harmless, investigating a techno-organic landscape with her only company being haunting music underlining the feeling that she is galaxies away from the nearest familiar face. The first boss is even called Ridley. While frantically tearing leaves from Alien’s book Metroid also took the time to add environmental back story, as Samus explores wrecked spaceships, ancient infrastructure, and solved Indiana Jones style puzzles left lying around to let you know that at some point in the last thousand years some shit went down, without any further explanation. It’s a good economical way to provide depth to the story, much like Alien’s Space Jockey. Although it brings risks – imagine if someone idiotically tried to flesh out back story to an incidental piece of set design, fortunately any jaded hack who suggested such a thing would never be allowed anywhere near the alien franchise.
red aliens
But the influence is everywhere. The Tyranids from Space Hulk, and the Zerg from Starcraft have taken the Aliens and built massive franchises. Event Horizon was literally a haunted house in space; the raptors in Jurassic Park are just aliens; and of course Red Dwarf which, with the terrifying loneliness, giant ship, crazy robot, working class crew, and vindaloo monster feasts on Alien like a creative buffet. That phallic head in the silent darkness has become like a black obelisk of invention as it’s influence seeps through our culture.

spiders

So when I finally saw Alien it felt familiar, but what remained largely unduplicated was the sense of menace which builds and builds like a rollercoaster going straight to hell. I think this is perhaps also why the sequels have failed to take the ideas much further. I remember thinking the logical progression would be if the aliens turned Earth into a sort of Walking Dead apocalyptic wasteland with running battles through deserted cities and underground caverns. However they sort of tried this with the Alien Vs Predator movies and… well. It would be too charitable to say it’s the missing feeling or galaxy wide isolation that held back these movies, but it’s definitely important to the narrative tension to know there’s no cavalry, no secret invention, no trick that’s gonna save Ripley at the last minute, nothing except the vast emptiness of space.


JOEL
Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
Brain Teeth

I would like to second Jonathan’s “beautiful simplicity” comment (“The perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.” etc).More and more I’ve come to think of films has being like albums. Like when you’re younger and you’re watching something for the first time you just kinda take it all in as one big thing. It’s like a giant piece of classic music or something by a particularly ostentatious post-rock band (Godspeed You Black Emperor I love you): yeah there’s parts you might recognise amongst all the everything but it’s beyond your ability to actually be able to point out any particular bit you know?

But when you’ve already seen a movie and you’re returning to it for the third, fourth, fifth or sixth time (oh god – how many times have I seen Alien?) the lines of demarcation between every scene is so obvious it’s pretty much like going through tracks on an album.

helmet

TRACK 1: Opening Titles
TRACK 2: Distress Call Received
TRACK 3: Crew wake up
TRACK 4: Banter around the table

etc.

(Am pretty proud that I can actually do that from memory lol).

And yeah ok – maybe this is just the influence of growing up in the era of DVDs (sigh) which literally broke up the scenes in just this fashion: but I think it’s more than that – it’s the actual grain of the movie itself and the way that different scenes will do different things and have different effects. The most noticeable recent example of this I saw was watching Evil Dead 2 with a few friends. I mean every scene in Alien is basically different flavours of apprehension, dread, terror, horror – almost like a dial that slowly builds and builds and builds as it swivels from the right to the left. But you feel the swings more in Evil Dead 2 which bounces from the scary to the hysterical and back again several times so the effect is a lot more pronounced. Or in other words: you’re basically waiting for the bit where the evil gets into his hand and (as good as it is) everything before that and everything after just isn’t as good.

whos laughing now

(A thing of beauty is a joy forever).

And Alien – well yeah – even if you’re up to the umpteenth time of watching it: the “beautiful simplicity” of every scene is of such quality that you can still watch and luxuriate in it even if you know exactly what’s going to happen. In fact – isn’t that the best definition of a good story? Something that still holds your attention and keeps you rapt even if you know exactly how it’s all going to play out. Thinking about the reasons why it’s almost at the point where it’s sorta this ineffable thing: you know – maybe it’s the set design that makes what you’re seeing feel so real, maybe it’s the performances of the actors (like I already said: solid fried gold all round) and maybe it’s the story that keeps twisting and turning in all of these ways you don’t expect (I think the second or third time I rewatched it I totally forgot the Ash twist which is a hell of blindside seeing how all this craziness is happening with mysterious ships and crab like face creatures and monsters bursting out of chests and then – oh yeah – great: that dude is a robot). I mean – actually “simplicity” is a good word but it’s a simplicity that has all of these rich and full and complex resonations underneath it. It’s like six strings on a guitar that you can use to make all sorts of sounds…

The only bit I don’t really like that’s always just felt slightly flat is the last 20 minutes or so where it’s basically Sigourney Weaver running around with a monster chasing her and then you think it’s gone and then oh it’s back and then (yawn) she’s flushes it out the airlock and yeah I don’t know – it’s a bit thin gruel compared to the rich meal beforehand. Like: with all the other bits of the movie it still feels like anything could happen. Maybe they’ll find something good inside the alien ship. Maybe Kane won’t look into that egg. Maybe Ripley could convince them to keep quarantine. Maybe that meal won’t turn into a horrorshow. Maybe Dallas can escape from those tunnels without taking that final wrong turn. etc etc

But yeah for whatever reason I just don’t feel it when Ripley is alone with the beast right at the end. It’s like this thing that has spent such a long time being as atypical and strange as possible suddenly collapses under it’s own weight and just succumbs to the pull of the predictable…

ripley

And (is this just me?) but all that running forwards and backwards seems so dry that it makes me wonder if there was a bit that was cut out or something… Like I guess what I really wanted was one kinda final twist / knife in the throat: like an alternative version which ended with Ripley being sucked out to space along with the beast (imagine that!) or a showdown that had a few parts rather than just “push button – make monster go away now.” Maybe the beast could start speaking in a cut glass English accent or something? And you know – smoking a cigar perhaps?

but i still know a son of a bitch when i see one

But maybe that’s just me?


ILIA
The Gap between Panels
Barbican Comic Forum
Twitter / The Hot-Doll Pages

It struck me on a rewatch the debts Alien owes to 2001 – from throwaway things like the captain listening to pinnacle-of-human-civilisation classical music to the rather Hal-like ship AI who the crew creepily refer to as ‘Mother’. I had also forgotten the very 2001-esque introductory shots of the ship and the crew, who emerge from brilliant white sleeping pods, in an interesting inversion of the black gooey alien eggs on the planet. The parallels are interesting – the humans are in some respects agents of an intelligence just as callous and rapacious as the villainous xenomorph, travelling to other worlds and stripping them of their resources. Who are the true aliens? The equivalence is drawn explicitly by Ash, who complements the creature on its lack of moral qualms. In that reading, the alien is a symbol of a murderously expansionist human civilization, which the skyscrapers-in-space look of the Nostromo suggests is a product of a kind of capitalism which leads corporations to behave like psychopaths.

There is another (I think more mainstream) symbolic reading of the alien as somehow related to a deviant and dangerous sexuality – the phallus-shaped head and mouth, the vagina-like face-hugger, the monstrous ‘birth’ through the chest of one of the crew-mates. The final scene of Ripley confronting the horror of sex in her white underwear positions her as both innocent and vulnerable, but also as a sexual object. She is at the height of danger when she is at her most sexualised, and it is only by retreating into the ‘armour’ of a space suit that she manages to banish the threat of an out-of-control sexual monster. That lends itself to a puritanical reading of the film, in keeping with the slasher genre in general, where sexually innocent ‘final girls’ are able to evade the stalking serial killers. An alternative (in my view less persuasive) reading is that Ripley’s sexuality is a source of strength, tied as it is to a maternal instinct to save the rest of the crew (even though she only manages the cat). Ripley’s benevolent mothering impulse defeats the malevolence of the xenomorph in the end, but this is an idea more prevalent in James Cameron’s sequel, and it may be a mistake to read too much of it back into Ridley Scott’s film.


JOEL
Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
Brain Teeth

Holy shit. OMG I was right!!!

This conversation may have pointed to an ending originally considered by Ridley Scott and his crew, but ultimately never used. While Alien was still shooting, Scott managed to secure a bit more money from Fox to shoot some kind of coda – a shock finale which would take place after Ripley’s escaped from the exploding Nostromo. One of the potential conclusions would have seen the xenomorph emerge from its hiding place, bite Ripley’s head off, and then, with an eerily accurate approximation of Ripley’s voice, record a log entry along the lines of, “This is Ripley, last survivor of the Nostromo, signing off.”


JONATHAN
Barbican Comic Forum
Twitter

Stewart Lee has spoken about how onstage he has to work hard to adopt the low status character he needs for his jokes to work. Sure he’s in the spotlight, talking to a paying audience with their full attention, but he needs a reason to be grumpy about everything. Similarly the crew of the Nostromo are space exploring astronauts in a film made only a decade after the moon landings, but if their message to us is anything it’s “space travel is total bullshit” and so they have to work hard to earn that.

half life 2

To that end Alien brings the action down to Earth (so to speak) by taking its time and also making everything a huge faff. They have to walk to the alien ship in space suits; their sensors are rubbish; their meals are basically cereal; the self-destruct sequence is (sensibly) super complicated and annoying.

Making everything difficult also helps to dial up the helplessness, as the writers slowly and deliberately cut off all ways out. You can’t kill the alien cos of the acid blood. You can’t see the alien cos your sensors are crap and it’s really sneaky. You can’t fight it in hand to hand combat because all your crew are weaklings and also the alien has a prehensile tail and a fancy mouth. You can’t use a clever laser gun because they don’t exist. You can’t run away because it’s always faster. You can’t invent a clever Alien killing gizmo because the crew are too dumb. You can’t even blow up your own ship because the alien chooses to hang out in the one corridor which leads to the escape hatch. All that’s left is to panic.

iron man

But the crew, while grumpy, don’t panic at any old thing. Tony Stark’s “billionaire, genius, playboy philanthropist” (three of those things are the same right?) in the recent Endgame trailer wastes large amounts of his remaining oxygen moaning about floating in the depths of space without air or food or hope even though you know there are about 8 ways for him to get home. The definitely non-genius jobsworths on the Nostromo find themselves on a planet 10 months from Earth, with various systems blown, a possible hull breach, and with no one really in charge – the crew’s attitude is “oh blerg”. When they break quarantine it’s met with broad indifference, and mainly they just wanna go back to bed. They’re bored of being in space and are not in the least bit interested pioneering scientific discoveries.
hellboy
The result is that when they are finally terrified by something you are terrified with them, and as the plot unfolds the audience are basically at the same level as the crew and can be fairly confident they don’t have any useful hidden knowledge about what’s happening. Indeed it makes rewatching the film even more satisfying because you see all the dumb mistakes they make. Every time John Hurt marches up to an alien egg like he’s looking at an old sandwich in the fridge, starts prodding it, and then leans over it I find myself internally screaming “leave it mate, you’re walking into a red shirt situation you beautiful idiot!” Despite the entire plot hanging on his credulous stupidity. He’s basically the gunner on the Star Destroyer at the beginning of Star Wars. In fact all the characters are except for Ash, and none of them gets much of a hero’s journey. Even Ripley just Brave Sir Robins her way out of every situation.


JOEL
Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
Brain Teeth

My brain is still playing around with the idea of the alien speaking with Ripley’s voice. Yeah I know it would have changed the feeling of the whole film and been too silly and probably ruined the franchise and blah blah blah but I can’t help but feel that it’s a strange stroke of genius and I’m a little bit gutted that they didn’t go with it..

Like I said the whole final 20 minutes is just a little bit boring and cookie cutter compared to everything that’s happened before but – OMG – could you imagine the reaction if you watched the alien bite Ripley’s head off and then start speaking with her voice? It’s the kind of thing that Lovecraft would dismiss as being too nightmarish. Plus it’s one of them endings that would basically change how you saw the rest of the film (which I think is how you can tell its a good idea). I mean: the way you’re encouraged to think of the alien in the film and all of the successive ones is that it’s basically like a mindless beast – like a lion with a cooler outfit. But fuck – what if there was an intelligence behind that sightless face? I mean yeah: then you’d lose that kinda animalistic power and the seemingly sheer randomness of it’s attacks – but then looking back it almost becomes more awful. You know: all that stuff with Dallas in the airlocks wasn’t just a series of unfortunate events – that was cold blooded premeditation. Like a cat playing with a mouse.

here's johny

Also you know it also explains how of the places it could choose to take a power-nap it just so happened to decide on the escape shuttle. But I guess that’s just a minor niggle.

Basically I want an Alien reboot with a talking alien in it and I want it now.


JONATHAN
Barbican Comic Forum
Twitter

we too were kidding

INT. Escape ship

Close up of Ripley on the radio. Her face looks slightly strange.

Ripley: Lieutenant Ripley confirming hostile has been eliminated onboard the Nostromo. Repeat threat is eliminated. [camera begins to slowly pan back] Returning to hypersleep and proceeding to Earth for debrief.

We see the alien’s tail behind Ripley’s head and that her body is hanging limp but not quite lifeless. The Alien’s hand reaches forward to terminate the comms and he lets her body drop to the floor. We see here eyes blink in terror as she wakes from her trance. She shakes her head desperately but can’t move as if bound by invisible ropes. We hear the heartbeat background audio, but now there is a second smaller, faster heartbeat. Ripley’s eyes glance down to her stomach which bulges slightly as the second, faster heartbeat gets louder.

[fade to black]

This would also have been a pretty horrible ending and would have gotten past the Alien becoming a sort of wisecracking impressionist, and would also add some extra elements to the beginning of Aliens.

academy

It’s tricky with dark endings. Apparently there were alternative endings of Get Out where Chris goes to jail and when interviewed by the police denies all knowledge of the Armitage Family. But it was decided that this would basically annoy the audience.

What if the Predator had just killed Arnie? Or Jack Had caught Danny in the Maze? Or Luke’s rocket had just toinked off the Deathstar? Of course if you know Alien is the start of an immortal franchise you can make different decisions, but as a one shot Scott had already killed the entire hopeless crew, so mostly a director has to pull things back from the abyss. Mostly.


JOEL
Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
Brain Teeth

I’m not sure I agree with the idea that a director has to pull things back from the abyss. I mean – I don’t want to give away my entire psyche or anything but I spent most of my formative years being raised on a steady diet or VHS video nasties and the type of cool stuff that BBC2 and Channel 4 used to show after 11 oclock and the ones that really stuck with me / burned like a tattoo inside my brain where the ones that had endings that pushed me off the abyss and into the void below. Just from the top of my head there’s: Night of the Living Dead, Prince of Darkness, The Wicker Man, Carrie, The Blair Witch Project and Don’t Look Now all of which had permanent and long-lasting effects on how I see the world (lol). I mean: I know we’ve all programmed to believe that the world is a just and loving place and as long as you’re the hero everything will work out alright – but a final twisted shot of nihilism at the end of a movie is good for the constitution you know? And yeah if Alien had decided to twist the knife one final time then I think that would have been kinda cool (and I think I would have loved the film even more).

In fact – just to mention Evil Dead 2 again: the ending of that movie is pretty much the perfect encapsulation of how I like my stories to end. Which is only slightly surpassed by the all time classic Army of Darkness ending which still makes me smile with a kinda twisted horrible glee.

Amry of Darkness

And you know – isn’t that what good cinema is all about? Showing you things you’ve never seen before and walking you over the edge of the abyss? Like all the best bits of Alien (and to be fair it’s a film with lots of best bits) are the type of thing that nightmares have nightmares about…

egg

birth

got milk

And yes I totally realise that I’m falling into the thing of just forgoing any type of insight and just posting up pictures from the film and “LOOK AT HOW COOL ALL THIS STUFF IS” but hell – the stuff is really cool. And cycling back to the point I made at the start – it’s all really really cinematic. To the point where posting up the still pictures doesn’t get anywhere close to the way that alien egg opens (and the hissssss sound it makes when it does), the way that Ash’s voice sounds when he’s talking (I look forward to his James Blake-style spoken word electronic album) and well – the chest buster scene is a poetry all of it’s very own which I’m not sure I even have the words to describe.

And yeah – at the risk of sounding like a fuddy duddy and over-rhapsodizing a film made about four years before I was even born: where are the movies around nowdays that have images and moments that are as indelible as this? I mean I saw Us this weekend and it’s major contribution to the cinematic lexicon seems to be erm… people holding hands? (What a waste).

Less hand holding and more abysses I say.

This post was created by our Film Club email list.
If you’d like to join the conversation send an email marked “Film Club” to here.

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s