This ongoing experiment in film writing freezes a film at 10, 40, and 70 minutes, and keeps the commentary as close to those frames as possible. This week, I examine Alien, directed by Ridley Scott (1979):
In 1982, with Blade Runner, Ridley Scott would bring into full bloom the retro-future look he first explored in Alien, a look that suggested a lived-in future cluttered with the detritus of the past, rather than a clean, bright one. In this shot, the crew of the Nostromo has been woken up, and Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) discovers that they are nowhere near earth. The computer screen—portrayed so antiseptically in movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and the first Star Wars (1977)—is here just another hard-used object from a lived-in future, surrounded by post-it notes, a dangling lucky charm, and cords that look like something out of the engine of a ‘74 Buick. The information on the computer screens in Alien is green/blue fuzzy, except when Dallas (Tom Skerritt) talks to Mother, the computer. It’s not just the look of the computers and their haunting light that sticks in the imagination, but the sound they make, as well. Alien is a profoundly ambient experience, one that places us in the ship with the characters. Here, for instance, is Mother receiving the alien transmission and waking up. Or this, just a snippet of the fuzzed-out, analog sound layers that serve as the audio equivalent of retro-future visuals .
Attempting to remove the creature from Kane’s (John Hurt) face, Ash (Ian Holm) cuts into its leg, which bleeds acid strong enough to burn through the hull of the ship. The sequence of the crew chasing after the acid as it eats floor through floor is a good example of the remarkable pacing of the film through its first hour, as long periods of quiet are punctuated by frantic bursts of movement. Here, it has burned through the empty boots of a space suit, and the indiscriminate violence of the acid reminds us that the creature itself is not a reckonable thing. Ash, we learn, identifies the alien, for reasons which were unclear at the beginning of the film: “I admire its purity,” he says. “A survivor, unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.” And is there not a Nietzschean idealism to the creature, as recognized by Ash, who, after all, is also “not-human”? Not sympathy for the devil, but sympathy for the alien, for whom everything is permissible.
If Star Wars was the first film of the 1980s, then Alien was the last film of the 1970s. Not literally. But spiritually and aesthetically. Star Wars, with its polished nostalgia, its uncluttered futurism, its clean-shaved hero, as opposed to the loose, slovenly, unshaved camaraderie of Alien, with its undercurrent critique of corporate greed . The frame here shows how much was owed to the brilliance of Canadian cinematographer Derek Vanlint, who only worked on a handful of feature films throughout his career. It’s as if everything he had was put into Alien, and the result was sheer terrorizing beauty. Recently Sigourney Weaver, interviewed about the Blu-Ray release of the Alien films, said that “I’m glad that we have the ability to take something where Derek Vanlint, the cinematographer, worked so hard to make every shot like a little masterpiece, like a little Vermeer painting.” In the 70-minute frame, the characters glow in a wide-screen composition: Ripley, Parker (Yaphet Kotto), Ash, and Dallas. Ash anchors the shot, silent as he allows Dallas to talk his way into his own death in the shafts.
*** This deleted scene, as Lambert plays the alien transmission for some members of the crew, is also a nice example of the weird, unclean, distorted sound analog-ism of the film:  Alien was released in the U.S. in May 1979. Just two months later, Jimmy Carter gave his “Crisis of Confidence” speech, sometimes called the “malaise” speech, although he never used that word. It had been a brutal summer, as inflation spiked to over 11% (right now it’s under 2%), the prime interest rate was around 12% (as compared to just over 3% now), and gas lines stretched for blocks, with many gas stations closed as a result of the energy crisis. Carter’s words went beyond the usual political platitudes. What he delivered, instead, was a modern-day jeremiad:
“In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.”
If in Star Wars, evil is “out there”—its fulfillment in political life taking form in Ronald Reagan’s evil empire speech in 1983—then in Alien evil isn’t “out there,” but rather back home: earth. For the evil in Alien is not the alien itself, which is too inscrutable to be evil, but rather the corporation that owns the Nostromo and that has deliberately put the crew in contact with the creature. The language of capital and economic exchange permeates the film in terms of dialogue and set design. Here’s a back-and-forth between Parker and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) whose joke-cracking only barely masks their anger at being worker-drones, and Ripley. Parker is concerned that if he doesn’t go on the expedition to the planet where the mysterious signal is coming from, and something of value is found, he won’t be entitled to the profits:
Hey, Ripley, I got a question.
Do we get to go out on the
expedition or are we stuck here
until everything’s fixed.
You know the answer to that.
What about the shares in case
they find anything.
Don’t worry, you’ll both get
what’s coming to you.
I’m not doing any more work unless
we get full shares.
You’re guaranteed by law that
you’ll get a share… Now both
of you knock it off and get back
In the director’s commentary at around the 10-minute mark, Ridley Scott comments that, in terms of the characters, “there was already a class system of below deck and upper deck,” a sci-fi twist on the mid-1970s British (Scott was born in South Shields, England) television drama series Upstairs, Downstairs. Could viewers in 1979 somehow sense the coming of the New Order that was hinted at in Star Wars, with its mythological nationalism? As for the Alien franchise, especially with Aliens (James Cameron, 1986), it became increasingly militaristic and loud, as if to offset the anti-corporate undertone.
In the same year of Alien’s release, Ridley Scott directed a commercial for Chanel. It had a slow, syrupy, film noir vibe to it, complete with an implied femme fatale. At the time, viewers would have had no way of knowing that they were looking at a visual rough draft for Scott’s Blade Runner, which he had begun working on in early 1980. Here is the Chanel commercial, followed by a clip from Blade Runner, where Deckard first meets Rachel. In these two clips we witness Rachel’s (the replicant’s) source code: the woman from Chanel. Karl F. MacDorman and Hiroshi Ishiguro have written about “entities [androids] that elicit a model of a human other but do not measure up to it. In other words, the android may be uncanny because it fails to respond as predicted by our model of other people and their behavior. If so, a very humanlike robot may provide the best means of finding out what kinds of behavior are perceived as human, because its deviations from human norms are more evident.” The terror of Ash might not be the revelation that he’s not human, but rather that he calls into question the humanness of the crew itself. [Of course, you don’t need to care or think about any of this theoretical stuff to enjoy Alien—that’s its brilliance.] In another deleted scene, Ripley comforts Lambert, and asks her a question that seems oddly irrelevant in light of the existential crisis they’re facing: “I want to ask you a question,” she says to Lambert. “Have you ever slept with Ash?” Lambert’s answer is no, because, Lambert says, he never “seemed particularly interested.” In light of Ripley’s growing suspicion that Ash is not human, it’s a key scene: she’s probing for evidence to confirm her doubts about Ash’s humanness.
And yet. The darker implication here, the rusted hook that drags across the bottom of your mind, a thought so horrible that it barely registers or makes sense, like the indecipherable message from the dead planet, is that Ripley is probing the humanness not of Ash, but of Lambert. And why not? After all, the crew is surrounded by non-human beings: the alien, Mother, Ash himself, and even Kane who, with the alien living inside him, was a hybrid. Deep in space, untethered from earth, it is the Nostromo crew itself that is alien.