Alien (1979) – Blu-ray
So I watched Alien again. The last time I watched the film was just before Prometheus was released. Back then I was cautious about what Prometheus might be, what its effects on Alien might be. This time, well, I was pretty much of the same mind, watching it for the first time since Prometheus, wondering what it would like with the knowledge of Space Engineers etc sullying my experience of it.
I won’t go on about Prometheus, it’s a divisive movie and certainly not all it might have been. As time has gone on, I look back on it with a some disappointment- it is really two films conflicting for supremacy. Its partly a (‘proper’?) science fiction film about human evolution and how that was orchestrated by alien Engineers, and it is partly an Alien prequel, handicapped by having to put all those references to Alien in it whilst maintaining some kind of logic. I hope Ridley Scott’s next attempt, Alien: Covenant, gets it right next time by being either one or the other (it certainly seems to be going the route of full-on Alien prequel, which isn’t necessarily a good thing in itself).
So Alien. Well, thankfully I can report it isn’t ruined by Prometheus, even my favourite scene of the Space Jockey reveal. Fortunately Alien is its own thing, a utterly gorgeous Lovecraftian horror, and no meddling of the chronology/mythology can spoil that. To be honest I’m of a mind that everything else -prequels, sequels, everything- is all some other alternate universe anyway. Alien works best as its own, unique thing. Its a beautifully shot, wonderfully designed, perfectly cast/acted film about space truckers stumbling upon an alien derelict and unwittingly unleashing their own doom. Thats all that it is. Rather like fans of Jaws (and I count myself among them) can watch that film blissfully discounting the existence of its own horrible sequels.
Its the conflict between art and commerciality. Each is a perfect work of art and each has been subjected to the normal Hollywood methodology of milking a successful property for every dollar it can make. As fans we are always tempted by the prospect of ‘more’ but rarely is that ‘more’ ever properly realised, rarely does that ‘more’ really mean more of what we love and admire. I think one example of where that worked was Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, or maybe Back to the Future 1 & 2, but such examples are rare (I rather hope Blade Runner and its as yet-unnamed sequel proves to be another, but we’ll have to wait and see).
I think that what helps Alien remain so unique, so indomitably unaffected by Prometheus or the sequels is that it is so much a product of the 1970s. It looks and feels and sounds so different to everything else that has followed. The cast is middle-aged, down to earth and ‘real’, they don’t seem like a cast of actors, and even the usual roles each performs seems against type (so very 1970s). Tom Skerritt’s Dallas is the nominal leader but he’s really an ineffectual one, laid-back to the point of being disinterested in what is to him just another job. That tired, job-like attitude to travelling between worlds infects most of the characters, at once a Dark Star-inspired commentary on the soulless astronauts of 2001 and riposte to the heroes of Star Trek. If the audience expects Dallas to be the leader, the hero by example, the source of a solution, they are rather mistaken. In most of his decisions, Dallas is usually proved wrong. Its an example of authority being fallible, another ‘1970s thing’ I think in the post-Nixon era. That last point is further echoed in the conspiracy of Ash and ‘the Company’ using the crew as expendable pawns in an investigation of the alien- it’s not a plot point really convincing or successful but its a further example of the film being a product of its time.
Of all the films that have followed it, I don’t think there has ever been as convincing an ensemble, it’s a major part of the sense of reality of the film. Likewise the slow pace, or the (mandated by the limits effects tech of the time) strictly functional visual effects that don’t pull us out of the film by being ‘wow’ moments. The horror of the Giger-designed creature is more from what we don’t see than what we do. A film today would feel more inclined to show us everything and ‘wow’ us with impressive visuals, as Prometheus did. If characters in Alien behave dumb, we don’t really mind, they are ordinary people who are terrified or not aware of their real situation; if the characters in Prometheus behave dumb, its because they are stupid (or written badly).
And the Jerry Goldsmith score; what a wonderfully unsettling, perfectly toned work. Even the uses of his earlier score from Freud, something Goldsmith himself was annoyed by, seems perfect- that fragile, haunting melody that accompanies Dallas crawling through the air ducts (I bought the soundtrack to Freud on CD some years ago- it sounds very much like the score to an Alien sequel that never was).
Well here’s a reality check: Alien is some 37 years old now. That fact alone feels scarier than anything in the bloody movie but yeah, 37 years old and yet to be equaled as a sci-fi horror film. I’m not going to suggest it is a classic like Citizen Kane or Gone With The Wind or 2001 but its surely up there in that group of films as far as being in a league of their own, never to be really equalled.
37 years ago… I remember picking up this issue of Fantastic Films, arrested by the image on its cover and the unsettling pictures inside of strange alien places and unusual-looking spacesuits. It was the start of a long love affair with what would be one of my very favourite films. I remember reading the Movie Novel of the film, in hindsight a remarkable way of experiencing a film that has sadly been made redundant by home video (I would have loved, and would still love, a Movie Novel of Blade Runner for example).
So Alien lives on, in spite of and utterly independent of, Prometheus and any of the other Alien-themed spinoff films. Its an unsettling, powerful piece of work that somehow transcends its b-movie origins. Long may it reign.