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The Franchise: Alien (Part 1)

In space, no one can hear you scream. On the internet, nobody cares when you scream.

Welcome again to The Franchise, where I review entire catalogs of work. This time I’m rewatching and reviewing the entire Alien movie franchise. Why? Two of my favorite fiction genres are science fiction and horror. Along with fantasy, they form a triumvirate of media genres where there are no rules or limits other than the creator’s imagination. Alien is, as far as I’m concerned, the quintessential sci-fi horror film series. It has been imitated, copied, spun-off, and represented in other media time and time again, and its mythology is still expanding.

Spoilers abound, obviously.

This particular column talks specifically about the original film, Alien, because I’ve got a lot to say about it. I may have less to say about the sequels and spinoffs, or cover more than one in a subsequent article, but I feel this one deserves its own special spot.

One facet I’ll be mentioning throughout is the various cuts of each film, and which cut is superior. However, many of you will be glad to know that I’m sticking to primary canon: No Alien vs Predator here. First I’ll address that elephant in the room. I consider the two Alien vs Predator films more Predator canon than Alien canon. There is no hint that the Predator series exists in Alien canon, though there are brief easter egg references to Alien lore in Predator 2, and the AvP films reference events from the Predator films. Stylistically, the AvPs are also closer to Predator’s action tone, and even contradict Alien’s history, so I don’t count them. If I ever do a column about Predator, I’ll put them there.

With that out of the way, let’s get into some art history!

The original draft of 1979’s Alien screenplay, written by Dan O’Bannon in 1976, was titled “Star Beast”. All of the characters in the script are unisex by design, with O’Bannon noting that any crew member could be cast for men or women. Descriptive text in between dialogue is very brief and lacks gender pronouns (although, perhaps mercifully, characters were changed from names like “Chaz Standard” and “Cleave Hunter”). Concepts like the acid blood came in later drafts from additional writers, to answer O’Bannon’s own question of why the crew couldn’t just shoot it.

It wasn’t until Swiss artist H.R. Giger – known for his works displaying surreal alien structures and creatures – came aboard that themes of gender became more prominent. Giger’s designs were often phallic in nature, and have been described as “xeno-erotic”, or suggestively sexual in a grotesque or alienating way. The original Alien xenomorph design was based on Giger’s Necronomicon series of works, specifically the following:

Necronom IV (1976) – H.R. Giger

Likewise, the reclining figure atop subsequent painting Necronom V later became the inspiration for The Pilot in the first film – colloquially referred to as the “Space Jockey” – the massive dead creature they find on the derelict ship. These beings would be further explored in Prometheus many years later. Once Giger’s imagery and implicitly phallic design for the creature became instrumental in the development of Ridley Scott’s vision for the film, roles were cast with a strong female lead (though Tom Skerritt gets top billing, as Sigourney Weaver was a relative unknown at the time). The rest, as they say, is history… though the franchise’s history isn’t complete yet.

“In space no one can hear you scream.”

ALIEN (1979)

In my mind, Alien is a near-perfect film. It’s everything sci-fi/horror should be. Even without the plot, the set design is a major star of the show. The ship feels lived-in and grimy rather than the antiseptic spaces of many sci-fi films of the time, and its lower decks and ventilation shafts give it the feel of an actual mechanical structure rather than a ship that exists for plot. The derelict ship and the egg hive feel appropriately alien and weird, almost bio-mechanical.

One of the first things to notice about the film is how long it takes with its establishing shots. The first several minutes are simply shots of the ship, its environment, the dated-looking computers booting up, and finally the characters in stasis. We don’t enter the crew’s cryosleep chamber until over 5 minutes into the film’s run time, and nobody speaks until nearly 7 minutes in. These lengthy establishing shots are important because they build an element that the entire film heavily relies on: atmosphere.

Atmosphere is the majority of what makes Alien work so well. It establishes a mood immediately, no matter where it goes or what scene it’s in. There are plenty of films where it’s been said that the setting is itself a character. Here, the Nostromo is exactly that. Controlled by a central computer network called “Mother” (officially MU/TH/UR 6000), the inner workings of the ship are explored throughout the film in ways sci-fi rarely does. Additionally, almost the entire film lacks a musical score. There is the rare orchestral or synth track to set a tone, but by and large the recorded soundtrack was cut back in favor of ambient sound. As with the setting, this heightens the tension even more, and the sparse music throughout becomes more noticeable and moody.

The crew feels believable and their interactions are those of people who know each other and have worked together for a long time (except for Ash, for obvious reasons, who joined the crew immediately before the mission), but their natural banter is not delivered in a way that feels shoehorned or clearly for exposition.  In particular the engineering duo of Brett and Parker feel like buddies, where they’re not as close with the rest of the crew.

Their first scene after waking up is simply a round at the breakfast table, and it becomes clear that they’re basically only a bunch of space truckers hauling a payload for a corporation. The in-universe company, the now infamous Weyland-Yutani, has a built in protocol for investigating errant signals of sentient origin, which is why they’re awakened in the first place. A smart writing choice, so that it’s not merely a “Hey gang, let’s investigate!” plot device.

Perhaps the only leap in logic in their investigation is after finding the huge Pilot with the hole in his chest, they don’t determine that the signal is derelict and leave, instead investigating a deep drop which leads to the egg chamber. Kane is the XO of the ship, and it seems like the science officer would be the one to investigate life forms. This is most likely due to a conceptual change  in the script for budgeting purposes: Originally there was supposed to be a separate pyramid-shaped building they would investigate, which itself housed the egg chamber. It’s one of the conceits of filmmaking that expensive major set pieces are often cut early for budget and time.

In any case, it wouldn’t be a horror film without a character’s poor decision, and Kane looking directly down into the egg after it opens its flaps seems like an ill-advised choice. Enter the “facehugger”, which to my knowledge does not have a more official moniker. Aside from being a last-minute crew replacement, the first foreshadowing of something being off with Ash arises when Ripley refuses to let the infected Kane back on the ship due to containment protocol, and Ash hits the door controls anyway. The acid blood coming up here adds an extra facet of danger, and the post-deposit death of the spider-like creature and its corpse falling onto Ripley’s shoulder is an effective scare.

What’s interesting about this aspect of the alien life cycle, and subsequent scenes involving Kane, is that it changes the film from creature horror to body horror. Involving the gestation of a host in its life cycle adds a separate layer of fear to the film, especially in the following “chestburster” scene. A couple bits of trivia here: The cast had no idea there would be so much blood in the scene where the young alien bursts through Kane’s chest, so the reactions you’re seeing are genuine – in particular Veronica Cartwright’s. From a production standpoint, the setup they had to get the alien to escape could only be done once, so they had to get the proper take on the first try or risk hours of reset, which they didn’t have. John Hurt was rigged with a device that would push it up and drag it away, and it could only be set up once.

The crew tracking down the alien and finding the cat in a particularly memorable jump scare might seem overdone in horror now, but one thing to remember is that if an aspect of a film seems like a cliche, it’s only because the source material has been imitated so often. It’s also interesting to see the methods of the crew pan out when they think the alien is still very small and can be trapped in a cargo net. When it molts and leaves its skin behind, it’s the first clue they’re dealing with something much larger. But even as people start dying, nobody else knows yet that it’s become this massive terror, especially since some of its victims merely disappear. More on that in the cuts section.

As legend has it, the cast were mostly kept away from the rubber-suited 7’2″ tall actor Bolaji Badejo, whose imposing frame and lanky figure gave the alien a more unnerving feel. This effectively gave him a presence on set when in costume, as it allowed the cast to better associate him with the emotions evoked by encountering such a creature. The main casting of the film takes an interesting turn here. As I mentioned in the intro, Tom Skerritt receives top billing and Sigourney Weaver wasn’t well known in film, but having Broadway experience. Likewise, the “final girl” cliche of slasher horror was a pretty new concept, a term coined in many analyses of gender in horror films, so it was a surprise to have Skerrit’s Captain Dallas die in the ventilation shafts while attempting to flush the alien out to an airlock. The plan is sound enough; the captain of the ship goes in with a flame thrower while the crew has a tracker,  and he plans to search the shafts deck by deck, closing vents behind him as he goes. So to have him fail, leaving Ellen Ripley in charge, was a bold move for cinema and sci-fi alike at the time. This sequence also introduces both the most iconic weapon and most iconic piece of equipment in the franchise: The flamethrower and the handheld motion tracker.

The twist late in the film that Weyland-Yutani knew about the organism and sent Ash to retrieve it for use as a weapon brings forth another infamous phrase, “Crew Expendable”, as a facet of the mission. This revelation adds yet another layer of horror to the film, one of doom; an inevitable dread that whatever you do doesn’t matter, and that larger forces are actively working against the character. What this does is paint the corporation as the primary villain, where the antagonist is simply trying to survive and complete its admittedly violent life cycle. The fact that Ash goes haywire after relatively little physical provocation seems somewhat careless on their part.

If there’s one qualifier I have to calling this merely a “near-perfect” genre film, it’s that I absolutely hate one particular edit. I’ve probably seen this movie a dozen times and there’s a singular shot that bugs me: The sudden jump cut from the prop severed head of Ash to Ian Holm’s real head poking through the table. It’s a model one second, and then it’s suddenly real, and it’s a jarring piece of editing. A quick cut to Ripley’s face as she operates the controls between these two shots would have entirely fixed this problem. I’m sure many don’t notice this, but it feels like someone wasn’t doing their job here, which is only glaring to me because I have so few issues with the rest of the film.

A scene in the third act of the film where Lambert is killed by the adult xenomorph is occasionally brought up in gender analysis of the film, as the sequence ends with the alien’s barbed tail rising up between Lambert’s legs, invoking imagery of a sexual assault. However, despite dying offscreen, Lambert’s death was actually changed many times in production, with various degrees of gore and violence. The final cut of the tail scene was actually recycled from an earlier shot from Brett’s death scene, so the legs you see are Harry Dean Stanton’s. Parker’s death is actually the only graphic kill by the adult alien, as the rest are offscreen or have the character taken away. I can only speculate as to why, but perhaps the alien was smart enough to understand what the self-destruct was, or knew it needed to kill the others in a short period of time somehow.

Ripley just barely missing the self-destruct sequence’s window for disabling it adds yet another existential layer of horror. Where the company’s true mission brought the creeping dread, the countdown timer is now an immediate mortal threat. The following sequence of escaping in the shuttle has my favorite kind of scare in horror: The kind where the threat has been onscreen for several seconds, but the fright comes only when you suddenly notice it. Of course I’m referring to the alien huddling up next to the pipes of the shuttle. It’s a scare that’s not done enough in horror, presumably because it’s a hard thing to hide effectively in a scene.

This time however, Ripley is entirely vulnerable, having stripped down to return to her cryogenic sleep. There’s potential to mine this scene for more gender study in film; the previous shots of skimpy underwear definitely dwell on the male-gaze aspect of common cinematography, yet before this shot Ripley was not viewed in a sexual context – instead wearing coveralls for most of the film. This quickly ends as she proceeds to put on a heavy spacesuit, now wearing even more than before.

The final sequence of Ripley strapping herself in and pushing the alien out of the airlock is, although an extension of Dallas’s original plan, a defining moment for Ripley. The shots of her craning her neck inside her helmet to catch a heavily obstructed view of the creature – while we don’t see it either – is the kind of shot that Halloween did so effectively only a couple years earlier: We know it’s right behind her. We know she can’t move. It’s now between her and her fear, as she hangs onto sanity by a thread, quietly singing “You are My Lucky Star” to herself. To have it climb into the rocket exhaust and continue despite being exposed to the vacuum of space just adds another layer onto what this thing is; what is it made of that it can still survive out there?  What’s more is, Ripley blasting it out doesn’t even necessarily destroy it – just sends it out into deep space.

In film theory, we are taught that the hero often has a “save the cat” moment to establish their good nature, but this usually occurs within the first few minutes. In Alien, it comes at the end, and quite literally. Ripley recording her signoff message figures into the sequel, but at the time it was a standalone feature and could just as well have been the end of it all.

Superior Cut – Theatrical: I consider this the superior one because it flows much better, and is actually Ridley Scott’s preferred version. Ironically, the 2003 “Director’s Cut” of the film was a studio choice, not Scott’s, so it’s not really a director’s cut at all.  When marketing the film for home re-release on DVD, the studio added additional scenes that were cut from the theatrical version simply to add more never-before-seen content for fans. Scott then felt their cut was too long, and re-cut it himself. It ends up being shorter than the theatrical cut, but gives fans an “alternate” take on the original.

Most of the cut scenes are ancillary, but two in particular stand out. The first, when Lambert slaps Ripley for following protocol by not letting the infected Kane back onto the ship, is a small piece of character development that I feel is somewhat valuable. The second, a scene after Ripley begins the self-destruct sequence, where she finds an alien hive with the missing Dallas and Brett cocooned and morphing into alien eggs. Dallas begs her to kill him, and Ripley torches the place. Ridley Scott claims this was cut because it slowed down the final act of the film too much, but given that it drastically changes the way the alien life cycle operates, this explanation seems vague. Considering the sequels deal with an egg-laying alien queen, it’s safe to assume the “eggmorphing” was never considered canon. Still, if Alien never received a sequel this would have been a proper explanation, but since using prey for eggs was never used again it seems the queen explanation overrides it.

In addition, there were lengthy sequences that were never filmed for budget constraints. One concerns a section where the crew lures the alien to the airlock of the Nostromo and attempts to flush it outside, but the closing of the inner door tears off the alien’s arm, causing its acid blood to burn through the hull and decompress the area. Ripley then manages to seal it herself, but suffers decompression  symptoms. This scene explains why Ripley has a nosebleed in the scene where she discovers the crew’s true mission from Mother. A slightly reworked version of this plan appears as a bonus mission in the video game Alien: Isolation, which I’ll get to later. Another unfilmed sequence concerned Lambert’s death, potentially being torn apart by being sucked out a small hole in the hull, but they didn’t have the time or budget for it. However, this idea was later used in the climax of Alien Resurrection.

Part 2: The next part will be written and posted whenever I get around to watching Aliens again, and may also encompass a viewing of Alien 3 depending on how much I have to write about it. Alien is the film I know the most about and have studied most from a filmmaking perspective, but not so much for the others. I’ll need to do further research, and then I’ll get back to it. So basically it’ll be done when it’s done.