Friday, May 30, 2014

35 Years Later, and Still No One in Space Can Hear You Scream


(Author's note: this post spares everyone trivia tidbits about this movie; instead this is about my observations on the film and its lasting impact on me. Also please note that I have not seen the film Prometheus, although I understand it's a prequel of the Alien franchise and have heard spoilers here and there.)

I was in the 5th or 6th grade when I first heard about the chilling "chestburster" scene in Alien, and still remember the moment to this day. One of my classmates--who was also one of the class bullies--had brought his Kenner Alien action figure to school and described to us in disturbing detail, and with much gusto (which included swinging his arm hard, with a closed fist, in a punching motion) about the scene where the baby alien bursts out of John Hurt's chest. Some of my female classmates actually gasped. 

I hadn't seen the movie yet even though it had been released a few years earlier, and I was now scared but also strangely curious about watching it. Looking back, I'm surprised that my brother didn't take me to see it when it was released during Memorial Day weekend in 1979. After all, he had tugged me along to see Jaws in 1975, when I was just three and a half years old. It was my earliest motion picture experience in a theater, and I loved it. I vividly recall the opening scene with the swimming girl getting pulled into the water, and the ominous music. Even at my young age, I knew the shark wasn't real. I wasn't scared. But Alien was in a different realm altogether; many critics declared it the most frightening movie that had ever been released at the time, with heartstopping special effects. Yeah, it probably was a wise decision that my brother didn't take his 7 year-old sister to see a movie about space creatures busting out of people's bodies. 


It wasn't until I was a pre-teen that I finally saw Alien--with my parents, when it aired on ABC, of all places. Thinking back, it's amazing that the movie wasn't edited all that much for prime time viewing, because the infamous Kane death scene was virtually the same as when I watched it on YouTube years later. And, honestly, I have to thank ABC for keeping it intact, or I wouldn't still be thinking about the movie from time to time 35 years after it premiered in theaters. OK, I'll admit it: I think about it every time I get a belly cramp. 

Alien truly is a work of art. It would be too simple to call it a horror movie. To quote my friend and former coworker Vinny, "(It's) not a horror movie, (but) a terror movie. There's a difference. There are monsters onscreen for all of like ten minutes total." Indeed, it's what we can't see in Alien that makes it so terrifying, along with the pacing of the film. It sets a tone and makes us wait. You also never get a really good look at the creature, at least not for more than a few seconds. Director Ridley Scott knew what he was doing: "I've never liked horror films before, because in the end it's always been a man in a rubber suit. Well, there's one way to deal with that. The most important thing in a film of this type is not what you see, but the effect of what you think you saw." 


"It's alive!" Giger and his xenomorph creation.
The effect of what we think we saw has been haunting us now for 35 years. It's timely that the Swiss artist H. R. Giger passed away just a few weeks ago. When Alien screenwriter Dan O'Bannon saw Giger's nightmarish work, he knew it could work for the film, and introduced Scott to it. If you've never seen Giger's work--and it is as impressive as it is creepy--I recommend not viewing it online just before you go to bed. The alien was already there in all its scary splendor in Giger's 1976 painting Necronom IV. Giger was recruited for the movie's set designer team and was responsible for creating not just all life stages of the alien but the inside of the derelict spacecraft the team comes across as the beginning of the movie and the surface of the planet it rests on. A whole new extraterrestrial world was created and shown to us on the screen--the likes of which we hadn't seen before. 

But it's not just the monster that makes the movie so bone chilling; it's the claustrophobic nature of the Nostromo spacecraft, with its tight quarters, rooms, and hallways. It's the fact that humans are the prey in this story. 



The crew of the Nostromo were supposed to be average, working class Joe schmoes, another aspect that makes the movie scary, as we can relate to them more. I appreciate that everyone cast for the film was not especially glamorous looking (yes, even Sigourney Weaver in her Ripley role is a plain jane to me.) Had the movie been made today by a different director and crew, Hollywood would insist on hiring the prettiest people they could get for the money. 

Even the official trailer is scary and brilliantly done, never giving away anything (unlike many of today's movie previews.) I've never seen it before until now and it literally gave me chills. One can imagine the anticipation this must have built up before the film was released:



It wasn't until just a few years ago that I learned just how much Alien drips with sexual imagery, and I don't just mean Sigourney Weaver in a space capsule wearing skimpy panties and a tanktop. Giger's work doesn't shy away from male genitalia, so it shouldn't be too surprising that the alien itself (also known as a xenomorph) is phallic shaped at birth and its head, when fully grown, looks like a penis. For as far removed the characters are in space and time, surrounded by technology, there's no escaping the universe's basic--and ancient--biology. We get the sense that these creatures have existed for millions of years, long before human existence--the fossilized "space jockey" with the ripped open ribcage that the crew encounters early in the film alludes to this fact. Knowing all this makes the movie even more delightfully disturbing to me. Some viewers have even speculated that the film is a feminist statement and is "payback" for all of the times a female character was brutalized, raped and murdered on-screen; after all, the lone survivor at the end of the story is a woman, and all of her male colleagues (and one female and one android) have been killed off. One is violated in an almost sexual manner as a facehugger breaks through his helmet and forces its way down his throat. 



Speaking of the infamous chestburster scene, I have to admit that I am a big fan of the British actor John Hurt, who plays Kane in Alien. So much so that a proper tribute to him has been long overdue on this blog. It saddens me to see him suffer such a horrific death in this movie and yet the scene has become so iconic that he's almost Christ-like in his performance. I was disheartened to see comments a while ago on YouTube about how "awful" and "cheesy" the special effects looked during this moment of the movie, according to younger viewers who had never seen it before. In my opinion the scene is just as unsettling and graphic to me today as the first time I watched it, especially after watching a documentary on the making of the movie (again, not something I recommend viewing right before shutting out the lights.) A lot of physical work went on behind the scenes to make it look realistic: a fake model chest, an alien puppet, squirting blood. I've read that it was accomplished in one take. Had the movie been made today, it would have been created with a computer. 

There are two factors that make it so terrifying. First, the build-up. It takes a while once Kane starts convulsing before the alien is born. You know something awful is about to happen but Ridley Scott makes us wait for it. (Side note: at one point during this scene you can see the spaceship's cat, Jones, casually washing himself in the background as if he couldn't care less, which as a cat lover I found highly amusing.) Second, the set and characters' clothing are bathed in white and bright light, which really accentuates the blood and gore. We didn't know much about Kane up until his violent, untimely death. I must admit that I've wondered what his personal life was back at home--did he have a girlfriend, a wife, children? We'll never know. The image of his wrapped, lifeless body being discarded as space trash is the saddest moment in the movie for me.

The full grown alien was portrayed by a Nigerian born man named Bolaji Badejo. I wrote about Badejo and his quick lived Hollywood career on this blog a couple of years ago. He was a 26 year-old graphic design student having a drink in a London pub in 1978 when a casting agent for Ridley Scott noticed Badejo's tall, gangly frame and hired him to play the part of the alien. Badejo took his job very seriously, and it was not an easy one--the costume nearly suffocated him, the head of the alien weighed a ton, and a lot of KY Jelly was used to create the creature's saliva. Scott was hoping to show the alien doing a lot of almost acrobatic movements which proved impossible due to the costume's logistics. Badejo's story, sadly, does not have a Hollywood ending. He committed suicide sometime during the early 80s, and apparently was suffering from depression, which may or may not have been due to the fact that he was kept isolated from the rest of the cast so that he wouldn't scare them. His name is only mentioned in passing in the movie's Blu Ray box.   



The only aspect that truly bothers me about Alien is the inclusion of the cat, Jones--I am an animal lover after all, but I suppose not knowing whether the cat is going to survive or not makes the movie that much more of a thrillride (I hate the scene, though, when Sigourney Weaver is running with Jonesy in tow and keeps banging the poor little guy against the walls as she tries to get to the space pod before the ship blows up.) 

Lots of films have tried to emulate Alien and bank on its success, stealing plot details here and there (Mel Brooks' sci-fi spoof Spaceballs recreated the chestbursting, with John Hurt and a singing baby alien.) They may flatter but they can't recreate the same caliber of success. I know that Prometheus is a pre-quel of sorts of Alien, but I have no desire to see it, at least not at this time. I also didn't watch any sequels beyond 1986's Aliens, other than catching clips here and there on TV, as I felt it would diminish the legacy of the original. 

No, I prefer to keep the questions of where xenomorphs come from unanswered, preserving the mystery--and the nightmares--of the movie that started it all in 1979. 

(Why did I write this post and search for accompanying images just before going to bed???)

6 comments:

Goswinus said...

Interestingly, the Nostromo crew consists mostly of working class forlks - quite a departure from what's seen elsewhere in sf movies - neither exponents of a technocratic society or the military nor outlaws... everyday, common people out there in a mythical battle...

Bobby Trosclair said...

It does still hold up really well. The sequel ALIENS was quite good but more of an action movie, and the sequels went downhill from there - or perhaps they were good, but weren't able to meet the same level as the first one.

I share your appreciation for John Hurt - I recently re-watched his performance in 1984 (which was actually released in 1984), and I think it's his best performance ever, and one of the best performances I've seen from anyone, ever.

Pam@GoRetro said...

Thanks for your comments, Goswinus and Bobby. Yes, JH was really great in 1984...the look on his face when his new girlfriend shows up wearing a dress is a scene that has stayed with me.

dryheat45 said...

It's too bad you didn't see this on the big screen, that exploding chest scene was gruesome! You may know it and didn't mention it, but that scene was done in one take because Ridley didn't tell any of the actors that was going to happen and the screams of shock were genuine. What a master! I think watching it on the big screen made it more claustrophobic, you are on the Nostromo with the crew, and it is terrifying. Of course that ad campaign was just as brilliant, me and my friends couldn't wait to see it just on that tag, "In space, no one can hear you scream". We have a local theatre owner who has one theatre with a 25' tall screen, I'm going to petition him to play Alien on it for it's anniversary. Great blog, Pam, on one of my favorite movies.

Chris said...

Hi Pam, I'm just stopping by to say how interesting your blog is. Thanks so much for sharing. I have recently found your blog and am now following you, and will visit often. Please stop by my blog and perhaps you would like to follow me also. Have a wonderful day. Hugs, Chris

Pam@GoRetro said...

Thank you, dryheat45! I did mention that the scene was accomplished in one take. You raise a good point about seeing it on the big screen and how horrific it was because of it; maybe that's why younger people watching in online don't get it.

Hi Chris--thanks for the follow and your comment! I'll check out your site.

Link Within

Blog Widget by LinkWithin