“The Unenthusiastic Critic” is an occasional series in which my highly reluctant girlfriend “N.” joins me to watch classic movies that she has somehow managed to avoid seeing. (For a fuller explanation of this particular form of relationship suicide, read the introduction to the series here.)
As always, these posts are completely spoiler-filled, so if you're the other person who hasn't seen Alien, proceed with caution.
The last time my girlfriend joined me to watch something for this blog, it was a film neither of us had seen before, and which neither of us ended up liking: The Help. That proved to be a worthwhile experiment, and it was actually a nice bonding ritual for us to pool our sarcastic resources and vent our collective bile at a film we both could hate. (The couple that mocks together stays together.)
Now, however, we're returning to the original mission statement for this series: getting her to watch classic movies that I love, which she has inexplicably never seen. This week it's a proverbial late-night double-feature picture show, as we sit down to watch two very good—but very different—sci-fi classics: Ridley Scott's 1979 horror film Alien, and its sequel, James Cameron's 1986 action film Aliens. (You can read Part Two, on Aliens, here.)
A note for completists: I have some small affection for David Fincher's messy, sullen Alien3, but not enough to make my girlfriend watch it. I have no affection at all for Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Alien: Resurrection, a film written by Joss Whedon but, in Whedon's own words, executed "in such a ghastly fashion as to render it almost unwatchable." (And if you ask me about something called Alien vs. Predator, I'm going to pretend I don't know you.) To me, it's only these first two movies that constitute essential viewing.
What We Watched: Alien (1979), 2003 Director's Cut. Directed by Ridley Scott. Written by Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett. Starring Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm, and Yaphet Kotto.
Why I Picked It: Let me lay my cards on the table: I think Alien is more or less a flawless movie of its kind. It was not without precedent (with Howard Hawk's 1957 film The Thing from Another World its most obvious ancestor), and it has spawned countless imitators (with John Carpenter's 1982 version of The Thing being among its first and most direct descendants). But Scott's film still stands alone: it's a perfect synthesis of hard science fiction, suspense, and horror, which maintains a gritty realism and—since it's chock-full of religious and sexual symbolism—operates on several levels. Thirty years later—despite the diminishing returns of three sequels, and despite countless wanna-be challengers to the title like Event Horizon—Alien is still the gold standard for sci-fi terror. Most importantly, it's still scary as hell.
What My Girlfriend Knew About It Going In: As always, before we begin I quiz N. on what she knows about Alien from basic cultural osmosis, and what she is expecting:
She: I might have seen parts of it before. Is this the one with Winona?
Me: You know, the fact that you would even ask that question is proof that you need to watch these movies. No, Winona Ryder is in the 4th movie [Alien: Resurrection], which is kind of terrible. Not even I would make you watch that.
She: Then, all I know is that someone gives birth to an alien. Oh, and I know that, in one of the movies, Sigourney Weaver wears a big yellow robot suit—though I only know that from the Community Halloween episode.
(She is referring to this scene, which I include here just because it's awesome, and I love Community, and so should you.)
Me: So what are you expecting?
She: I’m actually expecting Alien—unlike most films you've made me watch—to be much more female-positive. And I’m expecting that—UNLIKE MOST FILMS YOU'VE MADE ME WATCH—it will be a decent, quality movie.
Me: That’s a lot of pressure. So basically, if this sucks…
She: Then this entire experiment has been a total waste of my time.
Me: OK. So…no pressure.
How It Went: Our first unqualified success.
I remember watching Alien for the first time alone in a dark room, on VHS, when I was around 11 or 12 years old. It was R-rated, but my parents had a pretty laissez-faire approach to my movie viewing, and I certainly don't remember anyone suggesting that I was too young to watch Alien, let alone to watch it by myself, at night, when everyone else was either out or had gone to bed. (I don't remember which.)
I'm grateful for this near-criminally neglectful child-rearing, actually, because it was the perfect way to experience this movie. "In space, no one can hear you scream," the tagline read, and alone in an empty living room no one could hear me scream, or see me jump, or note how dangerously close I was to losing control of my excretory functions. Put simply, Alien scared the crap out of me—almost, but not quite, literally.
So I try to recreate this environment as N. and I sit down to watch Alien. She reluctantly agrees to let me turn the lights out—something she does not usually allow when we watch horror movies—but she does not allow me to sit near her: she has this strange idea that I might delight in deliberately startling her during particularly suspenseful moments. (She's untrusting that way.) So she sits huddled at the opposite end of the couch, curled beneath a defensive blanket with our cat in her lap. (Assuming you remember the plot of the movie, you'll know that the cat is a convenient prop, and will factor into our conversation later.)
After a three- or four-minute, nearly silent opening scene in which the ship, the Nostromo, appears empty and foreboding—establishing the spooky silence of our environment, and the vague threat of technology that functions without human control—the ship's computers kick into sudden life and decide to wake the crew. In the brightest, whitest room on the ship—a sterile, womb-like environment of safety and innocence—six pods open with a rush of air, and diaper-clad crew members begin to awaken. Alien is full of body metaphors, religious imagery, and psycho-sexual subtext, and fully unpacking all of it would be far beyond our intent and expertise here. (There are any number of academic papers on the subject, if that's your thing.) But N. narrows in on them pretty quickly. "It's like a birth," N. observes.
The ship is called the Nostromo—which roughly translates to "Our Man"—but running the show is the ship's computer, called "Mother." Mother informs Captain Dallas (Skerritt) that she has woken them prematurely to investigate a mysterious signal coming from an uncharted planetoid. Over the objections of the blue-collar mechanics, Brett (Stanton) and Parker (Kotto), the ship sets down on the planet to investigate.
N.—who is always critical of decisions made in horror movies—unsurprisingly objects to this one as well.
She: Never follow a staticky signal!
Nevertheless, Dallas, Kane, and Lambert (Cartwright) set off in pursuit of the beacon, and discover an abandoned ship, complete with a dead alien humanoid whose chest seems to have exploded from within.
She: Time to go!
Ripley (Weaver) deciphers the message, and figures out that it is not an S.O.S. but a warning. Before she can tell the explorers this, however, Kane discovers a cave filled with leathery eggs.
My girlfriend is nothing if not practical, and she has an overdeveloped sense of self-preservation: if she was a character in a horror movie, that movie would only last about 12 minutes, and it would be completely uneventful.
She: What the fuck are they doing? Why would they go in there?
Me: They're investigating.
She: They're not investigators. They're miners.
Me: But they were ordered to investigate.
She: I'd report back, "We found some weird-ass eggs. Then we got the fuck out. Investigation closed."
Kane, who has pulled spelunking duty, lets his curiosity get the best of him, and gets too close to one of the eggs as it is hatching.
The scene is fabulously quiet—with just faint, disgusting gurgling noises coming from the egg—until, with a high-pitched shriek, something leaps from the egg with lightning speed and attaches itself to Kane's face.
N. gives out a high-pitched squeal of her own, and jumps appropriately. (I love it when she startles in all the right places.)
She: Fuck! I knew something was going to go down, and that still scared the crap out of me.
Returning to the ship with the unconscious Kane, Dallas and Lambert are furious to discover that Ripley—who shares my girlfriend's practical nature—refuses to let them in. "If we let it in, the ship could be infected…If we break quarantine, we could all die." But the science officer, Ash (Holm), ignores Ripley's orders and opens the hatch.
She: He's a dick. I hope he dies first.
Let's pause here for a word about Lt. Ellen Ripley, who is easily one of the greatest female heroes in science fiction cinema. (She's one of the greatest heroes, full-stop, but the fact that she's a woman makes her a groundbreaking figure for the genre.) First-time viewers of Alien back in 1979 could have been forgiven for not being certain who the hero of the movie was. Tom Skerritt was top-billed, and he played the handsome commander of the ship; John Hurt was probably the most recognizable face, and actually has the lion's share of the plot in the first half of the movie. Sigourney Weaver—in her first prominent role—probably looked like an unlikely heroine, and with another actress Ripley could easily have come off as a real bitch for appearing so callous about the lives of Kane and the others. (In the director's cut, there's even a scene—cut from the theatrical release—in which Lambert calls her a bitch, and slaps her across the face for her willingness to let them all die.) But Weaver's thoughtful performance is wonderful: we know nothing personal about her (or about any of them), but we like her: we get—through very little dialogue—that Ripley is compassionate, but that she's also smart, and level-headed, and tough: her hesitant willingness to stand up to Dallas here puts us firmly on her side, especially since we know she's right.
Once Ash lets Dallas and the others back inside, they take Kane to the medical facilities, and we get our first look at the organism on his face (which is commonly referred to as a "facehugger," though it's not called that here). The examination reveals that the creature has something down Kane's throat.
She: Ughhhhh…..He's getting face-raped by an alien!
They try to cut the creature off, only to discover it has acid for blood; when one drop eats a hole through three decks of the ship, they decide to leave it alone. ("It's got a wonderful defense mechanism," Parker says. "You don't dare kill it.") Later, it seems to come off on its own and die.
When we watched The Thing, my girlfriend expressed her fundamental theory of scary movies. She repeats it now, and I must confess that a look at the underside of this thing does not exactly disprove her hypothesis.
She: All horror directors are scared of the vagina!
Freed from the clutches of his arachnid paramour, Kane seems to recover with a clean bill of health. (Given what happens after, the others should have been a bit more skeptical of the source of this diagnosis.) The crew sits down to share one last meal before returning to their hyper-sleep chambers, when Kane appears to have a bit of indigestion.
This is, deservedly, the most famous scene of the movie, and even my girlfriend has seen it before. It's a fantastic scene: I particularly love the moments of quiet between bouts of struggle: those mere seconds when everyone just stands back from the horror show on the table, too shocked to do anything but stare and think What the fuck?
My girlfriend takes this opportunity to advance her face-rape theory—which is totally justified. (Screenwriter Dan O'Bannon was fairly open about intending Alien to be largely about the fear of penetration, and specifically male fear of penetration, flying in the face of all those horror movies in which the sexual violence is inflicted upon women.)
Me: So it is a feminist movie.
She: That's not feminism! Feminism is about choice. This is about fear of the vagina. Here you’re getting fucked in the face by a vagina. It’s raping you. It’s impregnating you. And then you’re going to give birth whether you like it or not.
Me: But the baby looks like a giant dick.
She: But it's an extension of the vagina.
Me: Well, I suppose we're all extensions of the vagina.
The crew organizes a search for the creature, using jury-rigged motion-detectors that are about the size and shape of leaf blowers. Amusingly, they have no weapons, apart from electric cattle prods and a net, but they don't know they need better weapons yet: they still think the creature is roughly cock-sized. The first thing they find is Jonesy, the ship's pet cat, who jumps out at them in a classic horror-movie feint; but when Brett tries to catch the cat, he discovers the hard way that Kane's offspring has gotten bigger.
She: Is that the baby?
She: Wow, they grow up so fast.
Part of the longevity of the Alien franchise is surely down to the creature, designed by H. R. Giger. There's been a lot said about this design, so I won't try to analyze it here, except to say that it works for me because it is so completely alien—it has the repellent sheen of a cockroach—while being wet enough, and phallic enough, to evoke into some primal Freudian fear. Ridley Scott—better than any director who followed him—also uses the creature to its best advantage, denying us a good look at it for most of the movie, and occasionally framing it so that we don't realize we are looking at it until it moves. (I also like that Scott resists the urge to show anything from the alien's perspective. Most slasher films—and Alien is, at least in part, a traditional slasher film—would build suspense by occasionally letting the camera look through the killer's point-of-view as it stalked its victims. Here, though, we are never in the alien's viewpoint: it remains, always and absolutely, other.)
N. suggests that the creature has the ability to evolve into its surroundings, so it actually takes on qualities of the ship in order to blend in: I've never heard that theory before, but it's a perfectly valid interpretation based on what we see here, and an insightful commentary into the way the film blends biological and technological fears.
Since Junior is now the size of a mountain gorilla, those cattle-prods suddenly don't seem like quite enough fire-power, so Parker rigs up some flamethrowers, and Dallas takes one into the air vents in pursuit of the alien. In another great scene, the crew watches his progress on the motion detectors, as his blip is suddenly joined by another blip moving straight towards him. Sayonara, Dallas: I guess you weren't the hero after all.
With Dallas and Kane both dead, Ripley is now in command, and so has access to Mother. Entering the womb-like computer room, she discovers that the mysterious "company" has been issuing secret orders to the science officer, Ash.
I said that Alien played on a lot of different fears. Again, I'm not going to attempt any deep analysis of them here, but surely one of them is the dehumanizing effects of technology and anxiety about a future in which individual rights are sublimated to corporations. (From the very first shots of the film, when the computer wakes them from sleep, the humans do not control the spaceship: the ship controls the humans. This is obviously not a completely separate fear from the more direct sexual and body-invasion fears that the film exploits: the alien doesn't just kill you, it takes you over, destroying your autonomous identity and turning you into a machine for reproduction.)
Here, we have those fears of dehumanization made manifest, and not just in the cold, computerized voice of the corporation sentencing the humans to death. Ash, upon discovering that Ripley knows the truth, pursues her through the halls of the ship: she tries to call for help, and the communications system doesn't work. She tries to escape, and Ash shuts the mechanical doors around her, effectively trapping her in the machine. Finally—as my girlfriend notices—Ash himself seems to be oozing white liquid.
She: Why is he sweating weird? Is he a borg or something?
Ian Holm's performance throughout this movie is hella creepy, and never more so than when he twitchily attempts to kill Ripley by shoving a rolled-up porno magazine down her throat. (It's another oral rape scene, framed with objectifying images of women—centerfold pin-ups—looking down on them.) Parker and Lambert show up just in time, and Parker knocks Ash's head off with a fire extinguisher—which does not quite kill him.
She: Called it! He's a fucking borg!
Me: Yes, congratulations, you figured that out at the exact moment that the movie wanted you to figure it out. You are practically psychic.
The scene of the crew reassembling Ash just enough so he can talk to them is probably the most disgusting thing in the movie: he gurgles a milky liquid all over himself, and talks like someone drowning at the bottom of a grave. (And his wet mechanical guts, spilling out from his body's neck, are—like the alien—just biological enough in appearance to be deeply disturbing; if he were gears and wires inside, it wouldn't be so unsettling.) He expresses admiration for the alien—“a perfect organism"—implying that humans are inferior, even obsolete. "I can't lie to you about your chances," he tells them. "But you have my sympathies."
Ripley's very next words are a lashing-back against all this dehumanizing technology: "We're going to blow up the ship." They decide to set the auto-destruct on the main ship, and take their chances in the shuttle. Lambert and Parker go below decks to gather supplies, while Ripley goes to prep the shuttle.
And it is here that Ripley loses all of my girlfriend's sympathy: she's starting to prep the shuttle for departure, when she suddenly remembers Jonesy.
She: Are you KIDDING me? Fuck the cat! This is bullshit.
Me: How can you say that? Would you leave our cat behind?
She: HELL YEAH. Fuck that shit. Donate to PETA when you get home, but do NOT go back for the fucking cat.
Me: I can't believe you're so heartless. To the cat, purring in my girlfriend's lap: Did you hear that, baby? Mommy would totally leave you behind to get face-fucked by an alien.
She: We can get another one.
Me: Let's be honest, you wouldn't go back for me either, would you?
She: Hell no. That's how people die in these movies. Be ready to go when I'm ready to go or you are on your own.
Ripley hears Parker and Lambert die over the intercom, and she and the cat are now officially the last survivors. Ripley runs sobbing to the self-destruct mechanism and goes through the complex procedure of arming it.
She: If you really need to blow up the ship in a hurry, do you want the process to be that involved?
As the computerized (but feminine) voice of Mother starts the 10-minute countdown towards self-destruction, Ripley makes her way back towards the shuttle, only to discover that the alien is now between her and escape. She races back to the self-destruct controls, and tries to shut them down, but she misses the cut-off by mere seconds.
Me: I can see that you would want the self-destruct process to be complicated to arm, but disarming the thing should sure as shit be simpler.
Ripley makes her way back to the shuttle, and manages to get on board: the alien is nowhere to be seen. (In retrospect, this final trick seems obvious: it's a pretty good rule of movie-watching that if you don't see the villain die, you're probably not done with it. But I think the movie gets away with it because the larger threat is now Mother and the destruction of the ship: it's become more of a war against the machine, and the alien is just an obstacle in the last few minutes of the countdown.)
Ripley—with the cat—gets away in the shuttle mere seconds ahead of the explosion, and the movie descends into peaceful silence once more. Again, the surprise ending seems obvious now, but Alien has had large blocks of silence before, and so this one at the end doesn't seem out-of-place as Ripley calmly strips down to her underwear and prepares for hyper-sleep.
My girlfriend is lulled enough at this point to comment on more superficial things than impending death:
Me: Those panties are not particularly flattering.
She: No, but that's not the whole problem. I mean, her body is bangin', but she just doesn't have much of an ass.
The real beauty of this scene, however, is that everyone is looking at Sigourney Weaver's body, and no one notices that the alien has been hiding in plain sight the entire time, blending in nearly invisibly with the machinery around it. When it shoves a hand out, my girlfriend gets her last good jump of the film.
Me: Were you expecting that? I was worried you'd be looking for it.
She: No! I wasn't expecting that. I thought we'd get a shot of the ship pulling away, and the thing would be clinging to the outside, and that would be the final shot. I didn't think it would be in the shuttle.
In the final, marvellously tense sequence of the film, Ripley must hide in the closet, and slowly put on a spacesuit, praying the entire time that the creature doesn't wake up. She manages to strap herself into a harness, and open the airlock, blasting the thing out into space to be blown apart by the shuttle's engines. Ripley records her final report into the computer, and the movie ends.
She: It was good. I liked it! [Regular readers of this column will know that such unbridled enthusiasm from The Unenthusiastic Critic is damn near unprecedented.]
Me: Was it scary?
She: I'm not sure I'd call it scary, but I was certainly startled. Which can be just as fun.
Me: You jumped a lot.
She: I’m a jumpy person. Plus, it was disgusting. I can’t deal with parasites. I’d pass out if it was a tapeworm.
Me: So what does it take to scare you?
She: Why would I tell you that? You'll only use it against me.
Me: To me, the whole atmosphere is scary. It's so patient, and so quiet. If they made this movie today, it would be called an art-house horror film.
She: This was definitely the best of the movies we've watched so far. Though The Thing wasn't bad. And Kurt Russell had better hair than Sigourney Weaver. And a better ass.
Me: The Thing is like the redneck, trailer-park version of Alien.
She: And that was for the dudes. This is a much better feminist movie. Ripley kicked ass, and it was all about rape and forced birth. Everyone is scared of the vagina.
Me: Well, once it grows legs, yes.
She: Oh, like a woman, you mean? That’s what we are, right? Walking vaginas? Just a support system for a vagina?
Me: That's not what I….
She: That’s what you just said! “Oh, especially when it has legs! And a brain! And a mouth! And opinions! Then it’s scary!”
Me: I'm sorry, did I miss something? Did the alien express a lot of opinions?
She: Yeah, its opinion was, “I'M GONNA FUCK YOU IN THE FACE, AND YOU'RE GONNA HAVE MY BABY, WHETHER YOU LIKE IT OR NOT, AND THEN YOU'RE GONNA DIE AFTERWARDS, BITCH! SUCK ON THAT."
Me: That's not exactly an empowering feminist manifesto.
She: Deal with my acid blood!
Me: Is it that time of the month already?
Me: Any final thoughts?
She: I don't ever want to go into space on a job. I don't want to be a space miner. I don't think I would enjoy that.
Me: Are you ready for the second movie?
She: I didn't sign up for that, did I? Is that the one with Winona?