Dec 9, 2011

The Alien Series: Part 1 - Alien

Okay. Deep Breath. I'm about to eat about fifteen years worth of my words.

Dir: Ridley Scott
I never liked Alien. Yes, I understand that saying that is essentially like handing in my critical credentials and saying 'turns out I wasn't worthy'. I've said previously that I found the film slow, and when watching it I had found myself wishing there had been a Roger Corman - apparently something that very nearly happened - to tell Ridley Scott to cut to the chase and show us the uber-cool monster. I still very much understand why I had that response.

Scott sets the scene brilliantly. The film opens with perhaps the single greatest title sequence of all time - I'm not being hyperbolic here, name me a worthy competitor - We see the emptiness of space, and slowly, line by line as the credits come up, the title begins to form across the top of the screen; the stark simplicity of it adding to the impact. cott then takes us inside the Nostromo; a mining craft taking its bounty back to Earth. The camera explores the eerily quiet and empty ship, until it arrives at plain white sleeping chamber, where the crew are just waking - earlier than planned - from suspended animation. All this takes about six minutes, and from here the pace and tone are set to methodical and chilling respectively for the rest of the film's duration.

With this viewing I found myself drawn in to the Nostromo, sucked in to the prickly relationships between a crew that has clearly been in space too long - the idea of 'truckers in space', co writer Dan O'Bannon's initial concept, proving more interesting than it sounds - and initially has more mercenary concerns than why ship computer Mother has woken them early. The film takes a lot of time before getting us to that 'why', but there is a tension inherent in both the unexpected addition to the mission, and in the fact that it appears to be a distress beacon that the Nostromo is now homing in on. There are also unspoken tensions in these early scenes, notably something that just feels a bit off about science officer Ash (Ian Holm).

As much as the pace and the tension in this early part of the film, and even more so as it goes on, the thing about Alien that really draws the attention is the astounding art direction. The Nostromo is an incredible set; you can see both the beautiful machine it probably once was (sleek lines and the pure whites of several rooms), but also the disrepair into which it has fallen (exposed wires, visible patch jobs and gaps in the wall, all of which will come into play during the film. Of course you can't talk about the design of Alien without talking about the design of the Alien and of its environment and associated imagery, all of which is the work of artist H R Giger. Giger's art is like nothing you've ever seen... well, unless you've had some intense drug fuelled nightmares, and the monster he created is both gorgeous and terrifying. Scott uses it well too, frightening us with implication much more than he does the thing itself. That works because everything that surrounds the creature has the same sort of feel about it (right down to the monolithic structure, perhaps a crashed ship, where it is found) feels like a part of that creature and creates a sense of foreboding with its very presence.

For all its patient build up, Alien is also a film of great set pieces. Twice it shocks you by doing unexpected thing with its characters, first in the famous 'chestburster' scene, which may look a little hokey now, but still produces one hell of a jump, if only because Scott, actor John Hurt and editor Terry Rawlings time every beat to such perfection, and because it occurs in the middle of such a quiet, innocuous scene, the kind that has gone uninterrupted in the film to that juncture. There is also a great later scene for Ian Holm, revealing exactly what it is that is off about Ash. Holm is fantastic in this moment, turning the character convincingly around in an instant.

It's worth mentioning also that the entire cast give fine performances. Tom Skerritt makes for a stoic and identifiable hero, and it's a shock when the movie kills him off, Veronica Cartwright works as an audience analogue as she collapses in terror, and Sigourney Weaver convincingly grows over the course of the film into the woman who seems almost to will herself to survive, and who will carry the franchise forward. This development is Alien's true masterstroke. For the first half of the film Ripley is basically a background figure; we assume she's just one more grunt who is due to have her head stoved in by the monster, by making her the survivor the film really nods to its horror heritage more than its sci-fi elements, creating one of the truly classic and iconic 'final girl' characters, but in a context and a genre more traditionally male led.

This time I found myself completely drawn in to the claustrophobic sequences that make up the second half of the film, and see the crew stalking the Alien, and the Alien stalking the crew. The jump scares work well and, a couple of contrived looking for the cat moments aside, nobody does anything egregiously stupid just to facilitate a death scene. The Alien, when we see it, is stunning, and this is where the art design pays off, because we don't see it much, and we're aware that that's because this thing can blend in with the ship, that the darkness and wall cavities and hanging pipes conceal it, and that that means it could be anywhere, which in turn means that the film is extremely tense and scary.

So... Why did it work for me this time? I think, to a large degree, it is down to the Blu Ray itself. The line - the lie - we are being sold about 3D is that it is immersive, well, I've found the reverse to be true, 3D pokes us in the eyes with artifice, for all filmmakers talk of depth. Depth is what the Blu Ray transfer of Alien provides; astonishing, enveloping, depth, more effective than any 3D process. The clarity and detail of the picture drew me inexorably into the film, and that for me is the key. Alien is a film you need to experience, and previously I think I'd only been watching it. This time I was sucked into the Nostromo, into the paranoia, into the fear, and that's why, I think, I can finally see Alien for the great film it truly is. I've seldom been happier to have to eat my words.

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