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From Under A Rock: Alien

December 5, 2015 | Posted by Michael Ornelas
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From Under A Rock: Alien  

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THIS WEEK we get to tackle Michael’s all-time favorite movie, and the first choice on Michael’s list for Aaron to see when we started this column. Now, Ridley Scott has announced a new Alien trilogy that stem from exploring the origin of the famed xenomorph, and bridging the gap from Prometheus to Alien. To say that Michael is excited is an understatement, as he spent his Thanksgiving marathoning the entire franchise.

You only get one first time, and for some people, it comes later than it does for others. This particular column is about documenting the first viewing of a “classic” movie or TV show (determined at the discretion of my writing partner, Aaron Hubbard and I in alternation). Last week Aaron gave a hell of an underdog performance when he had Michael check out Rocky. This week Michael takes Aaron out from under the proverbial rock on Ridley Scott’s 1979 masterpiece, Alien.

Alien
Released: May 25th, 1979
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Screenplay by: Dan O’Bannon
Starring:
Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley
John Hurt as Kane
Tom Skerritt as Dallas
Veronica Cartwright as Lambert
Ian Holm as Ash
Harry Dean Stanton as Brett
Yaphet Kotto as Parker
Bolaji Badejo as The Alien

Michael Ornelas: Well I’ve already gone into why I picked this, so I’ll instead bypass that and just ask you for your initial thoughts on the film?

Aaron Hubbard: I came into this knowing it’s your favorite movie of all-time, so I was excited from the get go. Alien is probably not a movie I would have appreciated a few years ago; I’ve generally been averse to horror films but have grown to enjoy them when they are done well. And Alien is virtually perfect as a horror movie. Maybe peerless, although I’m not enough of an expert to make such a claim.

Alien
In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream
Michael: I’m glad you brought horror into the discussion because that’s exactly where I want to start. The Alien franchise as a whole is pretty much a sci-fi/action series with elements of horror, but its roots (this movie) are total horror, and that’s why I think this is the best film of the franchise. The thing that this movie has that the others lack is atmosphere. The first time I watched this, I had chills for most of the movie. From the moment the Nostromo touches down on the planetoid, this movie is outright creepy. You never get to feel safe; you’re just as vulnerable as the characters are at all times, and it’s off-putting. H.R. Giger designed the visuals of the movie, and while the face-hugger, chest-burster, and xenomorph are all iconic images, those plus the design of the planetoid itself are designed to invoke the visual of penetration – an allegory for rape that was intentionally placed in the film to make everyone feel subliminally uncomfortable. The use of phalluses and orifices are all over the place (you can actually watch a video about it here if you’re curious), and, while disturbing, I think that’s the reason why the horror resonates long after the credits roll.

Aaron: The subliminal use of rape imagery, specifically on male victims, definitely gives Alien a unique edge. But even if you set that aside, the movie is excellent at building suspense and at creating a claustrophobic atmosphere. The xenomorph shows ups for very little of the movie’s runtime. And while those scares are the film’s most iconic moments, a horror movie can’t survive on a few minutes of perfect scares. It has to be compelling in the build-up to those. And I was on the edge of my seat for the entire film. I love the look of the Nostromo and the planet, and I thought the sounds the film used were flawless. I got this sense of isolation from humanity but not from danger. It’s unnerving.

Michael: The fact that the Alien is essentially this perfect embodiment of hatred (a theme explored in Prometheus) makes it all the more terrifying. It doesn’t need a motive to kill, it just does it. And it’s smart too (which, while apparent, is also addressed in Alien: Resurrection! It also doesn’t help that the film stays so dimly lit that you never know where it’s hiding. The shadows are harsh, and you don’t know the alien is near until it’s too late. This leads to my favorite scare in the film: Dallas running from the xenomorph in the vents. It’s a moment that is handled as perfectly as the plot design around it (I mean, he’s squeezed into a vent, so not only are you in the dark, vulnerable from a killing machine, but you’re claustrophobic as well. And one last reason this movie works so well as horror: every phase of the alien’s life cycle is horrifying. The face-hugger is violating and…well, in-your-face. The chestburster is unexpected and violent in its emergence (fun fact: the cast didn’t know how the alien would emerge from John Hurt’s body, so when a chestburster popped out, their reactions are pretty much real). And then of course, the xenomorph is horrifying in and of itself. Everything just clicks.

Aaron: I don’t have the insight into the universe of Alien that you do, so a lot of the xenomorph trivia doesn’t play a part in scaring me. Which I’m okay with; I think a large part of the reason it is so terrifying is because the audience knows almost nothing about it. We are learning every terrifying detail at the same pace as the characters; the fact that we don’t know what’s coming next makes things more frightening. After all, the xenomorph is an alien, but it is also alien to us; foreign, strange, terrifying, unknown. I think that’s as much a part of the title as anything. Everything in the world is alien to us, not just the alien.

Ripley
Ellen Ripley: Most Badass Female Lead Ever?
Aaron: Oddly enough, one of the tropes of horror that Alien really adheres to is the concept of the “Final Girl”; everybody in Alien dies except for the relatively unassuming, young but resourceful Ellen Ripley. Sigourney Weaver’s signature role is ingrained in pop culture these days, but I really appreciated how she’s kind of kept in the background for the early part of the movie. She doesn’t get top billing, there’s not a lot of camera focus on her. She’s just part of the group, until she’s the only person in the group. And the third act is all about her and the xenomorph and took what was already a great film into truly exceptional territory for me.

Michael: Well, while it’s a whole different discussion for a different time, there are disputes whether Ripley actually fits the role of “Final Girl” (largely because the rest of the traits aren’t there — she just literally makes it to the end of the movie and is a female). I think, perhaps sadly so, the reason Ripley is such a strong character is because the part was written for a man, but then it was changed to a female in a later draft without tweaking the personality too much. I think it helps tremendously because at no point is she portrayed as weak. I feel that in the wrong screenwriter’s hands, Ripley would have been full of frustrating qualities that mirrored the poor representation of females in films in that time period. Instead, because her sex doesn’t factor into how she’s portrayed, we get one of the best movie heroes ever (male or female) whose strong will to survive is her only driving force. The only qualities that are “feminine” about Ripley are brought about by Sigourney Weaver’s excellent portrayal, and not the writing, which I think in this case is a huge plus in the movie’s favor.

Aaron: I would have to say it isn’t surprising that she was originally a male character. Even so, that change is significant. I think Ellen Ripley’s success in this, as well as in Aliens, is proof positive that gender doesn’t matter nearly as much as people think it does. This movie is a classic and nobody says “Oh this would have been better if Ripley was a guy”. Hell, Ripley inspired Nintendo to make Samus Aran from Metroid (heavily inspired by this movie) a woman. So every badass female lead from Imperator Furiosa to Lara Croft owes a bit to Ellen Ripley, in my opinion. I think it also broadens the appeal of this movie. Women probably would appreciate going to a movie where they aren’t the victims for once.

Ash
The Other Alien
Michael: Before the Nostromo ever even comes in contact with the xenomorph, they were travelling with an alien on board: Ash. He’s an android sent by the Weyland corporation whose interests are solely scientific. It’s through the directives sent to him where we see “Crew Expendable” in one of the more chilling alienless moments in the movie. This theme is more fully explored in Prometheus (artificiality vs. genuity is actually one of the driving motifs in that film), but as far as what we get in Alien, it actually drives the entire plot of the film. If you rewatch the movie, you’ll notice Ash is pretty firmly pushing all the decisions that result in the xenomorph running rampant on the Nostromo. He’s soulless, curious, and – worst of all – ruthless in his pursuit of science. Nothing will hinder the corporation’s study of the xenomorph, which really may as well be the logline for the entire franchise. Aaron, what did you think of the twist when we see Ash isn’t really human?

Aaron: Is it odd that I found it less disturbing? Like, I was genuinely shocked that he was an android but I also thought that made his actions easier to understand and more excusable. He is less than human, so I’m okay with him killing humans off. And I’m not okay with that? I’ve confused myself… What I mean is, it would be worse if he was human. Instead, I get this really great twist that was plausible and added a new layer to things that were going on. Those are the best kind.

Michael: Well, it’s worth keeping in mind that the programming of the Hyperdyne Systems 120-A/2 android is reflective of someone’s thought process, and that’s really the direction the franchise goes in (and subsequently loses its horror billing). As far as the android in this particular movie goes though, it’s kept simple, and I think that helps so much. We understand what he stands for and why he stands for that (he’s programmed that way), and beyond that, we don’t dive into a conspiracy theory movie that would have derailed the entire story. But as is, I’d argue that Ash has as little value for human life as the xenomorph does, and the two work in tandem to really wreck things up for the crew, costing all but one of them (and a cat) their lives. And who’s to say the cat didn’t die once or twice offscreen? Jonesy started with nine, after all…

Aaron: …I was wondering if this was going to devolve into a bad joke.

Michael: Well, bad is subjective. That said, yeah. It was bad.
Ratings:
Michael: Well, this movie has the atmosphere, the acting (we didn’t address it, but everyone was actually pretty perfect in their role), the character depth, suspense, pacing, and some amazing cinematic visuals. It’s perfect, and I’ll never be convinced otherwise.

A+

Aaron: Very rarely do I come across a movie that I think is truly “genre defining”; I’ll see movies that are among the best in a genre, sure. But I think this movie’s premise was very clever and was delivered absolutely perfectly. So much so that I don’t think any other movie needs to try to replicate it or do better. It’d be impossible, a pale imitation of this movie. When even the sequel goes in an entirely different direction because it can’t compete with this movie, you know you have something special. This is already one of my new favorites, something I’ll be watching again and again.

A+

Michael: This rating makes me happy. I don’t even have a quip, I’m just glad that it lived up to the crazy-high expectations I put out there for it.

Would you have survived the xenomorph? Come on…be honest…

Next week:

Aaron: Well, we’re a couple of weeks away from my most anticipated movie of the year. What better way to get amped for The Force Awakens than by watching Mel Brooks make a mockery of it? And a few other science fiction movies along the way.

Spaceballs

Michael: Yeah, I’ve been waiting for this one for awhile. I don’t know how I managed to dodge it while growing up, but I did. Partially because most of my sci-fi viewing has happened since leaving my parents’ house for adult life at 18 since neither of them are fans of the genre. I told my mom yesterday that my all-time favorite movie was Alien and the way she responded, you’d assume I was coming out of the closet to Donald Trump.

Aaron: Well not everybody’s perfect.

Which Mel Brooks comedies do you enjoy most?

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Weekly Charity
Lastly, we don’t have a lot of money between us, but we have some exposure here, so we want to make a difference where we can. GAIN, the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, is a reputable charity helping to improve the lives of children and their families in 17 different countries. If you would like to do some good in the world without wondering if your money is really going to the right place, this is a reputable place to do it!

10
The final score: review Virtually Perfect
The 411
All the pieces came together to make a space horror film that is truly special. Ridley Scott helmed a once-in-a-lifetime survival movie that was knocked out of the park by Sigourney Weaver. With the unique visual stylings inspired by H.R. Giger and a horrifying creature terrorizing the Nostromo, Alien really is a movie that, if you haven’t seen, you owe it to yourself to check out.
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