One of my favourites… ALIEN
For Halloween this year I went to the cinema to watch a Science Fiction masterpiece double-bill: Alien & Aliens. I had never seen either on the big screen and having now done so, my already deep appreciation of the films has only increased. I’ve seen both films countless times at home, but they really are completely different beasts up on the big screen. It’s how they were intended to be seen by an audience, and I recommend catching any of your favourite films that are re-released in the cinema if you haven’t seen them in that format already. The difference is like night and day. Alien is a classic wherever you watch it, but it becomes something else in the theatre: Beautiful.
Alien has got to be one of the most aesthetically pleasing films ever made. From the understated yet stunning opening title sequence, to the grungy, believably lived in look of the Nostromo’s interiors, to the organic innards of the abandoned space craft that houses those infamous eggs. Everything looks like it has a purpose, a reason for being. The film looks perfect. It looks real.
This applies as much to the cast. Every actor completely inhabits the role, no matter how small. Harry Dean Stanton and Yaphet Kotto as the engineers bickering over pay look like they haven’t washed in months. They probably hadn’t. Tom Skerritt as Dallas, the ship’s captain, looks tired and frustrated, eager to get home and struggling to remain professional. Ian Holm conveys almost nothing, his face a blank slate, but his eyes hint at something wrong beneath the surface. John Hurt is eager and inquisitive. Veronica Cartwright is at her wits end. All of this is portrayed without, or with very few, lines of dialogue. Everything the characters are going through is etched into their faces. The sweat on their brows. The creases in their clothes. Every detail adds to the story.
That’s why director Sir Ridley Scott opens the film gliding through the ship. We get acquainted with the space, start to piece together the layout of the ship, not only because it will be important later during the climax, but because the environments are characters themselves, and tell much of the story. There is nothing plush about the Nostromo. It looks cheap, dirty and dangerous. It is a working class job worked by working class people. No luxuries are afforded the crew and the ship shows this. It drips and leaks, spits and steams, creaks and cracks.
The derelict ship on the other hand is a maze in an oozing organic structure. Cartilage running down the walls of dark, murky corridors. It is strange, and impossible to interpret what any of the oddly shaped apparatus does. We, like the crew, cannot understand it because it is, as the title says, alien. And then there is the creature itself: a spindly, slimy, phallic monstrosity draped in shadow, that disappears into the darkness as quickly as a slash of its tail. Much has been made about the film’s sexualised imagery, and on the big screen it comes across louder than ever. Fears about male penetration and rape, and the bloody horrors of birth, all wrapped up in two horrifically perfect monsters. The Face Hugger, that forces its appendage down the victims throat to lay its eggs, and the Xenomorph, the nightmare creature with the feminine body and snapping dick for a tongue. Sexual imagery is all over the film. As a fellow movie goer said during the interval, “It’s hard to ignore the sex stuff when Ian Holm is writhing around squirting white goo as he tries to shove a rolled up porn mag down Sigourney Weaver’s throat”. He’s not wrong.
That is what is so great about Alien, it is, at its heart, a haunted house movie in space, but it adds layer upon layer of detail and subtext until it is something completely original, utterly compelling, and pulse poundingly tense. But I already knew that, and I’m guessing you did too. This was not only the first time I saw both Alien and Aliens in the cinema, but the first time I saw them back to back, and watching them together lead to a realisation I’d never made before. Ellen Ripley is a badass. Yeah, once again, knew that. Aliens makes that clear, what with the flamethrower, and taking charge, and the “get away from her you bitch” moment. Aliens goes out of its way time and time again to show how much of a badass Ripley is. Alien takes the opposite approach, resulting in a very different type of hero. One isn’t necessarily better than the other, as both films are superb, but their differences are interesting.
In Aliens Ripley is front and centre in almost every scene. She is very purposefully playing the Hero role. In Alien she barely has a line for the first twenty minutes of screen time. Ripley is there, but she doesn’t take the spot light from the other characters (so much so that she doesn’t even get a first name in this movie. It’s the sequel that calls her Ellen). Every member of the crew has the potential to step up to the Hero role (except perhaps Ash), and for a while it seems as though it will be Captain Dallas that does so. And really Ripley never fully becomes the Hero, she is just a survivor. The scene best exemplifying this occurs when the crew are returning from the derelict ship and Kane has been attacked by a Face Hugger and possibly infected with something. They are all obviously eager to get back onto the Nostromo but Ripley refuses to let them in and sentences them to quarantine. It is a hard decision. She is following the rules, not her heart. She thinks before she acts because Ripley, in Alien, is a pragmatist. She keeps her mind on the mission and what options have the highest survival rate for her crew. She doesn’t just jump into a mech-suit and punch the Xenomorph in the face. She out thinks it. And when that doesn’t work because everyone around her figuratively loses their heads, before literally doing so, she takes action.
In Aliens Ripley is the Hero, but Alien and its ensemble give her the room to be a Person. She starts as a quiet, hard working, strong willed woman, and the pressure of a horrific situation shapes her into someone strong, resourceful, and capable of thinking things through when everything falls apart around her. She’s a believable, grounded badass. Everything Ripley does has a purpose. It feels real. Just like everything else in the film.
But really, the simplest way to prove which version of Ripley is the most badass is to look at how both films end. In Aliens Ellen Ripley blows countless Xenomorphs to smithereens, goes toe to toe with an Alien Queen, proves herself more capable than a dozen highly trained marines, and saves a little girl.
In Alien she saves the cat.
Sorry Aliens, but you’re not competing with that.