Sunday, 27 May 2012

Alien and the legacy of Ridley Scott

In 1979 Alien stunned audiences. More than 30 years later and despite repeated viewings Alien continues to stun audiences. If the key moment of World War 2 is the Battle of Stalingrad1 then every story should have its key moment. The monsters of old – Dracula, Frankenstein and the werewolf – were supernatural. The monsters of (the then) present were allegorical; as seen in (then) contemporary films The Last House on the Left 1972, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 1974, The Hills Have Eyes 1977. The monster in Alien is an extraterrestrial parasite. The facehugger is the embryonic harbinger of a tortured labour. The chestburster delivers a deformity guilty  of matricide.

It is stunning.

It is a key moment in cinema and not just Alien. It will forever be stunning in the history of this world.

... How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over
In states unborn and accents yet unknown!
(Julius Ceasar) William Shakespeare

Congratulations Sir Ridley.
knighted for services rendered to Hollywood
Since I started this blog I have watched a magnitude of horror films. I have researched articles. I have made contact with the global fan base. I have expanded my knowledge. It informs my opinion. I am learning. Where hitherto I had discounted Alien as sci-fi I now understand its true species. The sci-fi serves as terrain in Alien. To create an analogy – the land does not make a people; it is the people who make a land. To wit Alien is horror in a sci-fi environment. It is a ‘haunted house in space’2.

Prior to Alien space travel was depicted as expedition by cruise ships (2001: A Space Odyssey 1968, Star Wars 1977). The Nostromo is a haulage vehicle crewed by a blue collar workforce. All militaristic and nationalistic glamour of flyboys (Star Trek: The Motion Picture 1979) is gone. The future is as bright as the stars for the (Leyland) corporation. It is as dark as the void for the working poor. These are the slaves who built Pharaoh’s pyramids; the peasants who tilled the land for the owners; the miners in Virginia3; the fishermen in Somalia4; the ‘truckers in space’.

the miners in Virginia
The Nostromo aesthetic and the character profile of the crew were so resonant it has become the paradigm for movies set in space (Event Horizon 1997, Pitch Black 2000, Pandorum 2009). John Carpenter’s The Thing 1982 takes place in the polar desert of Antarctica; that is to say outer space on terra firma.  It is referred to as a remake of The Thing from Another World 1951 but the film is a more faithful adaptation of the novella Who Goes There? 5. That notwithstanding Carpenter’s film uses Alien’s template so much so it could be referred to as Alien2.

The characters in The Thing have no backstory. There is no subplot. The monster is awe inspiring and had hitherto not been seen in cinema. The crew is unarmed and have to improvise weaponry. The monster is parasitic. If the only influence Alien had on cinema was The Thing then this alone would make it a classic. I urge the reader to watch both movies back-to-back.

Alien belongs to Ridley Scott but he is no auteur. A head of state has his kitchen cabinet. The manager of a football club has his coaching staff. Alien had HR Giger.
Alien breeder
Every horror film is dependent on its monster – A Nightmare on Elm Street 1984, Halloween 1978, The Exorcist 1973. Giger’s creation remains unique. One of the reasons for this is that it is not humanoid in appearance, character or motion. It is a testament to that man’s imagination that no one has come close to replicating such shock and awe in 30 years. The xenomorph remains a mystique. It is a true beast.
Alien had Dan O’Bannon6. Before he wrote the former he wrote Dark Star 1974 directed by John Carpenter. He has since wrote (and directed) The Return of the Living Dead 1985 and Total Recall 1990. He died in 2009. R.I.P.

Alien had a cast everyone remembers. The Nostromo’s seven-man crew included two women neither of who wore short skirts or flicked their hair. They were plausible and credible. To emphasise the point of how good the cast was – all of them are still working today. Horror as a genre does not create movie stars. The exception to this is Halloween 1978. The other exception is Alien.

If Hollywood had created Romeo and Juliet they would have made a sequel and a prequel. 20th Century Fox made Alien and they made more than enough sequels to obliterate all goodwill. Thus it is time for the prequel. In 2010 Universal insisted their (then) forthcoming The Thing 2011 was a prequel to John Carpenter’s masterpiece. I denounced it as a remake.

Every year I put on a new label. One year it’s beer. Then the next year we call it ‘light beer’. And then the next year it’s ‘cold’, ‘filtered’ or ‘dry’. You know what? We can’t make enough of that shit.
The Larry Sanders Show (218)

Sir Ridley Scott is at the end of his career because he’s at the end of his lifespan. Prometheus 2012 is a flail at legacy. His 35 year career boasts box office success (Black Hawk Down 2001, Gladiator 2000) and fanboy favouritism (Blade Runner 1981). That does not constitute a great filmmaker or a great career. Despite Thelma & Louise 1991 he’s no Spike Lee, Oliver Stone, Martin Scorcese, or even David Fincher. The fact is Scott’s turkeys account for more than his triumphs. He’s a punch drunk boxer; a mid-table football team. He’s a commercial filmmaker.

Despite Scott’s protestations Prometheus is a prequel to Alien – otherwise it wouldn’t get made. 20th Century Fox and Ridley Scott can fool their fanbase as much as they like. The fact is this time around there is no Dan O’Bannon and there is no HR Giger. The white noise of marketing, trailers, clips and advertising have revealed the new film to be no more than a camouflaged cash grab. To those of us not submissive to Blade Runner it will be another 3D light and magic show.

Last year Universal showed that their remake of The Thing could not destroy the legacy of John Carpenter’s opus. This year Rupert Murdoch, 20th Century Fox and Sir Ridley Scott will not be able to destroy the legacy of HR Giger and Dan O’Bannon.
Dan O'Bannon (1946-2009)
Prometheus opens on 1st June in the UK and 8th June in the US.

Read more Thrill Fiction: The Woman in Black
1 Russia’s War Blood in the Snow Youtube
2 ‘haunted house in space’  Slate
3 The Battle of Blair Mountain Wikipedia
4 European Union air strikes on Somalia AFP
5 Who Goes There? by John W Campbell
6 Dan O’Bannon IMDb
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