Dec 22, 2009

Ripley Redux: Alien's 30th anniversary

“Alien is to Star Wars what the Rolling Stones were to the Beatles,” said producer David Giler, “Its a nasty Star Wars.” Produced by the same studio, Fox, still under the management of Alan Ladd, the Alien script had been sitting on the desk as Fox for almost a year without so much as a flutter of interest, according to screenwriter Dan O’ Bannon: “They wanted to follow through on Star Wars, and they wanted to follow through fast and the only spaceship script they had sitting on their desk was Alien, so they greenlighted it, wham.” It almost certainly couldn’t have been the quality of O’Bannon’s script. A hardcore sci-fi nut and neophyte screenwriter, fresh from USC, O’ Bannon had written something called Starbeast, and it came crammed with clichés from sci-fi movies of the fifties like Forbidden Planet and It! Terror From Beyond Space. There were pyramids, and holograms, and an all-male cast, who spoke at length about “what should be done” in stiff, officer-class locutions, but never got around to doing very much:
STANDARD steps forward and slaps ROBY across the face.
The others are shocked.
HUNTER: Hey now, what is this?
STANDARD: Ask him.
ROBY: I understood why you did that.
After a hard stare at Roby, Standard give him a curt nod and turns
his attention to the machinery.
It read like The Last Days of the British Raj — all curt nods, hard stares and stiff upper lips in space. “It had not even B-picture merit,” said producer Walter Hill. “Nobody could take it seriously. It had a ‘Jesus gadzooks’ quality about it”. Hill had just set up a production company, Brandywine films, with his partner David Giler, and landed a production deal at Fox, when a friend passed them O Bannon’s script, and while they both hated it, they admired what Hill called the “low cunning” of its set-up — “you had a monster that could not be killed without destroying your own life-support system”. Giler sensed that the key to the film would be to treat it like an A-movie, with full production values, and so he and Hill sat down and rewrote the script, in just under three days. Hill was the writer / director behind such films as The Warriors and The Driver, and he wrote scenes that played out like a one-liner competition at a tough-guy convention. “Character is action,” he once said. “In my films, when somebody puts a gun in your face, character is how many times you blink.” He dropped the pyramids, introduced a computer called mother, made two of the characters women, introduced a note of discord between the officers and the working class crew, and streamlined the whole thing with his headlong, hard-boiled style — somewhere between “staccato and blank verse”, said Giler, and it went something like this:
A red stain.
Then a smear of blood blossoms on his chest.
The fabric of his tunic is ripped open.
A small head the size of a man’s fist pushes out.
The tiny head lunges forward, comes spurting out
of Dallas’s chest trailing a thick body.
Spatters fluids and blood in its wake.
Lands in the middle of the dishes and food.
Wriggles away while the crew scatters.
Halloween Haiku. It is to Hill, then, that we owe much of Alien — its rhino-charged momentum, its oil-besmirched air of class war, the character and sex of Ripley — and it was his script that hooked Scott. It took him forty minutes to read: “It usually takes about four days. It was just Bang! Whoompf! Straight through. It was unpretentious, very violent, yet a lot of character painting came through, and I just thought it was an amazing piece of entertainment. Also to me it was more than just a horror film, its a film about terror.” He sensed that it would play even faster than it read. The rough cut of the film was ready 8 days after shooting wrapped, and ran to 3 hours and 12 minutes. Ladd remembers it as “the most tense movie I’ve ever seen in my entire life. My wife and I went for lunch afterwards and some of the people who were there weren’t able to eat.” Scott admits he took it too far; he’d been watching Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and was aiming for the same bone-at-breaking-point tone. “Our rough cut was just too intense. Originally, there was a stronger degree of terror. Just subtle things, half seen, half heard things earlier in the picture. Consequently you have the audience holding on from the beginning. That’s no good.” He and editor Terry Rawlings went back and let a little more air into the movie, a bit more in the way of breathing space. “The whole thing was an exercise in seeing how far back you could cock the pistol before you had to release the trigger,” says Rawlings, “It was finding that moment. How long can you wait? How long can you go along those air shafts before it all gets too much for the audience. Now, of course, things are frantic from the word go but with Alien it was a waiting game.”

How long was the wait? How long has the Nostromo been drifting through space before its crew are woken up? We never find out. All we know is how long what wakes them up to then polish them off: just over 40 minutes. As for how long they have been travelling, we hear only that they are still several ten years away from earth — a quietly devastating figure — and we hear them bickering with one another “Quite griping,” snaps Kane (John Hurt). “I like griping” snaps back Lambert (Veronica Cartwright). That long. To anyone fresh from the bright-eyed camaraderie of Star Wars, the fug of fatigue and cigarette smoke that hung over the cramped cabins of the Nostromo was a revelation: not just griping in space, but smoking. And after they’d gone to all the trouble of taking all that oxygen up there, too. We’d never seen anything like it. Nobody ever lit up during 2001: A Space Odyssey, despite its tedium, and you never got any bickering over pay in Star Wars, but then, for all the reach of Lucas’s empire, you never got to see any real work. As Kevin Smith pointed out in his 1997 comedy, Clerks, the death star appears to have built itself. “A construction job of that magnitude would require a helluva lot more manpower than the Imperial army had to offer. I'll bet there were independent contractors working on that thing: plumbers, aluminium siders, roofers...”

In Alien you got to see the work. You got to see the empire’s plumbers, siders and roofers, its engineers and worker ants, all mortgaging off years of their life to trawl the inky backwaters of space, in a ship that was just that: a dank and rattling freighter, named the Nostromo, after another Conrad novel, and not just any Conrad novel but his “masterpiece” i.e. his least read. This was serious. Generally speaking, blockbuster films until then weren’t in the habit of name-dropping great unread books — Jaws got by perfectly well without invoking Moby Dick, or Star Wars without quoting Joseph Campbell, although if you really want to know how grown-up the whole thing felt, here was the killer: we couldn’t even see the bloody thing. Released with an 18-certificate in the US and an X in the UK, Alien was one last wave from Hollywood’s pre-teen-market era, although at the time it felt horribly unjust: adults had stolen our blockbuster. What was rightfuly ours — it had spaceships and aliens, and everything — was being held against its will, until it came out on video, and we could persuade our local video store clerk to turn a blind eye. It didn’t stop us, of course. Thanks to a number of spin-off books released that summer, including a complete shot-by-shot set of storyboards, I was, by the time I got to see the film, immaculately prepped for everything the film had to throw at me — all the stomach-bursts and face-grabs, body snatches, head-smashes and skull crushes. Everything except the sex. That, the storyboards hadn’t prepared me for.

So that was why they’d kept this film under wraps. Star Wars had pretty much been a pre-pubescant’s paradise, with Lucas taping down Carrie Fisher’s bosom with gaffer tape, in case his audience got ideas; “no breasts bounce in space, there’s no jiggling in the Empire” remarked Fisher, with characteristic waspishness. But sex was everywhere in Alien, from its gynaecological corridors and vulvic doorways to its crabby, post-coital atmosphere — everywhere, that is, except where you might normally expect to have found it, which is to say, between the characters. Originally, there was to have been a scene showing Ripley sharing a cuddle with her captain, but as Scott realised, it came just after the alien had gotten onboard, slowing down the action, and besides, by that time the film had already notched up its big sex scene, involving something wet, and slimy, with its eye on John Hurt. The exact implications of what happens to Hurt have engendered more fevered analysis than any single scene in any blockbuster, even more than the Tony Curtis-Lawrence Olivier bath scene in Spartacus. What happens next is that Hurt gives birth to the alien, or “chest-burster” as it was affectionately called by Scott and his crew, although in truth, the alien doesn’t burst through Hurt’s chest, so much as gently push through, like a puppy nuzzling through wet tissue, and then bolts, sending the cutlery flying, and launching more graduate theses than a month of Jean Baudrillard lectures. A “particularly horrifying confusion of the sexual-gyneacological with the gastro-intestinal” decided James Kavenagh, in his seminal essay ‘Son Of A Bitch: Feminism Humanism and Science in Alien’ (October no 13, 1980) for Science Fiction Studios, which devoted an entire symposium to Scott’s film.

The shock waves of blockbuster movies were now travelling further afield than just Wall street; they were reaching the leafy groves of academe, which would soon be spilling over with essays with vaguely terrifying titles like “Being Keanu” and “Totally Recalling Arnold: Sex and Violence in the New Bad Future.” Alien was, though, the first — the newest, baddest future on the block, and siring a small cottage industry of academic analysis devoted to its subtextual nooks and semiological crannies. Feminists warmed to the fact that all the white males become dead white males at a faster rate than the non-white males. Marxists nodded approval of the film’s grimy, Conradian take on late-capitalism. And Freudians, needless to say, had a field day, for a film more in need of a trip to the analyst would be harder to find. Even Jones the cat received his own diagram:—

As Kavenagh explained: “The founding term in the film is human (S), represented by the image of Ripley as the strong woman. The anti-human (-S), is, of course, the Alien, and the not human (S) is Ash, the robot. The cat, then functions in the slot of the not anti-human (-S), and indispensable role in this drama.” The world of alien studies was not all neatly drawn diagrams and smoothly-processed deconstructions, however, and was soon to be ripped asunder by a bitter and acrimonious debate, one pitting sister against sister, brother against brother, comrade against comrade. It is with due caution and some trepidation that we therefore approach the singular, divisive issue of Lieutenant Ellen Ripley’s knickers.

For some, the sight of Ripley stripped to her undies at the end of the film, as she prepares to do final battle with the alien, undid all the film’s good work. Judith Newton found the third-act survival of the two woman and one black character “especially promising”; but bikinis, she noted sternly are “not standard gear for space duty.... Ripley, though in many ways a fine and thrilling hero, is robbed of radical thrust.” To the rescue came Kavenagh, who in ‘Feminism and Anxiety In Alien’ (Science Fiction Studies, vol 7, no 3, 1980) wrote: “I would disagree with an ideological denunciation of the film as simply another exercise in conventional sexism on the basis of the scene in which Ripley removes her uniform to appear in T-shirt and panties. Such criticism would be hard-pressed to avoid repressive and self-defeating assumptions about what constitutes sexism, and irrelevant assumption about what constitutes the film and its ideological discourse.” A cunning move — the panties weren’t sexist; the accusation that the panties were sexist was sexist — but maybe a trifle over-defensive? It was left to Barbara Creed to arbitrate, with an air of weary summary: “Much has been written about the final scene, in which Ripley undresses before the camera, on the grounds that its voyeurism undermines her role as successful heroine....” She proposed a diplomatic solution, designed to unite both pro-panties and anti-panties camps: What if the panties “signify an acceptable and in this context reassuring fetish object of the normal woman?” Then, “the final sequence works, not only to dispose of the alien, but also to repress the nightmare image of the monstrous-feminine with the text of patriarchal discourses.” Voila. Easy when you know how.

Fun as it always is to see academics getting their knickers in a twist, it is perhaps too easy to laugh at this stuff: Popular film has always attracted a certain amount of academic attention, the dominant model being those tweedy articles in the fifties examining the Godzilla and UFO invasion movies for signs of nuclear-age anxiety, or Cold War nerves. It is a model buttressed by a clear sense of intellectual superiority — the academic plumbs the innocent pop-culture artefact for meanings it didn’t even know it had — but it doesn’t get you very far with the modern blockbuster, since it fails to countenance the possibility that the meaning might be there because someone — the filmmakers — put it there. This rather alarming possibility would continue to flummox blockbuster exegeticists — in 2003, one Matrix fan asked the Wachowski’s whether the religious subtext of their trilogy was “intentional”, as if a skein of religious references were something that just happened to a movie by accident, on its way to the theatre — and the same goes for much of the analysis that enveloped Alien. On the one hand there is nothing very academic about a film in which an alien repeatedly plunges its jaw into the cerebrum of its victims — ”it has absolutely no message,” insisted Scott, it works on a very visceral level and its only point is terror, and more terror” — but there is no denying that Alien is a studious film, so full of details that cry out for parsinh — the dipping bird, the Hawaiian shirts, the Farrah-era pin-ups — that you wish Scott would slow down a little to let you pore over it. On the other hand, look where that gets science officer Ash (Ian Holm), hunched over his microscope like an art restorer sizing up varnish strengths. When it comes to the burgeoning field of post-doctorate Alien study, Ash graduates with full honours, summa cum lauda. Study is all he wants to do, eyeing up the alien for its possibilities in the company’s weapons division. “Its a perfect organism, its structural perfection matched only by its hostility” he says. “You admire it,” says an incredulous Ripley. “I admire its purity,” replies Ash, “a survivor, unclouded by notions of remorse, morality. You have my.... sympathies”.

The real question, of course, is not whether they had Ash’s sympathies, but whether they had their director’s. “I found it very pure,” said Scott of the script’s clean lines, echoing Ash’s rather creepy wording. Did Weaver detect something of Ash’s slightly inhuman connoisseurship in Scott’s continual fussing over his ship’s design and decor? At times, certainly, Alien seems to have been directed by an intelligence you would hesitate to call human. Look at the clinical, Kubrickian tracking shots of the empty spaceship at the start — Scott seems to prefer it that way, all neat and unmessed — or the shot of Jones the cat which punctuates Harry Dean Stanton’s death: irises narrowing coolly, while the poor human fights for its life. Scott clearly has a thing for irises, for we would see that look again in the basilisk gaze of his replicants in Blade Runner, a movie too becalmed by its own beauty to be bothered with moving its plot along. Alien, too, is a beautiful film, most obviously when it alights on the alien planet, with its Piranesian vistas, but once the film down-shifts into the Nostromo’s airshafts, it moves too fast to admire itself, with Scott keeping shots of his creature down to a bare minimum — a glimpse of plunging jaw, or shining skull, and that is it. Then there is Weaver, in whom the movie’s lack of vanity comes, quite literally, to a head: bony and beautiful, hair pinned back to reveal that fascinatingly multi-planed face. Did Scott realise the subtle visual rhyme he had established between his heroine and her antagonist? The third film would nail it — having Ripley shave her hair, and then bring her quite literally head to head with the alien, one skull against another — but back in 1979, there was very little else to hint at Ripley's eventual survival, for like Star Wars and Jaws before it, Alien benefited enormously from the non-starriness of its casting, setting its crew out before us with a poker face, to let us guess who would come up trumps.

That there would be sequels was never in any doubt. Wasn’t replication what the movie was about? When Ash praised the alien for being a “perfect organism, its structural perfection matched only by its hostility” it sparked off an echo of Richard Dreyfuss’s speech in Jaws about the shark being “a perfect engine” and all it wanting to do being “swim, eat and make little shark”, which in turn triggered a complex set of synapses in the audience’s brain which said, essentially “He’s Coming Back For Seconds,” and caused them to cancel all social engagements the following summer. Whereas the shark of the Jaws sequels was, as the years went by, forced to snack on a diet of ever-more indistinguishable teens, the Alien films had two reasons to continue — its beauty and its beast. The curious thing was that it took 7 summers, with the release of Aliens in 1986, for anyone to get around to realising this. These days, a movie like XXX is barely past its opening weekend, before Sony takes out full-page ads in variety congratulating itself on the birth of a new superhero franchise. So what happened with Alien?

Despite breaking Star Wars opening-week records, taking $8.5 million, it slowed down quickly, eventually taking $40.3 million — enough to make it the number five hit film of that year, but not enough to lift the movie out of the red. Partly this was down to old-fashioned Hollywood accounting, but also because Fox had spent so much on advertising. The ads for Alien were devised by Stephen Frankfurt, the advertising maven who had marketed Rosemary’s Baby with a ground-breaking trailer, featuring a slowly-advancing shot of a pram, and the words, “Pray for Rosemary's baby” — the progenitor, in other words, of the sort of soft-drop pay-off line that would come to play so well off the blockbuster, in the years to come. For Alien, Frankfurt came up with the line “in space no-one can hear you scream” and a stunning series of trailers — elliptical, and quick as a lizard — but Fox spent $16 million, all told, on marketing the movie, and by the end of the year, were still showing a net loss of $2.4 million, prompting a legal wrangle over the disbursement of profits that would, together with a series of management changes at Fox, keep any thoughts of a sequel safely buried for the next seven years. Ripley could sleep a little longer.

— reprinted from my book Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer (2004)

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