A30: ALIEN 30 pt 1


It was Hallowe'en 1979 … Halloweens in Britain back then weren’t how they are now. There was no new slate of horror films at the cinema, no Saw, no shelves of skeleton hands and glowing eye-balls in the supermarkets, no tribes of kids prowling the neighbourhood in masks. That was an American affectation. Only the year before, in 1978, we’d watched Michael Myers laying waste to a typical American Halloween, with its masks and lanterns and wondered how Halloween could ever get scarier than that.

Well, Halloween 1979 was when Fox unleashed Alien and things would never be quite the same again. To mark the thirtieth anniversary of the passing of a nation’s innocence, I’m going to roll out a series of articles I wrote to mark the twentieth anniversary. I’ll go through and update the cultural references where I can but, otherwise, these articles will run very much as they did back in ’99 when they appeared in the magazine Model Mart.


Do you remember 1980’s Inseminoid or Saturn 3? No? How about 1989’s Leviathan? No? Did you see 1997’s Event Horizon? 1998’s Deep Rising? No? Well, check out Pandorum when it appears soon. Maybe you’re a gamer … maybe you played Doom or Quake back in the day? Or Resident Evil or Half Life, or Resistance or, more recently, Dead Space? Still nothing? Well, all of these movies and games, among dozens upon dozens of others, follow, with tedious precision, the blue-print laid down by the block-busting success of Alien. Yet, even in 1979, that blue-print was not new.

Alien did not burst fully formed from the heads of writer Dan O’Bannon and director Ridley Scott - nor, for that matter, from the chest of John Hurt. It is not a unique thing, conceived in a vacuum and cast out into an unsuspecting universe; rather it is an end product, fed and fattened and lifted high on the celluloid shoulders of a plethora of cheap and occasionally nasty earlier films. So, let us climb Alien’s family tree and perch on its branches to consider a few of its more conspicuous relatives:

Firstly, Alien is an off-shoot of the ancient and noble line of Hollywood hokum known as ‘Old Dark House’ movies. These will be familiar to fans of mystery fiction - they are the ones where an old spooky house-full of innocent and guilty people mingle with an unknown killer (usually psychotic) who picks them off one-by-one. One of the earliest iterations of this was The Cat and the Canary (play 1922, films 1927 and 1939) and James Whale’s self-explanatory The Old Dark House (1932) which, pretty-much does what it says on the tin. The grand-dame, and possibly the most celebrated exponent of this sub-genre, was Agatha Christie with her novel And Then There Were None (very properly re-titled from the original Nursery-rhyme inspired Ten Little Niggers, 1939) and her play The Mousetrap (1952).

As the motif developed into a cliché and the internal psychological scarring of the killer became external physical disfigurement, horribly mutilated murderers have stalked the dumb and the doomed down darkened corridors in any number of alternative locations, . The idea was even rendered safe for children with the release of the Waddington’s board-game ‘Cluedo’ in 1949 (which itself became the film Clue in 1985). Alien simply took the idea and moved it to outer space. But even this wasn’t the first film to borrow the ‘Old Dark House’ for science fictional purposes.

A generation earlier, in 1951, Howard Hawks oversaw the production of The Thing From Another World (and, some say, he actually directed it, although Christian Nyby gets the screen credit). Taking sf legend John W. Campbell’s 1938 short story ‘Who Goes There’ as its starting point, this film re-locates the Old Dark House to the ferociously inhospitable wastes of the North Pole.

A team of American scientists and soldiers find a huge circular object buried in the ice (it turns out to be a derelict space-ship) they bring something back to their base and, after it thaws out, it turns out to be evil-tempered hulking great vege-man (played by James Arness), equipped with ten-men’s strength and a wicked line in horny knuckles.

Of course, The Thing touched a nerve in the American consciousness, it talked of invasion, of the Great American Way of Life being destroyed. It was a cunning metaphor for those darn Russkies! Consequently, the film was a huge success and opened the flood-gates for a decade of tackily delightful black and white ‘sci-fi’ quickies. You know the sort of thing that turn up after midnight on TV from time to time.

One element the movie omitted from Campbell’s story was the alien’s shape-changing ability, its way of hiding in plain sight. Cashing-in on the cultural phenomenon of the film, novelist Robert A Heinlein wrote The Puppet Masters (1951), a book about parasitic aliens attaching themselves to people’s bodies and taking control. Jack Finney followed this with his book The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1955 – remade in 1978 featuring Veronica ‘Lambert’ Cartwright), in which alien spores float out of the sky and conspire to inherit the earth by invading and consuming people.

All of these stories metaphoricise America’s paranoia about Russian invasion into a more personal anxiety about the body and mind being invaded. Seen through their films, the Americans of the mid-twentieth century will appear to history to be a deeply insecure, paranoid people.

Their films of the seventies are, in many ways, a reaction to this. Thanks to political assassinations, political corruption and a futile war on the far side of the planet, the voracious national pride of the fifties had leeched away, leaving a population cynical, fatalistic, listless and stoned. The young were at the dull edge of this ‘counter-revolution’, and one such group made, purely as a student experiment, a short sf film which eventually became the 1974 feature Dark Star.

An antidote to the glossy, sophisticated majesty of 2001 - A Space Odyssey (1968), the students’ film was grim and grimy. It suggested that the wonders of space-flight would one-day become so matter-of-fact that they would be positively boring. Astronauts become blue-collar workers. The titular space-ship aimlessly wanders the far-reaches of space, blowing up asteroids. It is essentially vacuuming dirt from the ignored corners of the galaxy.

The writer and co-star of Dark Star (he played the hassled Sergeant Pinback) was one Dan O’Bannon. A fan of those old fifties sci-fi movies, but very much a product of his decade, O’Bannon had a head-full of sf ideas - and one was to take the Old Dark House out into space.

Initially calling it Space Beast, D O’B’s worked on his next project after Dark Star whilst living in his business partner’s back room and sleeping on his sofa. Hey, its a glamorous life in Hollywood! Fortunately, said partner (Ronald Shussett) had a substantial input into the script, making key suggestions - possibly the most significant of which was to show the script to a big Hollywood studio. O’Bannon had seen the piece as another a small-scale character piece. Most of all, he wanted to keep it simple. Shussett had bigger plans.

And so it was that the now re-named Space Beast became a big-budget movie called Alien, conceived on a vast scale, and going on to be one of only a dozen-or-so films which had, up to that point, earned more than $100 million.

When you look closely at Alien, peering around its exquisitely designed corners and through its artfully photographed gloom - you find a post-modern montage of quotes, references and influences. Although Alien owes its shape and substance to that Old Dark House, its debts are more numerous and varied than anyone - at least consciously - could have realised when the cameras were rolling.

The film begins quietly, slowly - in a white-washed room full of sleeping astronauts. All around them ‘Mother’, the on-board computer is bringing the ship back to life, like a behemoth awakening. Neons popping into life, crew padding bleary-eyed through the motions, unable to speak until they’ve downed their first cup of stewed coffee. The routines they run through for another day in space are convincingly depicted. The last time we saw anything quite like his was on ‘The Discovery’, in 2001. But, when their conversation begins, we realise how boring and lacking in glamour long-term space-flight is, just as in Dark Star.

That space-ship was run by Hal 9000, an omni-presence who, for reasons the film doesn’t explain, has calculated that its crew is expendable. In Alien, Mother’s central core is like Hal’s - a room lined with twinkling lights. When Ripley hacks into Mother’s program, she finds that the computer intends to bring the monster back and that the crew are not just expendable, but, given the beast’s reproductive method, their death is necessary!

Taking this news with an understandable lack of grace, Ripley sets the ship to self destruct (setting-off a pedantic vocal count-down reminiscent of the smart bombs in Dark Star) but, before hitting the boom button, she pauses to read the backlit instructions - a direct visual homage to Kubrick’s one stab at humour in 2001: the zero-g toilet.

Philip Strick, in his ‘Sight and Sound’ review of the film, reads Alien as a paean to quarantine, that terribly British need to hold potential disease carriers at bay. He sees it as following on from films like The Quatermass Experiment (1955) and Village of the Damned (1960) in that they demonstrate a paranoid fear of this sceptr’d isle being invaded by something far less scrutable than jack-booted Germans. Well, if it’s good enough for the Americans …

Certainly, Alien raises the issue of quarantine, when astronaut Kane - in the grips of what would come to be called ‘The Face-Hugger’ - is refused re-entry to the ship by Ripley because of the danger of contamination. How right she was. If she’d been allowed to stick to her guns, Alien would have been a much shorter film about nothing much happening to a bunch of space-truckers.

The classic scenario of explorers stumbling across the remains of an ancient civilisation, and accidentally unleashing the djinn, is practically as old as fiction itself. Where would Aladdin, Allan Quatermain or Tarzan have been without it? Between the wars, science fiction ‘pulps’ and comics adapted and employed it many times. Indeed, the motif of a team of interstellar adventurers stumbling across a derelict spaceship on a spooky, haunted planet, had become so ubiquitous it had dropped into redundancy by the sixties, yet had only rarely made it onto the big screen.

Hawks’ The Thing employed it, of course, but the only other examples this side of the BBC’s TV show Dr Who, is Italian director Mario Bava’s Terrore Nello Spazio - (aka Planet of the Vampires, 1965) and Tarkovsky’s Russian rendering Solaris (1971). Although as different in approach as films can be, they are similar in that their alien worlds don’t contain a tangible monster, but rather a madness which makes the characters destroy themselves.

So, once more, we return to The Thing. Rescued from a crashed spaceship, its monster stalks the dark and claustrophobic corridors of an Arctic Station, which is buried in a blizzard so no one can escape. One of the crew - a doctor named Carrington - tries, in the name of science, to reason with his fellows, to study the monster instead of kill it. Eventually, he sides with the beast over the humans and meets the kind of sticky end traditionally reserved for traitors.

In Alien, one of the crew - a doctor named Ashe - tries, in the name of science, to reason with his fellows, to study the monster instead of kill it. Eventually, he sides with the beast over the humans, and … you get the point.

In The Thing, a tray of peculiar plants gives a hint to the monster’s life-cycle, beginning as a pod and growing into a strapping seven-foot ex-football player. In Alien, the tray of pods becomes a cathedralic cavern full of inert, leathery eggs, each of which contains the first, deceptively small stage of the alien life-cycle.

Generally speaking, drawing such ‘inspiration’ is accepted as a natural part of the creative process; hey, even Shakespeare borrowed ideas from other playwrights. Borrowed? He stole shamelessly … and, if it’s good enough for Will …

Of course, if the ‘homage’ becomes too in-depth, issues of plagiarism and copyright infringement can arise. One ‘homage’ which was not greeted with indulgence and humour, was to A.E. Van Vogt’s 1939 short story ‘Discord in Scarlet’ (which can now be found as part of the novel ‘The Voyage of the Space Beagle’). This features an alien beastie stalking the corridors of a space-ship, picking off the crew one-by-one. Fingers were pointed, accusations were made and eventually an out of court settlement was reached, to the tune of $50,000.

Curiously, a similar claim was not made by Van Vogt’s people against the substantially less-successful sci-fi pot-boiler It - The Terror From Beyond Space (1958), where ‘our heroes’ chase the bog-standard rubber-suited boogey-man through corridors and air-shafts of a creaky old space-ship, until they herd It into an airlock and blast It out into space.

In both this film and The Thing, the ill-equipped humans, their numbers dwindling, desperately patch together weapons from their scant resources, whilst relying on old-fashioned human ingenuity to get them through each successive narrow-scrape. In Alien, the unarmed crew make-do with cattle-prods and (when they realise that baby alien has rapidly grown into scary alien) flame-throwers, to aid them in their pursuit down corridors and through air-shafts. Their plan has a simple but familiar ring to it: Herd It into an airlock and blast It out into space.

All of which leaves the small matter of the epilepsy-inducing finale - the blueprint for action movie finales to this very day. Nowadays, if it doesn’t have klaxons, flashing lights, steam and (optionally) an ominous count-down - all wrapped-up in a satisfyingly huge explosion - well it’s hardly a finale at all. Several commentators have noted that the strobing of the hazard-lights during Ripley’s escape, are borrowed from the rapid-cut rape/murder scenes in Looking for Mr Goodbar (1977). Which makes the xenomorph’s determined pursuit of Ripley seem rather too much like a date that goes dramatically wrong.

When the huge oil-tanker (or Old Dark House, whichever you prefer) finally bows out - in a spectacular (for the time) big bang - we are put in mind of the detonations that rounded off Forbidden Planet in 1956, or took out This Island Earth’s besieged planet Metaluna one year earlier. For that matter, the death throes of Superman’s Krypton and Darth Vader’s Death Star also come to mind. Yet the Technicolor ‘swoosh’ of energy that escapes space-zero is clearly and unambiguously a nod to The Star Gate at the end of 2001. As we began, so do we end.

The one genuine revelation in Alien is Scott’s camera-work, this was totally pre-emptive. When was the last time that you saw a horror movie which didn’t employ steel grills and steam and strong back-lighting!? Yet, up until 1979, no film in this genre had ever before employed the moody, shadow-laden motifs of the film noir. The naturalistic acting and documentary air to the film’s first half, depict deep-space flight as a more natural, more believable extension of that pioneered in Dark Star, itself a response to the 2001, and Silent Running (1972), yet this has been largely forgotten. All most people remember about Alien now, are those long gang-way corridors, the claustrophobic air-shafts, the cricket-pad and fish-bowl space-suits and, of course, John Hurt giving birth on the dining table.

But more of that in the next installment of A30: Alien @ 30.

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