Thursday, February 6, 2014

30 For 30: Alien

I turn 30 on February 18th. I want to celebrate this, and get myself back into writing, by spending a few weeks rambling about the 30 things that have meant the most to me over the years. These will be from music, movies, books, videogames, and maybe even art and other things for good measure. I feel like my life has been much more about the things I've experienced than it has the people I've known or the places I've traveled to, and these 30 things have helped to make my 30 years more than worth all the innumerable bad things. Expect heartfelt over-sharing and overly analytical explanations galore! In part 4, no one could hear me scream...because I was hiding in my room playing Sega Genesis instead.
 If you really wanted to define each art form, the most accurate way to do so is to reduce them down to their constituent parts, until you arrive at what it is each does best and is most essential to its nature as a medium. For example, there can be a visual component to music (concerts, music videos, album covers, etc), but it is obviously all about what you hear. For music to work best, as entertainment or art, it has to do so as an audio experience. Videogames couldn't exist without visual, and to a lesser extent audio, components but their interactivity is what sets them apart. It's what they do best and should focus on. BioShock could function as a film experience because of its sound design and the art direction, but it is most fully realized as a videogame because you are experiencing its world by interacting with it, determining (for the most part) the pace and what you're seeing.

With books and films, their strengths are diametrically opposed: books are the best at telling you something, films are the best at showing you something. Alien will always hold up as a classic film because it shows you very little for long periods of time, demonstrating that not showing isn't automatically boring, and that what is not being shown can be just as crucial as what is being shown. I don't even just mean the alien creature itself, I also mean the way the first 1/3 to 2/3's of the movie utilize a lot of long, slow moving shots with very little happening to continually build atmosphere and momentum until the last few scenes are constant anxiety and dread. Alien is like a haunted house set in a spaceship and it needs those periods of slowness, of not showing much at all, to work properly. Constant jump scares and action aren't worth much compared to how effective it can be to instead dole out these things at a slow pace and gradually increase their frequency as the film goes. The sequel does this at a more accelerated rate; Aliens rightfully gets the credit for being akin to a rollercoaster, but just calling Alien a haunted house is selling it a little short. The ending sequence of Ripley running through the ship's corridors, all flashing lights and disorienting smoke, is a brilliant little action sequence. I always seem to believe that she just might turn off that self destruct in time, too.

"Hmm, maybe if I yell at it, it'll go faster..." 

In addition to showing and not showing, lately when I rewatch Alien I'm struck by how little it tells you. Everyone who writes about this film focuses on the obvious effectiveness of how you only get a few good looks at the alien creature, and most of them at the very end. So what about all the unanswered questions, the things it never tells you? If you'll permit a digression, I think this is why my opinion of Prometheus soured so much over the days and weeks after watching it. The entire movie's premise is about answering certain questions, then it adds more questions, and then it never answers any of them. This frustrates a viewer because if all you're left with at the end is more questions than you had at the start of the film, then you may as well have been watching a nonsensical surrealist art film. Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel's Un Chien Andalou doesn't pretend to have a plot or any overt meaning yet this doesn't mean you can't take any meaning or motive from it. By contrast, Prometheus pretends to have a plot and some kind of meaning yet it ends up feeling like a series of things that happen to people because...I don't know. Anyway, Prometheus isn't supposed to be directly connected to the Alien films, despite the constant cross-references that only ended up confusing the shit out of everyone, so let's get back to what I was starting to say.

What Alien doesn't tell you is most of the things Prometheus seemingly promised to tell you. You're left to work out the grand details for yourself, and this is why Alien has always meant so much to me. It trusts in the intelligence of the viewer to think about its riddles as much or as little as they want to. Just as we didn't need to know that The Force in the Star Wars films came from midichlorians, we didn't need to know anything about the crashed ship and its contents in Alien. Whatever information is necessary for the rest of the movie we either pick up as we go—discovering the rest of the lifecycle of the alien creature, for instance—or it's left up to each viewer to fill in the blanks with whatever satisfied them. There are no wrong answers when you're answering questions without any answers.

Just for the fun of it, here are the things I ask myself when I watch Alien, the things I'm neither told nor shown that make me love the movie on a deep level such that I still find myself thinking about it from time to time. So, OK, how did the alien ship crash, and why? Why don't we see any other crew members? If an alien burst out of the pilot-looking dude in the chair-looking thing, where is it at now? What exactly is that weird blue laser field covering the eggs? Have these been lying dormant for awhile and somehow re-animate when they sense a living thing nearby? If the species who created the ship were advanced enough beyond human technology to be transporting the eggs as some sort of biological weapon or scientific research project, why didn't another of their ships reach the crashed ship first to recover/salvage it? Is this ship like their version of those various boats and airplanes that have seemingly disappeared without a trace, never to be seen again, on Earth? Jeez, I haven't even gotten to the other, far more important alien species in the movie and I already have enough questions to write an entire essay or fanfic!

"Hey mister, wanna buy some Girl Scout cookies?" 

One of the most unique plot aspects in Alien is that the characters spend no time wondering about the origins of the crashed ship or any questions similar to those I posed above. There isn't a scene where they discuss the religious implications of not one, but two, alien lifeforms. There isn't a scene where they go back to photograph the crashed ship and everything inside. Ultimately, they were on their way back home and that's what is most important to them—other than some debate about extra pay for setting down on a planet and doing something that isn't their job. This is the key to the movie's “space truckers” realism. If it were written by anyone else, all the characters would turn into wide eyed pseudo-scientists and philosophers, losing all their personality and perspective, spouting expository dialogue that does the thinking for the audience. In fact, Parker (played by Yaphet Kotto) seems like he's more surprised by Ash being a robot, as if the existence of advanced cyborgs is more outlandish to him than alien parasitic lifeforms. He seems like he doesn't give a shit about the alien as long as he's getting paid and going home. Until it kills his buddy, that is, at which point he only wants revenge.

When I originally sat down to write this piece, I wanted to work in so many different topics it got to be overwhelming. I intended to write something about Alien's far reaching influence on pop culture, about how it helped me discover the art of H.R. Giger, about how it works equally well as a standalone film as it does part of a series, about how the opening title sequence and music give me chills, about how it's one of the reasons I developed a taste for strong no-bullshit women, about how much it lives up to its title, etc. But since this 30 For 30 series is ostensibly about me and what these 30 things mean to me, or the things they do/have done for me, I thought I should end with two stories, both based around the chestburster scene.

The first time I watched Alien, I was probably 8 or 9, and I had already seen the sequel several times. Aliens was one of my favorite movies, largely because I also incessantly re-watched the Terminator films and it felt more action packed like those (not knowing anything about directors, it's interesting that I picked up on the similarity since I had no idea who James Cameron was). I always used to fastforward past the chestburster scene from Aliens because it freaked me out too much, and I'm not sure why. I had watched it the first time I saw the movie, so it's not like I didn't know what I was getting into on subsequent viewings.

At some point my parents suggested I watch the first movie, and they described most of it in great detail so I could tell if it'd scare me too much. I made it through OK until the chestburster scene, which my parents had built up as being one of the most shocking things they ever saw in a movie theater. I knew what a chestburster was because of Aliens, and I knew it was coming in Alien because my parents let out an “uh oh, here we go” after the scene when Kane wakes up just prior to dinner, yet something about it happening in a more realistic looking place was too much for me. Think of it like this: in Aliens it happens in front of futuristic Marines with guns, in a poorly lit alien nest. You almost kick yourself for not expecting it and for being so busy freaking out that it doesn't occur to you that they're just going to kill it within seconds. They're powerless to help the poor woman, but they aren't powerless to deal with the chestburster: it's brief remorse at a failed rescue, followed by the immediate satisfaction of a successful flamethrowin'. But in Alien it happens in front of regular people in a well-lit area, and the only weapon they have is a fork. Not only that, it happens to one of their crew members; indeed, a friend. It feels awful to be unable to help a random stranger but it is a much worse feeling to be unable to help a loved one. You have to wait to the very end of Alien for any kind of relief from the way this scene makes you feel, and that's only after everyone else but Ripley dies, too.

But I digress. The unbearable tension of the whole scene was probably so much worse because I knew what was going to happen but I hadn't seen it yet. To tie back into the earlier theme of this piece, seeing it was more important than being told about it. The anticipation was like that moment just before the rollercoaster starts its descent, and I felt equally terrified and sick to my stomach. So as Kane started to thrash about and scream, I couldn't take it anymore and ran upstairs to play a Sega Genesis hockey game my parents had rented for me along with Alien on VHS. For this reason I will always associate hockey with unbridled terror.

Pictured: unbridled terror

The second story is shorter but no less memorable. One of the very few times in my life I had done magic mushrooms, I ended up watching Alien on Bluray. By this point in my trip I was already coming down but the movie still seemed to take on another life. You might expect I'd have been scared out of my mind, but I became oddly fascinated with the idea of the lifecycle of the alien. I had never before considered that this was a species that, technically speaking, “hatched” twice: first from an egg, and then from a living being. In fact you could put it better by saying it's a species that hatches and later gets born, too. I began to go further with this idea. If these aliens existed in reality, would some scientists or TV shows study this species, as we do real violent and creepy animals on Earth? Suddenly the chestburster scene took on the feel of watching a nature documentary in which brutal animal-on-animal violence isn't edited out. I thought of nightvision footage of lions or hyenas, their face and fur wet with blood, or of orcas forcing an infant whale away from its mother only to cruelly drown it and not bother eating any of it. I thought of that parasite which crawls into a fish's mouth and replaces the tongue with itself, still helping the fish eat by behaving like a tongue but also feeding off its blood directly from the source. I could already hear a British accented voiceover speaking in grave, hushed tones about how from the moment it's born, the xenomorph alien can defend itself thanks to its acid blood, and about how the host it burst from is arguably as much its parent as the facehugger or even the queen that laid the egg the facehugger came from...

...and then I started laughing hysterically, because it struck me as strange that the little boy who ran scared from this same scene had grown into a man who was now watching it under the waning influence of a psychedelic and not remotely frightened. There's facing your fears, and then there's thinking about your fears to such a ridiculous extreme that you forget you were ever afraid in the first place.
Pictured: not unbridled terror

No comments: