Published on May 26th, 2013 | by Hamish Crawford1
Alien: The Technically British Film Series
It’s another entry in the “Technically British Film” series…
How British is it? **
One thing Alien is not is original; but while everyone agrees about that, no two writers can agree on what it ripped off. Writers Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett were, like many ambitious new talents in the 1970s, inveterate film nerds. Compare it to the American B-movies whose genre it shares—The Thing From Another World (1951) and It! The Terror From Beyond Space (1956)—the principal difference is between the square-jawed American spacemen in the former, and the Nostromo’s crew of bickering, blue-collar company stooges. The idea of space as another cynically exploited resource (in this case, by a company whose depraved avarice seems limitless) is a key theme in British New Wave science fiction. Furthermore, the central idea owes much to those two pillars of British science fiction: The Quatermass Experiment (1953) and the classic Robert Holmes-authored Doctor Who serial The Ark in Space (1975) had precedents for the horrifically organic and internal invader who pops so memorably out of John Hurt’s chest. Another classic Who episode—The Robots of Death (1977) by Chris Boucher—has a similarly money-minded crew.
Then there’s director Ridley Scott. A veteran of British television (although nothing he did—including Z Cars, The Troubleshooters, and two episodes of Adam Adamant Lives! (1966)—seem to be mentioned as often as the fact that he nearly designed the Daleks) and glossily-lensed commercials for Typhoo Tea and Hovis bread, he had directed a minor film (1977’s The Duellists) before this made his reputation. He pulls every trick out for this one—virtually every shot is wreathed in blue light and smoke—while emphasising the grunge and dereliction of the future in an unprecedented way. Accounts vary as to why he pushed for this look—it has been suggested that he was worried that the Alien costume would look like a man in a suit unless little of it could be seen.
Of course, that very ambiguity (it never seems to look quite the same in any two scenes) helped make its monster a true legend—and credit is due to that master of the grotesque prosthetic, the Swiss production designer H.R. Giger. It was filmed entirely in Shepperton Studios, with some (presumably model) work conducted at the old Hammer haunt, Bray Studios. Owing to its perfect timing on the cusp of a new revolution in big-budget science fiction, Alien was received rather more rapturously in 1979 than it might otherwise have been. Its context was among Star Wars and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (released the same summer), not with Plague of the Vampires or It!. In this light it is instructive to compare it with its more hardware-oriented, militaristic—and generally more American—sequel Aliens (1986).
Character Act-o-Meter ***
Though Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley is the lynchpin of the Alien series, her supporting cast all get their upstaging moments through dying horribly. 1979 audiences were as horrified by Kane’s (John Hurt) unexpected explosion, and the weirdly organic innards of simulant Ash (Ian Holm) as by any of the Alien antics. Yaphet Kotto (previously a voodoo-themed Bond villain in Live and Let Die) and Harry Dean Stanton also mill around.
It’s fair to say Alien’s influence extended more to its science fiction than horror bedfellows. Repaying the debt in kind, Doctor Who spent much of the early 1980s reworking Ridley Scott’s shock moments. Even though Eric Saward’s Earthshock (1982) and Resurrection of the Daleks (1984) lack the grace of Ark and Robots, instead suggesting some kind of Alien/Star Wars fan-fiction with a guest-starring (and very out of place) pacifist Time Lord, he does deserve some credit for the chutzpah of re-formatting Daleks and Cybermen as cybernetic Aliens. Less acknowledged, when Star Trek returned to television with The Next Generation (1987-94) it ripped off quite a bit from the Alien set-up: Data (Brent Spiner) in particular is a more benign Ash, and early planets visited by Picard’s Enterprise attempted to nod towards Alien’s grit, though about a couple of seasons in this gets subsumed into the standard Trek Boy Scout utopianism.
The most sustained Alien heir, however, was the masterfully bleak sci-fi sitcom Red Dwarf (1988-99, 2012), whose rusting mining ship, slovenly crew, and habit of picking up strange creatures all follow Ripley’s footsteps. The hints of despair between last human Lister (Craig Charles) and hologram enemy Rimmer (Chris Barrie) refract Ripley’s loner-ish tendencies into blokey rivalry. Later episodes feature ‘Simulants’ (which also owe something to Scott’s Blade Runner (1982)), although the ship’s robotic assistant Kryten (Robert Llewellyn) is more idiosyncratic than Ash or Data, being principally concerned with the ship’s laundry.
A slew of tacky British science fiction slashers aped the Alien format (bottom of the barrel is an ignominious tie between Inseminoid (1980) and Xtro (1981)). Straightforward sequels abounded: James Cameron directed Aliens (1986), a powerful action/horror hybrid that overcomes its gung-ho militarism to deliver a surprisingly left-field maternal subtext, while Alien³ (1992, directed by David Fincher) ups the series’ bleakness, with a monastic asteroid of hardened criminals (and scores far higher on the Character Act-o-Meter, with Paul McGann, Danny Webb, and Charles S. Dutton backing up Charles Dance and Withnail & I’s Ralph Brown). Last and least, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien—Resurrection (1997) is a tedious re-hash that wastes Ron Perlman and Weaver and writer Joss Whedon.
After a handful of diminishing Alien vs. Predator entries (the original Predator (1987) conflates Alien with that classic thriller “The Most Dangerous Game” (1924) written by Richard Connell), the phoenix has risen from the ashes with the success of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012). Two phoenixes, actually: let’s not forget (even though movie-goers have) that Scott spent the years after the garlanded Gladiator (1999) and Black Hawk Down (2001) making oddly middling would-be blockbusters with titles so forgettable they seem to have been coined as a dare (Matchstick Men, American Gangster, A Good Year, Body of Lies … need I go on?).
Not slow to take the hint, he’s dusted off another of his old classics: as well as a rumoured Prometheus sequel (Alien—The College Years?) the Internet Movie Database lists “Untitled Blade Runner Project” as in production.
Remember how I said at the beginning that everyone agreed Alien was unoriginal? That it has, 33 years later, given Sisyphean birth to an exponentially less original prequel—a kind word for Prometheus’s reductive self-plagiarism—is appropriate for a series whose monster is such a remorseless parasite.