Alien Territory Part 1
In a month of dire warnings about Russian spies, Chinese viruses, American fascism, global heating (six months left to fix it, apparently, which means the planet is doomed before I can get tickets for the National Theatre again) watching say, ‘The Salisbury Poisonings’ or reading Cormac McCarthy seems like a little light entertainment.
Meanwhile, scientists have announced that there are most likely 36 intelligently inhabited planets near us, which suggests that aliens have had a look through a telescope, spotted Donald Trump and decided not to come anywhere near here except to empty their toilet waste.
The pandemic drove me back through the entire ‘Alien’ film cycle (Lockdown rules; you’re allowed to have some guilty pleasures). I did it because we have a history, that thing and I.
To keep it brief, many years ago we were commissioned to work on a new Ridley Scott film by 20th Century Fox, and delivered several pages of around twenty poster copylines apiece which included ‘that’ one – whether they used it from our supplied page or someone else came up with it simultaneously in America (as some publicist’s wife now claims she did) is hardly relevant, although I’d quite like to find our original work folders on it, but when we sold the company I suspect they were dumped.
Not that it matters as firstly, we got paid – the page with ‘In space no-one can hear you scream’ was stamped ‘£20 received'(!) Second, it’s the most obvious line you can think of when the brief is ‘a horror film set in space’, a new concept back then, and third who cares? It’s not exactly Madame Bovary and we were working on between 25-35 films a month.
Over the years we remained tangentially involved in the sequels and had been required to read various different versions of the scripts by highly respected writers. Carrying the weight of a franchise that started out as a horror film and developed powerful arthouse pretensions, creative teams tore themselves apart trying to deliver what the studio thought it wanted. It’s fascinating to recall how the brief was twisted back and forth in adaptations. So let’s start at the beginning. Of course, the films have been picked apart on DVD extras for decades – this is about watching them afresh.
The egg box. That was all any of us had seen – a special shoot of a green egg, and a reference to ‘It! The terror from Beyond Space’, upon which writer Dan O’Bannon had very loosely based ‘Alien’. For another example of their work, check out O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett’s ‘Dead and Buried’, a genuine one-off, nicely directed by ‘Death Line’s Gary Sherman.
The finished film of the first Alien enthralled because if its scuffed, atmospheric production design, its star, a very young Sigourney Weaver, and its astonishing creature. Years later, when John Hurt and I saw the film at a Somerset House open-air screening, we realised that it didn’t work for a new young audience. They were bored because the first hour was too slow and there was all this talking and they just wanted to get to the highs, like a YouTube mash-up or a Tik Tok clip.
For me it could be slower still. Scott’s direction is subtly unnerving. The ship is a great industrial machine, an oil tanker grinding its way across the sea of the universe, and it sets a slow drum beat to the events. This is one of the best early examples of feeling as though we’re really in the hostile environment of space.
It’s a fatalistic film, everything pre-ordained from the outset. There’s a class hierarchy, a bad-tempered atmosphere, a sense that no-one on board really has control. Into this comes the distress signal that is not, the rescue mission that is not, and an agent of chaos, the alien, which is seemingly not a threat on the fateful morning that John Hurt awakes. The monster works because it has a genesis, the life cycle of an insect or mammal crossed with that of a highly self-defensive parasite, and humans are no match. It is genuinely other-worldly; we can’t even see how it moves.
If the rest of the film is a series of tick boxes marking off each of the early raised questions, we are still shocked by Ian Holmes’ avuncular robot turning rogue and the ultimate plans for the ship. Jerry Goldsmith’s best score only resolves its sinister minor chords at the close, when sleep and safety beckon.
The film’s success was not based on any one element but the cohesion of all into one disturbing, penumbral vision. It would prove hard to replicate as the stakes were raised…
To be continued