After taking a look at Prometheus earlier, I feel I should probably explain a little bit about why I feel the things I pointed out with it are so egrigious. And to do that, I'm going to talk about Alien. I don't want this to be a mis-understanding as I understand that the two films really aren't directly comparable and it's clear that Prometheus is not trying to be Alien. But when it comes to examples of a good sci-fi construct, it really is one of the best out there.
So I'm going to explain why I think Alien was such a good film and why we all got so hooked on it. Also, why it seems to be constantly mis-understood whenever people take a close look at it.
Alien is simply one of the best films ever made. It transcends genre. Some people even dispute the fact that is is a sci-fi movie at all, insisting that it is pure horror. It's a pitch-perfect masterpiece and I love it to bits. Which is why I often get a bit annoyed when I hear people describing it.
You'll typically hear something along the lines of "a crew are trapped on a spaceship being stalked by a monster which is killing them one by one".
People have been trying to emulate and copy this apparently easy-to-understand formula for years and nobody has really come close. The copycat efforts always pale in comparison to the original, and for very good reason. Alien isn't about a monster chasing the humans. It's about the humans chasing the monster. Not only this, but everything in the story happens in a completely believable way as the human crew each seals their own individual fates by doing only what comes naturally to them. They actually kill themselves.
First off is Kane. He's a naturally curious type; an explorer. Nosey, even. As soon as the Nostromo lands and it becomes clear there's going to be a party going out on foot, he's the first to volunteer. Kane WANTS to see the unknown. He's fascinated with what they find, insisting they go on, keep exploring, even when the others are considering going back. He is the chap that heads down deeper into the depths of the alien derelict with the winch. It is Kane who discovers the eggs and leans over one, fascinated, as it begins to move. And this seals his fate. It is a perfect chain of events instigated by the naturally curious character that will lead directly to his death. Kane's fate was sealed, purely by virtue of his own natural curiosity. Kane was never hunted or stalked by monsters. His fate is entirely his own fault and it came directly from the choices he made. His actions did give the rest of the crew some pretty big problems to deal with though.
So, around the dinner table, the Alien is born. As it bursts into the world in it's own very natural way, what does it see around itself? No mother or family. Just a bunch of screaming humans (aliens from it's own perspective), with big wide eyes waving knives at it. So it does what is completely natural; it screams back at them and runs off. Completely believable behaviour. It runs off and hides, far away from the screaming humans. Perhaps it's looking for it's mother. It's probably very scared in this completely unnatural environment, so it runs away and hides in the dark, far away from the shrieking humans. What was their problem anyway?
Next to fall is Brett. He is the "yes" man in the Nostromo crew (or more accurately the "right" man). It is in his nature to do what he is told. He may have a bit of a bitch with Parker on the side, but Brett is a born follower, and tends to do whatever he's told. So when the cat gets away from them during the search for the Alien, Ripley and Parker tell Brett to go and catch it so they don't pick it up again. He does this unquestioningly, because that's the way he is. He just does what he's told. And this is where he has his own encounter with the Alien, right at the back of the garage, hiding in the roof where nobody could find it.
Brett disturbs it going to get Jones the cat. And so the creature does what any capable wild animal would do; It attacks him in a sudden burst of violence and runs away. Deeper into the bowels of the ship, further away from the humans. The thing that I see going on here is the creature is actually following a logic of it's own that makes complete sense but isn't necessarily what the story is concentrating on. It just makes everything so solid and realistic. It's almost written as if there was a lion on board the ship.
Next up to die is Dallas. Seeing the way things are going, he asserts himself and takes command, grabbing a flamethrower and getting down and dirty in the air ducts. Stand back ladies; this is man's business. His character is assuming responsibility having seen events spiral out of control and he is confident in the plan. So he goes deep into the bowels of the ship and ends up running into the Alien. This poor creature is hiding right at the bottom of the air pipes, not bothering anybody and trying to get as far away from these humans as possible. Until Dallas comes crawling in there with a flamethrower. Of course it's going to eat his face off. And it's all his own fault for going in there in the first place. But he had to, he had a responsibility as Captain, right? I love the way Dallas is played, he's got a really subtle weariness about him. Even after two deaths he doesn't really grasp what's at stake as he's never had to deal with anything like this before and he can't even comprehend the danger he is actually in. He's just a bit tired and strung out.
An important thing to note is that the Alien isn't stalking anybody here; it's the humans stalking the Alien. If you re-watch the film from the creature's perspective, you can actually feel quite sorry for it.
Ash, of course, falls prey to a fire extinguisher in the head rather than the Alien's extendable jaws, but even this Alien-free death scene is remarkable and completely in context with the characters and how they would behave. Lambert is dumbstruck, shell-shocked and on the verge of a nervous breakdown, Parker is furious and just wants to smash it to pieces and Ripley wants all the information out of it before smashing it to pieces. Incredibly dramatic scenes like this are all constructed from a few relatively simple ingredients and nothing is overcooked.
Parker and Lambert both die according to their characters. When the pair of them run into the Alien as they are loading up on coolant, Lambert freezes in horror, which is a perfect reaction for her as throughout the film she's been serving as the audience's doubts and fears. As this is happening, Parker won't engage the Alien as he is armed with a flamethrower and would never want to hurt an innocent woman. So he stands by, unable to act as lambert is killed, leaving it too late for him to defend himself. Completely solid, to the point where we don't even have to see it all happening on-screen for it to make complete sense.
So this leaves our hero, Miss Ellen Ripley. She grabs the cat, runs for the shuttle and blows up the Nostromo, before stripping off to get into bed. Then she realises the Alien is in the pipes. Is it sleeping? Some people even speculate that the creature has nested itself in ther to die. Either way it's not doing anything to antagonise her. It must have run in there to get away from and the gradually exploding Nostromo and all the humans that have been trying to kill it.
So Ripley starts releasing jets of hot gas up it's arse to jolt it out of it's cosy sleeping/dying place. These humans just will not let that poor creature be. Then as it stands up to find out what the hell is going on, she blows it out into space and starts the engines. All done.
Alien feels like a tight watch because everything makes sense without you having to think about it. This lets you get immersed in the slow build of the tension and invest in the characters and the drama. It might sound weird, but you really don't have to think too much when you first watch Alien, but at the same time it is absolutely not a dumb film. It is not a slasher flick. And it's not about space vaginas and male rape as some people like to bang on about. It's a small-scale survival story; a pitch-perfect exercise in dramatic build and tension using horror as it's key device.
I must admit, it kind of annoys me when people write big essays about how the whole thing is about male mouth-rape. I honestly do not believe the filmmakers sat around with the typical pressures of production, rubbing their hands at all the psycho-sexual metaphors that could be inferred later on. I think they saw some amazingly dark, weird art, knew that it would translate well, and went for the weirdest, most horrible monster thay could come up with that they knew would look cool on-screen.
So in essence, what I'm saying is that despite all the other amazing artistry going on, the main reason this film is so good is the script. For sure, there is all other kinds of amazing work going on such as the Art Direction, Acting, Cinematography, etc, but from it's core the quality of Alien eminates outwards from the script and allows everybody else to get their amazing work noticed and contextualised. It's a relatively simple story with few ingredients, but these ingredients are all that is necessary and compliment each other perfectly. There is no fat on this story. The character arcs all make complete sense and pretty much every reaction we see on screen is something we can relate to. These characters are everyday working people; truck drivers in space. They didn't sign up for this and they didn't have a choice. They are not great scientists or warriors and that's fine. Better than fine actually. It all makes sense and there isn't anything in there that makes you go "hang on a minute..."
The characters each have a very natural flow to their actions all the way through the story, and these actions have consequences. These consequences move the action along as the characters find themselves in a different situation because of them, and must then decide how to act next. It's like poetry, and it works beautifully. This is one of the key things that was utterly lacking in Prometheus, and it's key to getting the audience along on the character's journey. Becasue that's what films generally are right? Character journeys that we are being invited to come along with?
As the story unfolds, we come to understand how the creature's life cycle works and understand the threat they are facing as they learn it for themselves. And none of it is laboured or forced. We never feel like we are being spoon-fed. At no time are we privvy to events or knowledge that the characters in the film aren't. We're with them as they die, and at the end we're left alone with Ripley. It's one of the best dramatic builds I've ever seen in a film and I love it to bits. I anxiously await the day I get to see a sci-fi film with a better script than Alien.