Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Loving the alien

The Jean-Pierre Jeunet retrospective kicks off tomorrow. Starting with his and Marc Caro’s decidedly offbeat 24-minute short ‘The Bunker of the Last Gunshots’, there are seven titles to cover. Sitting squarely in the middle is his only English language film – his only (thus far) Hollywood outing – ‘Alien Resurrection’.

If the dominant theme of Jeunet’s work (as we’ll see in the next few posts) is the struggle of the outsider/dreamer/marginalised character against a more powerful/far-reaching system or hierarchy, be it fantastical (the theft of children’s dreams in ‘The City of Lost Children’), geo-political (the First World War in ‘A Very Long Engagement’) or military-industrial (the arms manufacturers in ‘Micmacs’), then ‘Alien Resurrection’ certainly fits into his ouevre. I’ll come to the whys and wherefores when I review it in four days’ time. But I also have to consider how it fits into the ‘Alien’ franchise overall.

Hence this whistlestop tour of the first three ‘Alien’ movies. There will be beasties. There will be blood. There will be SPOILERS.

But before we begin, something needs to be stated. For the record. The ‘Alien Vs Predator’ movies suck. They suck donkeys. The suck like a Dyson with a turbo fitted. They suck what Pazuzu said Father Karras’s poor old ma sucked in hell in ‘The Exorcist’.

Ahem. Moving swiftly on.

‘Alien’ (1979) constitutes the first of Ridley Scott’s two bona fide sci-fi masterpieces. It’s one hell of a movie in its original theatrical cut. The 2003 director’s cut edition tweaks a few effects, restores a small amount of footage and – surprisingly – does a whole lot of trimming. It must be unique amongst director’s cuts in that, despite the restored material, it runs several minutes shorter. It makes, ever-so-slightly, for a tighter and more claustrophobic viewing experience.

In terms of its basic story and narrative structure, ‘Alien’ looks very familiar now. In 1979, however, it exploded into cinemas just a year after John Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’ and predates the stalk ‘n’ slash subgenre of the next decade, heralded by the likes of Sean S. Cunningham’s ‘Friday the 13th’ and Paul Lynch’s ‘Prom Night’ (both 1980). Audiences probably wouldn’t have been quite so familiar with the set of tropes that Dan O’Bannon’s script adheres to, and wouldn’t therefore have pegged it as a stalk ‘n’ slash movie in space. If that sounds disrespectful to Scott and his collaborators, please be assured that no offence is meant. But the touchstones are there: isolated location (space ship as opposed to summer camp or high school), small cast (crewmembers as opposed to horny teenagers) whose numbers dwindle as they are picked off one by one by an implacable killer (an alien being as opposed to a maniac with a mask of some description and a predilection for the improper use of power tools or sporting goods) until only the final girl remains.

The difference, apart from the setting, is in the execution: Scott’s tense account of the decimation of the Nostromo’s crew is no cheapie exploitationer. True, the death scenes and Ripley (Sigourney Weaver)’s final battle with the alien, are the raison d’etre, but Scott goes for Hitchcockian suspense rather than out-and-out gore. Nor is he bothered about increasingly inventive and over-the-top deaths; the alien isn’t some hick loopy with mother issues who wants to see what uses chainsaws, fish hooks, nail guns et al can be put to – uh huh, it’s ten feet of acid-blooded survival instinct that either wants to kill you or impregnate you. Not the kind of individual you’d want to find yourself on a blind date with.

Moreover, Scott’s cast are real actors. In addition to Weaver, there’s a never-better Tom Skerritt, a creepily excellent Ian Holm, and the always-dependable Harry Dean Stanton, as well as John Hurt, Veronica Cartwright and Yaphet Kotto – all on good form. None were major stars at the time, and ‘Alien’ was only Sigourney Weaver’s third film role. A major film career came calling as a result.

There’s also a seriousness of purpose to Scott’s direction. He never goes over-the-top or strays into the realms of the unrealistic as Cameron does in the sequel’s finale (the airlock’s open for how long? there’s still enough oxygen for Ripley and Newt to survive? how can Bishop prevent Newt from being sucked through the airlock when he’s been torn in half and has no means of gaining purchase on anything?), nor does he let the still nascent mythology of the franchise get in the way of the story a la the later instalments. He keeps The Company as faceless as it is villainous. Indeed, the name Weyland-Yutani isn’t even spoken in ‘Alien’ and only glimpsed, very briefly, on computer monitors in two scenes.

Weyland-Yutani play a bigger role in James Cameron’s ‘Aliens’ (1986). Ripley, having put herself into cryogenic sleep in the shuttle she escaped from the Nostromo in, is picked up after drifting in space for 57 years. Weasly company man Burke (Paul Reiser) breaks the news that she’s up before a tribunal over the small matter of, y’know, blowing the Nostromo to hell. Her story is disbelieved, mainly because LV-426, the planetoid on which the alien was found in the first film, has since been inhabited by terraformers without report of such beings. It’s not long, however, before contact is lost with LV-426 (a settlement which has “a considerable dollar value” for The Company) and the Marines get sent in. Burke coerces Ripley into going along with them as an advisor.

On the one hand, Cameron’s sequel opts for a commercial safe bet by giving fans of the original a familiar setting (LV-426), the same lead character (Ripley) and plenty of visual and narrative reminders of its most iconic moments. He also embraces Hollywood’s standard operating procedure for sequels: bigger, faster, louder, more. Thus instead of the seven crewmembers of the Nostromo, we have an entire platoon of Marines, the android Bishop (Lance Henrikson), the treacherous Burke, and the lone survivor of the settlers, eleven year-old Newt (Carrie Hann).

Despite the disposable supporting characters, however, Cameron jettisons the sci-fi-meets-stalk ‘n’ slash approach of ‘Alien’, instead shooting for a sci-fi-meets-war-movie vibe. Shooting being the operative word. Whereas Ripley faces her nemesis in ‘Alien’ with just a flamethrower and her wits, ‘Aliens’ tools her up with flamethrower, fuck-off big gun, grenade-launcher and, finally, a exoskeletal powersuit in which she instigates a one-on-one smackdown with the alien queen.

Bigger, faster, louder, more. But not necessarily better. Although ‘Aliens’ is a poundingly exciting piece of work, and probably my favourite entry in the Cameron filmography after the original ‘Terminator’, it lacks the well-rounded characters of its predecessor (the Marines, with the exception of Bill Paxton’s hilarious whinger – “Game over, man, game over!” – are interchangeable and spout testosterone-ridden dialogue that becomes tiresome after about an hour in their company), as well as the slow-burn pacing. Cameron’s tendency to milk a big finale to the very last drop is already well in evidence. Ripley’s deus ex machina appearance in the powersuit is undoubtedly cool as fuck, and the line “Get away from her, you bitch” an action-movie classic, but the whole thing tips into absurdity at this point.

Still, it garnered a whole load of fans (plenty, Mrs Agitation among them, prefer it to ‘Alien’) and its bustling, noisy, gung-ho aesthetic wormed its way into the popular consciousness. Which makes the decision to stage ‘Alien 3’ on a prison planet and divest the human protagonists of the bulky militaristic hardware as daring as it was foolhardy. ‘Alien 3’ died, was buried and went to hell at the box office, almost stalling the career of its director, David Fincher, before he’d properly got started. It wasn’t until Fox re-released it as part of the ‘Alien Quadrilogy’ DVD box set, restoring nearly 30 minutes of footage, that ‘Alien 3’ could be seen in a version that was actually coherent and revealed it as a far better film than its ravaged theatrical cut would have led anyone to believe.

It’s easy to see why ‘Alien 3’ didn’t find favour at the box office. Its first hour – devoid of anything remotely resembling an action scene – plays out as if Ingmar Bergman were directing. Ripley, again drifting in space during cryogenic sleep, finds herself on Fiorina 161 when her pod jettisons following a fire on the shuttle Sulaco. She is rescued by medical officer Clemens (Charles Dance), and promptly finds herself the only woman on a planet inhabited by rapists, murderers and bull-headed guards lead by the stentorian Andrews (Brian Glover). The prisoners’ unofficial leader, Dillon (Charles S. Dutton), has turned to religion and sees it as his mission to similarly inculcate the others – by force if necessary.

Fincher’s film is a game of two halves: the first is a treatise on faith, guilt, remorse and (possible) redemption, a long hard gaze into the darker pockets of the human condition offset by barely a glimpse of an alien. The second kicks things into gear in fine style as the alien sets about sparing the taxpayers money and handing out a little capital punishment, Ripley gets a really nasty surprise, and the inmates find that the God vouchsafed to them by Dillon has his antithesis – his Adversary – in the shape of the alien.

Despite the pyrotechnics and a couple of very well-staged set-pieces, ‘Alien 3’ challenged the fans’ resilience with its static first half, its abandonment of LV-426 as a setting, and its absence (at, apparently, star and co-producer Sigourney Weaver’s insistence) of the kind of shoot-’em-up catharsis that ‘Aliens’ delivered in spades. After a couple of viewings, though (particularly of the restored version), the absence of weaponry makes for a more satisfying final battle with the creature, where Ripley and her jailbird cohorts rely solely on suicidal bravado and some rusty old industrial equipment. In fact the only problem with the denouement of ‘Alien 3’ is that it seems modelled rather too slavishly on that of ‘Terminator 2’.

So, each of the ‘Alien’ films presents a hybrid of sci-fi with an instantly recognisable genre: respectively, stalk ‘n’ slash, war movie and prison movie. Each presents The Company as a villainous entity interested only in acquiring an alien for its bioweapons division and never mind the cost to human life. (The Company’s callousness is cynically demonstrated in the final scenes of ‘Alien 3’: Fiorina 161 is shut down, and the very machinery that finally helped destroy the alien is sold for scrap metal.) Ripley is increasingly marginalised in each instalment, concluding with her potential disenfranchisement from the human race by dint of carrying an alien inside her, a motivating factor in her terminal decision – a decision which should have provided the full stop to the franchise.

There is plenty more to be written about the ‘Alien’ saga – I haven’t even touched on the Joseph Conrad references – but this was only meant to be an overview. A curtain raiser to where a very different Ripley finds herself – 200 years after the events of ‘Alien 3’ – in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s third feature film.


The Film Connoisseur said...

Nice recap of the Alien franchise, I agree of course with all of your views on these films.

I see the first three films as the first being horror, the second being action/adventure and the third being a drama. I like the fact that they are distinctive.

Ridley delivered a solid horror film, Cameron was just getting started with his overblown summer movie excesses, and Fincher delivered a stylish and decidedly serious film.

Cant wait to see what you though of Jeunet's Alien Resurrection!

Neil Fulwood said...

Thanks, Francisco. It's the stylistic and genre-based differences between the films that, for me, has kept the 'Alien' franchise fresh and exciting. It's so good, as well, to have a restored cut of Fincher's film. I remember seeing the theatrical cut back in the day and finding it borderline incoherent. The special edition DVD release restores almost half an hour of footage and it's a far more rounded, serious and character-driven film as a result.

I watched the three films over the space of a weekend, but I'm deliberately holding off 'Resurrection' for a day or two because I want to experience it in its chronological place in Jeunet's filmography.

J.D. said...

Excellent recap! I'll have to side with yer missus on this one and declare ALIENS my fave of the series. Great idea for Cameron to basically recreate the Vietnam War in outer space with the Aliens as the sneaky Viet Cong handing out a horrific smack down to the overconfident marines.

I would disagree that the marines are by and large anonymous. Vasquez, "the tough chick" gets some great lines and has a good rapport with Hudson and, of course, the always watchable Michael Biehn is quite memorable as the low-key, get-the-job-done soldier, esp. when he takes command. Also, you've got the inexperienced commanding officer who you can't wait see get knocked out and then he does. Anyways, maybe watching this film a million times has brought out the personalities of the various marines for me.

Bryce Wilson said...

Excellent reviews Neil (So I should really give "The Producers" cut of Alien 3 a chance?).

Have to disagree a bit on Aliens. I get such a charge from that movie as its one of the greatest examples of limitations being turned into strengths I've ever seen (he had six alien suits. SIX). As far as I'm concerned its one of the best edited movies ever.

Neil Fulwood said...

J.D. & Bryce - I've just re-read my comments on 'Aliens' and you're right to call me on it. I didn't make it clear that, for me, it's a perceptional thing: for some reason, I just find the incessant gung-ho business wearying after a while. But, yeah, Valequez is cool and he "No, have you?" rejoinder when she's asked if she's ever been mistaken for a man is priceless.