Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Alien Invasion: What You Might Want to Know Before You See Prometheus

This Friday marks the release of Ridley Scott's much-talked about addition to the Alien franchise, Prometheus, and if you've seen any of the trailers (like this one), you know that's exciting news even if you know nothing about the franchise.  But if you feel out of the loop, never fear: I'll be getting ready for the release by reviewing each of the first four Alien movies, leading up to my review of Prometheus.  That starts now, with the original Alien.  Worth watching?  Let's put it this way: if the best thing about Prometheus turns out to be that it made you go watch (or re-watch) Alien, you're still coming out ahead in that deal.

Alien's plot is essentially the same as its title.  The Nostromo is a cargo ship heading back toward Earth with its crew: Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), Ash (Ian Holm), Parker (Yaphet Kotto), Kane (John Hurt), Dallas (Tom Skerritt), Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton).  It picks up a signal from an unknown but definitely alien source, and is mandated by law to investigate.  It does, and...

Here's the thing: Alien isn't really a movie that lives and dies by its plot.  Yes, the events of that plot are the movie's one and only driving force, but that isn't what makes this movie interesting.  (Battleship also features alien-versus-human violence.  It's hardly a panacea.)  Scott - with huge help from Jerry Goldsmith, who wrote the score - creates an atmosphere of panic and doubt, imbues emptiness and silence with suspicion, and, shockingly, manages to surprise.  Alien is 33 years old, and it's still more surprising, more suspenseful, and more imaginative than so many movies since then that have had far bigger budgets (Alien cost $33 million in 2010 dollars; by the same metric, Transformers cost $158 million) and access to far more impressive special effects.  The plot doesn't make this movie entrancing.  The all-but-forgotten emphasis on style and aesthetics make the plot entrancing.
This is actually the final battle
I mention Goldsmith; let me return to him now.  Most modern "scary" movies are easy enough to predict.  You listen for the creepy music - the children singing in a minor key, the violins, whatever - and you count the seconds until someone gets killed, or the monster appears, or they're actually the same person.  You'll be right at least 90% of the time.  Goldsmith gets it, and doesn't cling too tightly to the plot with his music choices.  Instead, the score hovers in the background, warning and brooding, but without the usual array of color-by-numbers musical signals, we're left to try and track the film's titular monster as uncertainly as do its characters.

The acting is tight and understated.  This was Weaver's breakout role, and she does a fine job.  Kotto is also particularly charismatic.  This isn't a film for over-the-top performances, or over-the-top anything.  Anyone can keep an audience's attention by slamming explosions into one another for two hours (as sad as that is).  Alien finds tension in what you don't see and what isn't happening, and it will keep you in limbo for its entire running time.

It's not a perfect movie.  It's about fifteen minutes too long; oddly, it's not that it spaces out what it has too widely.  It's paced wonderfully.  It's just that it seems to disobey its own tightly wound narrative arc and ends up fizzling its way across the finish line instead of burning.  It's about 1:40 of perfect movie, though, and it will leave no doubt in your mind as to why it's considered such a seminal work in its genre.

Highlights: It's a balm for anyone who's sick of most movies' assault on the senses; the effects and alien designs; seeing John Hurt and Ian Holm (you might know him better as Bilbo Baggins) as much younger men
Lowlights: Hardly any, other than the confused denouement

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