Release the Star Beast: On the First Alien Movie

I recently picked up the Alien Anthology on Blu-Ray. This represents the second time that I have gotten the full series, after 2003’s ridiculously named Alien Quadrology, but I really like the idea of Alien and, well, I had to bite. See, the first Alien movie is probably one of the defining movies to shape my writing. If I were ever to do a top ten influential movie list, Alien would be right near the top. I was pretty young when I saw it – probably inexcusably young – but it really shaped a lot of my sense of story telling. I didn’t realize until I re watched it last night, but my twin senses of excitement and dread at discovering unknown technology completely comes from the first time I saw Alien because last night, when they found the Space Jockey‘s ship, I felt the the thrill that I get when I think about this concept.

The saddest thing is that I know the movie could never be made today. The beginning is so slow; my fiancee, who had never seen the movie before, was drifting off and losing interest, but I told her to stay with it because…well, you know, the build-up is important. I think it was made for a time when a director had a captive audience. Without a captive audience, you can’t really do the sort of thing that Scott did here. I also couldn’t help but notice how quietly and peacefully the movie began. There’s a very, very slow ramping up: first they wake up and assume that everything’s Okay. Then comes the process of discovering that things aren’t quite what they seem. A sense of dread starts to build, and the feelings escalate and escalate throughout the story. I had never even noticed how quickly things go to hell ones the Alien comes out.
That languid feeling at the beginning kind of gives us a quality of descending into a nightmare. You know how sometimes you will begin with a very calm dream and then all of a sudden everything just goes to hell? Alien is pretty much exactly like that, and I fear it would be difficult to replicate even in a novel these days – trying to get started in media res would have outweigh that effect.

Then, of course, there are also the themes of violation, which is one of the deeper themes that can be explored in the horror genre. You can feel yourself dragged over the edge with the characters, and I also noticed that the violation in question is of a man – or rather, men. I never understood why Scott cut the cocoon scene in the original release of the film. The fiancee had never seen the director’s cut and when I explained to her that the scene had not been in the original release, she was somewhat floored. Given that one of the key drivers of the story is, like I said, violation of the body, the cocoon scene is just the natural outcome of that theme and downright horrific (for those who don’t know about the cocoon scene, go here to read more).

I also couldn’t help but notice how progressive the movie was for its era, playing with what was expected of gender and race roles for the era: the 2nd in command is a woman. The supervisor of the engineering group is a black man. And of course the only representative of the “Corporate class” would be the android. I mention this in the context of this site because sometimes taking conventions and turning them on their head can make a story even more engaging. In fact, I have a feeling that my introduction to Ripley at such a young age cast her wide into my archetype for the stronger female lead characters that I’ve created. There’s no question in my mind that there is a direct line of descent from Ripley down to Mattie.

The movie is also insane in its usage of symbolism. I mean obviously writing just can’t touch what is done here – you have H.R. Giger and Moebius at the top of their games doing the art design. But I like to think that, in some ways, the concept of such symbolism could still apply in the word choices that you make as the story goes on. I think word choice is really the key to symbolism in writing, and will talk about it some time in the future. But there’s a lot of artistry on display in even the simple things, like the way that the alien moves as a metaphor for other, more sinister things about life.

The hidden sub-plot is actually very good too – you know, the whole “all other considerations” secondary bit? The reality of who and what Ash is becomes obvious on second viewing, but it can catch a first time viewer off-guard, even with a plethora of subtle plot hooks to give you the clues of what is going on. Doing something like this is a good way to catch a reader’s attention and really make them feel more engaged with the story. They can actually also encourage repeated readings/viewings!

This is just the tip of the iceberg of what I think we can learn from the movie, but I’m a little short on time. It’s just highly recommend, and as I go through all four movies I will do a write-up here for more things that we can learn.

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  1. Still love the first Alien (and your fiance has never seen it?!) Interesting comments about the build-up. I haven’t seen it in awhile (not that long, though. A year or so maybe), but I hadn’t really thought about that. I think that’s what makes it great. But I agree that it would have a hard time these days. Hitchcock’s The Birds is the same way. Build and build and build. Then WHAM! A SEAGULL IS PECKING YOUR EYEBALLS OUT!

    While I know it’s a generation thing, I think it’s also part of the artists’ responsibility to bring this crafted style of storytelling back into popularity.

    Paul D. Dail A horror writer’s not necessarily horrific blog

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