10 May 2017

Alien: Shaping A Genre

During the 1970s, both the sci-fi and horror genres were in a time of revisionism. Following the Golden Age of the '40s and '50s; where stories were characterised by spiritualism, the sense of wonder, and celebrating scientific achievement, the '60s and '70s followed suit with a transitional period for the more arcane genres. Coined by critics as the "New Wave", this movement saw the genres become estranged from the usual techniques. Writers and filmmakers chose to focus more on surrealistic experimentation and stylistic expression. Everything became a little avant-garde.

Stanley Kubrick was one such director to embrace the New Wave. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and A Clockwork Orange (1971) focused on audial and ocular form - a feature of music and the visual arts but hadn't necessarily made its way to film at that point. The theme of dystopia became popular with films such as Planet of the Apes (1968) and THX 1138 (1975) gaining widespread popularity. It seemed that the genre was in a place that allowed writers to express themselves both creatively and critically, but one theme of science-fiction that had never been reevaluated by the late 1970s was the idea of extraterrestrial contact.

Traditionally, extraterrestrials as portrayed in science-fiction were knowledgeable, wise creatures. They were more advanced than humanity, and first contact would often lead to disaster. The 1950s saw a huge surge of these kinds of films, with The War of the Worlds (1953), It Came from Outer Space (1953) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) featuring alien races that were either deadly, intelligent or both. The omnipresent monoliths in 2001: A Space Odyssey were highly advanced pieces of machinery designed by an unseen alien species, which brings about a quasi-cosmic Lovecraftian twist which allowed Kubrick to explore themes of evolution, technology and existentialism in the film. Almost a decade later came George Lucas' Star Wars (1977), which brought diversity to aliens. Some species were smart, others weren't. In Star Wars, aliens are as varied as humans. This was a step in the right direction, but the chapter wasn't yet complete.

Two years later, Ridley Scott released Alien.
Set onboard the Nostromo commercial spacecraft, the seven-member crew are awoken from stasis due to a mysterious transmission from a nearby planetoid. After investigating the signal, one of the crewmates becomes seriously injured and the rest fall prey to a vicious monster lurking from within the ship. The film first terrified audiences almost forty years ago with such iconic scenes as a small alien creature bursting out of John Hurt's chest, or Sigourney Weaver fighting for her life onboard the escape shuttle, and has continued to enact that legacy to the present day. But if you take out the science-fiction elements, the plot bears similarities to John Carpenter's Halloween from the year before. A small group of characters make a mistake and are consequently killed one-by-one by a violent stalker until the inevitable showdown between it and the final girl. In a sense, Alien could be a slasher film set in the space.

While drawing comparisons to other final girls such as Laurie Strode or Nancy Thompson, the character Ellen Ripley is a subversion of this trope before it even became one. In her book Science Fiction Cinema, critic Christine Cornea argues Ripley does not follow the slasher genre's conventions. Unlike the characters of Halloween or A Nightmare on Elm Street, Ripley is sexless. There is no foregrounding of sexual virtue or abstinence, and the killer does not choose its victims based on these facts. With the lack of a sexual theme in the first place, Cornea says that Alien cannot inhabit the slasher genre.

Doubling in on what makes Alien so amazing is the intricate set design of the Nostromo. The spacecraft is labyrinthine, enclosed; it is designed with lots of hard colours. There are whites, greys and blacks. It's supposed to be a safe haven for the crew, yet its confined space gives the feeling of claustrophobia. The use of transistors and old computer screens gives it an industrial-like quality. Art director Roger Christian received an Oscar nomination, his second after Star Wars, for his work on this film and it certainly shows.
Meanwhile, Swiss surrealist painter H.R. Giger worked on the alien aspects of the film, which he designed to be organic and biological. It directly contrasts with the more mechanical look of the Nostromo set. Veronica Cartwright, who played Lambert in the film, describes the planet as like "big vaginas [...] like you're going inside some sort of womb." It makes the set feel more uncanny than the actual ship, as if we are more familiar on the planet but the strange environment displaces us, and thus a reversal of tension is achieved. The typical sci-fi conventions dictate that an alien planet should be scary and antagonistic, but Giger's design somehow makes us feel more displaced. We believe this could be a possible version of Earth.

As established earlier, alien creatures of sci-fi were commonly portrayed as intelligent species. The grey monoliths of 2001: A Space Odyssey held mysterious horrors, the monsters of War of the Worlds were advanced, destructive beings. It was virtually unseen to have an alien species designed to be more primitive than humans. Giger and Scott instead designed the Xenomorph in Alien to be inhuman, slimy, and grotesque. It's not a tool-maker, it behaves on instinct. A hideous predator. That's also not mentioning how dangerous it looked. Aside from razor-sharp claws and hundreds of piercing teeth (including a smaller set of jaws that extends from its mouth), the Xenomorph has a blade-tipped tail, similar to a scorpion. At the point in the film we first meet the alien, we are already aware of its deadly capabilities due to the infamous chest-bursting scene. We are already scared for the crew of the Nostromo even before the main terror has begun. In modern sci-fi horrors, this kind of alien species is commonplace, but in 1979 it was revolutionary. It changed how we portrayed extraterrestrials in fiction for the better.

After Alien, the xenomorph became one of the most recognisable movie monsters in the history of cinema. Monsters that followed a similar design process showed up in films like Predator, The Thing and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The film's legacy went on to spawn a huge following and brought us several more adventures on the big screen, a crossover series with Predator, and many videogames, comics and novels. Sigourney Weaver went on to become a household name, particularly within sci-fi and horror communities. Numerous lines and phrases from the series have become legendary (Game over man, gaaame over!), and it forever changed the face of science fiction and horror.

Alien and the rest of the New Wave mark a turning point in the way we digested fiction. It's possible that no other time period could have come as close to affecting a genre as much as the '60s and '70s had. George Romero's Living Dead series and John Carpenter's Halloween were also a staple of this postmodern state of change, as old ideas became new, and unfamiliar stories began to emerge. Ridley Scott and the rest of the crew deserve to be commended for their massive contribution to culture as a whole, and I am absolutely looking forward to seeing Alien: Covenant.

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