Are Aliens coming back to Scotland?
Ahead of the Glasgow Film Theatre's upcoming screenings of Alien and Aliens, Paul F Cockburn looks at the origins of the Alien saga and the rumours that Ridley Scott may be on his way to Scotland with Prometheus.
There have been suggestions that elements of director Ridley Scott's Prometheus (due to be released in June 2012) will be filmed in the Scottish Highlands. Sadly, at least for the good folk at VisitScotland, this isn't why parts of the internet are already wetting themselves in anticipation.
While any Ridley Scott movie is the very definition of "worth a look: he's the man who gave us Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise, Gladiator, American Gangster, etc, Prometheus is exciting the world wide web because it's a return (sort of, Scott is among those now insisting it's not a prequel) to the film that arguably cemented his cinematic career way back in 1979, Alien.
This coming Friday, as part of their Late Night Classics strand, the Glasgow Film Theatre gives us a rare opportunity to see Alien where it arguably best experienced: in a dark cinema auditorium. For, whatever the political, technological and sexual themes and meanings that have been dragged out from the film across the decades, Alien is, first and foremost, a film about a scary monster in the dark.
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Sadly, if you missed the brief cinematic lap of honour for the director's cut (Scott re-edited the film, restoring some lost scenes, for the Alien Quadrilogy DVD box set in 2003), or are below the age of 50, then you've probably only ever seen Alien on a television screen. Frankly, that's really not good enough for a film which Scott himself once described as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre of Science Fiction.
Except, that quote's actually a bit misleading. Alien is many things, but it wasn't particularly low-budget or independently produced, and it certainly isn't science fiction; oh, its sequels were (sort of), but Scott's original tale has the pulsating heart and torn soul of a haunted house tale.
It certainly borrows numerous science fictional tropes and has some pretty futuristic hardware to play with, but Alien isn't interested in showing us the personal or societal consequences of advanced technology, or how a close encounter of the third kind might change our sense of place in the universe. From start to finish, Alien is primarily concerned with scaring the sh*t out of you.
And, if you get yourself along to the GFT this Friday, you'll hopefully be able to fully appreciate why Alien is such a text-book example of how to scare audiences. Scott doesn't simply rely on gore and a scary monster leaping out of the dark every five minutes, even though, arguably, both of those feature prominently in the film. No, what distinguishes Alien from most other horror films of the period, and even its own sequels is its pace; this is a film that takes its time to build characters, atmosphere and tension.
Back in 1979, film critic Roger Ebert included Alien in his Films of the Year' for this simple reason: It waits. It allows silences (the majestic opening shots are underscored by Jerry Goldsmith with scarcely audible, far-off metallic chatterings), he wrote. It suggests the enormity of the crew's discovery by building up to it with small steps.
"The interception of a signal" is it a warning or an SOS? The descent to the extraterrestrial surface; the bitching by Brett and Parker, who are concerned only about collecting their shares. The masterstroke of the surface murk through which the crew members move, their helmet lights hardly penetrating the soup. The shadowy outline of the alien ship. The sight of the alien pilot, frozen in his command chair. The enormity of the discovery inside the ship: It's full of... leathery eggs...
This is all the more significant when you consider the film world Alien landed in; two years earlier, Star Wars had recast science fiction as box-office gold, but it had done so in a highly romanticised manner which Disney's The Black Hole and the portentous Star Trek: The Motion Picture only confirmed on their release in the same year as Alien.
While Captain Kirk's first cinematic voyage is an almost pornographic love letter to the wonders of technology and rational cooperation, Alien has a distinctly existentialist feel; as the writer Andrew O'Hehir noted back in 2006, Alien is a film about human loneliness amid the emptiness and amorality of creation. Also, unlike the super-smooth Star Trek, Alien gives us a remarkably unAmerican Ideal vision of a future where class divisions, capitalist exploitation and the subjugation of humanity by technology have been reinforced, rather than removed, by human expansion into Trek's final frontier.
Unlike some films that have only gained cult fame and critical recognition years later (such as, for example, Scott's next film, Blade Runner) Alien was a reasonable hit with both critics and audiences from the start. Yet studio politics meant that cinema audiences of the time had to wait seven years before a sequel arrived; courtesy of the GFT, you'll only have to wait a fortnight (Friday 29 April, 11pm) for a similar late-night showing of James Cameron's Aliens.
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Coincidentally also Cameron's second major feature (following on from The Terminator; Alien was Scott's second film, after The Duellists), Aliens is also a textbook example of great film-making; if nothing else, it shows that the best way to make a sequel is to not try to make a sequel.
Aliens is no dumb-ass, second-generation copy of Scott's original; it's an unashamed action-adventure that nevertheless displays more dimensional characters than Cameron's most recent 3D project, Avatar. Arguably, it also established the Aliens franchise in a way that Alien itself didn't; all the subsequent films, comic books, novels, computer games, etc, owe their allegiance to the look and feel of Cameron's militaristic SF, rather than the original haunted house in space.
And yet without Alien we wouldn't have got Aliens. Or, it would seem, Prometheus. So, get yourself down to the GFT to enjoy the original scare.