Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Alien Vs. Aliens: Making the Impossible Choice

I had the pleasure of attending an Alien-themed convention recently in the UK, and between hotly debating the potential plot of Prometheus and the finer biology of a facehugger, I got talking to fans. They were all very kind about Alien Vault — although given some had only just bought it; they were either expert speed-readers or being very polite. But out of their many entreaties (“What did I think the plot of Prometheus might be?”, “How many times have I met Sir Ridley Scott?”, “Is Sigourney Weaver really tall?”, “Had I seen Prometheus yet?” etc.), it appeared what they most wanted to know was whether I thought Alien was better than Aliens.

Let’s get something straight, both are fantastic movies. Greats. I remember seeing Aliens in the cinema in 1986 as if it were yesterday. James Cameron, putting the emphasis on action-thriller, made what is still one of the most exciting movies ever put on celluloid. I swear from the moment Ripley drives the APC into the nest to rescue who remains of the marines until the closing credits I forget to breathe. Inevitably, I went again a week later and hilariously at the point Paul Reiser’s Company stooge Burke closes the door on Ripley and Newt, a young man — utterly caught in the moment — shouted out his opinion of the character in language that doesn’t bear repeating here. It broke the tension, but only momentarily. We all knew exactly what he meant. Aliens remains one of the best experiences I have ever had in a cinema, but if forced to pluck one from the metaphorical burning building, I would still choose Alien.

To be fair, it did have the advantage of coming first. As told in Alien Vault, the film originated from many sources: Dan O’Bannon and Ron Shusett came up with the B-movie concept of this spacecraft failing to fight off a strange stowaway; David Giler and Walter Hill then knocked out the B-movie stuffing by adding realism to the characters, and propulsion to the plot; meanwhile Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger provided a visual texture that appeared to meld technology and biology in some oddly sexual way. It was science fiction by way of Freud. And then there was Ridley Scott, who took all of these disparate elements and fused them into something much more than the sum of its parts. He created a new blueprint for film.

If I was to give one reason why Alien is my film, it is because I can’t escape it. From the first time I saw it (on videotape, having played hooky from school) it got inside me and has never budged. You might say I have never recovered. Those mesmerizing first forty-five minutes when nothing seems to be happening, just this impending sense of doom — of something horrible, really horrible, lying in wait. That startling landing on a storm-swept planetoid. Where had this derelict spacecraft come from? What was that strange ossified creature long dead, and strangely sad? Where had he come from? Then the egg, the facehugger, bringing the damn thing back onboard attached to Kane’s face. Ripley knowing they shouldn’t break quarantine.

The chestbursting is cinema history. I can’t imagine what it was like not to know it was coming, the sheer shock. But there is so much more that haunts me: Ash’s increasingly bizarre behaviour, the picking off the crew one-by-one, Dallas clean vanishing from the air-ducts — why did he go in? Why? There seemed no chance any of them would escape. Scott removed that comfort, the ‘it’s okay, it’s just a movie’ feeling. His world, however far in the future it is set, felt like my world. Alien mixes the thrills of Aliens with something deeper, darker, stranger: in amongst Scott’s sublime atmosphere (he would waft the dry ice to his ideal consistency) a momentous theme seemed to be at work. It’s ambiguous, but I always felt this was the first contact with alien life…and they didn’t come in peace.  

-Ian Nathan