Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien’ celebrates its 30th

Posted by · 11:51 am · July 13th, 2009

AlienIt seems the 30th anniversary of Ridley Scott’s “Alien” unfortunately came and went back on May 25 before I even snapped to its attention.  I’ve never been a dedicated disciple of the film but it is unquestionably a staple of science-fiction cinema, a film packed with ideas that also succeeds at terrifying audiences both psychologicall and viscerally.  It’s peculiar that Scott hasn’t approached that level of thoughtful filmmaking in the 30 years since.

Over at The Auteurs’ Notebook, Ben Simington has dedicated a healthy word count to the film, which is currently engaged in a one-week run at New York’s Film Forum to celebrate the anniversary with a new 35mm print of the 2004 director’s cut.  What I found particularly revealing, was Simington’s commitment to dissecting the film’s exemplary production design and set decoration.  “To say that Ridley Scott’s commercial breakthrough was robbed of its Oscar for Best Art Direction/Set Direction is a pathetic understatement,” he writes, “not only about the film in its own right, but also about the film within the history of moving-image arts.”

Simington proceeds to spotlight key design elements that stuck out to him in a recent Film Forum screening, everything from the usual detail-oriented ornamentation of work spaces to more abstract interpretations read into nude pin-up posters in tandem with a photo of fried eggs.  It’s fascinating stuff, but it really catches stride for me when Simington writes up artist H.R. Giger’s contribution to the film’s architecture.

Here’s how Simington puts it:

Even if Scott cared more about directing his sets than his actors (as Harrison Ford reportedly said regarding Blade Runner), he still took a ballsy risk for a Hollywood release when he took Dan O’Bannon’s recommendation to invite Swiss sadomasochistic artist H.R. Giger aboard the film’s design team. With the headlining creature’s shape and appearance still totally undefined in pre-production, Scott knew immediately upon reviewing Giger’s book Necronomicon that he would not just be hiring an artist but moreover a philosophy. The inevitable result is that philosophically, Alien belongs to Giger as much as it does to Scott. As Edvard Munch said, “I have no fear of photography as long as it cannot be used in heaven and in hell,” and the truly unmitigated authorial vision afforded a painter through his or her solitary work strikes out instantly from Giger’s dark, obsessive considerations of sexual reproduction as an ancient and arcane biological technology whose machines wear out after their purpose is served. Giger examines these facts of life with a degree of coolness that is almost inhuman and that pumps his unmistakable chill into Alien. If the man has communicated directly with Satan, I would not be surprised.

Simington also goes deep with a passionate dissection of the film’s broader philosophical gestures:

The thirty years since Alien’s release have seen the film’s own metamorphosis in a critical sense from Hollywood blockbuster to Hollywood “classic,” and ultimately, with 2004’s reassessments surrounding “the director’s cut” release, into an exemplary piece of existentialist popular art. I think Alien might actually be more antagonistic than that evaluation implies. The horror of the filmt is not just that we each exist in isolation without any prescribed destination in a universe that has no inherent meaning (with all due respect to whatever freedoms that scenario may also entail), but that there is meaning of our lives and it is to provide a stepping-stone towards a destiny we actively disapprove of yet are unavoidably complicit in by biological determinism. If the “The Alien” overcomes, the entire history of human propagation amounts to nothing more than an abundant and wide-ranging food source. The once-comforting concept of the “circle of life” becomes viewed with a bitter sense of betrayal if we discover that our private body is nothing more than one unit of fleshy turf in a larger migratory biomass that is up for grabs. The transaction will render our hitherto proudly upheld individuality an insignificant illusion…quite painfully, I might add.

I haven’t seen the film in many years, I must confess.  Like I said, I’m not one of the committed followers but maybe that’s because I haven’t taken the time to dig back into it in so long.  A 30th anniversary seems as good a time as any, so maybe I’ll give it another look.

Also worth mentioning: IFC recently chalked the “Alien” trailer up as the greatest movie trailer of all time.  That’s perhaps a bit of a stretch, but it’s still a rather inspired pick.  Those 120 seconds were clever, creative, effective and wquite representative of the film’s basic atmosphere and tone (a rare commodity with movie marketing these days).  Take a look:

The Film Forum anniversary exhibition of “Alien” ends Thursday, so to all the New Yorkers, get your tickets fast.

→ 13 Comments Tags: , , | Filed in: Daily

13 responses so far

  • 1 7-13-2009 at 12:03 pm

    Clayton said...

    “It’s peculiar that Scott hasn’t approached that level of thoughtful filmmaking in the 30 years since.”

    Heh. Cue Blade Runner fanatics. :)

  • 2 7-13-2009 at 12:17 pm

    Ripley said...

    I saw this when it was originally released as a young man, I had the Heavy Metal “Alien” comic book and remember unfortunately looking at the last pages of it so I know how the film ended (I avoid spoilers ever since). One of my favorites of all time, the Dallas vs the Alien is one of the scariest sequences ever and I’ve never heard an audience scream so loud at the payoff. Later I used to watch this when it played as a midnight movie on one of those big screen theaters (mostly gone now) in the early 80’s and it never disappointed. Thanks for the anniversary reminder even if late.

  • 3 7-13-2009 at 12:18 pm

    Sound Designer Dan said...

    This, along with the Cameron sequel, needs to be on Blu-ray right now. Fox, what the hell is going on?

  • 4 7-13-2009 at 12:34 pm

    El Rocho said...

    I thought, in regard to Scott’s ‘thoughtful filmmaking’, Black Hawk Down, Matchstick Men and Thelma & Louise were incredibly thoughtful. Black Hawk Down in particular; Scott’s best direction to date, save for Blade Runner and Alien of course.

  • 5 7-13-2009 at 12:47 pm

    Gerard Kennedy said...

    I have to concur with Kris here. “Gladiator” may be his biggest hit. “Thelma & Louise” may have more respect in many circles. “Blade Runner” may have a more devoted cult following. But for me, Scott has never topped this three decade old achievement.

  • 6 7-13-2009 at 12:56 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    I should clarify that I think Scott is indeed a thoughtful filmmaker, but he hasn’t reached that level since Alien, in my view. Black Hawk Down is a huge personal favorite (I might be inclined to agree it is Scott’s best work), but it doesn’t have the kind of deep consideration as Alien or even Blade Runner (which I have always thought failed on most levels).

  • 7 7-13-2009 at 1:43 pm

    red_wine said...

    I’m ready to acknowledge Alien as the great towering classic it is. But of all the great films I have seen, the 1 that baffles me the most is Blade Runner, it is ranked so highly, included in lists of the greatest 50 films ever made(besides works of Fellini, Bergman) and I for the life of me fail to see anything too great about it.

  • 8 7-13-2009 at 2:48 pm

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    What I admire most about Alien is how it defined a completely new genre. Scifi Horror. Combining those two hadn´t really been done this succesfully and it was really the antidote to the more cheerful Star Wars and Close Encounters. A true classic. Awesome score by Goldsmith too.

  • 9 7-13-2009 at 4:22 pm

    El Rocho said...

    I just bought an anniversary edition of Alien, and my goodness it stands the test of time. The film, like no other I’ve seen, created isolation and desolation so effectively. Scott is a true visionary, yet to be matched (though I think Spielberg, and now Guillermo Del Toro, are the only ones to breach his modern heights of vision). And in regards to Blade Runner, I understand completely when people say they don’t get it. It took me a while to cozy up to it myself. The first viewing I was too young. Later, I couldn’t finish it. Bored the hell out of me. Then I watched it at a friends place, and was too polite to tell him to turn it off, but I watched the entire thing, and it was like a daze; it blew me away. It was a journey through emotional macabre labyrinths and visual brilliance. I couldn’t really tell you why I thought it was so good (and is now a staple for me), I’ve got so many ideas. But what I do know, is that it hypnotizes me on every viewing.

  • 10 7-13-2009 at 4:31 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    I’m a “Thelma & Louise” man myself. But “Alien” deserves every bit of credit it gets — the genre mashup it presents was madly ahead of its time.

  • 11 7-13-2009 at 5:27 pm

    Mike said...

    It is impossible for me to express how much I love Alien. The direction – slow building of atmosphere in the first 40 min. and then the explosion of fear and adrenaline, the art direction, effects, the Alien itself of course, the music, the Chestburster scene, the Freudian sexual undertones, and the cast and the acting. Ian Holm in one of my favorite male supporting performances ever. Just look at him in some early scenes, his insisting, simple eye looks and that sprint in place are much more suggestive if you know who he really is.
    The entire cast is great. Very naturalistic in their acting. Especially in those dinner scenes. It almost feel like they were directed by Altman.
    I am quite sure it, and it’s sequel, are the prime reasons I became such a movie (and Sigourney) fanatic.

  • 12 7-13-2009 at 7:28 pm

    Speaking English said...

    Just a fantastic film, and I think “Aliens” is even better.

  • 13 7-13-2009 at 7:29 pm

    Matthew said...

    I just rewatched this two days ago, and it’s friggin’ unbelievable. It’s a beautiful piece of filmmaking.