Creature Features in Review: The Thing (1982)
Thirty-five years. On June 25th, we will be celebrating thirty-five years since the release of John Carpenter’s The Thing. The review you are about to read, written by the incredibly talented William D. Prystauk, aka Billy Crash, not only the second half of the infamously awesome The Last Knock podcast, but also a teacher, director, screenwriter, and loving husband and friend, has carefully crafted what I believe to be the definitive review of The Thing. I’m glad Bill decided to take on this “creature feature.” For those who know me will be quick to understand, The Thing is by far my most favorite movie. Not just my favorite horror movie, but my favorite overall film in its entirety. From score to cast to dialogue and landscape to practical effects and most of all its unabashed fearlessness towards nihilism. Disney has spoiled generations of audiences by spoon feeding them a resolution to the conflict and the always dominant hero. But in The Thing, we are denied those expectations, wonderfully so. Not everything has to have a resolution. Not every story must end with the hero defeating the monster. Ambiguity exists in nature and thus should representation on screen, at least sometimes, right?
by William D. Prystauk
When I first saw The Thing on the big screen, I was overwhelmed by the oppressive nature of John Carpenter’s film as well as its mystery, music, cinematography, and remarkable special effects from Rob Bottin and company, as well as the gripping writing from Bad News Bears scribe, Bill Lancaster. Unfortunately, 1982 was a banner year for strong movies so The Thing didn’t make the final cut when it came to earnings, and Carpenter is supposedly still bitter about his film’s poor performance in theaters. Today, however, the film’s considered a masterpiece by many horror cinephiles, and rightfully so.
This is not a Remake
Carpenter’s version is not a remake of 1951’s The Thing from Another World with James Arness playing the alien version of Frankenstein’s monster. In this case, the movie deviates from the original tale, “Who Goes There?” a short story spun by John W. Campbell Jr., and leaves fighting the creature to the military still deservedly basking in the glow of a post-World War II world right before the horrors of The Korean War. In the story, scientists resolve the alien issue, though Lancaster’s script calls for scientists and military veterans to try and figure a way out.
Carpenter stayed closer to Campbell’s tale with its shape-shifting monster and the paranoia it caused. The director chose to have a much smaller staff at National Science Institute Station 4 instead of a larger component of men, but he kept most of the major characters’ names. As for Campbell’s tale, it’s actually a bad read due to repetition (he must have referred to MacReady as being “bronze” a hundred times) and from a sad overuse of “to be” verbs. For his part, Carpenter and Lancaster made Campbell’s story shine like gold.
Who the Hell Are These Guys?
For a science station, the men who work there don’t really fit the bill. Sure, Billings (Peter Maloney) is a meteorologist, Norris (Charles Hallahan) has a broader mind beyond his geology degree, Windows (Thomas Waites) serves as the radioman, lumberjack looking Clark (Richard Masur) handles the dogsled team, Nauls (TK Carter) feeds the crew, and Dr. Copper (Richard Dysart) does his best to keep everyone healthy. The man who keeps the team in line is Garry (Donald Moffat), who for some reason has a six-gun strapped to his side with a gun belt to match and serves no other purpose than a security guard. Childs (Keith David) is one hell of a mechanic, who can obviously juggle boilers, tractors, and helicopters with ease. The pilots of the choppers are Vietnam vets Palmer (David Clennon), a stoner who one wouldn’t trust to fly a remote control whirlybird, and MacReady (Kurt Russel). Both men suffer from PTSD in their own way, and while Palmer socializes and engages in marijuana, MacReady isolates himself and indulges in scotch. The final part of the troupe is Blair (Wilford Brimley) and his understudy assistant, Fuchs (Joel Polis). At one point, Doc Copper orders Blair “… to start an autopsy right away.” In Campbell’s story, Blair’s a biologist, which makes sense for the movie version, but why would he be a master of autopsy? Since the dogs have no veterinarian, he may also play that role and could have performed necropsies on animals in the past.
When witnessing the game room scene, it’s clear the men are often “standoffish.” Nauls, who a second ago was resting in his cot and watching TV with Palmer, plays pool with Clark. Windows fumbles with the newspaper from the couch, while Norris, Bennings, and Garry play poker. There’s no banter, no noise, and clearly no fun. It’s as if all these guys did something heinous and were sent to Antarctica to cool down for the “first goddamn week of winter.” Yet, they not only have handguns and shotguns at the ready, and at least one German rifle from a Norwegian, but they also have three flame throwers and dynamite. Doesn’t sound like a science station. Could it serve as some Cold War outpost? If so, this expansive complex can certainly support more men, and one wonders if abandonment of the facility looms on the horizon thanks to budget cuts.
The Thing Itself
The boogeyman in The Thing differs from the average creature feature antagonist. Each monster has a weakness, or so it seems, and once the human hero figures that out, the monster will be destroyed. In this case, the alien can replicate someone’s cells, absorb their language and mannerisms, and apparently the knowledge they have stored in their brains. Worst of all, it can seemingly infect anyone at any time (more about that later).
Our intrepid crew doesn’t know which part of space the creature came from, but thanks to Norris, we know it’s ship crashed down onto the continent about 100,000 years ago. Beyond the being’s extensive hibernation, the ship proves to be a massive one, unlike the smaller craft in the 1951 film. What we don’t know is if this was a ship built by the Thing and his or her people, or if the creature got onboard and overwhelmed the entire crew with its cellular replication. Later in the narrative, we learn that the creature tries to recreate his craft on a smaller scale with the same look as the original. Since the Thing can absorb knowledge, and since we don’t know its age or where it’s been, this may be the optimal ship design it had discovered from its journeys across the cosmos.
Oddly enough, the creature ends up away from the ship on higher ground. This can certainly happen because the topography changed due to plate tectonics and maybe volcanism, but what did the Norwegian team actually dig up? If the creature crashed in Antarctica and went into hibernation after a short walk, it certainly didn’t overtake a human at the time. Too bad the Norwegians hadn’t filmed what this Thing actually looked like. But they did videotape the outline of the ship, and they unearthed the craft thanks to thermite charges. In the movie, one may think they blew up a massive hole the size of Rhode Island, but that would have displaced tons upon tons of ice and rock – and would have certainly registered on Norris’ seismograph at the station (there has to be one). The point is that MacReady and company, for some reason, land on a ridge above the ship and rappel down.
And once the creature thawed, it went to work on absorbing the Norwegians and its dogs.
The greatest element to the short story and both films is the element of “The Other.” As we discover in many science fiction and horror movies, the other is a xenomorph (“a strange form” by definition or an “alien” or “monster”) that either must be assimilated or destroyed. What is fantastic about this tale is both creature and human are “The Other.” Humans don’t belong in Antarctica and neither does that Thing. Since the “human others” can’t determine what the monster is, it can’t be assimilated and must be killed. The “alien other” wants to assimilate the humans, yet destroys them in the process.
To see something like this in cinema is rare, though one finds such a human-xenomorph “other” combination in Ridley Scott’s Alien. The human component doesn’t thrive naturally in space, and though the alien creature comes off as the bad monster, the humans did bring this entity upon themselves in a “curiosity killed the cat” theme, though Jonesy lives to hiss another day. Unlike The Thing where destroy versus assimilate comes into play, Alien is all about kill or be killed.
Windows couldn’t connect with McMurdo (where he refers to the outpost as number 31 just like MacReady, instead of 4). The men of the station are in conflict about who should lead and who shouldn’t be trusted. But there is absolutely no communication between human and Thing.
This horror turns into a cat-and-mouse game between human and alien. Yet, if the creature just wants to survive and escape in a ship, why didn’t it simply ask for help? When MacReady addressed the members of the camp and realized they all weren’t infected because they would have jumped him, why didn’t he ask what the creature wanted? After all, it’s a stranger in a strange land, and “probably not in the best of moods” after portraying a xenomorphic popsicle for too many centuries.
Without any women on the station, one may think the crew was being macho or stubborn, but the reason runs deeper than an emotional state and posturing, though both of those elements certainly exist in the narrative. Like the alien, the humans are also predators, and that’s why communication between them never took shape. It’s a fight to the end, pure and simple. Think of it as any competition where one squares off against an opponent – to the death.
Even so, a little communication could have gone a long way, but that would have made for a different kind of film, and one that wouldn’t be worthy of review for this category. By the way, ET phoned home in 1982 on June 11, and Carpenter’s film came out two weeks later as Spielberg’s friendly alien continued to captivate little kids and their parents nationwide.
This has been a point of contention for many The Thing fans: Who got infected when, how, and even why? A meme showed Blair tapping a pencil against his lips after the autopsy. Hmm… However, the answer is far simpler: They were all at risk of infection the moment they unwrapped the creature with two faces, akin to the theater masks of comedy and drama, looking outward with one connected tongue. Doc Copper in all his medical expertise asked, “Is that a man in there?” when he and MacReady dug up the monster and brought it home to infect everyone else. Clearly, no quarantine protocol was in effect.
When they unwrapped the frozen creature, with the heat of the room, water evaporated from the body and Blair backed off from the stench. After all, the Thing began to defrost once inside the warmer helicopter. Now, as MacReady proved later with another item from the book, that each cell was a creature on its own, who knows what flew into the air and made its way through the mouths and nostrils and into the lungs of the crew. Yes, some became infected (though we really don’t know when), and others did not (though we really don’t know why), but airborne infection seems to be just as likely as bloodborne in this case.
Due to each component of the Thing being its own individual entity, this creature may be its own entire civilization. In 2015, Robin Corey, a biochemist, wrote that there are 37.2 trillion cells in the human body, not including bacteria. This means that once the Thing takes over a human host, that can make for one hell of a population. Blair had calculated that we’d all be infected in 27,000 hours, which is a little over three years, but there’s an excellent chance that infection, or assimilation, would happen much faster.
There are many more mysteries packed within Carpenter’s amazing horror, but that’s for another time. The important thing is to watch the film and become a prisoner like the others, trapped “a thousand miles from nowhere” without a radio, and a heavy storm that prevents anyone from escaping even on foot. This is what the horror genre is meant to be: isolated and frightening with a sense that there’s no way out.
Carpenter tips his hand that there’s little hope for our characters right from the beginning. The opening shot after the credits is that of a sheer rock face. The camera lingers there as if to say it’s too foreboding and not scalable. We see the Norwegian helicopter flying over the rock as it heads towards its own doom, but it’s clear that our “science” crew won’t make it out of the station alive.
In the film, we’re left with a couple of characters waiting for what might possibly come next. We don’t know if one is infected or if either one of them is. We do know, however, that they’re both not infected because an alien greeting most definitely would have been different. And in the brownish light of a fiery night, the camera pulls back from the pair and we fade to black. In the television version, after the camera pulled back, we see a dog leaving the station, bookending the film in excellent fashion. Maybe it doesn’t really matter who was infected since all is lost.
Thankfully, The Thing survived its poor and undeserved theatrical showing and keeps bringing the scares and incredible in-camera effects to new generations of horror fans. Whether you’ve seen the film once or a thousand times, keep your eyes peeled for the multitude of little mysteries that neither the characters nor the audience can answer (Who got to the blood anyway?). Revel in ambiguous horror that delivers on every level, including bottom end gloom from the renowned Ennio Morricone’s doom-ridden composition, and the excellent cinematography from one of the best, Dean Cundey. Carpenter created something for the ages, and for fans – human or otherwise.
William D. Prystauk (aka Billy Crash) cohosts THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast on iTunes and at http://crashpalaceproductions.com. He’s in pre-production of a dramatic science fiction feature film he’ll shoot in Seattle with his company, Crash Palace Productions. When he’s not listening to punk rock and leaving no sushi behind, he indulges in the food group better known as chocolate. Follow him on Twitter as @crashpalace, and look for him under his real name at LinkedIn, IMDb, Amazon, Behance, and at http://williamdprystauk.com.
Keep up with Billy Crash’s many exploits by following his site!
February 23, 2017 | Categories: Horror, Movies, Reviews | Tags: 1951, 1982, atmospheric, Bill Lancaster, Charles Hallahan, Creature Feature, creature features, Creature Features in Review, dark, dark fiction, David Clennon, Donald Moffat, film, Guest author, Horror, horror movies, horror reviews, Joel Polis, John Carpenter, Keith David, Kurt Russell, monster movies, monsters, movie review, movie reviews, nihilism, nihilistic, paranoia, Peter Maloney, Richard Dysart, Richard Masur, T. K. Carter, The Last Knock, The Thing, The Thing From Another World, Thomas G. Waites, thriller, Wilford Brimley, William D. Prystauk | 4 Comments
Do not adjust your transmission: The Last Knock
According to the website, “Join Billy Crash and Jonny Numb as they discuss their take on horror films. Intelligent thoughts on the making of movies, dissemination of plot twists, and provoking debate on the good, the bad, and the truly horrific.” And according to listeners such as myself, few podcasts go in-depth as The Last Knock does while not descending into the drone of becoming tedious. And not only that, but the show runs just about every week, new episodes releasing typically during the weekend. They do themes and sometimes straight up movie reviews, from Silent Era flicks and German Expressionism to the latest, such as It Follows and Neon Demon. Basically, if you’re a fan of horror and horror movies, you need to check out The Last Knock.
One-half of The Last Knock:
William D. Prystuak, who is no stranger to Machine Mean. Will has reviewed for us Dracula’s Daughter (1936) during our Universal Monsters in Review series. Professor Prystuak is also an award-winning screenwriter, film producer, and teacher in higher education, as well as a published poet, and essayist. His crime thriller, BLOODLETTING, has been adapted from his script of the same name, and he is currently working on a horror series. William also co-hosts THE LAST KNOCK podcast as Billy Crash with his good buddy, Jonny Numb, and currently, has thousands of listeners in 120 countries. You can find more about horror and William on his Crash Palace Productions site. As an Assistant Professor of English at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania, William teaches business writing and public relations. You can find more about William at any of these fantastic sites: Amazon: http://amzn.to/1Fu9PHS Barnes and Noble: http://bit.ly/1GhclaJ Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/23365977-bloodletting BLOODLETTING Book Trailer One: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TVNji_G-tSI BLOODLETTING Book Trailer Two: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=glK9DiVIHT8 IMDB: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm5464477/?ref_=fn_al_nm_1 Linked In: https://www.linkedin.com/pub/william-d-prystauk/10/9a1/a55 Horror Podcast: THE LAST KNOCK on iTunes Twitter: @crashpalace. You can read Professor Prystuak’s review of Drac’s Daughter here.
Second-half of The Last Knock:
Jon Weidler, who also is no stranger to Machine Mean. He has reviewed for us Abbott and Costello Meet The Mummy (1955) AND Clean, Shaven for our Fright Fest month back in October. Mr. Weidler works for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania by day but is a podcast superhero by night. He co-hosts THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast under the moniker “Jonny Numb,” and is a regular contributor to the Crash Palace Productions and Loud Green Bird websites. His archived movie reviews can be found at numbviews.livejournal.com, and his social media handle is @JonnyNumb (Twitter & Letterboxd). You can read his review of A&C Meet Mummy here.
December 19, 2016 | Categories: Horror, Movies, Reviews | Tags: bloggers, blogging, dark fiction, fiction, film review, genre, Horror, horror podcasts, horror shows, indie, Jon Weidler, modern film, movie reviews, Movies, podcast, podcasting, podcasts, radio, Reviews, shows, The Last Knock, The Silent Era, voice, William D. Prystauk, writing | 1 Comment
Fright Fest: Clean, Shaven (1993)
The trailer for Clean, Shaven is brilliant – clocking in at a little over a minute, only a fleeting few seconds are devoted to footage from the film (choosing an extremely powerful moment near the end). It’s built up to with a string of critical accolades (red font against a black background), while an unsettling score drones. It bears noting that the critics’ blurbs state nothing about the plot. In an era where movies are regularly spoiled by their trailers – this summer’s Don’t Breathe being a recent example – the curiosity sparked by Clean, Shaven’s is not only a testament to its craftiness but the ambiguous mystery lurking at the film’s core. It alludes to a cinematic experience that will force the viewer to consider things from a different perspective.
But to discuss the mystery would lead into spoiler territory. (I realize I sort of shot myself in the foot with this one.)
When Thomas put out the call for reviews for his October Fright Fest, a couple titles crossed my mind, but Clean, Shaven sprung to the forefront. It’s a film that uses subjectivity not only as a character perspective, but as one of its core themes, as it chronicles an institutionalized schizophrenic’s release into the outside world, and the search for his estranged daughter juxtaposed against a detective’s pursuit of a child killer.
It’s also a film that – despite its glowing critical appraisal and inclusion in the Criterion Collection – I feel many are unaware of.
Writer-director Lodge Kerrigan approaches the story as subjectivity shaping structure, instead of relying on a three-act thriller formula. Clean, Shaven doesn’t engender “excitement” in the traditional escapist sense – the intersections of characters and events are almost dream-like in their logic (or lack thereof), and the film creates a mood that feels paradoxically detached from reality, while simultaneously feeling “real” in a manner that many films do not.
Peter Winter (Peter Greene – Training Day) is first seen huddled in the corner of a concrete cell with a high ceiling, arms pressed against his head as the invasive, overwhelming crackle of power lines sizzle and pop nearby; when he is released from the institution (with no narrative explanation given), he is plagued by overtly hostile voices on the radio; the glares of passerby; and the persecuting eyes of reflective surfaces (which he covers in newspaper). He scrubs himself clean with steel wool, and the act of everyday grooming – shaving and cutting hair – is rendered unsettling due to the severity of Winter’s condition.
And perhaps that’s where the fear and horror of Clean, Shaven comes into play.
In hewing as closely as possible to Peter’s perception, the machinations of the plot are left to speculation, and part of the dread comes from not knowing the outcome. This creates an atmosphere of uncertainty that stems from a very true-to-life place. That we have no choice but to engage with the character is an invitation to discomfort, but also revealing of glimmers of truth that most filmmakers try to obfuscate with sentimentality or uplifting music. Hollywood often focuses on the rehabilitation or martyrdom aspect of iconic figures with mental illness, and the fact that Peter is an Everyman following his own internal compass makes him deliberately difficult to connect with.
Locations that could be considered bland – a library; a cheap motel room; a blue-collar bar – are transformed into places of potential danger; seemingly innocuous pictures in books become the stuff of nightmares; and a child’s swingset draws up queasy connotations to backyard abductions (which also ties into a recurring motif of missing children on milk cartons). The editing is sometimes abrupt, but – as with everything else in Clean, Shaven – serves a function that is synchronous to Peter’s state of being. For example, a seemingly out-of-nowhere sequence has him speeding down a dirt road, police sirens trailing behind; a face full of dread as he looks out the rear windshield, all the viewer sees is a thick cloud of dust. Is the police siren a mere invention of his troubled mind, amplifying feelings of unarticulated guilt?
In a Noir context, an antihero’s first-person perspective can possess traits of both heroism and villainy, depending on the circumstances. With the introduction of detective Jack McNally (Robert Albert), Kerrigan creates a puzzling wrinkle in the plot; while determined, confident, and skilled in his work, McNally is also not beneath sleeping with the adoptive mother to Peter’s daughter, Nicole (Jennifer MacDonald). The question of whether this is malicious, sleazy, or containing ulterior motives is left as ambivalent as everything else in Clean, Shaven – as viewers, we are unable to “judge” based on the backgrounds and perspectives of the characters. That the individuals populating this world are so impenetrable speaks to the skill of Kerrigan’s script and direction.
Greene deserves high praise for his immersive performance. An underrated character actor best known for playing heavies in a string of well-loved ‘90s films (Pulp Fiction; The Usual Suspects; The Mask), it’s a testament to his ability that he is able to imbue Peter with such a sense of authenticity. For those who only know him as the shady, scene-stealing criminal, his acting here mines for depth in a brilliantly intuitive way.
Clean, Shaven approaches a level of intensity that makes for an appropriately unsettling, sometimes horrifying experience. It doesn’t keep the viewer at arm’s-length; nor does it use a John Williams orchestral score to “lead” the viewer into a particular way of feeling. Kerrigan doesn’t politely invite us to visit the mind of a schizophrenic; he aggressively foists it upon us from the very start, in as much as film can capture such an internalized state of being.
8 out of 10 stars
No stranger to Machine Mean, Jon Weidler (aka Jonny Numb) works for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania by day and co-hosts THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast by night. His reviews can also be found at Crash Palace Productions (crashpalaceproductions.com) and Loud Green Bird (loudgreenbird.com). Seek him on social media @JonnyNumb (Twitter & Letterboxd), if you dare. You can check out his previous review on Abbott and Costello Meet The Mummy (1955) here.
And as always, if you enjoyed what you’ve read here on Machine Mean, please subscribe to our mailing list by clicking on the FREE BOOK image below where you will not only receive updates on articles and new book releases, but also a free anthology of dark fiction.
October 20, 2016 | Categories: Horror, Reviews | Tags: 1993, Clean Shaven, Crash Palace Productions, Criterion Collection, dark, eerie, film, Fright Fest, fright fest 2016, Guest author, Halloween, Halloween Movie Marathon, Horror, indie, Jennifer MacDonald, Jon Weidler, low budget, movie reviews, Peter Greene, Reviews, Robert Albert, The Last Knock, thriller, thriller reviews | Leave a comment
Creature Features in Review: Alien (1979)
By now we must have realized, this subgenre, this oddly obscure realm we call “creature features,” that blends science fiction and horror together, is fantastically intelligent as it is perspicacious, understanding the needs of the times, the questions that demand to be (not necessarily answered) dragged out into the light. Questions of ecology, science, naturalism, humanism, and even biology, questions of our own innate taxonomy. Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going? Which ultimately brings us to the chef d’œuvre question of all humanistic endeavor, what else is out there? Today’s movie up for review on Creature Features in Review is one of those rare gems that combined thrilling storytelling and special effects and atmosphere to have the most impact in raising those eerily human questions. While the sequel, Aliens, may have been the bigger blockbuster, some of the thrills had been lost, the question had already been answered. In Aliens, we knew what was out there. In Alien, storyteller Dan O’Bannon, and director Ridley Scott, not only forced us to question our place in the cosmos but also in the cosmos of our own flesh.
Alien: You’ll Get Whatever’s Coming to You…
by William D. Prystauk
In 1979, after much print-based-hype, especially if one was a fan of science fiction and read “Starlog” on a regular basis, Ridley Scott’s ALIEN hit screens that summer. It wasn’t hard for sci-fi and horror geeks to get worked up because many publications ran some of H. R. Giger’s conceptual art, which rocked many readers. Other conceptual drawings, from the look of the Nostromo, to space suits, and even land vehicles, kept those readers intrigued about what was to come.
The late, great Dan O’Bannon penned the script from a story he developed with Ron Shusett. Written with a budget in mind, he never expected the screenplay to get A-list support from 20th Century Fox – but they were hungry. After the unexpected blockbuster success of 1977’s STAR WARS, they wanted something else in a galaxy far, far away. And as the story goes, when O’Bannon said ALIEN was “JAWS in space,” that sealed the deal (O’Callaghan).
Originally entitled STAR BEAST (thank the stars they changed it), the story features the crew of the Nostromo (Italian for “shipmate”), a barge in space hauling megatons of ore across the cosmos, who are in hibernation as they await orders from “Mother,” their onboard computer, to wake them up once they get closer to Earth. Mother picks up a supposed distress signal, and the crew’s awakened prematurely to check it out. Landing on a cold dwarf planet, three members of the seven-person team head out to find the vessel to see if they can save any souls. Instead, they return with an infected crew member, and in short order, their souls need saving.
Although Dan O’Bannon said, “I didn’t steal Alien from anybody. I stole it from everybody!” the film stands as an original (Macek). Many have made comparisons to PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES and even THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, but ALIEN brought audiences many new elements they had never seen before in a science fiction horror.
Here’s why ALIEN (including material from the 1979 theatrical release and 2003’s director’s cut) is one of the greatest films of all time…
It’s hard to find films in any genre where every cast member is a standout. Other than David Mamet’s remarkable GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS, ALIEN ranks at the top: Veronica Cartwright, Ian Holm, John Hurt, Yaphet Kotto, Tom Skerritt, Harry Dean Stanton, and Sigourney Weaver. (Helen Horton gave us the firm and foreboding, yet oddly seductive voice of Mother, and Bolaji Badejo, in his only film role, became Giger’s alien entity). Cartwright, Holm, Skerritt, and Stanton had been building their reputations on the small and silver screen since the fifties, Hurt and Kotto since the sixties, and after a couple of lesser roles, ALIEN proved to be Weaver’s breakout role as Lieutenant Ripley.
This acting foundation alone said much about the script’s value as well as 20th Century Fox’s commitment to the production. Some may say they were taking a chance with Scott, who only had his feature directorial debut two years before with THE DUELLISTS, but the film had received critical acclaim in short order – and all this after Scott had taken an eight-year hiatus from directing television episodes.
If STAR WARS were one of the first science fantasy films to feature a woman who didn’t scream, hide behind a manly-man, or faint thanks to Carrie Fisher’s strong-willed and determined Princess Leia, ALIEN’s Lieutenant Ripley took the liberation to a whole new level.
Third officer Ripley and Cartwright’s Lambert are the only female team members, and they are simply a part of the crew. Lambert’s the co-pilot/navigator, and Ripley’s a communication’s officer, and the third in charge after Captain Dallas (Skerritt) and Kane (Hurt). The women are on equal terrain and respected, other than an innuendo from Parker (Kotto) because he may have been in space without a partner for too damn long.
Although Lambert may come undone in the film, this is because of her character and the traumas she’s experienced, not because she’s a woman. After all, even Parker’s waylaid by the death of his friend Brett (Stanton), and his strong exterior waivers on a couple of occasions regardless of his anger and determination.
Ripley, on the other hand, has several facets to her character: She’s logical and pragmatic, and respects command, even with her role in the officer food chain. When that rank is challenged by Ash, the science officer, she visits him in his lab for a private meeting to lay down the law. Though that turns out to be a wash, Ripley stands her ground and left nothing to the imagination. Later, when the issue of quarantine comes up again, Ripley’s passive-aggressive comment is her version of an “I told you so.” To make certain Parker and Brett are working on ship repairs, she once again walks into that crew member’s domain to make certain she’s heard and understood. When Lambert slaps Ripley for wanting to keep her, Dallas, and Kane in quarantine for 24-hours, Ripley goes to war, and Parker and Brett must break up the pair.
Even with all the hell from an attacked crew member to the whereabouts of the face-hugger, when Ripley’s freaked out, she pulls herself together in short order. When she finally takes command, instead of trying to define her role with a new idea to destroy the alien, her logic and pragmatism shine through. Since Dallas’ plan is a viable one, Ripley goes with it. However, as a leader, she’s comfortable enough to ask if there are any other suggestions. If anyone thinks this represents a lack of confidence on her part, Ripley’s quick and loud in drowning out an overly frustrated Parker, and she has no problem telling Ash that he hasn’t been doing a damn thing to help. (If she hadn’t asked Ash earlier for suggestions about capturing or killing the alien, he may not have done anything at all.)
Ultimately, Ripley has to be her own savior and to do so, she must overcome her fear of an unyielding enemy while under the strictest of deadlines, and even with that pressure and need for self-preservation she has enough humanity to try and save the Nostromo mascot, Jonesy the cat.
Nothing works like isolation in a horror film. ALIEN features a small crew packed into the heart of a smaller ship, which is equivalent to a tug boat. And if that tugboat starts to capsize, there’s a small escape ship – a life raft – that can only fit three.
Even worse, the Nostromo is akin to being lost at sea. Due to the early wake up from Mother, they’re 70 million miles from the Milky Way and would have to go back to the old “freezerinos” for another ten-month sleep. There are no other ships in their part of the void. They are as alone as a group of people can get. And to add an exclamation point to the Nostromo crew’s predicament, ALIEN’s tagline says it all: “In space no one can hear you scream.”
Right from the beginning, from Jerry Goldsmith’s score to Derek Vanlint’s cinematography, as well as Ian Whittaker’s set decoration, it’s clear the Nostromo is an all work and no play environment. Seating’s cramped at the front of the ship. And everything’s cold and dark. There may be light and white in the dining and sleeping quarters, but the remainder of the ship is either cavernous, though still encroaching, and the passageways are reminiscent of catacombs. Due to the small crew and the workload, the Nostromo is far from ship-shape. The equivalent of equipment based debris seems to appear at every turn, the lighting’s questionable in spots, and the nether regions of the vessel are cold and dank.
The only time we truly have any sense of peace and hope is at the very beginning and at the very end. Before ALIEN’s story gets underway, the hibernation area is all white with a center cylinder with each crew member extending from that “stem” to form the petals of a flower that blooms once they awaken. They each wear white undergarments, and they arise as if newborns from the bassinet of a hospital’s maternity ward. And they are born anew on a journey they never saw coming.
At the end, Ripley hibernates with Jonesy. A white glow emanates from her protective pod, another womb to nurture her, and we have the sense that she will awake as a new, stronger, and virtually fearless person. To add an exclamation to Ripley’s rebirth: Upon the annihilation of the Nostromo at her own hand, she bears witness to her own “Big Bang” and recreates herself. She becomes her own mother and gives birth to her new self as both creator, destroyer, and preserver, much like the Hindu goddess, Kali Ma. Once transformed, she not only overrides her fear in strong fashion but quickly forms a solid plan to vanquish her foe.
The status quo continues in ALIEN. Providing a dim look of the future, the white and blue collar mix of the crew remains stuck in the doldrums of working for “the company.” Regardless of the manual Ripley tries to cling onto, Captain Dallas is quick to point out that one does what the company tells one to do. This also means the object of fairness doesn’t hold up either. Both Parker and Brett signed on, but with their contracts, especially when it comes to “the bonus situation,” the pair won’t receive full shares.
Better still to make certain the Nostromo crew checks out that distress beacon, the fine print in their contract has a “full forfeiture of shares” clause if they decide to skip the alarm and head back home. (Mother, acting like Big Brother, would undoubtedly show through report tracking that the crew never left the vessel to check for survivors.)
We understand that as the crew is screwed by their employer, most of us have similar stories where the company that gives us a check every two weeks undermined us in some way, shape, or form. And when it comes to a cafeteria, and according to Parker, the only good thing on the ship is the coffee.
Parker wants to get home and party, but as team leader, Dallas has had it. At different times, he tells both Lambert and Parker to “knock it off” because as middle management, he’s just done. As he sits in the escape ship and tries to relax to classical music, we can imagine him trying to determine how the hell he’s going to write a report about this mess. But he has nothing to fear because a mole is amongst the crew who will help fulfill a different set of obligations for the company.
By not giving “the company” a name, it can be any entity we may work for on our little blue ball. Plus, with Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, we see the trouble of putting sponsors’ names on video phones and space ships, because Pan Am and The Bell System are long gone – though Hilton could build a space station in the next century.
Due to these items, and the wearing of many hats – those mining vehicles aren’t going to move themselves – the crews’ dissatisfaction may mirror our own.
Before ALIEN, most science fiction films were built on the backs of conservative, military-like communication full of boring conversation or scientific mumbo-jumbo or stiff reporting full of salutes. Right from the beginning, we can relate to the crew as “regular people” due to the dialogue and their exchanges. They curse, they rub each other the wrong way like children – “That’s not our system,” says Ripley, and Lambert almost sings her response as if a kid who doesn’t want to be bested, “I know that” – and Parker wants to get back home, with bonus in hand, and “party.”
However, the film goes one step further to make the dialogue and exchanges ring true. When the dead facehugger falls to the lab floor, Ash asks if it came from the overhead. Traumatized by the experience in his own way, Dallas peers down at their deceased guest and says in an annoyed fashion, “It was up there somewhere.”
When four crew members remain, a stressed out and now in command Ripley lays down the plan, which is a continuation of the old one. Parker’s also stressed and angered, and says, “Let’s hear it” as Ripley tries to speak, causing her to raise her voice and yell at Parker. Anxiety and frustration take their toll:
Having characters joke, speak over each other, and go from being ticked off to being accepting, serves as one of the best reflections of genuine dialogue and speaking patterns. This realness allows the audience to better connect with the characters due to this relatable and grounded communication. The crew may reside in the future, may live on a space vessel, but the audience knows exactly where they’re coming from.
Like John Carpenter’s THE THING, ALIEN not only introduces “the Other,” the alien that must be assimilated or destroyed, but the Nostromo crew is “the Other” as well. Humans are not natural to space and the dwarf planet they land on is as alien to them as it is to the alien. Neither belong. But what Ash calls, “the perfect organism,” the creature’s as fearless as a honey badger and there’s no negotiation or assimilation. It’s kill or be killed. At no point does Parker try to sit down with the monster in a weak attempt to get the alien to help with the bonus situation.
No other monster from another planet in all the early science fiction fair has a life cycle like this one: From a leathery egg comes a spider-like facehugger that unleashes another egg through the mouth and down the throat of a host. Serving its purpose, and after the internal egg is protected and ready to hatch, the facehugger dies. Soon after, the young creature bursts from its host, killing the animal it leaves behind in the process and takes off on its own. In short order, the little monster that bleeds acid becomes a bipedal giant ready to kill, consume, and get the cycle up and running again. This means the Nostromo crew is left to fight an extraterrestrial endoparasitoid, which is an alien parasite that lives inside another creature and kills it. Wow.
ALIEN certainly has its mysteries. This doesn’t mean O’Bannon’s writing had flaws or that Scott overlooked things, but what follows are points to consider.
Before heading outside to check on the distress beacon, Dallas uses that line before the away party suits up. Inside the Space Jockey’s vessel, Kane holds up a gun-like weapon right before the facehugger greets him with a kiss. The company supplied weapons are never mentioned again, and only primitive ones make from scratch are used. Why? Maybe the weapons were garbage, or more logically since the alien bleeds acid, which could burn through the hull, forcing it into the airlock with a flame thrower to send it into outer space is probably the best solution.
If the company sent up a robot to protect the alien and bring it back to Earth, how did it know about the creature in the first place? Maybe another expedition came along, and unlike Kane, those miners in space suits decided not to break that layer of mist and get up close to those eggs. Then again, maybe they did. Maybe they lost a crew member (or two or three), but won in the end and made it home to give a full report. That report became the catalyst to send out another crew in that general area to unwittingly bring the creature home.
Often forgiven by fans and critics since the movie was made in pre-personal computer 1979, Mother, her special “Eyes Only” room, and the computer graphics raise questions. In 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, regardless of space flight, HAL 2000, and major technological advances, the astronauts still had to use clipboards as they sail towards Jupiter. When it comes to predicting what the hell we might have or create in a future world can prove daunting (follow the haircuts and clothing styles, as well as social interactions to help date films even more). Maybe the best reason one can use is that the Nostromo is an absolute worker bee of a ship, which means it doesn’t have state of the art anything. However, maybe as an homage to Kubrick, Scott created Mother and her room in HAL-esque style. Too bad the crew couldn’t speak to Mother, and she never even sang them a song.
Why would Dallas and company venture out into the unknown when Mother hadn’t deciphered the beacon? If they had waited another hour or two, they would have had a better clue about what was awaiting them. The answer may be Dallas’ grumpiness, which on some level mimicked Parker’s, as well as that old favorite feeling that can bring fortune or failure: curiosity. And maybe due to their ho-hum mining drudgery, no one puts the breaks on the “rescue mission.”
Curiosity also reigns supreme when Kane and facehugger come on board. Parker says the “freeze him” line on several occasions, but Dallas and Ash take no heed or pay him no mind. The nature of discovery has taken them over.
How did Jonesy end up in that closed locker? Since this is the first time we see the Nostromo mascot, and Brett, Parker, and Ripley certainly didn’t expect to find him there, one of the others must have put him in there, which would have been cruel. Or, he could have been accidentally locked in when someone was working or getting some supplies by the locker.
Interstellar space travel will either leave aging astronauts to die aboard ship with the next generation to take over the journey, or some sort of hibernation will exist. After returning from the dwarf planet, a ten-month journey remains for the crew. We don’t know how long they’ve been out there or how long their mining assignment has taken, but that had better be some pretty expensive or rare ore to send a crew so far out into the cosmos. Does this mean their families are in hibernation as well? If not, their spouses, partners, and children, if they have any, of course, are going to age every time they head out to gather some ore. Check out “The Long Morrow” from “The Twilight Zone” to see what will happen if you don’t get it right.
This thematic dynamic may not be the reason ALIEN is at the top of the science fiction horror list, but it’s quite notable. In an interview, O’Bannon made this frightening comment:
And O’Bannon does just that. Not only does the facehugger do the above, but the adult alien sports a phallic like head and behind its silvery, dripping teeth exists a phallic juggernaut of a secondary mouth that juts out in erect fashion to tear apart flesh and bone as it penetrates the heads of both Brett and Parker. Its phallic-esque tale rips into Lambert.
When searching for the facehugger, Ash and Dallas do so with long-lighted prods. As Ripley looks about, Ash tells her not to do so without “one of these,” and holds up his prod. Ripley doesn’t grasp one.
But the crew fights phallus with phallus from the cattle prods to give the creature “incentive,” to the pointed motion detector, to the flame throwers, and to the gun and its respective grappling hook. (Both Ripley and Lambert wield the phallic detectors – Ripley does this with ease, but Lambert has issues.)
Feminine imagery exists as well. Dallas, Kane, and Lambert enter the Space Jockey’s ship through a hole. And the Jockey has a hole in its chest, as Kane will soon have. Dallas enters the duct system with his flamethrower, and the round hatches shut him off as he enters the hollow shafts within the ship. Finally, when Ripley squares off against the creature, she uses that phallic grappling hook to propel her foe through the open hatch of her escape craft, and when the creature tries to enter through one of the open engine exhausts, Ripley turns on the afterburners and blows him away once and for all.
The story, acting, direction, music, dialogue, set and setting, make ALIEN a film to be reckoned with. Due to the realism of the characters, their emotions and reactions, Scott’s film transcends genre labels. In this sense, O’Bannon, Shusett, and company created a remarkable tale to capture the imagination – and fear – of any audience.
You DO NOT want to miss a single episode of his award-winning podcast, The Last Knock!
May 11, 2017 | Categories: Horror, Movies, Reviews | Tags: 1979, Alien, atmospheric, blockbuster, Bolaji Badejo, Creature Feature, creature features, Creature Features in Review, Dan O'Bannon, dark, film, Guest, Guest author, Harry Dean Stanton, Helen Horton, Horror, horror reviews, Ian Holm, John Hurt, monster movies, monsters, movie reivews, Reviews, Ridley Scott, science fiction, Sigourney Weaver, social commentary, social satire, The Last Knock, Tom Skerritt, top ten movies, Veronica Cartwright, William D. Prystauk, Yaphet Kotto | 8 Comments