The FX of ’79 – ALIEN
By Kyle Anderson on March 27, 2014
And so, friends and countrymen (but not Romans, because what did they ever do for us?!), we come to the end of this series, and what an interesting journey it has been. Very rarely do I get the opportunity or the inclination to look at a movie purely in terms of its effects, as usually I pay attention to writing, directing, and acting in that order. It’s been very enlightening, and a great deal of fun, but all good things must finish, and by closing with the winner of the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects on the 1980 show, we also happen to get hands down the best film of the five. It’s not only a monument to special effects at the time, but it could be considered one of the best special effects films even today. This is, of course, Ridley Scott’s masterpiece of sci-fi/horror, Alien.
The really glorious thing about Alien is that it’s a B-movie premise done as an A-movie. In its initial stages, the name of the film was to be Star Beast when Dan O’Bannon first wrote it, which sounds exactly like something Roger Corman would have gladly made for $500,000. But with a big studio like Fox behind it, having just come off of Star Wars, and an up-and-coming director in Scott, doing only his second feature film, who had a real eye for detail and world-building, and you get the epitome of a haunted house-in-space-type movie that would pave the way for dozens of pretenders in the years that followed, several that actually were produced by Roger Corman. The tagline is even the uber-schlocky “In space, no one can hear you scream.”
Surely you’ve all seen this movie, but for the sake of those who might have forgotten, Alien follows a blue-collar crew of the commercial spacecraft Nostromo who are awakened from Cryosleep early by the ship’s onboard computer, Mother, on the orders of “The Company” for whom they all work. They’re meant to go investigate a distress signal the ship has picked up from a nearby planet. Once they reach the planet, the away team finds the fossilized remains of a giant humanoid creature (which we all now call “the Space Jockey”) and a series of eggs. One egg hatches and the spider-crab creature inside attaches itself to the face of one of the crew, Kane played by John Hurt.
Lots of tests show that the “facehugger” has a very particular, and perfect, defense mechanism while it uses Kane’s body: if they try to remove it, the hugger’s tail will strangle the host, and if they try to cut it off, the creature’s blood is like acid that can eat through four decks. Eventually, the hugger releases Kane and dies, and Kane seems okay, until he suddenly begins to convulse and eventually a different creature bursts its way out of his chest, growing and becoming a perfect killing machine, leading to the rest of the crew being picked off one by one until there is but Second Officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) left to destroy the beast.
Solely in terms of plot, Alien could not be more straight forward, and time-tested. The exact same basic scenario could be put into a Gothic horror movie (monster, small group of people, isolation, claustrophobia) and it would work just as well. What makes Alien so different, and so brilliant, is twofold:
1) the actors aren’t acting like they’re in a horror movie, they’re acting like they’re in a movie about people who do their job and have to deal with something bad. They’re all very naturalistic, especially early on, and they simply talk about whatever unrelated to the plot and it lulls the audience into feeling secure with these people, until John Hurt’s chest explodes and we’re on our heels the whole rest of the time.
2) Ridley Scott shoots everything in sort of a basic, unshowy manner in order to achieve this lived-in realism, but the production design and effects make it seem otherworldly. But he shoots it like it’s a real world and unreal things are happening within it, and not like it’s, “Oh, hey, we’re way in the future and this is what money looks like now, and this is how weird our clothing is. FUTURE!” I’ve used the term “blue-collar” already, and that’s the phrase that comes up most often when referring to the feel of this movie. It’s not clean jumpsuits and laser beams; it’s Joe Working-Class trying to get shares by doing a good job.
Another thing I love about this movie, along the same lines as the blue-collar aspect, is the greedy and nefarious nature of the Wayland-Yutani Corporation, or simply “The Company,” who are the true unseen villains of the film. They knew, or had a reasonable idea, about what the alien creature was and wanted to get it for their own uses as a weapon to sell. Their inside man for this is Ash (Ian Holm), who ends up being a robot. He manipulates the situation the whole time and gets the crew to continue to do things to help the cause. It’s always Ash who relays the messages from Mother, and the two of them, being cold and logical, clearly have nothing even approaching the best interests of the crew in mind. Chilling.
As for the effects, five people won for their work on the film. Firstly, designer H.R. Giger and costumer/pupper-maker extraordinaire Carlo Rambaldi won for creating the magnificent alien creatures, from the facehugger to the chestburster to the final big xenomorph suit worn by actor Bolaji Badejo, as well as things like the Space Jockey and Ash’s beaten-up and pus-filled form. These are some of the most distinctive and iconic images in all of the sci-fi/horror genre. Giger’s designs specifically are so indelible and unique to this film (franchise) that they’ve spawned whole essays and books unto themselves. His work evokes an industrial nightmare, and indeed all of the production design follows suit, creating a very unwelcoming look at the future.
Also winning were special effects supervisors Nick Allder and Brian Johnson and director of miniature effects photography Dennis Ayling. The creature gets most of the adulation for this film, but we can’t forget just how awesome the spaceship Nostromo and its attached pieces (the landing ship and the escape vessel) are and how amazing they look when being filmed. The detail that goes into the design of these ships is truly what sets them apart, and what makes them appear as realistic as the elements of the rest of the film. As good as the space effects in the other nominated movies I’ve talked about were, Alien‘s are the only ones that feel completely realistic within the world of the film. I adore Trumbull and Dykstra’s work on Star Trek: The Motion Picture, but they never seem like real ships we’re looking at.
The Nostromo, by contrast, looks like it was assembled by a company looking to make a buck. It’s not sleek or fancy at all; it’s chunky and awkward and looks like a castle, which fits in perfectly with the Gothic horror feel Scott and the other filmmakers are evoking. There’s also the excellent design of the Space Jockey ship, which looks like you couldn’t run away from it if it were rolling at you.
To answer the question I posed last week: just because Alienis the superior film, does that also mean the Academy was right in giving it the Best Visual Effects Oscar? I think that yes, it does, for all the reasons I just talked about. This movie’s effects completely stand the test of time in a way that the other films largely do not. Is it just a matter of the effects being utilized the best? Possibly, but I think it is more specifically how the effects were used to tell the specific story and at no time were we treated to a “Hey, look at these swell visual effects!” moment.
I think all five of these movies exemplified the best in late-’70s effects, hands down, and they’re all at least interesting to watch, if not all good. Alien is obviously a masterpiece, and I really adore ST: TMP and The Black Hole for personal reasons, and I really just don’t like Moonraker or 1941, even if they do have terrific effects.