Alien (1979)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #2

In space, no one can hear you scream.

Country: USA & UK
Language: English
Runtime: 117 minutes | 116 minutes (director’s cut)
BBFC: X (1979) | 18 (1987) | 15 (director’s cut, 2003)
MPAA: R

Original Release: 25th May 1979 (USA)
UK Release: September 1979
First Seen: TV, c.2002

Stars
Tom Skerritt (Top Gun, Poison Ivy)
Sigourney Weaver (Ghostbusters, Galaxy Quest)
John Hurt (The Elephant Man, Nineteen Eighty-Four)
Ian Holm (Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring)

Director
Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Prometheus)

Screenwriter
Dan O’Bannon (Dark Star, Total Recall)

Story by
Dan O’Bannon (see above)
Ronald Shusett (King Kong Lives, Total Recall)

The Story
The crew of the deep-space towing vessel Nostromo receive a distress call from an unexplored planet. Contractually obliged to respond, they find a derelict alien spaceship and a field of strange eggs. With one of the crew taken ill they return to their ship, but it soon becomes apparent something else has come with them…

Our Hero
Sigourney Weaver is second-billed as second-in-command Ellen Ripley, but it’s she who’s the voice of reason and, when ignored, the most capable to stand up to the alien threat.

Our Villain
The Alien, aka the Xenomorph, an ugly, dripping, phallic nightmare, that lurks in the shadows, strikes without warning, has the perfect defence system, and is nigh-on unbeatable.

Best Supporting Character
Ian Holm’s Ash is not all he appears to be… Holm made sacrifices for his art: he hates milk, but had to sit dribbling it from his mouth for take after take.

Memorable Quote
“I admire its purity. A survivor… unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.” — Ash

Memorable Scene
Dinner table. John Hurt not feeling well. You know the rest. And if you don’t, you don’t want me spoiling it for you.

Technical Wizardry
The Nostromo’s industrial-style production design is a world away from the slick, shiny spaceships of contemporary sci-fi like Star Trek. A lived-in sci-fi world wasn’t something new (Star Wars and the Millennium Falcon were two years earlier, for instance), but the notion of a spaceship that looks like a factory or an oil-rig or somesuch, and that is populated by the kind of people who would work in such an environment, continues to influence the genre today.

Truly Special Effect
The Alien, designed by H.R. Giger, built by Giger and Carlo Rambaldi, performed by Bolaji Badejo, is one of the most genuinely alien creatures the movies have ever generated. It’s terrifying, too, even after the initial disgust has been neutered by decades of over-exposure in increasingly-poor sequels and tie-ins.

Making of
The name of Weyland-Yutani, “the company” the crew work for, is actually “Weylan-Yutani”, as seen on monitors and Dallas’ beer can. It was changed to “Weyland-Yutani” for Aliens (and all subsequent films and media) because James Cameron thought it looked better with the D. It’s the little things, eh.

Next time…
Three direct sequels, two “vs Predator” spin-offs, a prequel (and a prequel-sequel), and a massive array of novels, comics, video games, and the rest. A new sequel is also in development.

Awards
1 Oscar (Visual Effects)
1 Oscar nomination (Art Direction-Set Decoration)
2 BAFTAs (Production Design, Sound Track)
5 BAFTA nominations (Supporting Actor (John Hurt), Film Music, Costume Design, Editing, Most Promising Newcomer to Leading Film Roles (Sigourney Weaver))
3 Saturn Awards (Science Fiction Film, Director, Supporting Actress (Veronica Cartwright))
4 Saturn nominations (Actress (Sigourney Weaver), Writing, Make-Up, Special Effects)
Won the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation.

What the Critics Said
“It’s tempting to describe the brilliantly staged scenes of horror and surprise but it would be a shame not to allow the film to reveal its own secrets. Enough to say that the tension is savage and you are held in suspense right up to the end frames.” — Ted Whitehead, The Spectator

Score: 97%

What the Public Say
“in some ways it doesn’t betray its age, and it does indeed largely still hold up, but in other ways its utterly unlike contemporary films. Its middle-aged cast, its slow, deliberate pace, the ‘real’ sets grounded in reality, how it leaves so many things unexplained — in these respects it’s obviously an older movie, and better for it.” — the ghost of 82

Elsewhere on 100 Films
I reviewed Ridley Scott’s 2003 Director’s Cut back in 2009, summarising that “to fans intimately familiar with the film, the number of trims (there are rather a lot apparently) and new scenes (just four) make a huge difference, but for a more casual viewer they don’t significantly change how it feels. That said… I’d call the original as the superior cut.”

Verdict

Ridley Scott’s “haunted house movie in space” is one of those works that an awful lot of what follows in the genre owes a debt to, from the production design to one of cinema’s most iconic heroines. “Iconic” is a good word for the film as a whole, be it the realisation of the creature or scenes like the chestburster. Quite beyond that, however, it’s a terrifying horror movie in its own right, where slowly-built tension gives way to proper scares. Being a great of one genre is an achievement, but to be great in two at the same time (horror and sci-fi, of course) is something else.

#3 is not about Vietnam… it is Vietnam.

Brazil (1985)

aka Brazil: The Final Cut

2015 #100
Terry Gilliam | 143 mins | DVD | 1.78:1 | UK / English | 15 / R

I normally aim for a “critical” (for want of a better word) rather than “bloggy” (for want of a better word) tone in my reviews, just because I do (that’s in no way a criticism of others, etc). Here is where I fail as a film writer in that sense, though, because I’m not even sure how I’m meant to review Terry Gilliam’s dystopian sci-fi satire Brazil, a film as famed for its storied release history as for the movie itself.

It’s a film I’ve long looked forward to watching, utterly convinced it was “the kind of thing I’d like”, but then almost put off by the fact that I should like it. I was rather pleased when it finally popped up on this year’s What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen because it’s precisely the kind of film (or “one of the kinds of films”) that project was meant to ‘force’ me to watch. And, thankfully, I did really enjoy it. It’s clever, it’s funny, it’s massively imaginative in both its visuals and its storytelling, and its influences on the 30 years of dystopian fiction that have followed is… well, fairly clear, because it also has influences of its own, so whether future works are influenced by the original influence or whether the influencee has become the influencer is an over-complex matter for over-complex people to discuss ad infinitum.

I can tell you, factually, that there are at least four versions of Brazil: differing European and American theatrical versions; the “Love Conquers All” version (which according to the Criterion DVD is a cut for syndicated TV that made all the changes Gilliam refused to make, but may never have actually been released outside of that box set (IMDb implies it was never shown)); and the “Final Cut” that Gilliam assembled for Criterion in 1996 that is now the version released everywhere always (to the best of my knowledge). I’m sure there’s a thorough list of differences somewhere, but one good anecdote from Gilliam’s audio commentary tells how the ‘morning after’ scene was cut from the European release so last-minute that it was literally physically removed from the premiere print. (Gilliam regretted it immediately and it was restored for the video release.)

I can also tell you that I now struggle to read the word “Brazil” without hearing the “Braaziiiil” refrain from the soundtrack.

Brazil was 30 this year, but its particular brand of retro-futurism hasn’t dated, and its themes and issues are as relevant as ever. It’s a bit of a head trip of a film, which is what one should always expect from the guy who did the cartoons for Monty Python, I figure. I don’t know if it always gets its due in the consensus history of sci-fi cinema — in “best ever” lists and that kind of thing — though I’m not doing anything today that will help improve that.

The best I can say is that, if you like a bit of dystopian SF but have somehow (like me, until now) missed Brazil, that’s a situation you want to rectify lickety-split.

5 out of 5

Brazil was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2015 project, which you can read more about here.

It placed 8th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Braaziiiil…

Garden State (2004)

Garden State2007 #45
Zach Braff | 98 mins | DVD | 15 / R

Zach Braff of Scrubs fame writes, directs and stars in this coming-of-age-style comedy-drama, his first feature as writer and director. While it’s not devoid of predictable elements, there are some good scenes and performances along the way, as well as a few laughs (only a handful of them in any way marred by the trailer). It’s probably the directing that really stands out, so it’ll be interesting to see what his next film (2008’s Open Hearts) is like.

4 out of 5

nb: I don’t know what happened to Open Hearts, but Braff’s second feature wound up being 2014’s Kickstarter-funded Wish I Was Where.