It really needs no introduction, this pitch black vision of a sensual , systemic darkness. If I was asked to run a film class, this would be a key example to study: collaboration, reinvention, conceptual design that accommodates damage to it, the journey of shared vision from page to space. It does everything right that could easily have gone wrong. The backbone is an extremely coherent space world and mythology, as complicated as we find in Star Wars but with only necessary snippets provided instead of platitudes. Organic fleshing-out (as natural economy). On top of that, you have (expertly executed) the age old story of an encounter with unfathomable , ancient evil. But this one has biology, structure that horrifies all the more. The icing on the cake is a final layer about the nature of the encounter, that is also your encounter with ‘alien’ vision. Hold this thought.
It is amazing to revisit this in retrospect of how much it changed and how much changed since. And knowing how much went into it.
In the 1970’s, one of the hottest and most troubled film properties for a while was Dune. The scope and detail of Herbert’s books (I have read three, not a fan) obviously called for a a film on a massive scale, a blockbuster, and that was a time when the blockbuster was still a fluid concept. It was a time when you could dream the unthinkable: a 10-hour Jodorowsky extravaganza with the creative involvement of Dali, Welles, Gloria Swanson, Delon, Jagger, designed by H.R. Giger and scored by Pink Floyd. Extensive pre-production work was axed when money decided the venture was impractical, and basically nuts. The world safely went with the Spielberg-Lucas model, nurtured from Jaws to Star Wars. The prevalent business model for a Hollywood blockbuster these days, is a bankable producer-director in charge (he can be a little creative), and contract out the design and effects-work to individual SFX studios. We’re getting poorer every year and the products more bland, because of this IKEA mentality.
Anyway, the smoke from the colossal collapse of the Dune project turbulently shifted in two directions. We got the two Phillip K. Dick adaptations in the 80’s, one of them Scott’s Bladerunner. The other is right here. Inbetween them, Scott had been next in line after Jodorowsky to tackle and swiftly abandon Dune.
What happened, is that a guy called Dan O’Bannon (effects-man in that first Dune) drifted to screen writing to pull himself up from a financial hole. Out of many stories he penned, one was about an alien passenger wreaking havoc mid-space. In its first incarnation, it was going to be a Corman foamcore cheapie called Starbeast. Hollywood tapped the project, and considered workingman Aldrich to direct. Daft choice from the old guard, thankfully axed. This one needed new , excited blood like O’Bannon.
Ridley Scott came onboard, fresh and eager from a Kubrick-influenced debut. Kubrick’s 2001-notions of cinematic space as a clean and silent roar, elegant design, and controlled visual eddies from symphonic flows of the camera, all of that was carried over into this, and is openly acknowledged in the first shot. O’Bannon(a horror guy) introduced Scott to Texas Chainsaw Massacre and more pieces from the Dune jigsaw: Foss and Moebius were carried over to sketch the world of the film. H.R. Giger was flown in from Switzerland, with alien-designs so disturbing he was held over at LAX.
And that is how it came together. The story was recycled from spare horror parts (Forbidden Planet, Bava’s Planet of the Vampires), dressed in ‘used’ feel and Giger’s diseased-looking biology, and finally given Texas Chainsaw- violence in the gears and fabric of the world. Hollywood interfered the whole way through, removing explicit sexuality from Giger’s work and most of the gore.
But, the nature of that collaborative encounter with the product of vision is sketched in the actual film, in the way it made a difference.
You have a colorful bunch of professionals in the same ‘ship’, each one a specialist in his field. Each one has his own logic about what the voyage is all about, but not necessarily equal say. They are earthbound before a beacon signals from the void.
It isn’t until later that we find out a narrative of discovery had been set in motion around them, and that narrative is controlled by non-human agents, actual devices (Mother - Ash), which is why it’s both simple and precise. The actual author won’t be seen until Prometheus, one of many things mucked-up there.
The discovery is of something that we go on to understand has structure and design, and the instinct to do as designed challenges human conscience, evolved to subordinate instinct to reason. And this is why Scott’s presentation matters: it is not a guy in a suit we see, it is abstract shape, pure organism morphing before our eyes.
The second expansion is that it is not the story of explanations that matters, but the journey to retrieve new vision. This has been obscured, because that vision is a monster, and because on both ends of that story (Weyland - Engineerworld), you have only vague snippets of worlds that suggest clear engineering that we want to know more about (hence, the heavy Alien fanfiction that distracts by too much clarification).
It’s all here though. The story was something to get you to where the void signals.
The real deal is in how we come to terms with something that is new and seemingly dragged strange and whole from the void.
And it takes a dissonant - human - element to muck up the precise Weyland gears of the narrative, and actually give birth to the thing. A machine would never be curious enough to touch the egg.
This is brilliant. It’s all in the coordinated bursts of machine-reason to human-chaos to inscrutable creature-reason and back again, and the way that is choreographed into an environment that bleeds and bursts into our vision (best seen in the discovery of the alien ship, flickering screen footage to first-person camera to the majestic upwards sweep of the Jockey hall). Our vision itself is the alien being born, the space impregnated and convulsing with the process of different kinds of logic lost in discovery of the same thing.
And that was possible at all because of dust kicked off by the Mexican failure of Dune. I wonder how the Lynch version actually affected his own work.