Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien’ Remains an Exceptionally Intense Experience

Alien movie poster

In regards to horror movies, “John Carpenter’s The Thing” ranks highest on the list of my all-time favorite movies in general. However, if you were to ask me what I consider to be the scariest movie ever, the first that quickly comes to mind is Ridley Scott’s “Alien.” Now considered a classic haunted house kind of movie, it freaked me out far more than I had expected it to. These days, if I come across someone who hasn’t seen “Alien,” I would be desperate to take the time and watch it with them just to see the look on their face. What may seem like a harmless old science fiction movie still has the power to unnerve and creep up on its audience when they least expect it.

Now when I say that this movie freaked me out more than I expected it to, there are a number of reasons why: I ended up seeing James Cameron’s sequel “Aliens” beforehand, so I already knew Ellen Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver) was the sole survivor from the original. When I watched “Alien” for the very first time, it was back in the days of VCR’s and VHS tapes, and the one I obtained from my favorite video store was a fairly old copy which showed a bit of wear and tear. When it came to watching it, I got consigned to my parents’ bedroom as they had already called dibs on the big television in the family room which was connected to a “super cool” stereo system. The TV set in their bedroom was tiny by today’s standards. As I remember, it was a 13-inch set which was already on its last legs after years of use. This one didn’t have any surround sound system to enhance the experience, so I just tried to be happy I had a TV to view it on at all.

Having said all this, “Alien” still had my hairs standing on end throughout. Even though I knew who would live and die, the suspense and tension were extreme throughout, and you never ever felt safe on board the spaceship Nostromo. I can still remember hiding my eyes and would be turning the volume down at certain points because my heart threatened to stop beating a few times. Imagine if I had watched it for the first time on a big screen TV with surround system, or better yet, in a movie theater when it originally came out! I wouldn’t have slept for days! Some movies play better on the silver screen than on your television, but “Alien” appears to work on either format with the same degree of success.

There are many different reasons why Scott’s film remains such an effective sci-fi horror classic to this day. For me, it starts with the characters and how down to earth they are. While other outer space movies have characters who revel in the wonder of what’s out there, all the workers on the Nostromo treat their dark habitat as just another office job they take to get by. When we meet up with them, they are on their way back to Earth and just want to be home already. The writers also gave the actors dialogue which was never too heavy on the technobabble and hearing the characters talk about how they deserve full shares for the work they did defines them as blue collar workers. These are not brilliant scientists looking to discover new planets; they’re just people working for the man. The time Scott takes in introducing all these individuals pays off by the time we are given a visceral introduction to the alien of the movie’s title.

Now let’s talk about this alien which was designed by H.R. Geiger, a Swiss surrealist artist. I can’t really compare it to other movie creatures I’ve seen in the slightest because it looks so frighteningly unique in its construction. Its mouth hides an additional set of jaws that lunges out at unsuspecting victims as if they are “faster than a speeding bullet.” Furthermore, there is something quite phallic about that jaw in how it juts out at you without warning or of any thought of the damage it is about to inflict. Its lethal penetration is highly unnerving in how it reminds the viewer of what we all agree constitutes a serious and unconscionable violation to the human body.

But one of Ridley’s most brilliant moves with “Alien” was in not showing the creature fully. We only got glimpses of it throughout the film until the end, and even then we weren’t entirely sure of all that we saw. It was all up to our imaginations to figure out what kind of a threat this creature is. This added immeasurably to the film’s infinite suspense and unending tension. Plus, with the spaceship Nostromo designed to look all dark and shabby with not much light to be found in certain sections, this made it easier for the creature to hide. When it leaped up at the cast member about to meet his maker, it was completely unexpected and defined the jump out of your seat moment for me.

As the movie goes on, we get to an even more frightening aspect; of how corporations can put profits above their workers so coldly. When Ripley discovers the Nostromo crew was made to pick up an alien organism to bring back for further study and that they were expendable, it only further demonstrates just how much alone everyone is on the ship. To realize the company which has employed you couldn’t care less about your existence makes you fully aware of your immediate surroundings, and the instinct to survive becomes stronger than ever. Of course, are cynicism today has us expecting this from any corporation we work with, so we’re more prepared for this than the Nostromo crew was.

A lot of credit also goes to the late Jerry Goldsmith for creating a music score which adds subtly to the action, or at least until the film’s last half hour when the realm of outer space feels even smaller than before. His music touches on the tension inherent in each character without becoming melodramatic, and at times it sounds like invisible ghosts hovering over the unprepared crew waiting to strike. Also, the use of silence in certain scenes makes it even more frightening as we are reminded of how unsettling things can be when our surroundings become far too quiet for comfort.

All of this leads to one of the most intense climaxes in cinema history as we are fully aware of time running out. Just when you think the movie’s over, there’s still another horrendous challenge to overcome. It’s in the movie’s last minute where you can finally breathe a much-needed sigh of relief. Even if you know how of this movie will end, it is still an intensely riveting experience that never lets up for a second. The look in Ripley’s eyes as she makes her way to the escape shuttle perfectly mirrors our own emotions as she is forced into a situation which leaves her with no other options to consider.

I still have very vivid memories of seeing this movie on that unspectacular little television set in my parents’ bedroom while they enjoyed something on Masterpiece Theater with more advanced technology. As the beginning credits began to roll, I was convinced that sitting through this would be a piece of cake. Coincidentally, I also felt the same way about the original version of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” when I rented it through Netflix. “Alien” remains one of the most truly terrifying experiences I have ever had watching a movie either on the big screen or the small one. To this day, it remains an effectively scary movie which has lost none of its power. Now if 20th Century Fox had fully realized how all these elements had added to make such a great movie, those hopelessly pathetic “Alien vs. Predator” films might have actually been worth watching.

* * * * out of * * * *

 

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Blue Collar

blue-collar-movie-poster

Even though it was made back in 1978, “Blue Collar” doesn’t feel at all dated thematically. Dealing with crooked unions and frustrations with a job that never pays you enough is something many of us still deal with in this day and age. Watching it more than 30 years after its initial release makes me wonder how much, if any, progress has been made for any American workers.

Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto star as a trio of Detroit auto workers who work hard at their jobs but never get much respect for what they do. They get crap thrown at them by their superiors, and the union doesn’t seem all that interested in helping them. The divisions between the blue and white collar workers are heavily pronounced, and tensions and bitterness are always at an all-time high.

Pryor’s character of Zeke Brown feels especially disrespected and is never afraid to hide his frustrations from the union or anyone else who pisses him off. Even worse, Zeke gets a visit from the IRS informing him of back taxes he can’t even afford to pay. Keitel’s character of Jerry Bartowski works at a gas station as well as the auto factory, but barely make ends meet and can’t even afford braces for his daughter who desperately needs them. Then there’s Kotto’s character of Smokey James, a man who served time in prison and is well aware of how the class structure is designed to keep everyone where they are so the powerful people can stay powerful. But even he has his breaking point, and he’s finally reaching it after all this time.

Fed up with the union’s incompetence, the three men rob the union of the money they keep in their not very well hidden vault. The robbery is sloppily handled, but they make out with the safe which has only a few hundred dollars, but it also contains a ledger which shows how seriously corrupt the union is. On top of being involved in an illegal loan lending operation, the ledger also shows their ties with organized crime syndicates. With this information, they decide to blackmail the crooked union into giving them tons of cash which will take care of all their financial problems. Their plan, however, soon exposes their naïve nature as the union quickly resorts to methods which can never be mistaken as legal.

What will happen from there will tear friendships apart and leave them paranoid of one another and of those they can’t trust. “Blue Collar” works as a critique of those unions which poorly represent their workers, and it is also a brilliant character piece and a thriller where lives hang in the balance as the powers that be aren’t about to be comprised by anyone, especially those in the lower class.

“Blue Collar” was Schrader’s directorial debut, and it’s a remarkably impressive one. He vividly captures the hard-working atmosphere these men inhabit and is aided by a tough as nails blues song for the movie’s main title which was performed by the late Captain Beefheart. There are moments in the “Hard Workin’ Man” song where all the other instruments disappear except for a deep thundering metal boom which hints at the anger and frustration slowly boiling to the surface for these characters. The environment they work in is harsh and unforgiving, and while they value what they do, no one above them seems to as they are considered to be easily disposable.

This was one of Pryor’s few dramatic roles, but it’s not bereft of his humor. Considering his work as a comedian and a social satirist, he is perfectly cast here and infuses the Zeke with humor and a wounded soul which will never fully be mended. Pryor really shows an acting range most dramatic actors only dream of having.

In fact, that’s the sad thing about watching Pryor in this film; he really was one of the lost dramatic actors of our time as he never got to play many serious roles which were deserving of his talent. We all know him to be one of the best comedians ever, and he did star in some very funny movies. Still, he got stuck in a lot of crappy ones which never utilized his talents fully, and it is an enormous loss he never got to do more dramatic work.

Keitel gives another great performance in a career filled with them, and he always inhabits his characters more than play them. Jerry Bartowski is a strong guy on the surface, but seeing him become completely unraveled after the robbery allows Keitel to expose the character’s vulnerabilities of which there are plenty. There are moments where he doesn’t utter a word and yet you can see on his face what is racing through his anxiety-ridden mind. Bartowski may see himself as his own man who answers to no one, but he soon finds there is a limit to the choices he has when it comes to keeping his head above water.

Kotto, who has since become one of the most undervalued actors working today, has constantly been cast as an unforgettable imposing presence in every film he has appeared in. Whether it’s as Parker in “Alien,” Special Agent Mosley in “Midnight Run” or as Al Giardello on the brilliant “Homicide: Life on the Street,” he never fails in giving us a character who feels larger than life. “Blue Collar” is no exception as he portrays someone wise about the world around him, but not wise enough to know when he and his pals are digging a hole too deep for them to climb out of. His character’s fate feels the most tragic as a result, and the last scene he has is amazing in its power.

With Schrader’s movies, a common theme runs through them of the emasculated male wanting to make a difference in a society he sees as corrupt and in need of saving. Be it Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver,” Willem Dafoe as John LeTour in “Light Sleeper” or even Nick Nolte as Wade Whitehouse from “Affliction,” Schrader deals fearlessly with characters whose hold on sanity we see constantly erode. Now with the three leads in “Blue Collar,” each of them are pushed to the limit as they slowly realize the trouble they have brought upon themselves. Watching it destroy their friendship, which brings about a strong mistrust between them, is as fascinating as it is painful to witness.

I’m not sure how many people out there are aware of “Blue Collar,” but it is one of those movies from the 70’s deserving of a big audience from one generation to the next. Watching it today is even more bittersweet as those auto factories in Michigan where the movie was shot no longer exist. It was tough for the people who worked there back then, but imagine what it must be like for them now. The movie ends in a freeze frame which brilliantly encapsulates how the union and those in power continue to stay on top of the working man. After all these years, it doesn’t feel like much has changed, but anyone and everyone out there is welcome to prove me wrong.

* * * * out of * * * *