Ridley Scott’s Alien is a remarkable classic that was kind of hard for me to appreciate fully until now. I did see the director’s cut screening in October of 2003, but it didn’t have the intended effect at the time. However, thanks the Cinemark theatre chain, I was given the chance to see Alien in its original theatrical cut. I went into the screening consciously putting myself into the proper mindset intending to experience it the right way. I have always appreciated the filmmaking and artistic talents of the movie, but now, I can connect with it on a level of beautifully crafted horror and suspense.
When commercial towing vehicle Nostromo, heading back to Earth, intercepts a distress signal from a nearby planet, the crew are under obligation to investigate. After landing on this hostile planet, three crew members – Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt), first officer Kane (John Hurt), and navigator Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) – set out to discover the origin of the signal which Lieutenant Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and the ship’s computer soon decipher it as not a distress call but a warning. Onboard a derelict alien spacecraft, Kane discovers a chamber filled with thousands of alien eggs, and in investigating too closely, he is attacked by a parasite. When he is brought back to the Nostromo, the crew has no idea the danger they have brought upon themselves as this parasite soon gives birth to a vicious organism that is bred for only one purpose – death.
The strongest quality of this film that struck me was indeed the structure and pacing. While for a modern audience it might be too methodical, Scott makes every slow burning moment count for something. It’s all building towards something while establishing mood, atmosphere, character, or story. The best result from this structure is that there are segments where Scott gives the audience a sense of false security. This is best reflected in both after the facehugger dies and relinquishes its hold on Kane, and when Ripley has safely escaped aboard the shuttle at the end. You feel as if the danger has past, but especially with the former, you feel like another shoe is waiting to drop creating this lurking uncertainty. There’s still a long way to go in this film, and you know something much more threatening is waiting to emerge. When the ship ascends from the planet, it’s signaling the elevation in threat for these characters and the audience. And this film repeatedly elevates things to a new, unexpected level.
Scott also does an amazing job immersing an audience into the subtle sense of isolation and unsettling calm of the Nostromo. This has as much to do with the cinematography as it does the amazing sound design. The ship always has this ambient sound of probably the power running through it, which further unnerves an audience. And when things get loud, it gets very loud to evoke the terror and visceral rawness of the moment. This all creates a contrast of audio where Scott makes things extremely low and quiet when he wants to engage your attention and put you on the edge of your seat. Then, he blasts something onto the soundtrack to jar you out of your seat. I don’t find this to be jump scares. This is an excellent manipulation of suspense and tension to effectively and skillfully scare an audience. It’s putting you right in there with the unnerving feeling these characters are experiencing.
How Alien is shot is perfect in its use of wide compositions to reflect scope and solitude early on, especially during the excursion to the derelict spacecraft, and later on, how the cinematography moves in closer to highlight the claustrophobic nature of the Nostromo. Even more intense is when Scott has the shot get right into the actor’s faces during the peak of fear and terror to where you can see every bead of sweat on their skin. There’s some great and beautiful camera work from the large movements revealing the Space Jockey and using steadicams for sweeping movements. Yet, I also love the subtle handheld work that creates a sense of unease and rawness at times. The lighting schemes also create the signature Ridley Scott noir mood and atmosphere. Light and shadow are used to stellar effect enhancing all the unnerving, heart pounding sequences, and Scott is known for immersing his films in thick darkness. As the immediacy of everything reaches its apex as the self-destruct is counting down, the blasting exhaust vents and flashing lights intensely reflect the chaotic nature of the third act. It’s shocking to me that director of photography Derek Vanlint has an extremely short filmography shooting only six films over a thirty-four year span. Apparently, the bulk of his career was spent on television commercials. What he did here would make you believe he had a largely notable film career because it was indeed the work of a master cinematographer.
Ridley Scott was very much inspired by the sort of “used future” production design of Star Wars. Instead of the clean and polished aesthetics of a 2001: A Space Odyssey, he wanted something that felt gritty, textured, and lived in. The Nostromo is a very utilitarian craft with very few sleek designs. It was created to be functional and practical to maintain a sense of relatable realism for the audience. It has the feel of a factory, oil rig, or submarine with all of its enclosed tight spaces and metal gratings. And the design of the alien spacecraft and all things related to the Xenomorph by H.R. Giger are truly alien in all aspects. It has a dark, gothic elegance to it. Giger always meshes together this sexualized aesthetic with his fascinating and twisted designs, and it creates this unsettling undercurrent of sexuality to all of these creatures that victimize our characters. Many have read a lot into these elements, but for me, it simply makes for a frightening and completely unique biology. The Alien feels threatening in every way with all of its fanged teeth, exoskeleton design, and ultimately, it’s black as night sheen. This is a creature meant to inhabit the darkness as an animalistic hunter. How Ash describes it as the “perfect organism” has always struck me powerfully selling every single-minded quality about it. It will use you to breed, and then, the others it will kill. It has no other purpose to exist but to destroy. I also love how the film constantly takes you by surprise as we witness the Alien’s life cycle. First, it’s this tiny little creature, but next time we see it, it’s seven feet tall! There’s an added shot in the director’s cut that I always liked when Brett goes looking for Jones the cat, and while he’s cooling himself off with the dripping condensation, there’s a shot of it hanging from the chains above. This is before we know what the Alien now looks like, and so, you wouldn’t pick up on it unless you already knew. Now, it did take a little bit of effort to put Prometheus out of my mind just to experience the originally intended mystique and fascination with the Space Jockey, but I was able to get there. I still enjoy Prometheus, but I wanted to experience Alien in its purest form.
Now, despite this being a serious film of horror and atmosphere, the interactions of these characters portrayed by this excellent cast create some much needed moments of levity. I constantly found what Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton were doing to be immensely pleasing and funny. Parker and Brett are these two jokers who maintain the ship’s functions, and feel quite underappreciated for their hard work who try to leverage that out with some delightful exchanges. Kotto and Stanton have a great chemistry that brings some rich personality into the fold.
Tom Skerritt is very solid as Captain Dallas. He has that sense of authority and responsibility which clearly has him stand out as a leader. Yet, he’s fallible making decisions out of passion instead of adhering to regulations, but also, owning up to those decisions and errors. At the end of it all, he’s just a guy who wants to do his job and get home, but is forced to deal with something beyond his experience that ultimately does terrify him.
Then, we’ve got Sigourney Weaver who was an unknown talent at the time, and that played to an audience’s surprise. This one person that they are unfamiliar with in the cast is actually the heroin of the piece, and Weaver shows her stellar talent every moment she’s on screen. She holds her own opposite everyone very well projecting authority, strength, conviction, and decisiveness as Ellen Ripley. Yet, of course, the absolutely soul shattering terror that Ripley experiences is powerful through Weaver. She is vulnerable, but she can fight through it for her own survival.
This is unlike the constantly panicked Lambert who paralyzes with fear in the face of the alien, but her fear is entirely genuine and real with Veronica Cartwright’s fantastic talents making it something other than a potentially annoying character. Many would find themselves reacting like Lambert does, and it’s a testament to the characters that are able to keep their fear and emotions in check to carry onward.
Ian Holm’s performance is brilliant. It’s one of those things where you pick up on more in repeat viewings after you know the twist of Ash. You see the sinister probing eyes that observe a situation like it’s some lab experiment. Once you know who Ash is and what his purpose happens to be you can see his secret intent, especially during the chestburster scene. This twist is carefully setup throughout the movie in how he repeatedly enables the safe passage of the alien aboard the ship.
The great thing about these characters is that, despite the futuristic setting on a spacecraft, these are relatable people. They seem plucked straight out of our time and lives as rugged, blue collar space truckers. They’re regular people just doing a regular job, but it’s only that they’re towing ore across interstellar space instead of a highway or the like. They have realistic relationships such as Parker and Brett having some friction against the bridge officers because they get paid less even though the ship wouldn’t work without them. These people all have conflicts, friendships, and complicated dynamics between them, and this is further aided by very realistic and honest dialogue. The film surely doesn’t take time to explore the depth of these characters, but it is their behaviors and interactions that inform us of all we need to know about each one of them. That’s really how you write an ensemble movie, much like John Carpenter’s The Thing. You don’t need to get their life stories, you just need fully realized characters portrayed by great, suitable actors. And I would be remised if I didn’t mention John Hurt here. While he has the shortest screentime of anyone here, he puts in a solid performance that has a few moments of levity, but overall, is as authentic and strong as anyone else here.
The late Jerry Goldsmith seemed to regularly have conflicts with the filmmakers he worked with on how his scores should be crafted. Oddly, I find that in these cases, what it is that he’s pushed towards creating is ultimately the better choice for the film overall. Here, we get some great cues with the main theme being the best which exudes an aura of mystery, intrigue, and spookiness. It’s a subtle melody that does a lot to make things feel lightly ominous and dangerous without ever being overt. Simplicity can sometimes do so much in conjunction with how a film is shot and plotted. The music that Goldsmith composed here is exceptionally effective even if how most of it was used went against how he thought it should be.
Usually, when you know a horror film well enough, knowing where the scares are coming and everything, it tends to become less effective. However, upon this theatrical screening, many moments were still startling and scary. I really feel that experiencing Alien in the immersive environment of a movie theatre is the best way to do it. Maybe if you have a large HDTV and a stellar surround sound system, you could achieve that effect, but seeing all of the visual mastery on that large cinema screen was more than I could have imagined. It just gave me the amplified experience I was looking for with this movie, and why I was compelled and excited for this experience. Now that I’ve had that experience, my home viewing experience will be richer and more engaging.
It is undeniable that Alien is an eternal classic, but now, I am able to hold it up to that level of awe and recognition myself. Scott took what was a B-movie horror idea and turned it into an A-grade picture full of masterfully crafted artistry in all aspects with the cast being a glowing example. Ridley Scott is known for taking great care in creating immersive worlds not just on film, but for the actors and crew to live inside of. He locks you into this enclosed maze of a dark spaceship where the Alien could be hiding anywhere, and you feel the claustrophobic tension eating away at you. It can be a haunting, disturbing film for many, and while it has violence and blood, it is strategically used to intense effect. The same can be said about the Alien itself – only seen it shadows, in pieces. Scott only once or twice gives you a full fledged look at it. He keeps it like a startling nightmare – brief glimpses that horrify, much like Jaws. Unlike Jaws though, it wasn’t out of a necessity of the creature not working or being well designed, it was an artistic decision that worked brilliantly. There’s a lot of crap that was spawned from this film with bad sequels, poorly conceived crossovers, and a prequel that has proved divisive for many. Still, I can watch this film as a self-contained entity, and when done so, you can immensely appreciate that Ridley Scott and his vast team of highly talented artists and filmmakers made a stunning and iconic piece of science fiction horror.
Adapted from the novel by Stephen King, and directed by David Cronenberg, The Dead Zone is definitely one of the best films based on King’s work. It has always been heralded with acclaim for many excellent reasons. Not the least of which is an incredible lead performance from Christopher Walken.
Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) is a young and charming school teacher with a bright future ahead of him with a woman he loves and intends to marry. Yet, after leaving her home one night, he is involved in a car accident which leaves him in a coma for five years. Upon awakening, Johnny discovers he has gained the power of psychic visions where he see the past, present, and future with just the touch of a hand. This frightens Johnny, and he feels only more isolated from the world when he learns that Sarah (Brooke Adams), the love of his life, has married another man and had a child with him. After Johnny physically recovers from his coma, he becomes more and more reclusive until Sheriff Bannerman (Tom Skerritt) enlists his help to find the vicious Castle Rock Killer. However, when Johnny later shakes the hand of young and upcoming political candidate Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen), he is confronted with a frightening vision that shakes Johnny down to his core.
To say the least, Cronenberg has been a very original director with a unique perspective and style which comes out in science fiction or horror fare. Although, what he gives us with this film is a much more subtly clever and psychologically powerful over overt strangeness. Instead of going for the throat like he did with Scanners or Videodrome, he really hones in on the heart of this story, and he does it magnificently well. Every element he brought together truly merged with the heavy, somber tone he was going for. That was an excellent direction to envelope the film in as it puts us right into Johnny’s headspace. I think it was a stroke of genius that he made Johnny’s visions fully enveloping. He put Johnny inside the vision as if he was right there as it happened, but unable to affect change within the vision. It created a far more strained experienced for the character than if it just appeared as a dream state. With the first vision, he could probably feel the heat and flames just as if he was there in the burning house. During the vision of the Castle Rock Killer, Johnny is adamant how he was right there watching the murder, but unable to stop it. This forges Johnny into a darker, more reclusive state.
This is the earliest film I’ve seen of Christopher Walken’s career, and it shows that, no matter the age, Walken delivers his all. Johnny starts out as a kind, lively man fully in love, but the accident forces a turbulent change in him. He feels like a man out of sync with the world, and is now haunted by his new abilities. He’s angry that five years of his have been taken away, and that the woman he loved moved on with her life while he has none to return to. Walken is able to convey the deep emotional turmoil of Johnny with so much humanity that you can’t help but feel his pain. The tragic sense of the character really comes through in such strong, brilliant ways. Walken subtly mixes in the charm of the pre-accident Johnny underneath that somber, unstable exterior. The well of emotion in his face and eyes honestly becomes heartbreaking many times over. When the visions occur, Walken goes into an intense trance which is immensely riveting. Walken actually had Cronenberg fire off a gun, loaded with blanks, to elicit his startling reaction in those moments, and that was greatly effective. Walken can be very intense, at times, as the fear of his knowledge of the future boils over, but he’s always able to return to that heartfelt side. I could really go on and on about all the nuances and profound qualities of Christopher Walken’s performance, as he is always so rich with, but suffice it to say, he is absolutely stunning in this role.
Another great talent on display is Tom Skerritt who brings his strong presence of authority and sense of compassion to Sheriff Bannerman. He feels very authentic as the lead police officer of a small New England town. He really invests you in Bannerman’s plight where he has exhausted all avenues of investigation, and is willing to put his faith in the extraordinary to protect the people of his town. Herbert Lom does a very interesting and relatable performance as Dr. Sam Weizak with the genuine care of a physician. I really like the candor and humanity he brings to the role as Johnny’s doctor. He’s about the only one Johnny can confide in about his abilities, and that creates some very strong scenes which show Johnny’s pain and struggles. It’s very strong and intriguing work. Brooke Adams is very lovely and beautiful in the role of Sarah. She is very sweet and smart showing a simple, very caring woman that would endear herself to the younger Johnny who was bright and full of life. Adams does the same to an audience showing warmth and tenderness, and really striking up a genuine, heartfelt chemistry with Walken. The great Anthony Zerbe has an admirable turn as Roger Stuart, who hires Johnny to tutor his son, and also, bridges Smith with Stillson. Zerbe has a screen presence of respect, intelligence, and sophistication which serves the character excellently.
Martin Sheen is awesome as Greg Stillson. While he is perfectly stereotypical of a politician, and seemingly an exaggerated one, it entirely works for the role. Stillson is megalomaniacal, as is revealed to Johnny. He’s full-tilt insane, and Sheen revels in that madness. He has thinly veiled unhinged mentality which many voters would perceive as zeal, passion, and charisma, but Zerbe’s character perceives the danger he poses, which is a very nice touch to motivate Johnny’s and Stillson’s paths to cross.
While I have not read the novel, it seems like it had just a series of generally episodic events, which could have proven complicated to translate into a coherent screenplay, but I believe the filmmakers did an excellent job of weaving them together with Johnny’s plight being the through line. How he goes from feeling angry and cursed to slowly realizing the potential good he can do with his powers is a fascinating approach. Yet, he’s never really a man at peace. There’s always an emotional or psychological turmoil swirling inside him. Because of this, The Dead Zone is more a character-driven movie as there is no overarching main plot, aside from Johnny’s internal struggles. The film gives us a series of otherwise unrelated events that deeply affect and mold Johnny towards a powerful ending. While it could use a little more meat on the bone, in terms of a more rigorously involved plot in the Stillson centric segment, this really seems like the best approach to the material, and it is done exceptionally well.
The film’s score was done by the late, great Michael Kamen, who was a masterful composer and musician. Here, he produced a brilliant score that is powerful and haunting. It really has a strong presence which really digs deep into the emotions abound in the film, reflecting the sad, bittersweet feeling Cronenberg captured on screen. Even in the beautiful moment, he still manages to keep that heavy, foreboding tone present. It’s really a mesmerizing piece of music which is undeniably one of Kamen’s finest and distinct works.
The winter setting of The Dead Zone is marvelously brilliant. It reflects the cold, lonely, isolated sensibility that come to define Johnny Smith. It also perfectly Stephen King. Cinematographer Mark Irwin shot this film amazingly well. There are some sequences with wonderfully moody lighting such as the tunnel crime scene with the headlights reflecting off the ice, or the green tinge inside the Dodd residence. Johnny’s visions are all very visually strong, especially the ice break sequence. Overall, Irwin captures the power of this picture beautifully and compellingly.
The horror aspects in this film are very psychologically and visually based. Certainly the most graphic and startling is the Castle Rock Killer segment. We get violence and some disturbing imagery with this part which is very expertly executed. The rest of the film focuses on the fearful knowledge that haunts Johnny, and creates a troubling foreboding tone which leaves the audience unsettled. It’s a cerebral film built on a solid, somber atmosphere that can leave you saddened. I do think it’s a film that goes beyond the confines of horror, and pursues something much more fascinating and deeper. That was much of King’s intention. He wanted to write a story that didn’t delve into creatures or spirits or other things that come out to scare you in the dead of night. The Dead Zone was a sad, turbulent journey for a man that never asked for these extraordinary powers, but had to somehow cope with these experiencing jarring, haunting premonitions of death. They lead him down a chilling path that would be frightening for anyone.
As is obvious, I really like The Dead Zone. The only thing that pulls it away from a perfect rating is that I don’t think the build up to the climax is quite strong enough. A bit more time taken for Johnny to deep down struggle with his decision, or to really reflect upon himself would’ve given it a more dramatic swell. The ending is excellent, though. It really hits the right, powerful emotional beat. I wouldn’t change a frame of it. Christopher Walken puts in a rock solid performance that runs through a wide array of emotions that he brilliantly wraps into a single package. David Cronenberg had already proven he could go way far out with his concepts, and really deliver very bizarre, yet profound films. Here, he proves he get deep into the soul of a story and character, and deliver something equally profound on a much more intimate human level. I really, strongly recommend this film. It is expertly crafted by a great team of wonderfully talented film artists.