Film

establishing space

Over the years I’ve watched Alien (1979) many, many times. Every time it appears on television I am compelled to watch it again. I’m never bored because I’m always watching for something new in the film, and each time something comes to my attention.

In my recent viewing I was struck at how Ridley Scott takes his time establishing the environment of the spaceship. A good four/five minutes pass until anyone speaks. Before that there are moody shots of the interior, with enough human touches in-between the technology and flashing buttons to suggest people before we ever see them. Goldsmith’s score is haunting. This is a film that sets an authoritative pace and commands our attention.

As usual I love the design of this film. Everything is grubby, and looks used. Even the screens on the spacesuit helmets have streak marks. The use of models for the ships grants it a reality that modern films with an overabundance of CGI still lack. Scott realises that in order for us to take the leap of faith about the ship, and the alien, that he has to offer us a complete world that has been carefully considered. The attention to details is clear. This place looks like an inhabited world.

I wonder if it’s an artefact of the 1970s? It was an era that believed in realism, even in its elaborate fictions. Now, filmmakers seem to believe that if it’s a fantasy or a science fiction film that it needs to be squeaky clean and shiny. I think Firefly (2002) and Serenity (2005) in their own way attempted to emulate that look. Farscape (1999) got it too, even though it developed a rather pleasing fetish for leather. Pitch Black (2000) remains one of my favourite recentish science fiction films because it remembers that people personalise the spaces they inhabit; they fill up those places with impressions of their existence, even when they are not present.

This is what Scott understands. This is what the beginning of Alien is all about: knowing that even in the ultimate empty space–outer space–we attempt to make our mark, to leave a footprint, or blow up a spaceship.

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