Alan Smithee Podcast 64: Alien (1979, Ridley Scott) / Alien 2: On Earth (1980, Ciro Ippolito)

The Alien – capital T, capital A “Alien” – has been the Mickey Mouse of sci-fi horror for over 30 years now. That’s because there wasn’t really a recognized hybrid genre of “Sci-Fi Horror” before screenwriter Dan O’Bannon and his partner Ronald Shusett conceived a version of O’Bannon’s early sci-fi comedy Dark Star (directed by John Carpenter) in which the goofy beach ball-looking alien would be a terrifying monster and another crew of astronauts would be stuck in the black void of the cosmos with nowhere to run. The famous tagline “In Space No One Can Hear You Scream” said it all. Selling the audience on both a realistic spaceship and a seemingly real, unprecedentedly bizarre looking space monster helped change the standards by which space movies were judged. The same can be said of Star Wars, which similarly combined a lot of endearing features from an escapist fantasy genre and portrayed their spaceships and aliens so vividly with state-of-the-art special effects that all around the world, the mainstream was reintroduced to those charms as adults.

The fun hypothetical question to ask of both films is, what if the sequels and multi-media franchise empires had never followed? Just one self-contained Star Wars adventure and one Alien? The impact on the rest of the movie business actually would have remained much the same. Mickey Mouse would have remained in the dark shadows of our imagination, that’s for certain. The most prominent features of Ridley Scott’s original film, compared to the later sequels of James Cameron, David Fincher et all, are the slow pace of the story and the way the alien is shown as little as possible. This was not a case of the effects being unconvincing and necessitating minimal view as with the shark in Jaws, but simply Scott’s preference as the director. He did not consider himself a horror film maker after all, and under the harsh light of a horror movie fan’s experience, the film really ceases to be suspenseful or scary after the first viewing lets you know when the monster is going to suddenly emerge. Coupled with loud noises on the soundtrack when said jack-in-the-box “jump” moments occur, the overall effect of Alien on the horror end of the equation is ultimately rather lacking. No wonder the sequels barely bothered trying to be scary after people had seen the Alien in full view by the end of Scott’s movie – a view which practically reveals the zipper running up it’s back. Whoops. So close.

The residual strength of Alien is ultimately in the science fiction department. While unmistakably drawn from the late 1970s, the film’s cast of characters live and work in their spaceship as if they were born there. Their descent onto the alien planet and discovery of an alien ship containing alien eggs is a masterpiece of wonder in the face of the unknown, a creation of mood helped by Jerry Goldsmith’s awe inspiring score. The methodical arguments between Sigourney Weaver, Ian Holm and Tom Skerritt over what actions to take grounds all the fantastic elements down to a practical level and makes the future seem all the more real. Culminating in the unforgettable sight of the mysterious alien “facehugger” wrapped around one of the astronauts, the first act of Alien is as engrossing and impressive an introduction to a possible future as Kubrick’s 2001.

Being a big studio, high profile, new post-Star Wars Summer blockbuster event picture, Alien contained a massive amount of gloss and polish which not every “Sci-Fi Horror” film produced in its wake could compete with when trying the experience. These Alien influenced horror films could, however, afford to imitate the most talked-about grossout moment of the movie: the infamous “Chestburster” scene where a penile hand puppet with teeth explodes out of John Hurt’s belly. Thus in the immediate wake of that infamous demise came a whole spate of fake heads and torsos being busted open from within by ugly sock puppets. Probably the worst among these is Alien 2: On Earth.

Alien 2: On Earth exists in the company of many other Italian knockoffs and unofficial sequels to American genre movies, such as 1983’s Escape From New York cash-in 2019: After the Fall of New York, previously featured on this very podcast. But where 2019 had some resources behind the production and ideas to add to the initial premise stolen from John Carpenter, Alien 2: On Earth appears to have been made for a handful of lira and adds absolutely nothing creative as a fake sequel to Alien. Following a team of modern day geologists on a doomed excursion into some Californian caves, the film does include blobby alien hatchlings which cling to and burst out of faces, but nothing else which could be confused for the original. The sole defense you could make of this film is that its producers did what fans of the real Alien movies waited decades to see – the aliens “on Earth” – but the incompetence of the filmmakers on every level makes any viewing an endurance test of pain.

Only sheer obscurity has kept 20th Century Fox from suing over the title, even after the recent Blu-Ray release by Midnight Legacy – who, like the film’s creators, are probably banking on the title and not the abominable film itself.

NEXT WEEK: NAZI HUNTING SPECIAL! BLACK BOOK (2006, PAUL VERHOEVEN) & BLOODRAYNE: THE THIRD REICH (2010, UWE BOLL)

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Alan Smithee Podcast 59: Escape from New York (1981, John Carpenter) / 2019: After the Fall of New York (1983, Sergio Martino)

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In the 20th Century people were big into the idea of the post-apocalypse created by nuclear war, instead of by realistic causes like zombies. The apocalypse, it was presumed, would happen after the Soviet Union and the United States laid waste to the world and civilization was wrecked. A few films were made along this premise in the 1970s, like A Boy and His Dog and Damnation Alley, yet none of these fantasies struck a chord in the public imagination until 1981 when George Miller directed his masterpiece The Road Warrior and rising auteur John Carpenter made Escape From New York. Carpenter’s conceptual masterstroke was combining what the new subgenre was getting at – that the future would be looking more like Lord of the Flies than The Jetsons or even Zardoz – with the assumption that New York City was so far gone to crime it may as well drop dead. Aside from Walter Hill’s The Warriors, no sci-fi / action / adventure films had explored the fantasy of New York as a lawless playground for gangs and Carpenter’s conception of Manhattan island as an inescapable prison colony captured the imagination of genre fans everywhere.

He also gave Kurt Russell a second career after years of Disney boy Bobby Driscoll roles, as Snake Plissken, a truly self centered and cynical antihero who perfectly matched the grim, bleak tone of his dystopic future adventure. Further rounding out the cast is possibly the best array of character actors ever assembled: Harry Dean Stanton, Adrienne Barbeau, Ernest Borgnine, Issac Hayes and Lee Van Cleef invest a sense of reality to the low budget landscape like no other cast ever has. As we discuss, this film truly shows off Carpenter’s auteurist skills at their peak from the synthesizer score to impeccable cinematography by his best collaborator Dean Cundey. Escape From New York is one of Carpenter’s greatest films and for the first time since our first episode we do our best to summarize its brilliance.

2019: After The Fall Of New York is by its title alone something of an admitted ripoff. What’s delightful and oft-stupefying is how many other science fiction genre ideas Ernesto Gastaldi, Sergio Martino and Gabriel Rossini decide to borrow when the premise of a Kurt Russell lookalike going into an abandoned Manhattan island to get someone out isn’t enough to sustain an entire movie without copying every single plot beat from Carpenter. Amongst these ideas are escape from Earth via spaceship, de-evolution of humans into ape-like creatures, infiltration of humanity by cybors, and a global infertility crisis threatening to wipe out humanity. This last idea may sound familiar to viewers and readers of Children of Men. 2019: After The Fall Of New York is a textbook case of Italian knockoff cinema complete with a totally overdubbed soundtrack and an exhilarating absence of narrative logic. Highly recommended to fans of Escape From New York and The Road Warrior who are also fans of every other sci-fi adventure ever made.

NEXT EPISODE: BREATHLESS SPECIAL! BREATHLESS (1960, JEAN-LUC GODARD) & BREATHLESS (1983, JIM MCBRIDE)