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)

Episode 40: Gosford Park (2001, Robert Altman) / Piranha Part Two: The Spawning (1981, James Cameron)

With the Academy Awards once against swelling like a malignant infection, An Alan Smithee Podcast takes a completely inadvertently coincidental look this week at two films from frequent Oscar nominees: the late great Robert Altman and the not so great lately James Cameron. Altman’s career began anonymously in television before graduating to film and earning the acclaim of the academy when it was fashionable for them to do so. Only by making a film about Hollywood years later did he fall back into their favor, receiving at least the courtesy of nomination for the remainder of his life and career while the honors ultimately were bestowed upon keepers of the middle brow like Robert Zemeckis and Ron Howard.

James Cameron blossomed in the special effects boom of the 80s which drove directors like Altman into the darkness. He also did arguably more for the mainstreaming of special effects driven films than Steven Spielberg or George Lucas by making The Terminator and Aliens, blockbusters which established a permanent market for violent action films involving robots and/or aliens targeted at teenage boys instead of the entire family. Flash forward to the present day when serious Academy Award nominated dramatic actors vie to play villains in superhero movies and Cameron stands to sweep the industry’s highest self-congratulatory accolades for directing a 3D aliens and robots movie. Male adulthood has been replaced by perpetual adolescence and Cameron is truly king of the world. Yet even kings have to start somewhere as big fish in little ponds, before they spread their wings.

Gosford Park contains many of Altman’s trademarks, most prominently a sprawling cast with overlapping dialogue in the service of social satire. Ostensibly a murder mystery, the first half of this long story is spent establishing a myriad of ladies and gentlemen and their faithful servants gathering for a party in the countryside of England, 1932. Their social protocol is antiquated yet not so far in the past as to be unrecognizable, and the duality between the hosts and help is a fascinating look at the function and perception of privilege. The depiction of the servants behind the scenes is of particular interest to anyone wondering what the daily lives of maids, butlers et all were busy exchanging bon mots and stabbing each other in the back. Altman’s roving camera and Julian Fellowes kaleidoscopic screenplay create an amazing tour through the waning days of the British empire’s high society and one of the director’s most transportive works.

Roger Corman is scheduled to receive a lifetime achievement award at this year’s Oscars. The actors and directors he gave breaks to are legion and it will be interesting to see whom among them have enough self confidence to be associated with him, or even give their permission to be shown in the inevitable compilation reel alongside Jack Nicholson in The Little Shop of Horrors and Sylvester Stallone in Death Race 2000. Actually, Stallone will probably be too proud to OK the use of that clip.

Whether Cameron will give a tip of the hat to his earliest employer is a toss-up. Corman’s 70s outfit New World Pictures not only gave Joe Dante his first directorial work on Hollywood Boulevard and Piranha, but Cameron’s first special effects work on New World’s Galaxy of Terror and Battle Beyond The Stars. Surely this got Cameron the recommendation for the non-Corman produced sequel Piranha Part Two: The Spawning. Whereas Dante’s original spoofed Jaws while simultaneously making an exciting monster movie, Cameron’s sequel rather straightforwardly takes itself seriously even with the idiotic premise that some of the killer piranha have learned to fly.

If nothing else – and there really is nothing else – at least Cameron got some more special effects expertise under his belt for the future, which was only looking up. There’s a half-eaten Jamaican who looks remarkably similar to a battle damaged Arnold Schwarzenegger.

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NEXT WEEK: COMMENTARY TRACK SPECIAL! BATMAN (1989, TIM BURTON)

Episode 13: Mannequin (1987, Michael Gottlieb) / Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991, James Cameron)

Episode XIII
Mannequin (1987) / Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
It is a period of transition. A period of passive voice.
Hosts Matt and Andrew discuss one of the biggest blockbusters of the last twenty years, not to mention the only film in the last twenty-five years to feature G.W. Bailey acting like an idiot.*
* if you ignore the countless other films where he acted like an idiot. But Mannequin does feature James Spader licking his hair, which not many films (?) do.

Films discussed
Mannequin, Mannequin: On the Move, Weekend at Bernie’s, Weekend at Bernie’s II, 
Police Academy, Less Than Zero, St. Elmo’s Fire
Terminator 2: Judgment Day, The Terminator, Aliens, Alien, Piranha 2: The Spawning, The Abyss, True Lies, Titanic, Predator, Commando, Terminator Salvation