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Did ‘Alien’ deserve to beat ‘Star Wars’? Our critics discuss Ridley Scott’s classic

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The #UltimateSummerMovie Showdown is under way, and voters have chosen “Alien” (1979) as their winner for Week 4, dedicated to movies first released in theaters from May 22-28 (between 1975 and 2019). Times film critic Justin Chang sat down with entertainment columnist Glenn Whipp to answer a series of questions about the film and its enduring Hollywood legacy. (Note: This piece discusses major plot details from “Alien,” including the ending.)

Chang will host a live video chat with “Alien” director Ridley Scott on Thursday at 6 p.m. Pacific. Their live video conversation will be streamed on the Los Angeles Times Classic Hollywood Facebook Page and YouTube as well as Twitter.

OK, “Alien” is a great movie. But it beat “Star Wars” this week. “Star Wars”! An ultimate summer movie if ever there was one! How the hell did that happen?

JUSTIN CHANG: I’m a bit shocked myself. This was an extraordinarily competitive week, with more than a few respectable contenders; I’m a bit surprised that Stanley Kubrick’s inexhaustibly rich “The Shining” didn’t fare better. But a win for “Alien” was precisely the outcome I was hoping for, even as final voting got under way and “Star Wars” took an early but not insurmountable lead. Did I overstep my boundaries by encouraging my Twitter followers to vote for the underdog, spurring a wave of retweets by other critics who shared my pro-“Alien” sentiment? Maybe, but who cares? If “The Empire Strikes Back” couldn’t eke out a win last week, George Lucas’ clunkier 1977 original surely deserved no better. Given the degree to which Ridley Scott himself was inspired by Lucas’ movie, there is something all too fitting about “Alien” bursting through “Star Wars’” metaphorical chest.

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GLENN WHIPP: I’m taking a break from consoling my sulking, 13-year-old self about the travesty of a series billed as the “Ultimate Summer Movie Showdown” that will now be devoid of the ultimate summer movie franchise. How the hell did this happen??? You know how it went down, Justin, and the next time I see Manohla [Dargis] at a screening (please tell me there will be a next time), I will ... well, I won’t say anything. Because I love “Alien.” And I love “Star Wars.” Both stand as cinematic milestones. If I had to guess why “Alien” won, I’d venture that, building on “Jaws,” George Lucas’ space opera set in motion the blockbuster mentality that has dominated Hollywood for the past four decades. And because studios have now almost completely capitulated to that mindset, it’s hard not to blame “Star Wars” for ruining movies. And for eventually giving birth to Jar Jar Binks.

CHANG: “Alien” may not have spawned anything quite so egregious as “The Phantom Menace” (forced to choose between spending time with Jar Jar and a Xenomorph, I’d take my chances with the latter), but it is the high point of a franchise that, like any franchise, has had its subsequent ups and downs. The ups definitely include 1986’s “Aliens,” and those who deem that James Cameron sequel superior to Scott’s original (scoff) will get the chance to make their case in July. The downs are more debatable — David Fincher’s “Alien 3” is more fondly remembered now than it was in the ’90s; Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s “Alien: Resurrection,” not so much. I’m mixed on “Prometheus” but found “Alien: Covenant” genuinely gripping, more on philosophical than visceral grounds. I have to confess, I never saw “Alien vs. Predator.” Is that the one where we find out how Jar Jar was conceived?

When did you first see “Alien,” and how many times have you seen it since?

WHIPP: I was too young to buy a ticket and, for whatever reason, didn’t sneak in to see this one. So the first time I saw “Alien” was on HBO, which went to 24-hour programming a couple of years after the movie left theaters. This was one of many R-rated films that prompted my mom to threaten to cancel HBO. (“Roger Ebert gave ’10' four stars! And it’s directed by the guy who makes the ‘Pink Panther’ movies you love. C’mon!”) I didn’t see “Alien” in a proper setting until years later on a double bill with Cameron’s thrilling sequel. Since then, I’ve seen it enough times to never jump when Jonesy the cat leaps into the picture.

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CHANG: I’ve seen “Alien” twice — not in a theater, alas, though I like to think of my first viewing as the next best thing. I watched it one night with a bunch of college friends, most of whom had seen it already and were kind enough not to (a) spoil anything or (b) make me even more jittery by, y’know, dumping molten lead on me during the scary parts. I was a pretty squeamish moviegoer as a kid and, given “Alien’s” fully justified reputation as the mother of all freakouts, I didn’t bother seeking it out until young adulthood. But seek it out I did, and happily so; it’s a masterpiece.

What struck you the most about the film on your most recent viewing?

CHANG: One of the most remarkable things about “Alien” — and what makes it not just a superior piece of sci-fi horror filmmaking but a genuine work of art — is just how patient it is, a quality that seems even more apparent now than (I imagine) it did in 1979. The first hour or so is slow, methodical, dread-inducing build-up. The camera slinks and broods and wanders the halls of the Nostromo, as chilly and clinically observant as Ian Holm’s scientist Ash. Michael Agger put it perfectly in a 2003 Slate appreciation when he noted, “The scariest movie in history is actually a bit shy.” That shyness, of course, is a testament to the movie’s utter confidence and nerve, qualities that are a lot harder to find in mainstream American filmmaking these days. Unlike so many blockbusters, “Alien” has no desire to bludgeon you into submission; it takes its time because it means to infiltrate your nervous system. Like our chest-bursting little friend, it wants to get inside you.

WHIPP: I love how this movie still rattles me nearly four decades and countless viewings later. When I came upon it as a kid, I had been mostly gorging on hopeful sci-fi films from Lucas and Steven Spielberg, populated by clearly defined heroes and villains, as well as aliens who come in peace and friendship. And then I saw that ancient spacecraft in “Alien,” the one that contains the fossilized life form that “exploded from the inside,” and the vast egg chamber that poor Kane stumbles into, images that literally became the stuff of nightmares. I vividly remember having a dream shortly after I first watched the movie in which that fossilized alien pilot winked at me and then came to life, chasing me through (maybe?) the Carlsbad Caverns. And watching it again the other night, I was again unnerved by H.R. Giger’s disturbing designs and the power they had to seep into my psyche. The house was eerily quiet (too quiet) when I went to bed.

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CHANG: I crept upstairs more gingerly than usual myself after my own rewatch the other night. And it’s fitting that you should mention your dreams, Glenn, considering how much of the imagery of “Alien” — the mesmerizingly intricate, creepy and tactile imagery — sprang fully formed from Giger’s own subconscious. It’s astonishing to recall that this was only Scott’s second feature as a director, after “The Duellists,” and the one that first established his reputation as one of Hollywood’s greatest visual stylists. As it was, he had to fight tooth and nail to get the studio to sign off on Giger’s brilliant creature designs, without which the movie would, of course, be unthinkable today.

Those images give “Alien” an extraordinary visual and mythological density. They also give it a febrile erotic dimension that has inspired countless graduate dissertations (and doubtless informed Claire Denis’ “High Life,” Glenn, one of our own favorite recent sex-in-space thrillers). Those enormous caverns on the alien planetoid can’t help but take on anatomical overtones; the Xenomorph itself is some kind of gender-fusing coital nightmare, with its elongated phallic head and its jaws dripping with sticky secretions. The magisterial gooeyness of Scott’s vision feels like a fascinating response, and maybe even a corrective, to the more sanitized visions of outer space that preceded it, courtesy of Lucas and even Stanley Kubrick. I’m not suggesting “Alien” is superior to “2001,” Glenn. But like “2001,” it changed the face of science fiction forever.

WHIPP: I don’t know what kind of movies they’re showing in high school sex-ed classes these days, Justin, but a week spent watching “Alien” could lead to some rewarding discussions. Giger built the Xenomorphs from condoms. That factoid itself could get the conversation rolling.

Audiences will keep watching “Alien” for generations because it connects on all these primal levels. Giger incorporated human and animal bones into the Alien’s suit and lodged an actual human skull into the tip of the cylindrical head. (“I admire its purity,” Ash said with awe. For once, that [expletive] robot was right.) Compare that to the bloodless, computer-generated worlds of the Marvel movies — or even Scott’s Oscar-winning “Gladiator,” an earlier entry in our summer movie showdown series that digitally rebuilt the Colosseum. Like “Alien,” it won the Oscar for visual effects. But it looks dated now, while “Alien” continues to feed our imagination.

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Science officer Ash (Ian Holm) has lost his head.
(20th Century Fox)

How would you rank the deaths of all the characters, from glorious to ignoble?

WHIPP: Following instructions, in reverse order ...

6) Lambert (Veronica Cartwright): If I had been on the Nostromo, I’d probably have taken up chain-smoking too. At the same time, it probably reduced her lung capacity, so even if she tried to run, she wouldn’t have gotten far.

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5) Parker (Yaphet Kotto): Hope the Company at least gave him a full share posthumously.

4) Brett (Harry Dean Stanton): The sound in this scene — and throughout the film — is superb. I love the plip-plop of the condensation falling on Brett’s trucker cap just before the Alien descends, making this working stiff the grown-up Alien’s first victim. (Worth noting: Stanton becomes the first actor to appear in two of our Showdown winners.)

3/2) Dallas (Tom Skerritt) and Ash (Ian Holm): A case could be made for the primacy of either of these deaths. Dallas crawling through the air ducts, tracking the Alien with that beep-beep-beep signal, only to have the roles reversed, is a classic sequence of terror that has been parodied countless times. (“The Simpsons” salute in which a greased Groundskeeper Willie pursues Bart’s dog in a similar fashion will never be topped.)

But … there’s something so satisfying about Ash’s head-beating, particularly that whirling dervish dance he does right before the decapitation. And all that milky white liquid … more bodily fluids, Justin! From a robot, too. I’m not sure why a robot is filled with alfredo sauce, but I’m going to pass on the fettuccine for a while.

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1) Kane (John Hurt): What else? And here is a reward for the patience you mentioned earlier. We know the crew. We understand their camaraderie. We’ve seen them share a meal. And so, now, we’re thrilled that Kane is OK and that facehugger is gone! And Kane’s hungry! Even if the food is terrible. And then comes the cough, the blood geyser (the actors’ surprise is real) and a birth that remains one of the most memorable moments in movie history.

CHANG: Impeccably done, Glenn, and I’m in full agreement. I notice that you have omitted the climactic demise of Kane’s son, and while I’m not sure where it would fall in your ranking, it’s a memorable scene nonetheless. Like so much else in the film, Ripley’s last stand against the Alien unfolds with painstaking slowness, and rightly so; since she would face near-certain death were she to go up against it face to (hideous) face, the element of surprise is the only card she has to play. And so she lays her trap, step by step, first quietly inching her way into a spacesuit, strapping herself into her seat and then methodically blasting the Alien out of its hiding place before jettisoning it from the spacecraft.

It’s a terrifying scene and also a strangely poignant one, mainly because it emphasizes not the Alien’s hostility but rather, for the first time, its vulnerability. Is it sleeping when Ripley sees it? Hibernating? Preparing for its next evolutionary leap? For all its intelligence, how much awareness does this biomechanoid being possess — of itself, its surroundings, its own actions? It may be far more hostile than a human baby but is it, in any meaningful sense, less innocent?

When Ripley does her trembling, terrified rendition of “You Are My Lucky Star” — a touch brilliantly devised by Sigourney Weaver herself — it takes on the disquieting quality of a lullaby, something a mother might sing as she strangles her child in its cradle. Death is rarely the end, of course, especially in Hollywood. The Xenomorphs would rise to haunt our dreams again — though never as brilliantly or memorably as they did in “Alien.”

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The L. A. Times Ultimate Summer Movie Showdown

When: 6 p.m. May 28

Where: Free virtual event will be livestreamed on the L.A. Times Classic Hollywood Facebook Page and YouTube, as well as Twitter.




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