Alien: Still Terrifying after 40 years – HBO Max Review (Day 8)

I take a look at a film that, surprisingly, passes the Bechdel Test.

SUMMARY

There’s an alien. Or maybe the humans are the aliens, since they’re on another planet. But there’s more than one human, so the alien is probably the alien.

ACTUAL SUMMARY

In the future, the spaceship Nostromo is on a return trip to Earth when the ship’s AI, Mother (Helen Horton), detects a distress signal on the moon LV-426. The computer awakens the seven crew members: Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt), Executive Officer Kane (John Hurt), Warrant Officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), Science Officer Ash (Ian Holm), Navigator Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), and Engineers Parker and Brett (Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton). Weyland-Yutani (here Weylan-Yutani), the company that owns the Nostromo, has a policy to investigate any distress signal. They land on the moon and discover that the signal comes from a broken-down alien ship. Dallas, Kane, and Lambert head to investigate. Ripley deciphers the message enough to determine it’s a warning, but can’t tell any of the three due to interference. 

You can tell they’re astronauts because they have space-undies.

Kane discovers a chamber filled with hundreds of eggs and is attacked by a creature which hugs his face. They probably call it a visage-grabber. Dallas and Lambert take Kane back to the Nostromo, but Ripley refuses to let them back inside. Ash overrides her and tries to remove the creature from Kane’s face, discovering its blood is a powerful acid. The creature later detaches from Kane on its own and dies, leaving Kane seemingly unharmed… until a separate monster bursts out of his chest. The small monster escapes into the ship. The crew try to find it but fail, until the now human-sized creature attacks Brett and kills him. They realize that the creature must be living in the air ducts. Dallas goes in to try and drive the alien to the airlock, but is ambushed by the monster. Lambert wants to abandon ship but Ripley says that the escape shuttle can’t support all of the remaining crew members. She takes charge and sets about trying to flush the alien out of the ship.

Kane is not feeling great at this point.

While dealing with Mother, Ripley finds out that there’s a secret order for Ash to bring the alien back alive and that the crew is now expendable. Ash attempts to kill her and is revealed to be an android when Parker attacks him. Ash’s head is reactivated and he acknowledges that he had been assigned to protect the creature. Now that there are only three people, the remaining crew can survive on the shuttle, so they decide to self-destruct the Nostromo. As Parker and Lambert try to gather supplies, they’re both killed by the alien. Ripley tries to get to the shuttle with her cat Jones, but the alien blocks her path. She tries to abort the self-destruct, but fails, and she barely makes it onto the shuttle. As Ripley tries to go into stasis, she sees the alien is on the shuttle. She puts on a space suit and manipulates it with gas sprays until she blows it out of an airlock. The alien holds onto the engine and Ripley activates the burners to destroy it. She and Jones go into stasis while she enters her final log. 

END SUMMARY

The prompt for this was suggested as “A movie that passes the Bechdel Test.” For those who haven’t heard of that before, the test was created by Alison Bechdel in her comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For.” It was a rule proposed by a woman in the strip that the only movies that she sees must satisfy three requirements: 

  1. The film must have two women in it.
  2. The women must talk to each other.
  3. They have to talk about something that isn’t a man.

Despite how low this bar is, studies show that fewer than one in three Hollywood films can meet it. I decided to pick a movie that people probably wouldn’t think of as passing the Bechdel Test… only for me to realize when writing this that Alien was, in fact, the example Alison Bechdel used in the comic strip. Oh, well, any excuse to rewatch this movie is a good one.

Lambert and Ridley talk about more than that.

While I don’t usually do content warnings, because if you saw the movie you clearly know what kind of stuff will be discussed, I should warn you that a bit of this review will address sexual assault. You’ve been warned.

Part of what makes this film great is how it subverts the sci-fi and horror tropes of the 1960s and ‘70s. A big one is that none of the women in the movie are made into sex objects. Instead, the closest thing we have is Kane being attacked by the facehugger. Ridley Scott and writer Dan O’Bannon have never been particularly shy about saying that the film heavily tries to attack men with sexuality. Kane has a phallic rod shoved down his throat, is impregnated, and gives birth all non-consensually. In short, this is a film in which a man has to deal with the kind of sexual victimization that women usually had to deal with. Additionally, the alien was famously designed by H.R. Giger, an artist who specializes in terrifying sexual images. Its head is phallic and its tongue shoots out to attack its prey with another mouth. Freud would have a field day with this film. The “Director’s Cut” goes even further, showing that the alien, rather than killing Brett and Dallas, has instead abducted them and is turning them into eggs, apparently continuing the life cycle by more forced birth. This movie has a lot of rape undertones aimed at men, is what I’m saying. However, they’re not the sole victims, as Lambert’s death, while offscreen, is preceded by an image of the alien’s bladed tail rising between her legs, but maybe I’m reading too much into that one.

I’ve had at least one woman describe giving birth with this scene.

The alien is one of the most instantly iconic horror movie monsters. While fans have adopted the name “Xenomorph,” a term used in the sequel to denote any alien organism, the creature is not named in this movie. It’s best described as distinctly humanoid but never approaching human. Unlike most movie monsters at that point which usually resembled a combination of animal traits, it was intended to have a biomechanical appearance that blends into the spaceship. It is capable of being almost unnaturally still, something which allows it to be in the background of shots for long periods of time without being noticed by either the characters or the audience. It’s probably most memorable for its face. It doesn’t have any eyes, but has a large mouth which contains a second smaller mouth attached to the tip of its tongue. It tends to attack by penetrating its victims with the tongue, often through the head, similar to how cattle are killed by a captive bolt gun (featured in No Country for Old Men). Also, it bleeds acid, so attempting to hurt it, particularly on a spaceship where it can bleed through the hull, will almost certainly guarantee your death. Everything about it is designed to be deadly and unnerving. Here’s the first time it’s on screen:

Anyone who has read this blog has probably heard me defend Ellen Ripley as not only the greatest female action hero, but the best action hero period. I listed her as the most bad-ass mother in film (tied with Sarah Connor from the Terminator franchise), but a lot of her more notably action-oriented accomplishments are from the second Alien film. However, in both movies, Ripley’s greatest strength is that she’s almost always right. Her greatest weakness is that, as a woman, most of the men in the films tend to ignore what she says. In this movie, she suggests that they decipher the signal before checking it out, but Dallas overrules her. When Kane is attacked, they try to bring him back on board and Ripley refuses, citing quarantine protocol. She’s permitted to override Dallas in this situation, but Ash violates it anyway. When confronted by the alien on the shuttle, she methodically figures out how to get rid of it despite the fact that it is almost unstoppable. In the sequel, when asked for advice about what to do with the colony located on LV-426, she advises they destroy it from orbit. Ripley’s cool head stands in stark contrast to the typically panicky final girl in horror films. 

Even when dealing with a monster and the vacuum of space, she survives.

Overall, this movie holds up just so well. If you haven’t seen it, go watch it now. If you’ve got a friend who hasn’t seen it, let them know they’re in for a treat.

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All TimeCollection of TV EpisodesCollection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.

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5) Queen of Heaven (I, Claudius)

I, Claudius is a miniseries, but, much like with some of the earlier shows, I could not care less about technicalities. A pox on all pedants (including, usually, me). It’s 12 episodes long, and all of them are amazing, but this one goes beyond.

IClaudiusBookI, Claudius is an adaptation of Robert Graves’ novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God. It is a fictionalized account of the early Roman empire, going from Augustus to, you guessed it, Claudius, and supposedly told by Claudius himself (he narrates it from the end of his reign). Claudius did, in fact, write an 8 volume autobiography of his family, but, since it didn’t survive, we only know the gist of it, and that the historian Suetonius thought it was “tasteless.” Given the nature of some of his predecessors, as shown within this show with a decent amount of accuracy, it would be impossible to write a “tasteful” history of the Julio-Claudians (the family of Augustus).

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Dear Penthouse Forum Romanum: I never thought it would happen to me…

The show is narrated by Claudius (Derek Jacobi) at the end of his life, with the entire series happening in flashback. Here’s the story so far, for those of you who don’t know slightly fictionalized histories of the early Roman Empire (warning, this show is dense as hell, this’ll take a few minutes. If you want to skip, go down a bit): Augustus (Brian Blessed) was the first emperor of Rome. Much of the first part of the story concerns the events that surround him seeking an heir. Augustus’s wife, Livia (Siân Phillips), wants her son, Tiberius (George Baker), to be the next emperor, and she will do almost anything to get it.

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If looks could kill, she’d… well, she kills everyone anyway.

Livia is the best character on the show, and among the best characters of all time. She is the epitome of someone working behind the scenes. She murders anyone that gets in her way, usually with her own batch of poison, always keeping herself removed from actually having to do anything direct. She poisons Marcellus (Christopher Guard), the first heir of Augustus. She implicitly has Marcus Agrippa (John Paul), the second heir, murdered so that his wife, Julia (Frances White), Augustus’s daughter, will be free to marry Tiberius.

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Pictured: Tiberius. Not Pictured: Dignity

She coerces Augustus into forcing Tiberius to leave his wife Vipsania Aggrippina (Sheila Rushkin), whom Tiberius loves, and marrying Julia, who he does not (he hates her to the point that he beats her and is banished from Rome). When Livia’s other son, Drusus (Ian Ogilvy), begins to encourage Augustus to return Rome to a Republic, Livia sends her own personal physician to oversee him after he has a small injury. Unsurprisingly, he dies shortly after. When Augustus announces his intention to perhaps give power to his grandsons, they die in “accidents” over the next few years. Livia uses agents to reveal that Julia has been engaging in “deviant behavior” which contrasts with Augustus’s strong moral code, resulting in her banishment, and the end of Tiberius’s. Tiberius is then named co-heir with Postumus Agrippa (John Castle).

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Young Claudius

Now, Claudius, son of Drusus, actually enters the story. Claudius has both a limp and a pronounced stutter, and, despite the fact that he reads constantly, is thought to be a fool because of those disabilities. In fact, the historian Pollio (Donald Eccles), tells him he needs to exaggerate those faults, because otherwise he’ll be thought of as a threat, and probably killed by Livia. When Augustus determines that Postumus alone should succeed him, Livia frames Postumus for rape and has him banished. Postumus, having seen the depths of Livia’s drive to make Tiberius emperor, tells Claudius all that has happened because of her, and reiterates “Play the fool, Claudius.” When Augustus is told of Postumus’s innocence, Livia poisons Augustus. When he fails to die and takes the precaution of only eating food he picks himself, Livia paints his fig vines with poison. In case anyone doubts the succession, she has Sejanus (Patrick Stewart) kill Postumus. Tiberius is finally Emperor.

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Patrick Stewart as Sejanus. Yes, it’s a wig.

Unfortunately, it turns out that Tiberius is a terrible, terrible person (who knew having a mother that kills people all the time might affect your development?). The only thing that stops total tyranny is Germanicus (David Robb), Claudius’s older brother, who, naturally, dies. It turns out, however, that this one wasn’t Livia. Germanicus was actually killed by his son, Caligula (John Hurt), but Livia manages to convince Plancina (Irene Hamilton), the wife of Piso (Stratford Johns), the governor of Syria, to murder her husband and place the blame on him to spare Caligula.

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Claudius, Caligula, Tiberius: Three Emperors

OKAY THAT’S THE BACKGROUND TO GET TO THIS EPISODE.

SUMMARY

IClaudiusSejanus2.jpgFor those of you who have been keeping count, Livia has murdered basically everyone. She’s killed her husband, her son, her grandchildren, his grandchildren, friends, enemies, you name it. All to get her son to be Emperor. The story then jumps ahead to later in Tiberius’s reign. Tiberius pretty much just holds orgies and forces women into prostitution, supported by young Caligula. Sejanus actually runs the empire, and he uses it mostly to seize property and imprison his enemies. Everything sucks, is what I’m getting at. When she confronts him in the street, Livia even says that Drusus (her other son, who she KILLED) should have been emperor instead of Tiberius.

IClaudiusDinnerClaudius is called to a dinner with Livia. Livia, now old, reveals that she has been hiding a secret from almost everyone. She has found that there is a Sibylline prophecy which says that both Caligula and Claudius shall become emperors. Livia, finally having accepted that Tiberius is a waste of a man, exacts a promise from Caligula and Claudius to have her become a goddess after her death. Caligula dismissively agrees and leaves. Claudius, however, finally reveals his true self to her, surmising that Caligula will be the next emperor because Tiberius would want someone even worse to follow him, so that he will be remembered well by comparison. As he is talking, Livia notes that Claudius has lost his stutter, and no longer pretends the fool. Because of this, she begs him again to make her a goddess when he’s emperor. Claudius laughs at the thought of being emperor, and agrees, thinking nothing of it.

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Caligula cruelly mocks Livia

The scene then jumps to Livia’s deathbed 6 years later. She calls for Caligula and Claudius. Caligula arrives first, and, when Livia asks if he remembers his promise, tells her that he will be the god, and that she will burn in hell, tormenting her as she lies helpless with the knowledge that he will destroy everything in the name of his deification. Claudius arrives soon after Caligula leaves, and Livia asks him if he will uphold his promise. Claudius then sits down and asks about every bad thing that she’s done. All the people she’s killed. She admits to everything, freely, and admits that it was all wrong. She thought she was doing it for all the right reasons, her son, but she now understands that she never should have done any of it. Claudius, seeing not a monster, but a woman who has lived long enough to realize that she has done horrible things that can never be undone, tells her that he will make her the “Queen of Heaven.” She passes peacefully in bed.

IClaudiusDyingLivia

END SUMMARY

Okay, first, almost no performance has ever matched Siân Phillips as Livia. It was a role she was clearly born to play. She is loving to her children, a monster in practice, and, in the last scenes, just a sad old woman looking on a world that she ruined in the name of blind love. Now, she knows that she is facing not just death, but true damnation, and she requests just one thing: deification. This isn’t in the name of preserving her legacy, however. It’s just the only thing that might actually allow her to be forgiven for what she’s done.

IClaudiusDieAHero.jpgIn The Dark Knight, Harvey Dent famously says “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” Appropriately, he was addressing the concept of the dictator at the time, specifically Julius Caesar, the precursor to the Julio-Claudians. This is the opposite of that. This is the villain living long enough to see what happens when she wins. And, make no mistake, this is her having won. She achieved the goal of the massive machinations she’s been working for decades. She made an emperor out of her beloved son. The problem is, she didn’t ever think to help make him a good emperor. Or even a good person. She just gave him power that he didn’t ask for or deserve.

IClaudiusCrimeAndPunishmentIn Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky addresses a similar theme to Livia on her deathbed. Even when you’ve gotten away with a crime, even if you believe that the crime was justified by some “higher order,” in the end, you will never escape your guilty conscience. That’s supposed to be the purpose of societal values, to make sure that, even when you go free, you are still a prisoner in your own mind. You may pretend to not see the walls, but, when you are old, you will look around and see every brick you have laid around your soul, and you will know that your existence has amounted to nothing but pain. If you have any belief in the natural goodness of people, then part of making a better world is to remind people that breaking their own ethics will one day bring them the pain that they have inflicted upon others. This episode is the culmination of that. It ends not with a monstrous empress sitting behind the son that she has brought to power, but with a grandmother telling the only person she has left that her life was a mistake. And perhaps, too, we should learn from Claudius, who sees the agony that she has brought upon herself as being a torment that won’t end, and promises her forgiveness. It’s not that she deserves it, it’s that it’s the right thing to do.

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If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews

If you enjoy these, please, like, share, tell your friends, like the Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/JokerOnTheSofa/), follow on Twitter @JokerOnTheSofa, and just generally give me a little bump. I’m not getting paid, but I like to get feedback.