Forty years on, digging into the exhilarating horror of ‘Alien’

Let’s cut to the chest: Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi horror masterpiece “Alien” is forever remembered for one indelible scene — a “very significant moment in film history,” genre director Gary Sherman says — the chest-burster sequence, when a gore-slimed, serpentine creature chews its way out of the torso of a hapless John Hurt while he’s having dinner, leaving him a quivering, blood-drenched corpse and unleashing the title monster to slither away and torment the rest of the spaceship’s unsettled crew for the next hour.

Great detail and respect are granted this monumental moment in Alexandre O. Philippe’s dizzyingly in-depth, intellectually exhaustive documentary “Memory: The Origins of Alien” — from wild talking-head theories (Hurt is literally giving birth!) to gruesome behind-the-scenes footage of this greatest of gross-outs.

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One of those talking heads, author Ian Nathan, deftly parses the visceral and dramatic importance of the scene: “The chest-burster changes the complexion of the film from a kind of epic to a kind of horrible, horrible intimacy that’s claustrophobic and inward. Suddenly everybody is trapped. Suddenly the spaceship is small and confined” and the film becomes a primal survival story. Which, I say, renders “Alien” such a splendid, fearsomely realistic haunted house tale during a grisly second half that vibrates with unendurable tension and dread.

“Memory” makes a strong point that the mythos and monster in “Alien,” which was written by sci-fi fanatic Dan O’Bannon, were hardly original. “‘Alien’ didn’t come out of a creative vacuum,” we’re told. “It drew from a whole heritage of American science fiction.”

O’Bannon cherrypicked sources over the years, including comic books, H.P. Lovecraft’s horror fiction, and B-movies like “It! The Terror from Beyond Space” (1958), Howard Hawks’ “The Thing from Another World” (1951), “Planet of the Vampires” (1965) and, most extensively (and strangely), Roger Corman’s lurid “Queen of Blood” (1966). 

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But it was O’Bannon and director Ridley Scott’s mutual exposure to the lithograph “Necronomicon,” a phantasmagoria of wondrous and hideous creatures by Swiss surrealist artist H.R. Giger, that cemented the look and language of “Alien.” Scott rhapsodizes about the titular creature, sometimes known as the Xenomorph: “This is beautiful, not just threatening, and it also has very sexual connotations. It’s like a rather beautiful, humanoid bio-mechanoid insect.”

Giger himself did some artistic cherrypicking, synthesizing Egyptian mythology, dream imagery, Boschian fright-scapes, medieval dragons, Hindu goddess Kali and, key to the chest-burster, the disturbing canvasses of British artist Francis Bacon. “Giger consolidates every monster from every mythology from around the world into a single creature. It embodies the mythic Other,” USC professor Henry Jenkins says.   

Why “Alien” works so well is its commitment to the kind of gritty realism of so much superior 1970s American cinema. An Altmanesque naturalism permeates the film, and it boasts gorgeous Kubrickian photography, a crack cast of virtual unknowns, deliberate pacing and adult restraint. 

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It is, simply, an art film. It spurned the space-western kicks of “Star Wars” and the Keane-eyed aliens of “Close Encounters” (both 1977). Suddenly we were served a new, naturalistic depiction of outer space in the sooty, clanky, eerily rain-soaked cargo ship Nostromo, a floating industrial city, a grungy “space truck,” that fatefully investigates a distress signal beamed from an alien planet. 

“Memory” is fascinating when talking about artistry and craft, but veers onto shaky ground when its commentators argue too hard that “Alien” is a product of its social and political times or, almost laughably, gaze at the film through a scrim of academic feminist theory. Says one: The movie is a “male fantasy of the kind of oppression that had been handed out to women over the century of guilt that was part of masculinity.” (Where’s the chest-burster when we need it?)

Fortunately the focus stays mostly on the allegory and mythology behind this iconic, massively influential movie, and the obsessive density of it all is both boggling and breathtaking. The film “can mean many, many, many things,” says writer William Linn, conceding, “I don’t think we can get to the bottom of ‘Alien.’”

“Memory: The Origins of ‘Alien’” hits theaters and VOD on October 4. Trailer HERE.

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Looking back at Chewbacca

This is the very first image I ever saw of Chewbacca:

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It was spring 1977 and I was young. I had hair like a mid-career Beatle. Movie-wise, I was obsessed with “Jaws” from two years prior. And, even at that early grade-school age, I thought “Dog Day Afternoon,” watched repeatedly on cable, was the dope. (Later movie manias would include “Close Encounters,” “Alien” and “The Elephant Man.”)

My dad came home with a thick press kit for the summer movie roster from 20th Century-Fox. (A journalist, he often arrived from the office with public relations goodies from movie studios and, maybe coolest, the Mattel toy company. We were the first kids in town to have Slime and Shogun Warriors.)

I don’t recall any of the movies in the 20th Century-Fox press kit but one, a mysterious little picture called “Star Wars” that was slated to hit theaters May 25. My immediate fascination with the movie, well before I saw it, is so clichéd that I will keep the recollection trimmed and distilled. 

Amid a sheaf of black and white stills of characters from the film, bound in a colorful folder emblazoned with the now-iconic “Star Wars” logo, my attention zeroed in on one particular photo. The caption read: “Chewbacca, the hundred year old Wookiee, co-pilots the Millennium Falcon, a Carnelian pirate starship.”

Chewbacca? Wookiee? Yes! This was the baddest movie character I’d ever seen, a hair-covered giant holding an automatic weapon in what appeared to be the desert with a Clint Eastwood, “Go ahead, make my day” expression on his Sasquatchian puss. The pure, scorching exoticism of it blew my little mind. I immediately stuck on my wall the 8-x-10 with four silver tacks. Anticipating the day I could see this creature move and (not quite) speak on the big screen became a pastime of electric excitement. 

The man I would soon learn filled the Chewbacca fur-fest was Peter Mayhew, a 7-foot-3 Briton who died of a heart attack at 74 yesterday at his North Texas home. (Check out his personal site Chewbacca.com.) The galaxy weeps. 

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Mayhew and Chewbacca. Similarities abound.

As Chewie, Mayhew growled and laser-gunned his way through five “Star Wars” features as sidekick and co-pilot to Harrison Ford’s swashbuckling Han Solo. They were a dynamic duo, BFFs who fought together, cried together, drank together and probably had a secret handshake. That’s all the speculation I will pursue.

Chewbacca wasn’t the most complex character. He had moist, soulful animal eyes and teeth like a German shepherd’s. The mournful, bestial yowls he had to rely on for vocal communication without the gift of speech could shred your ears, and rend your heart. (His voice was created with recorded animal sounds.)

“He put his heart and soul into the role of Chewbacca and it showed in every frame of the films, from his knock-kneed running, firing his bowcaster from the hip, his bright blue eyes, down to each subtle movement of his head and mouth,” Mayhew’s family said in a statement.

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Chewie and Solo — one of the great action duos in movie history

Valiant, righteous, a fighter, friend and even funny, Chewbacca as portrayed by Mayhew was more than a guy pantomiming in a gorilla suit. He lent the Wookiee spirit, spunk and purpose. I absorbed all of this when I finally, in a one-screen art-deco movie theater in the summer of ’77, saw my hero in action, this towering benevolent beast, who fleetly dispensed with Imperial baddies and didn’t complain when saucy Princess Leia dismissed him as a “walking carpet.”

It’s why as a kid I was so crestfallen when, at the end of the film, everybody got a Medal of Bravery for saving the galaxy and blowing up the Death Star except Chewie, who just stands there during the ceremony, tall and noble, nothing dangling around his neck. Only his mighty ammo-filled bandolier, worn like a sash on his left shoulder, bedecks him.

But that’s Chewbacca — humble, honorable, tough and self-effacing. He deserves a medal. If not for assisting in nearly killing Darth Vader, then for being both a literal and figurative colossus.

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