seen on TV @ AMC
Been a long time since I had seen Alien. Good to know it still holds up, as a horror movie as much as a sci-fi one. This summer has been a disappointing one so far in terms of action movies, in large part because so many of them seem to be more and more alike: loud, joyless CGI set pieces in which death and destruction is waged on a grander and grander scale with little or no thought given to the humanity of the characters involved.
Alien is different. The sets and the visual effects and the big giant creepy monster do not come across like spectacle for the sake of spectacle. They work together to create a particular mood, an atmosphere, meant to evoke an emotional response that's greater than the sum of its parts, and they succeed.
The story is simple: scary monster infiltrates starship, crew fights it to survive. A tiny bit of bare-bones exposition at the very beginning is all that's necessary to establish who these people are and what their purpose is, and we're off and running. The characters are defined by their actions.
Honestly, it doesn't seem like that difficult a formula (said the guy who's never written a screenplay), yet modern action movies seem like they over-complicate things. Either it's too much needless backstory (the beginning of After Earth) or plot devices that seem important but are then forgotten about (Man of Steel and its Kryptonian "codex" thingie) or plot twists that aren't fully thought through (Star Trek Into Darkness and McCoy's life-giving Tribble).
I suspect part of the reason why may have to do with the obscene amounts of money that go into making these movies. Expectations are higher, and come from multiple sources all at once, and as a result, the margin for error is slight. Back in 1979, when Alien came out, the blockbuster mentality had only just begun. It didn't drive the industry the way it now does. What would Alien look like if it had been made today?
I guess it would look like Prometheus! The difference is that after a whole bunch of sequels and spin-offs, Alien had become a franchise and suddenly, instead of just making a movie, Ridley Scott was expanding upon an entire universe, one with millions of established fans. Different mentality, especially when action movies are now expected to be potential franchises.
Do we really want more complexity in our action movies? On the one hand, it's laudable that modern filmmakers want more than just biff-bam-pow antics in their films. The first Matrix film had just the right balance of high-concept ideas and eye-popping action, for example. But then the ideas overwhelmed the action in the two sequels, to the point where the action didn't matter much.
And we see this happening more and more now. A movie like Alien shouldn't look like a throwback, and yet it kinda does in a way, and that's unfortunate. Big ideas are all well and good in action flicks if you can make them function within the framework of the story, but if not, well, there's no shame in making a simpler story, as long as it's done as well as it is in Alien.