If there’s one thing I can give credit to Prometheus for (aside from comedy entertainment), it’s that in the aftermath, I realized something shocking: I did not own a DVD of Alien. Aliens, yes, but after a scouring of my racks and cabinets I had to confess that my surety I had a copy of the original was purely a product of wishful thinking.
Thankfully we live in an age where correcting such oversights is as simple as it is reasonably priced; and so it was with great joy that I greeted the mail order box that arrived scant days later, a package that contained the 1979 release, the 2003 director’s cut (both with commentary from several of the cast and crew), and an entire bonus disc of special features.
It’s interesting to listen to Ridley Scott on the commentary track, because you can hear all the half-baked seeds in his thinking that would come to be Prometheus. He talks up his contempt in particular for people who complain “it wouldn’t work like that” and how he bulled ahead anyhow for several moments in Alien. In that respect, perhaps it’s the worst possible thing for him that even today, all those moments can be excused or overlooked. Vindicated once, vindicated for all time…
But we’ve discussed Mr. Scott enough. What blindsided me was watching and listening to Dan O’Bannon, who came off to me as more than a little bit of an arrogant douchebag. Maybe it was the bowtie. I haven’t trusted bowties since State and Main articulated so succinctly why you shouldn’t.
I know I’m speaking ill of the dead here, but death doesn’t make your statements of record sacred or unassailable. I know being a screenwriter is difficult, particularly if you have a certain vision you don’t want to see meddled with. He’s not the only one who seems to not be particularly fond of revisiting the film (Harry Dean Stanton ends his scant contributions with a pointed “Can I go now?”), but O’Bannon’s naked contempt for the producers extends to a matter I feel is not only blatantly unfair, but exhibits a certain level of willful blindness. I’m talking about Ash.
If you’re unaware, the entire plot regarding Ash being a robot secretly installed by The Company to further its interest at the expense of the human crew is a creation of producers Walter Hill and David Giler, not O’Bannon. And O’Bannon hates it. Hates it. Not only that, he finds it completely unnecessary to the narrative, basically stating in the commentary that it’s “an inferior idea, from inferior minds” and would have sunk the entire film had it not been (he admits, with great grudge in his voice) “well acted and well directed”. In both the featurette and the audio commentary he rants at length about how it had no place in his movie. It adds nothing but “tripe social commentary” and in the end, “Who gives a rat’s ass?”
Well, I do, for one. I’d go so far as to say that without Ash being a secret traitor, not only do you lose some of the best scenes and one of the best performances of the movie (especially on repeat viewing), you’re in danger of having the film begin to fall apart. Without Ash’s hidden mandate to protect the alien life form, you don’t have the luxury of certain scenes that keep the film grounded in a sense of realism. Ash is the answer to many, many questions that we (and best of all, the characters in the film) end up asking.
- How do Lambert, Kane, and Dallas get back aboard the Nostromo despite Ripley very sensibly wanting to enforce quarantine procedures? Ash.
- Why is Kane not put into hypersleep until a professional team can look at him? (Remember Parker’s repeated shouts of “Why don’t you freeze him?”) Ash.
- Why, despite a thorough medical analysis and ongoing medical monitoring, both of which make complete sense, does no one take note that something is growing in Kane’s belly until it’s too late? Ash.
- Why does no one act against the chestburster when it first emerges? Sure, there’s shock and horror, but Parker looked completely prepared to stab the thing with a fork except for a certain Science Officer shouting “Don’t touch it!”. Ash.
- Why is the computer no help, continually responding to Dallas’s inquiries on how to deal with the Alien with “DOES NOT COMPUTE” and “INSUFFICIENT DATA”? After all that medical examination, nothing? Not even possible guesses? Ash Ash Ash.
Could all of these have been handwaved? Could the characters asking certain questions or trying certain solutions have been glossed over? Sure. But we’d wonder why. And while we were wondering that, we wouldn’t be paying attention to the movie.
O’Bannon dismisses the Ash scenario as what he calls the “Russian Spy Plot“, where you find out someone on the team has been a Russian spy all along, just to artificially add a layer of forced suspense. And sure, that sounds bad, but for the comparison to work you have to convince me that whether this guy was a traitor or not makes shit all difference to the overall narrative, and O’Bannon had no interest in making a case for this other than basically because he says so. I’d say it’s also telling that his original co-writer Ronald Shusett takes the opposite view and really loves the subtext the Ash insertion provided (yes I still said Ash!).
Yes, it’s been done to death since then. Yes, it was sort of done previously. So was the whole premise of a monster picking people off one by one. You can’t make that argument without acknowledging that Alien does it better. That the concept of “an inferior idea, from inferior minds” is precisely what Alien represents, except that the nuances and details of its execution set it above all comers. It’s well acted and well directed, and has a fantastic script.
A script including a scene O’Bannon didn’t write, that contains some of the most poetic, powerful, and downright creepy imagery and dialogue in the entire movie. Ash being a traitor may have undermined O’Bannon’s sense of purity, but without it, we wouldn’t have been treated to another admiration of purity. Maybe he’s just jealous he didn’t write those lines? And since he didn’t, who did? Walter Hill? If so, props to the producer who thought he could write, because for that scene at least, he sure as hell proved he could. (EDIT: according to this blog, Ash’s last speech was written by David Giler “on the morning of the shoot”.)
As for O’Bannon, there’s no question the movie would have been poorer, and indeed would never have existed, without his contributions. But I’m glad he didn’t get his way on everything. I don’t know if he was getting as much of a raw deal on set and during production as he claims. He may very well have, and that may explain the bitterness. In that case, while I still believe he’s dead wrong…