Aliens: How Burke takes his coffee

Jim Cameron’s Aliens (1986) is a meticulously-assembled thrill ride, absolutely loaded with enriching details. My favourite of all of them is in the coffee scene.

It’s early in the film, and Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) has returned to normal life after her horrific experiences in Alien. In this scene, the smiling corporate functionary Carter Burke (Paul Reiser) comes to ask for her help. With him is Lt. Gorman (William Hope) of the Colonial Marines. They try to persuade Ripley to return to the alien planet.

There is so much going on in this scene. Watch it closely:

As the characters talk, the main physical action of the scene is Ripley making coffee for the two men. She pours out two mugs (which are transparent – a lovely, and useful, piece of prop design) and hands black coffee, unsweetened, to these two intruders.

Then she goes and pours for herself. She stirs her cup, which suggests she has added sweetener, but she hasn’t offered any to these unwelcome guests.

Lt. Gorman stands straight-backed, holding his mug politely and without interest. He rests against a table for a time, but doesn’t really move. At the end of the encounter he thanks Ripley for the coffee, even though he hasn’t touched it.

Burke, meanwhile, sits down, stands up, walks past Ripley, walks back, sits again, talking talking talking the whole time. It wasn’t until I watched Aliens on the big screen that I realised what he was doing. He’s putting milk or cream in his mug! I love it. My favourite detail in the whole film!


This is, first and foremost, just some blocking, something to get the characters moving around the space so the scene doesn’t seem static. But the film really makes it work. Burke taking his coffee white is a great character detail, suggesting he shies away from undiluted intensity, especially compared with Ripley, who is living in an unfiltered world at this stage of the film. Look also at how he does it: Burke stands up, walks past Ripley into her kitchen without asking, helps himself to her kitchen supplies, and then parks himself back where he was. He’s not showing overt dominance here, he’s just acting like someone who is used to being able to do exactly what he wants, when he wants – a much more subtle and dangerous way of manipulating a situation.

There are plenty of other great details in the scene that fire up red flags about Burke: he sits down without asking, and when he sits down, he starts touching something of Ripley’s (an item of clothing I think), playing with it with his fingers until Ripley snatches it away from him. When he’s up again at the end, having pushed Ripley into an outburst of emotion, he tells her “shhhh”, and puts his hand on her arm, and whispers that he hopes, as a favour, she’d think about it. This is why you never really trust Burke; the film is throwing lots of subtle signals, over and over again, that he will not respect your boundaries and he will smile while he takes advantage of you. 

It’s actually an interesting move in terms of filmmaking – surely the obvious thing to do is have Burke be trustworthy from the start, so his heel turn comes as more of a shock? I feel like Cameron’s made the right call here though, letting the only surprise be the sheer scale of Burke’s mendacity rather than trying to force the audience into going against their instincts and trusting a company man. It also means we never have to compromise Ripley’s character by having her trust someone and be betrayed.

Interesting also to compare to the way you are made to feel about the Marines. The stink of untrustworthiness that Burke carries with him doesn’t spread to them; they might be on the same mission, they might have the same goal in this very scene, but the audience comes out of this sequence with a cautious trust in them that Burke is never afforded.

And some of that storytelling work is done with the colour of a mug of coffee.

I love this film.

Prometheus (USA, 2012)

Mostly awful.


More? Okay. Here’s what I put on Facebook and Twitter:

Prometheus: I really liked it! Except for whenever any character said or did anything.
Or when the film explained anything at all,
Or when it linked to or referenced any other movie.
Apart from that it was great!

(The visual experience was wonderful, and that is best experienced in the cinema. I sort of do recommend it, in a bizarre way. It’s a deeply incoherent film. And it is trying to do something, which is more than 95% of big films ever do. I dunno man. It’s a weird, weird movie.)


Still here? Ooookay. Let’s go.

BALD RIPLEY
Cinefantastique June 1992
Twenty years ago, round about now, I bought the June 1992 edition of Cinefantastique. It was the first solid information I would get on the sequel to my absolute favourite film, Aliens. I’d seen an early trailer on Entertainment Tonight but apart from that, I knew nothing.

The coverage was a revelation. Cinefantastique was not a puff-piece magazine, and it did not pull its punches.[1] As it recounted the bizarre story of the production of Alien3, I was forced to accept some uncomfortable truths. Principally, this: the loyal soldier and the brave girl saved by Ripley’s heroism? They die in the opening credits of the new film. Get over it.

Cut to: sitting in the movie theatre with my buddies. The lights go down. The film begins. And those opening credits that heartlessly destroy the loved characters from a previous film? I love those credits. I still think it stacks up as one of the best opening sequences I’ve ever seen. All around me, though, the reception is not as positive. Right there and then, everyone else finding out that the guy and the little girl are dead. The movie doesn’t care. It just kept going at them. No wonder they start to hate it.

The hatred didn’t last. About a decade later, it started to pick up some respectability, and while it’s still little-loved, it’s also rarely hated any more. But it took a long time for that first rush of thwarted expectations to even out. I often wonder if that magazine was the only thing that spared me from the same initial response. Expectations matter. More than that: expectations are part of the film experience.

Expectations have been a big part of Prometheus, too. Is it an Alien prequel or is it not? What will Ridley Scott have to say this time? What is that big human-looking face? Does the trailer really give away 98% of the film?

So what were we expecting?

LES COUSINS DANGEREUX

Let’s get this right out of the way, then: Prometheus is not an Alien film. And that’s fine.

“Star Beast” was into development when the word “Alien” was noticed just sitting there in the script, waiting.
It’s a great name, both an adjective and a noun, and it completely captures the theme of the film, that…
waitasecond, I’ve already written about this. Let me quote myself.

[In the 1979 film] there was a whole biologicial technology in evidence that was truly alien, whose provenance and purpose was left unexamined. Thematically, this was the ground on which the B-movie monster stalked. The idea of alien-ness – the beauty and terror of the deeply different – was portrayed in a dense ecology of incomprehensible detail, all clearly part of some unreadable plan. A monster rose up and killed the film’s lonely humans, but the message was not that alien life is inimical to human life; the message was that alien life is not measurable against human life. These are different orders of nature, existing at right angles to each other. And, by extension, the message was that humans are not the masters of all they survey. Even these star-spanning future humans command only a small and humble domain. It’s a message of warning against hubris. We humans are just one limited mode of seeing in a universe which makes no room for us. Or, shorter: we do not matter.

Ridley Scott has done something completely different here. In fact, what he’s done here is the direct opposite of what he did in Alien. In Prometheus, it is announced in the opening scenes that humanity does matter. We are being invited to visit these mysterious aliens, who have shepherded us throughout our history, and who maybe created us.

There are no aliens in Prometheus. There are only cousins.

Ridley here portrays an intergalactic order in which human existence is comprehensible, and part of a grand plan. We have a place in the plan, we just don’t know exactly what it is. This idea is thematically incompatible with Alien.

This makes it somewhat distracting that the film-makers, over and over again, draw links between the two. Places, scenes, moments, from the 1979 film are repeated in the 2012 film. These quotes are all shallow and surface material. The new film is tone-deaf to the content and mission of the old. It reimagines these surface elements to address entirely different, incompatible, concerns.

Prometheus isn’t an Alien movie. It’s an Alien remix.[2]

THE CHERRY ORCHARD

Among the many memorable characters created by Monty Python, my favourites have always been the Gumbys. The Gumbys are shouting, staggering, inept, thuggish, helpless morons. Perpetually bewildered, they break everything around them while bellowing obvious, tragic expressions of their discomfort and failure. On the Monty Python album that a friend dubbed on to tape for me in early high school, the Gumbys appear in an amazing sketch: an adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. It’s two minutes, give it a listen if you never have:

Ladies and gentlemen, this is a fair representation of the human action in Prometheus. Prometheus would in fact be a more coherent and satisfying experience if every line of dialogue was overdubbed with Gumbys saying “Sorry” “I’ve broken it” and “My brain hurts”.

I really feel like this can’t be emphasised enough. The dialogue and behaviour of every single character defies understanding. It is hard to think of any action by any character that even faintly resembles real human behaviour. This is not an exaggeration. Every line, every action. Every character. Every single scene. All of them. For an entire film. Beginning to end. ALL OF IT.

(Well, I can think of two exceptions, both involving Idris Elba’s space captain: (1) when he puts up a christmas tree, and (2) when he asks another character if they are a robot. That’s it. Maaaaaybe when Noomi Rapace’s space archaeologist puts herself on a medical chair, too. Maaaybe.)

Hey, that Cinefantastique issue was the first I ever heard of James Blish’s idiot plot: “a plot which is kept in motion solely by virtue of the fact that everybody involved is an idiot”. I thought it a bit harsh as a description of Alien3, but it is a perfect description of what’s going on in Prometheus. Everyone is an idiot. The things they do aren’t just stupid, they are nonsensical in a way that almost loops around into coherence again, like a Lewis Carroll poem, where all the inexplicable ridiculousness becomes mutually reinforcing and disguises the fact that none of it makes any sense at all.

I can’t think of another film that is so completely front-to-end inane. It’s indefensible. Nothing but wall-to-wall Mr Gumby, start to finish. My brain hurts! I dropped it! Run away Mr Gumby!

What were we expecting? The characters in Alien don’t make great decisions but they sure aren’t idiots. But this isn’t an Alien movie! Okay then. Consider, um, Blade Runner. Or Lawrence of Arabia. Or pretty much any other film ever made.

TOMB OF HORRORS

Prometheus doesn’t have a plot, it has a location.

In the early years of Dungeons & Dragons, you’d buy adventure modules to play with your friends. These were always pretty much the same: a detailed description of a dungeon or other dangerous environment, filled with traps, treasure, and monsters, and usually with some underlying logic that could be uncovered through careful investigation. Every group that sat down to play would have a different story unfold as they entered and explored this dungeon. Character was important, sure, but the organising principle of the experience was the dungeon map, and the key that explained it. Everything in the game arose out of the location.

Prometheus takes this same approach to its story. There is no story except characters exploring, and reacting to, the environment. It may be the closest we’re ever going to get to a filmic representation of the Tomb of Horrors experience.

As a result, the film pays a lot of attention to its sense of place. It carefully and clearly establishes its external geography, showing how everything fits together in the physical space. It then purposely upends this in the twisting interior, echoing the way in which the characters get swiftly disoriented in the labyrinth. And then, perversely, it underlines the lack of clarity about the internal physical space by repeatedly showing a very detailed map of the interior.

Prometheus succeeds magnificently as an exploration of space. The visuals in the film are stunning. The environment is realised in a completely credible, deeply fascinating, fully atmospheric way. It is lit and shot and computer-enhanced with great skill. This is a visual effects triumph, [3] and a sign of Ridley Scott’s mastery of this aspect of filmmaking.

Did we expect anything less?

HORSESHOES OF THE GODS

Reading that magazine helped me set my expectations right for Alien 3. Prometheus presents a similar challenge. If you go in expecting Alien The Prequelling, you will be disappointed. To his credit, Ridley Scott did a good job of trying to shift expectations. What I was expecting – hoping for, really – was a film that would make me think.

And this is what we want film-makers to do, isn’t it? To stretch themselves, to try and make a big statement, to do something that will give us some meat. To his further credit, Ridley Scott has done this here, he’s gone in boots and all and tried to do something huge.

The problem is that the ideas Scott is pursuing are, not to put too fine a point on it, stupid. Go read Cavalorn’s LJ post [4] on the symbolism (major spoilers!) – I believe he’s identified what Ridley Scott was consciously putting into play for this film. And it’s just not pretty reading. Scott has left a lot of ambiguity around the answers to many of his questions, mistaking provocation for depth. The questions are provocative, sure, but there’s nowhere for any of them to go. They don’t mean anything. If the answer was given, you wouldn’t feel any different. It’s dead content, questions designed just to be questions. [5]

So don’t expect the love to grow for Prometheus, like it did for Alien 3. This is a movie that will shrink on reflection, and away from the immersive environment of a darkened movie theatre. Those expectations are going to be corrosive, because it’s a movie that can’t live up to them. The more it is considered, the faster it will disintegrate. (And not in a lifegiving way.)

It’s a failure. A huge, engrossing, foolish, stunning, disastrous waste of talent and skill that pushes you away faster than it can pull you in, that alienates you faster than it can speak to you. It’s a folly and all of its many flaws come down to the writing, on every level: the concept, the structure, the execution, the dialogue. The writing, of course; the simplest thing. A man with a pen and paper. The hardest thing, too.

Watch it, or don’t.


[1] Though I’ve long lost the actual copy, I remember so many of the details from that incredible set of articles. I believe that this was the origin of the phrase “development hell” as a way to refer to moviemaking by the hard road. Also memorable: interview with Lance Henriksen where he said “this David Fincher kid they pulled in to salvage this movie, he’s a talent. This film does not show what he can do. watch for him.” Henriksen called that one right.

[2] Yes, Ridley Scott would disagree, but why should we listen to him?

[3] Bias alert: I’m mates with a few people who worked on these visual effects, including the guy in charge of all the bits Weta worked on. So I am predisposed to kindness. I don’t think this is just bias, though – most reviewers seem to agree on this bit, while disagreeing on almost everything else.

[4] And how nice to see Adrian Bott’s essay being circulated all over the place. I was introduced to him in passing in 2005, but never said a word to him beyond hello. Mutual friends indicate he’s a very nice chap though.

[5] *cough cough* Damon Lindelof *cough* Lost *cough*

Alien Prometheus

All right. I am about to indulge in some full-throttle nerdery.

I’ve been watching over the last 3 days the trailer-trailers for Prometheus, the new science fiction film from Ridley Scott. It is set in the same world as his hugely influential film Alien.

The trailer-trailer displays a continuity of physical design, with people in Moebius-like spacesuits trudging through Giger interior spaces; the sound mix throws in the shocking and intense Alien note that anchored the very first trailers for the 1979 film. Heck, even the typeface is the same as that from the first Alien (and the Prometheus title echoes Jim Cameron’s 1986 sequel Aliens).

The early news of an Alien Prequel didn’t seem to fill many people with joy. The alien creatures seem played-out thanks to two lacklustre crossover films, and Ridley Scott himself is famously uneven in his output. But Scott’s approach has generated interest. He is exploring other aspects of the mysteries raised in the first film – namely, the nature of the “space jockey”, the enormous elephantine fossil encountered by the doomed explorers. The famous phallic-headed dual-jawed chest-violating alien, Scott says, will play no part in the new film.

Complaints about his uneven filmic record aside, it must be understood that Ridley Scott is the only person who could make this story happen. No other filmmaker could get blockbuster money behind a science fiction film that is “a prequel to Alien but without the alien”. From the perspective of the Hollywood system, this would be an anti-movie, almost a Zen koan, an idea that utterly negates itself. Only for Ridley does it make sense. He can muster the finances with his reputation, and assert a new direction for Prometheus because he is the creator.

(At least, he is seen as the creator. Alien was of course a group project. O’Bannon, Giler & Hill all have a very strong claim to creation of the ideas explored herein. Giler and Hill are on board as producers, and O’Bannon – who always lamented the lack of recognition he received for his part in the film – passed away two years ago.)

I find the concept of Prometheus, as so described, incredibly enticing. The first Alien film was a monster-in-a-dark-house flick, but undertaken so grandly and in such a violatory manner that the alien creature seized a place as a cultural nightmare. But the film raised many other questions; there was a whole biologicial technology in evidence that was truly alien, whose provenance and purpose was left unexamined. Thematically, this was the ground on which the B-movie monster stalked. The idea of alien-ness – the beauty and terror of the deeply different – was portrayed in a dense ecology of incomprehensible detail, all clearly part of some unreadable plan. A monster rose up and killed the film’s lonely humans, but the message was not that alien life is inimical to human life; the message was that alien life is not measurable against human life. These are different orders of nature, existing at right angles to each other. And, by extension, the message was that humans are not the masters of all they survey. Even these star-spanning future humans command only a small and humble domain. It’s a message of warning against hubris. We humans are just one limited mode of seeing in a universe which makes no room for us. Or, shorter: we do not matter.

(There are clear parallels to the (heavily picked over) Lovecraftian Cthulhu mythos, where the fundamental secret about the dark alien gods is that they do not care about humanity; our inability to comprehend our cosmic insignificance tends to deliver us into madness.)

All of these elements were left unexplored in the other films in the series, which instead took the route of using the implacable alien creatures as symbolic engines, on which to layer this or that human-vs-? metaphor. In the second movie, they became the fourth-generation soldiers who eschewed a traditional battlefield and thereby negated military power and all the structures of hierarchy and control so embedded (referencing Vietnam & Afghanistan in the 70s). In the third movie, they became the idea of contamination, both in the sense of infectious disease, and of dangerous and wrong thoughts. In the fourth movie, they became (curiously enough) nature, or more precisely biological systems that through sheer complexity do not submit themselves to human control; and reproductive systems, the propagation of the human race, most of all.

There’s much to value in this approach, but the power of the first film was very much located in the directness of its meaning: the alien elements represented themselves.

Scott has noted in his discussion of Prometheus that the space jockey was untouched by the other films. Truth. But the mystery of the space jockey has been addressed in a number of ancillary stories. Of course none of these “matter”, but they can serve as examples against which we can measure Prometheus and speculate about what ground it might cover.

Thanks to licensing requirements, in all of these stories, the “Aliens” title is dominant, and as a result, the Giger creatures are inevitably prominent. In the extremely good 1980s comics written by Mark Verheiden, the space jockey is a conquerer, using the aliens to subjugate worlds (and this fate ultimately befalls our earth). In the less-well-known novel Aliens: Original Sin, the space jockey is one of a species of negotiators, entering a mutually beneficial trade deal with a human network. And in the even less well-known (and abandoned unfinished) comic series Aliens: Apocalypse – The Destroying Angels, human explorers discover that the space jockeys once dominated the galaxy using aliens as tools, with pre-human earth as part of their domain.

It will be curious to see how Scott charts his own course outward from the space jockey data given in the film; and
more pointedly, the way he uses these elements in a thematic and symbolic way. It’s also worth noting that the designers of the first Alien film deliberately loaded the space jockey with a specific symbolic weight. They tried to evoke positive feelings, sympathy and respect. It wasn’t meant as a threatening image, and had a kind of nobility to it. These were deliberate design choices, to contrast with the cold, unyielding threat of the other, nastier kind of alien.

(In the original schema for Alien, the space jockey was to be clearly portrayed as an innocent victim of the aliens; but script simplifications transformed this poor victim into the pilot of a craft carrying a cargo of deadly aliens, the very creatures that destroyed it. The ambiguity around the space jockey’s relationship to the cargo adds greatly to the sense of mystery, and immediately complicates any moral message. The original story would have been a lesser film on this count at least.)

So. As noted above, I find the concept enticing, and recognise that there is much to explore with the elements Scott has chosen as his focus. However, I am feeling great trepidation.

Because of the face.

It’s the central image in the poster, and was the first image released as a publicity still: a giant human face in an alien environment. This sets off enormous, raucous alarm bells for me.

See also the tagline from the poster: “The search for our beginning could lead to our end.” Our beginning? In another interview Scott namechecked Eric Von Daniken, whose Chariots of the Gods supposed that alien beings came to earth and taught us new technology. Is that what he’s doing here?

The face is not alien. The face denotes a different order of mystery, one that loops tightly back to earth and history of the human race – a tiny segment of time on one tiny planet in one corner of a vast universe. The face is hubris. The face asserts that in the vast deeps of space, among species whose nature we can only guess at, we still matter. We are not nothing – we are everything.

This, to me, is the biggest danger posed by Prometheus. Put another way: the message of Alien is, not everything is about us. I fear that Prometheus will show that Alien was about us, after all.

That would be a tragic reconfiguration of the 1979 film. And while the Alien films will always sit there pristine (if they can survive a Predator giving a helicopter ride to an Giger Alien, they can survive this), whenever I engage with them from now on I will hear Prometheus talking at me.

I hope it says the right things.