Thanks to red wine and ebay, a fatal combination, I have been steadily rebuilding my collection of Starburst Magazines from the late 70s and early 80s. It has been striking how my memory of the magazine is much different from the reality. I have been surprised by the level of general cynicism that the magazine had toward the new releases. This was the hey-day of fantasy and science fiction movies, thanks to STAR WARS, yet they seem to greet each new film with a skeptical indifference, saving their enthusiasm for television such as Dr Who, Space 1999 and The Avengers (the one with Steed rather than Hulk).
Take their review of ALIEN (1979) for instance. John Brosnan, their star writer, was very sniffy about it describing it as:
“…a very annoying film, because on one level, it is a masterpiece and on another its a botched job.”
His main problem with the film is that it doesn’t have any of the logic of science fiction, expected following 2001 … (1968), yet the horror elements are totally convincing. He also makes the point that at its heart is IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE (1958) with greatly inflated production values. He even argues that the high quality cast are wasted because they only need to shout at a rubber monster. The cast gives the film weight against to the special effects that the film doesn’t deserve and should have been replaced by b-movie actors, apart from Sigourney Weaver because, “she succeeds in making an impression despite being smothered by the production values…”
He complains that there is a narrative confusion around the distress signal, is it a conspiracy by the company? Is the alien genuine, or a creation of the company? If it isn’t, then how did they know of its existence? Luckily for Brosnan, Scott would return to the questions thirty odd years later, and answer them with some more questions.
To add to his sense of annoyance over the apparent lack of scientific accuracy over the film he quotes Dan O’Bannon who was similarly miffed at the changes to the script:
“My story has been re-written twice now, first by Walter Hill and then by David Giler … when Hill came in to work on the script he said to me, “my strength is that I don’t know anything about science fiction.” I never understood what he meant by that. It makes me nervous though. These people literally go back to step one, ignoring all that has happened in sf literature since the thirties . They are making the same mistakes that sf writers were making decades ago. If all you know about science fiction is STAR WARS then all you can possibly do is rewrite STAR WARS.”
Worse still, Brosnan anticipated a rash of copy cat productions produced by inferior filmmakers like Roger Corman and Irwin Allen. This period was awash with low budget films riding on the coat-tails of blockbusters. In the ‘Things to Come’ section in the same magazine there is the promise of ALIEN FORCE and the ALIENS ARE COMING ready to cash-in on the success of Scott’s film.
Why not? Scott himself hasn’t given up the kerching! PROMETHEUS (2012) has been released for home-viewing complete with alternative extra bits to confuse matters even more. He returned to the subject matter because he felt that there were more directions to take the idea. STAR WARS is the touchstone for ALIEN; without its success, 20th Century Fox would not have financed a b-movie story with such a huge budget, without THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK they would not have gone on to make sequels.
In acknowledgement of its importance in the canon, I have created a triple bill of directors who have contributed to the ALIEN franchise, to a greater or lesser success: SE7EN, DELICATESSEN , and T2. Fincher had some interesting ideas in ALIEN 3, that never really came together. ALIEN 4: RESURRECTION added lots of water and diluted the tone of the series despite the best visual efforts of Caro and Jeunet. It was Cameron with ALIENS who managed to squeeze every nuance and science fiction possibility from the ideas from the first film and has left very little else to say.
Perhaps the real delight of these back issues are not in the reviews, its the previews where the anticipation of new releases is intense and exciting to a degree that is impossible to replicate now. I have taken delivery of the previous edition of Starburst in which Alan Murdoch is palpably thrilled at the prospect of ALIEN thanks to the big box office, the production stills and the promise of $3 million special effects, unaware that it was going to be poo-pooed:
“…on an optimistic note, Fox have opened Alien to the American public exactly two years to the day of the STAR WARS premier… the first reports are that this is perhaps one of the most tense horror-thrillers of recent years. By the time this issue reaches you, Starburst will have seen the film and our review will appear next month.”
Send in the bucket of scorn.