Thursday, March 30, 2017

Scene Analysis: The Last Supper, Alien

Scene Analysis is where I'll take a look at a scene from a film and try to determine what makes it work (or not), and what it communicates to the audience about the characters, plot, and themes of the film in question.

For my 1st post in this series, the most iconic scene from my favorite movie will kick us off. I'll be taking a look at the infamous "The Last Supper" scene from Ridley Scott's 1979 classic, Alien.

It should go without saying (Alien is 38 years old in May) that spoiler warnings are in full effect. This particular scene also has several NSFW images.

Let's get started!

The Set-Up

The commercial towing vehicle Nostromo was on a return trip to Earth when its computer system intercepted an alien transmission, awoke its crew from suspended animation, and set down on a small planetoid to investigate. The ship was damaged during the landing.

The investigation led to a derelict spacecraft with a fossilized alien pilot. In the lower chamber of the derelict, Executive Officer Kane investigated some alien eggs. One of these eggs opened and a parasite with eight legs, a strong tail, and acidic blood assaulted Kane - inserting a tube down his throat and rendering him comatose. Later, the parasite seems to die on its own. The Nostromo is repaired and resumes its trip to Earth.

At this point in the story, Kane has awoken from the coma caused by the parasite and appears to be healthy and no worse for wear. With the crew ready to return to suspended animation for the 10 month trip to Earth, the crew decides to have one last meal before bed.

The Images

1st Camera - Establishing Shot

This is a wide angle of the Nostromo's Mess Hall. Seated around the table (from left to right) are Ash (Ian Holm), Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), Brett (Harry Dean Stanton), Parker (Yaphet Kotto), Kane (John Hurt), Dallas (Tom Skerritt), and Lambert (Veronica Cartwright).

Since this is the 1st shot, we'll refer to this as the 1st camera. It lays out the geography of the scene clearly, and we can also glean some some character/plot information from the locations of the characters.

  • Ash - the Science Officer - is off by himself to the left. More importantly, he doesn't seem to be engaged with anyone at the table.
  • Ripley is also somewhat removed from the action, but she's engaged with the conversation across the table.
  • Brett is at the center of the shot, but he's obscured by a food container. This is an important detail - it tells the audience that the center of the table, with a bright light illuminating from directly overhead, is the focal point of the scene.
  • Meanwhile, on the right of the frame, we have Parker, Kane, Dallas, and Lambert all enjoying their food and joking around. This is where the focus of the scene will shift.

I like how Ridley Scott has staged this scene. The white mess hall bulkheads  either create frames for characters - as in the case of Ash and Kane (keep this in the back of your head for a moment). Other characters are situated underneath the white bulkhead frames, creating clear lines for eyes to follow - as in the case of Ripley, Brett, Parker, Dallas, and Lambert. This is a good example of using set design as a device for directing the viewer's eyes.

Also, notice the low-ish angle of the camera, bringing the ceiling into the shot. This is a nice trick to subtly close-in the set and the actors, and create tension for the audience.

1st Camera, 1 medium shot and 1 close-up profile.

The establishing shot dollies into a medium shot of Parker, Kane, and Dallas, enjoying their dinner. The biggest flaw in the scene happens here, with some sloppy ADR.

Quickly thereafter, the shot changes to a close up of Ash, again from the original master location. Ash briefly shows amusement, as though trying to fit in, then his focus shifts to Kane. While it's true Ash should be watching Kane for any ill effects following his ordeal - he seems unusually intense, like he knows what he watching for.

Earlier in the film, Ripley had confirmed the alien transmission was not a distress signal, but was in fact a warning. As we'll find out later in the film, Ash is actually an android, planted aboard the Nostromo in secret by the Weyland-Yutani Company to ensure an alien specimen is collected.

Thus, the narrative spine of the film is carried without a line of dialogue. Ash, sitting opposite of Kane (like antagonists might be staged) and apart from his shipmates (meaning he's not a part of the crew), is watching Kane like a hawk. I think he knows what he's looking for. Of course, Scott isn't going to give it away, so he cuts quickly back to the lighter moments with Parker, Kane, and Lambert.

2nd Camera, medium shot and opposite from 1st camera

This is the first time we see the 2nd camera, focused primarily on Lambert. This camera is positioned opposite of 1st camera and behind Brett, giving us a kind of over-the-shoulder, shot and blocking out Parker, Kane, and Dallas. Given that Lambert's not the narrative focus of the scene (and that she was persuaded to take the role on the idea she'd serve as the "audience surrogate"), this angle is used as a reaction shot throughout the scene.

Lambert is reacting to Parker's comments about the food, then reacting with (maybe) guilty amusement at Parker's double-entendre regarding cunnilingus. Terry Rawlings, Alien's editor, cuts back and forth between the 1st and 2nd camera for the exchange between Parker and Lambert.

This is when Kane starts to cough and act distressed.

3rd Camera, close up shot.

This is initial use of the the 3rd camera in the scene. This is another over-the-shoulder shot (from behind Dallas) on Ash, who appears to be annoyed at something Lambert has said while Kane continues to feel uncomfortable...

We'll get two more inserts of Ash with the locked down 3rd camera - 1st growing more and more concerned, then as Kane collapses onto the table he says "Jeez!" with a sense of real alarm. Whatever it was Ash was concerned about at the beginning of the scene, it's happening now, and it's not good.

3rd camera, hand-held. behind Dallas and Kane.

Kane rises from the table in obvious discomfort, and the tenor of room has shifted from light joking to concern and uneasiness. The 3rd camera is in the same general location, but instead of being locked down as it was above, it is now hand-held.

Everything which follows is action and reaction from the cast. By and large, from this point until the creature emerges, the cameras stay in the same positions. The story is most told from the following angles:

1st camera

We see Brett and Ripley's arms trying to help on the left, while Ash has shoved Lambert out of the way on the right. Notice what dominates the center of the frame here...

3rd camera

And here...

Kane is the focus. Specifically, Kane's chest. Interestingly, we don't get any closeups of Kane's face until later in the scene. Also, remember the opening wide-angle shot? This is where the center of the frame was focused - this exact part of the mess table. The hand held element is also used effectively here to create unease and add tension - especially following a series of locked down camera shots

I'd like to add that John Hurt's performance in this moment is what continues to sell the terror and shock of the scene. Everyone by now knows what's happening, and in the later Alien films, even the characters themselves know what's happening to them as it happens (the colonist found by the Colonial Marines in Aliens, Ripley in Alien 3, and the colonist in Alien: Resurrection).

Hurt's performance doesn't only sell the agony Kane's is experiencing, but also the terror of a person who has no idea what's happening with his body. I can't imagine what a gut punch this must have been to audiences back in 1979.

One last point... the Facehugger's ability to render its victims comatose with no memory of the assault is a crucial survival strategy. As Ripley demonstrates in Alien 3, a host with knowledge of their infection would be more likely to harm themselves, and thus harm the incubating alien hiding inside them.

There are also a couple of insert shots during this part of the sequence:

3rd camera, handheld close up:

Lambert recovers from being shoved aside by Ash, and tries to get involved.

2nd camera, medium shot across the table:

Ash, still trying to get Kane stabilized and help Parker get a spoon in Kane's mouth to keep him from biting his own tongue while he's convulsing. Lambert looks on with unease.

I want to also point out that the 2nd and 3rd camera angles throughout the sequence are designed to make the audience the 8th member of the Nostromo's crew. Between the handheld movement in 3rd camera, and the crowding of other crewmembers from the sides of the frame, it's absurdly easy for the audience to feel as if they are watching the action at the table.

And finally here it is:

3rd Camera, hand-held:

I really like the theory espoused on the Alien Minute Podcast during this sequence, which indicates that the alien uses acid - maybe secreted from the mouth, or spit (as in Prisoner Murphy's unfortunate case early in Alien 3) to soften Kane's diaphragm and rib cage to make it easier for the creature to exit the host body. I mean... eeek!

This shot is followed quickly by reaction shots:

2nd Camera

1st Camera

The brief pause in the action here really unsettles me, and it's a phenomenal bit of performance from the entire cast. Kane stops convulsing for a second, as though the shock of what he just felt has temporarily blinded him to the pain and panic of what's happening with his body. The rest of the crew reacts first to the shock of the blood, then pause in a feeble attempt to process what they just saw, before Kane's body starts convulsing again.

The next several shots alternate between the 3rd camera and 2nd camera, with the last 3rd camera angle being a closer look at Kane's face...

Again, John Hurt's performance carries this sequence. At this point, I think Kane is like a wounded animal, in tremendous pain and suffering from shock; there's no reason, or higher mental function happening here with Kane. In a weird way, it's like a "savagery of nature" sequence at this point.

4th Camera - Effects Shot

Here's the first use of the 4th camera. It's very close to the 3rd camera (and may have been that same camera), but the angle is slightly different - maybe like between Lambert and Dallas.

We have the sickening sound effect of Kane's diaphragm and rib cage collapsing - here's where that theory I mentioned earlier makes sense - we don't get cracking with the high-pitched snapping sound you normally get with bones being broken. This is more of a wet squishy sound, as though the bones, muscles, and skin have been melted down into a semi-soft mass.

This is the point at which there was a break in the filming. Everything we saw before this shot was filmed, then the set was cleared and prepared for the effects team.

John Hurt's body is under the table, with his head sticking out of a hole. There is a fake chest on the table, with squibs and pressure tubes, and the junction point for Hurt's body and the fake body is hidden by the shirt. It's nicely obscured by the speed of the edit and the shocking nature of the content.

5th Camera - Medium shot

This angle is from the area of the table where Ash was originally sitting, looking back across where Kane had been sitting. This is the first time we see this angle, and we'll see it for the reactions of much of the cast for the rest of the scene.

Lambert's famous reaction from the 2nd camera.

These are shots which reflect the famous (and somewhat erroneous) legend that the actors didn't know what was going to happen. Clearly, they knew what was in the script, and they saw the setup for the on set effects. What they didn't know was the effects team had rigged high-pressure tubes to spray fake blood, and that they didn't tell the actors which direction those tubes where pointing in.

There's another 4th camera shot, and an inhuman squeal, followed by

Another 5th camera medium shot and some assorted verbal reactions. It's also an interesting moment of chivalry when Parker instinctively steps in front of Ripley - especially given their antagonistic exchanges earlier in the film.

6th Camera - Close Up

The alien. The disgust is and shock is perfectly punctuated by Lambert's stunned "Oh my God!"

We're also back to a camera position close to the opening shot of the scene. Furthermore, this is one of the most game-changing moments in all of cinema. As Jason Zinoman says in Shock Value:

"When the alien bursts out, something strange happens; the camera stops. The bright light does not darken. The audience gets a straight-on look at the monster... For the first time in history, revealing the creature is not an anticlimax." Shock Value, page 205.

In fact, visually, speaking, the entire scene has been set-up for this moment to put the creature in the spotlight. The establishing shot places this part of the mess table front and center (like an elevated stage), with a giant spotlight shining right down on it. Honestly, I love the brass of Alien to push all of its chips to the center of the table in this moment, confident that it would pay off.

This is also interesting in the context of how Alien came to be made - while producers David Giler and Walter Hill did not like Dan O'Bannon's original script, this was the scene which hooked them enough to purchase the script and begin developing it.

We now get a couple of important reaction shots which signal a return to the narrative which was laid out early in the scene. With Kane dead and Ash needing to protect the creature, any threat to the creature becomes an emergency for Ash...

5th Camera - Parker grabs a knife or pen, while Dallas sticks an arm in his way.

2nd Camera - Ash tries to stop Parker, imploring him "Don't touch it! Don't touch it!"

It's a credit to Ian Holm's performance that this moment can be seen simultaneously as an attempt to protect Parker - hey this thing just exploded from a human chest, it bleeds acid, and it has metal looking teeth - and an attempt to protect the creature. As it regards Ash, he may in fact have been attempting to protect Parker; nothing in Ash's behavior to this point indicates he actively wishes harm upon his shipmates. It's an interesting question regarding Ash - how much concern does he have for his shipmates as long as he's fulfilling the requirements of Special Order 937?

In terms of staging, again, it's perfect. The alien is stuck between its protector in Ash, and a potential aggressor in Parker. The scene settles into an uneasy standoff between the three, with the alien oriented toward Ash - as though it somehow understands that Ash is trying to protect it.

Ash wins the standoff, as Parker elects (maybe unwisely, given the events to come) not to try killing the alien while he has the chance.

6th camera - another close up

2nd camera - wide shot

The alien escapes, exiting the mess hall using the open corridor between Brett and Parker (as shown in the establishing shot). It's also interesting staging, with Ash standing behind the alien and over Kane's hollowed corpse - a literalization of Ash's role in protecting it.

In closing out the scene, we get three reaction shots.

There's a 2nd camera close up of Ash, alone in the frame, watching the alien escape...

Ash then seems to suffer from a cold chill. When you think of his line from later in the film:

"I admire it's purity. A survivor. Unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality"

Ash's chill seems like the moment where he first comes to terms with what this alien really is.

5th Camera - A reaction shot of Ripley, Brett, Parker and Dallas. All of them are stunned into silence. Ripley and Brett are looking down the hallway, while Parker stares at Kane's gutted body, and Dallas is spaced out, in shock.

The closing shot of the scene is a close up on Ash. Again, his being alone in the frame underscores his relationship with his shipmates.

This puts a bow on the narrative element of the scene. Ash feels to me like any classic movie crook whose plan relies on everything working perfectly in order to succeed - shades of William H. Macy's Jerry Lundergaard from Fargo.

Based on his reaction, I think Ash genuinely hoped he would be able to get Kane and the rest of the crew into hypersleep before the alien was mature enough to escape from its human host. Now, with the alien escaped into the labyrinthine Nostromo, he knows he's just gotten his shipmates killed.

Lastly, just think about how quickly this movie shifted. A little more than 2 minutes ago, the crew had seemingly escaped the threat, and was enjoying a last meal before bed.

Now, this crew which doesn't always get along under ideal conditions finds themselves in a race to survive by trusting each other to work hard, work smart, and work fast. Further, they're handicapped by not knowing what they're up against, and their ship isn't operating at peak efficiency - the screens are out on B and C decks thanks to their rough landing.

The Stats

  • Scene starts at 54:36 and ends at 56:55. 
  • Total duration of 2:21.
  • 48 total shots.

The Finished Scene

Courtesy of YouTube:

Final Thoughts

Even though this scene is firmly embedded in the pop-culture firmament, it's surprising how much power the scene carries after almost 38 years. The combination of a strong ensemble cast, precise camera angles which convey the story visually, tremendous practical effects, and terrific editing continues to give this scene raw power and a visceral punch, even after the surprise has long faded.

All screencaps downloaded from Movie


  1. Jeffrey: First, let me say I like the name of your blog. I enjoyed reading your take on this iconic scene from my favorite film. You hit the major movements, and your selection of stills illustrated them nicely. While I'm not sold on the acid-assisted theory of chest- bursting, I fully believe this scene best shows the audience where Ash stands (literally and figuratively) relative to his crew mates. Thanks for a nice reading. Worth a reblog, really. Best, Darrell