Trading Card Set of the Week – Alien (1979, Topps)
In space no one can hear you snap bubblegum.
A hard-R science-fiction/horror film filled with unrelenting overt and subconscious sexual imagery seems an odd choice for bubblegum cards aimed at children — even if said film is a masterpiece. Yet here we are: Alien, the Topps trading cards. Let’s be clear, though, that pointing out incongruity isn’t criticism. That these cards exist is one of the many simple, moderate delights that make life oh so worth living.
We take Alien for granted as an industry standard, as if it’s been around since the Earth cooled and the first cells oozed from the sulfurous seas. But there was a time when the world of film was bereft of Ridley Scott’s greatest triumph. Yes, greatest — because Alien is so much better than Blade Runner, it’s painfully unnecessary to point out the reasons why. It’s tighter, it’s edgier, it’s more thrilling, it has no ponderous philosophy, no rain-drenched emotional self-epitaphs. There’s a few. It’s so great, Scott’s reputation as a genius director has been coasting on it and BR (which is still good, don’t get me wrong) since the early 1980s. (He makes a lot of solid movies, but this pair elevates him beyond the mean of the rest of his oeuvre.)
My personal testament to the quality of Alien is this: As I grow older, I rewatch fewer and fewer movies, for whatever reason(s). But there are a few that I’ll be watching until I die. Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The Thing. Superman: The Movie. Predator. 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Last of the Mohicans. And Alien.
Besides being of unimpeachable quality, Alien spawned two things, which burst out of its runtime like a pissed face-hugger: the career of Sigourney Weaver, and a franchise that, despite all efforts to kill it, refuses to die. (Much like the titular beast, it has acid for blood or something — maybe a secondary set of chompers.) Ms. Weaver was the revelation of the film’s spectacular ensemble cast, with her indomitable Ellen Ripley emerging only at the end, after the rest of her crewmates had fallen before eponymous xenomorph’s from-the-shadows onslaught. Then she was off and running, establishing a solid career for herself (I mean, Ghostbusters — come on), in which she’d play this increasingly hard-nosed heroine three more times — which bleeds into the film’s second branch. The Alien franchise would spawn more movies, comics, and games, becoming a Howard Stern-like King of All Media. Scott himself even returned to the franchise last year to direct the initially intriguing but ultimately underwhelming sortakinda prequel, Prometheus. How far afield has H.R. Giger’s creature design gone? It once crossed path with DC’s Green Lantern. And not the Hal Jordan or Alan Scott Green Lantern who existed when it was created. The Kyle Rayner GL. The xenomorph has travelled much. The peripatetic xeno.
And it all makes this neato set of cards so, well, neat. A trip back in time to a futuristic tale of yore.
The first thing that’s so great about this set — and it just might be the very best thing — is its box art. Look at that image at the top of this post. Look at it. That’s possibly the best box topper for any trading card release ever. I’ve scrolled through a whole damn lot of eBay listings, and I don’t know that I’ve ever seen its equal. Ever. The space-suited Dallas, Kane and Lambert crawling into an unknown ship’s shiny portal/vagina/rectum/orifice/whatever, the movie’s great tagline — In space no one can hear you scream — emblazoned above them, is nothing if not unique. This could be the all-time champion in the box top beauty pageant. There are other contenders, some of which will show up here one day (and Magnum’s mustache is hard to beat), but we have a leader in the clubhouse, that much is certain. (And nothing does more to sum up the endeavor’s inherent odd contrast than the juxtaposition of Giger designs with Pop Bottle Candy.)
On to the cards.
Since the assemblage of actors was so sound, we should probably go through the individual character cards one by one. Seems only fair. First up is Captain Dallas, played by the bearded Tom Skerritt. Just look at his affable, scruffy demeanor — his posture says “In a little over ten years, I’ll star in a quirky little show called Picket Fences. I hope you enjoy it. Until then, enjoy these cards, and have a nice day.”:
Next is Weaver, in all her impossibly pretty late-1970s glory — I mean, seriously:
John Hurt may play the ill-fated Kane here, but he’ll always be Winston Smith to me:
Ian Holm’s Ash violated all three tenets of Isaac Asimov’s Laws of Robotics in the film’s runtime — quite an achievement:
Veronica Cartwright sold the OHMYGODWHATTHEF***ISTHATTHING horror of the movie as Lambert. Indeed, her overwhelmed, terror-stricken finale forms a 1970s counterpoint with her role in the last scene of the decade’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake. Here she is in a calmer moment:
Yaphet Kotto — great in anything. Parker — great when things start going really, really wrong:
Harry Dean Stanton — who’s managed to look sepulchral in five decades:
And last but not least is Jonesy, whose survival gratified all of us who worry more about the animals in movies than the people:
The bulk of the cards are a condensed retelling of the movie’s story, with the backs either adding more context to the images seen on the front or forming a piece of two puzzles (the good ship Nostromo or the Space Jockey). A number simply highlight the tremendous imagery from the picture, which has seared itself onto the retinas of the global film public — like this one here, a great wide-angle view of the oddly shaped horseshoe craft, the font of our cast’s troubles:
Some cards also give you a behind the scenes look, like this one of an under construction Space Jockey model and Giger himself:
Like novelizations or comic book adaptations, cards have always been a source for glimpses into scenes deleted from a movie. One of the scariest moments in Alien is something not seen. When Kane goes below decks in the Space Jockey’s craft, a viewer’s every instinct is screaming for him to get the hell out of there. There are big, leathery eggs, and OH GOD ONE IS OPENING UP. The movie cuts away just as it hatches and launches its occupant at Kane’s face, and the next time we see him is back at the dropship, with his face firmly clenched in the crabby arms of a face-hugger. Card #53 shows us that more was once intended for our eyes:
Yeah, the image is a bit murky, but the card back gives you a good idea of what’s you’re seeing — or not seeing, as it were. Also, note the egg motif, which is on all of the textual backs:
In the end, this is much like the scene with the captured and ensconced Dallas that made its way into the director’s cut: unnecessary. The unseen is always more frightening than the seen. (Also, I hope never in my life to come face to face with a goddamn “ovoid blister.” Yeesh.)
As we see, the “Space Jockey” terminology, not used in the film, made its way into the cards. The face-hugger, however, was here referred to as the “face grabber”:
Would you rather be “grabbed” or “hugged” by that thing? The correct answer is neither, but one thinks that grabbing implies prompt release, while hugged entails a long embrace. So if you have to, go with the former. And get the hell out of there.
The scares onboard the doomed Nostromo didn’t all come from the xenomorph (we’re getting to it, don’t worry). After Dallas disappears and Ripley is left in charge, she finds out that their arrival on a faraway, barren world wasn’t a coincidence, and that one of the crew isn’t what he seems. And then good old android company man Ash goes crazy and tries to kill her with a rolled up magazine:
Death by periodical.
Card #72 does a fine job of encapsulating the “it could be around any corner” dread:
And now, finally, the xenomorph, in all his shiny, drooling glory:
Like most Topps cards from these days, there were stickers included (one in every pack), which functioned as chase cards before there were such maddening monstrosities. There are 22 in this instance, enough to make complete sets of stickers harder to come by than the regular base set. They’re green, and rehash pics from the regular cards, and the backs have ads for candy — continuing the odd pairing. For our last scan, we’ll go with the last sticker, which has a nice shot of the titular creature deploying that phallic inner mouth:
And there you have it. This is a great set for a great movie, and definitely one of the more desirable products from back in the day. They aren’t exactly hard to find — eBay is an inexhaustible font — but they’re a blast to go through. Hell, it was enjoyable just writing this post, which kind of says it all.