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Alien: The Director's Cut
Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by written by Dan O'Bannon, story by Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett
Alien: The Director's Cut
Principal Cast
Tom Skerritt -- Dallas
Sigourney Weaver -- Ripley
Veronica Cartwright -- Lambert
Harry Dean Stanton -- Brett
John Hurt -- Kane
Ian Holm -- Ash
Yaphet Kotto -- Parker
Bolaji Badejo -- Alien
Helen Horton -- Mother (voice)
Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Newbert

It's back. Or, more accurately, it never really left. Ridley Scott's Alien has slept inside of one sci-fi film after another for the past twenty-four years as a more-or-less silent influence, imitated so often that its ideas have occasionally become the fodder for parody instead of horror. And now it bursts forth in a new "director's cut" with a few minutes of footage restored, including the infamous "nest" scene (more later). Unlike the re-cutting of Blade Runner several years ago, this new release of Alien isn't substantially "new," and exists mostly to help promote the upcoming massive boxed set Alien Quadrilogy -- this version of the film will be included there. However, contemporary horror and sci-fi films have progressed such little distance beyond the time of its original release that it still seems sui generis.

This version features a digitally restored print, one which has all the dirt and scratches of the past two decades removed and whose color was re-adjusted to what it once was, all of which was overseen by Ridley Scott himself. It looks expertly polished, with only a slight grain in the backgrounds. I'm told the soundtrack was remixed for digital 5.1 surround and is spectacular, but I can't really comment on that since the theater I saw this in had speaker-system glitches. ("What's the story, Mother?") If you wanted a pristine Alien to stand as an example of digital restoration, this was what you were waiting for.

But I'm also glad to report that the film's narrative virtues remain intact, just as I remembered them from its initial release in 1979, when the film rolled into theaters like a hand grenade. One of the things Alien had going for it then was a carefully-controlled opening 45 minutes or so, during which we are gradually introduced to the menace facing the crew of the Nostromo, an interstellar cargo vessel that's towing mineral ore from some farflung outpost back to Earth. Along the way the crew is awakened from its hypersleep to deal with a possible distress signal on an uncharted and inhospitable planetoid. An expedition to the surface reveals an alien ship in decay and a cavernous hold full of strange eggs; soon enough, the crew will discover that the distress signal was actually a warning. All of this unfolds at a deliberate pace that nearly hypnotizes. When the action gets bloody that same pace continues, so that the tension is sustained not by hyperkinetic editing but by a refusal to pander. It's like watching a bomb explode and take out its victims in slow motion.

Of course the "chest-burster" scene was infamous at the time; repeat viewings show it to be gory but oddly restrained, and now seems mostly appalling for having been set at the dinner table. Also notable is how consistently dark this film is; not just in its tone and mood, but in its physically underlit sets and washed-out surfaces does the film claustrophobically assault you. (This makes the newly restored color all the more important.) Scott's cast was mostly well-seasoned character actors; the film's biggest star, Tom Skerritt, was best known at the time for having been in Robert Altman's M*A*S*H. (Veronica Cartwright, who plays Lambert, was the older sister of Angela Cartwright, who was in the TV series Lost in Space.) Right from the beginning, the crew is individualized by speech and behavior, and they appear as real people, not pulp archetypes or Jungian superheroes. Alien isn't science fiction about Grand Ideas or utopian visions, but a thriller in the style of John W. Campbell's "Who Goes There?" It's all about the survival of its characters, and it sets them up with economy and style.

The ace in the hole was H.R. Giger's astounding artwork that supplied the look of the alien and the creepy spaceship the eggs are discovered in; he justly won the Oscar for creating one of cinema's truly scary and surreal monsters. (French artist Jean "Moebius" Giraud added much to the look of the human technology.) Some of the added footage shows us a better look at the creature hanging in the chains above the landing bay as Brett walks beneath, and is the unexpected moment that probably shocked me the most in this version. The alien's ability to molt and change as the film progressed was a surprising twist, as was the revelation of Ash's true identity and purpose. Alien kept the audience on its toes until the very end, which popularised the "It's over -- no, it isn't" trend of 80s horror. And the look of the film, a gritty science fiction world that looked dirtier than Star Wars only two years earlier, became the norm for SF pictures grasping at realism.

Sigourney Weaver has established herself as an A-list actress since 1979, but she has never quite gotten away from the iconic image of herself staggering down strobe-lit hallways, carrying a gun and watching for the monsters to appear. In fact, the final minutes of Alien are so intense that James Cameron's sequel uses them as the template for its entire final act. It's in the middle of that scary race for the escape pod that the "nest" scene was placed, where Ripley stumbles across a corner of the landing bay that the alien has used to... well, "cocoon" the remains of Brett and Dallas. The moment has become so famous through rumour alone that several films have aped it, including the recent Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake. Scott loved the scene, but felt it hampered the pacing at the end. Actually, it's a creepy and unsettling jolt in the arm when you might least expect it ("Please... kill me..."), and I'm glad to see it was restored.

With the DVD arriving soon this Alien won't be in theaters long, so rush out while you can and see it on the big screen.

Copyright © 2003 David Newbert

David Newbert worked for public and university libraries for several years before joining the college book trade. He lives in New Mexico, where the aliens landed.

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