So a few hours before seeing Prometheus yesterday I got talked into watching Alien in anticipation of the new film. Literally watched Alien and left for the midnight showing of Prometheus. Now I love Alien. It’s one of my favourite films of all time, up there with Chinatown, Double Indemnity and Ghostbusters. That said I had never seen the director’s cut version. I purchased a copy back when it was released on DVD but couldn’t bring myself to watch it. For some reason the idea of watching a re-cut version of one of my favourite films bothered me. I was worried something would be lost or that, worse yet, Ridley Scott would have done something distasteful to one of my most loved films. A while back I got around to watching the Final Cut of Bladerunner. It was very good. It may be my favourite version of that film. So when a friend suggested we watch the director’s cut of Alien I thought, screw it. I can’t avoid it forever. Click the link to see if I nerd raged.
Alien is pretty much a film about 90% of you will have seen at some point. I say 90% because I learned last night of someone that has never seen it and so I assume there must be others like her out there. Probably the same weirdos that got through the 80s without seeing Star Wars. The plot is a pretty straight forward mash up of science fiction and slasher movie horror. A sort of dark and twisted take on the B-movie sci-fi horrors of the 50s. In it the crew of the mining ship The Nostromo have been awaken from their cryo sleep chambers quite some way short of their destination. This is because of a protocol in the ships computer MU-TH-ER that awakens the crew in the event that a potentially alien signal is found. It leads them to an unnamed planet (that is given the name LV-426 in the sequel Aliens) and they head out to investigate a strange looking crashed ship. On board all is creepy and deserted except for the galaxies creepiest collection of Easter eggs. One of these hatches and its inhabitant latches itself onto the face of crew member Kane (John Hurt) and it is not letting go. Naturally they sci-fi film mistake number 1: Never bring anything not human on board your ship. Guess what happens.
Alien is a film that takes a basic story premise and then does everything its own way. The film has a slow paced first hour that gradually builds the threat. It takes time to show us the intricacies of the space ship the film is largely set on. The cast provide a more naturalistic set of performances very much removed from those of similar films of the time not called 2001: A Space Odyssey. When it comes to the horror elements Alien is full of sexual imagery that provides visual allegories for rape, pregnancy and birth. The film is more about what we think we see in its darkened environments rather than showing us everything in brightly lit shots. Partly this was down to budget, but the restriction was embraced to fill every shot that pertained to the alien creatures with dread and tension.
One thing the film does is bait and switch you on the films lead. During the first hour the focus is on the male members of the crew with ships captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt) and the Science Officer Ash (Ian Holm) being front and centre. They play off the tropes of being the leader and the token smart character. Gradually as the film moves along though there’s a shift towards the one level headed member of the crew in the form of Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley. She barely says more than a handful of lines before Kane is brought on board with a creature attached to his face and when she starts to question the logic of that decision we see start to see that she is the real lead of the film. She is a voice of reason that is being plunged into an insane situation and she had better learn to adapt to the dangers to come. This is still quite a unique approach to this day. What it effectively does is give us our potential hero characters and then, when they’re no longer being effective leaders, moves us to the plan B. This means that we’ll feel like our characters plight is already in a tough spot because we no longer have our usual hero characters taking charge. This is also the reason why we root for her, because she’s the hero we’re now left with and so we want her to succeed.
As the films final hour begins the pace and the tension ramp up continuously in what can only be described as a master-class in pacing and the amplification of fear. From the moment the alien creature bursts through Kane’s ribcage the story is moved along faster and faster. Gone are the pillow shots of the ships computers and corridors. The lighting goes down as the alien moves to more secluded areas which leads to the characters, and you, watching the shadows for any movement. They even chuck in a countdown to keep reminding you of how long the characters have left to save themselves. The locations get tighter and darker and with that the threat gets stronger.
Alien is one of those films where all the component parts come together so well that it just feels spot on. Sure by today’s standards the technology and the effects can look a little dated but at least they’re real. The ship models have a tangible feel to their appearance that gives a feeling of craftsmanship that can be lost on a lot of modern films with they’re constant stacking of various special effects. Obviously the effects of today look more real than the models of the 70s but they don’t feel like a crew of people spent months painstakingly putting everything they had into crafting the images put before you. The alien spaceship itself is unlike anything that had been seen on film before that time. It was dark, humid and wet covered in structures that were certainly not human. Compare those to the interior of any Star trek alien’s space ship and you’ll see what I mean. Even the alien of the title is a tall inhuman looking creature with a frame that appears to be too small for it to just be a man in a suit. The Nostromo is a set that feels like a complete location with all it’s corridors that lead from one room to the next. With a very practical and functional design not made for creature comforts. It feels like a mining vessel and is dressed like you’d dress the set of an oil rig.
This director’s cut edition of Alien has a slightly different feel to that of the original. It appears that Scott’s intention was to streamline and speed up the pacing. A few of the scare scenes have had their shots cut up to provide that scare a little sooner than you remember. To add to that a few lines of dialogue and parts of scenes have been cut. An alternate take is used in one scene. A little footage has been added but with mixed results. This first is a very short shot that is edited in a very distracting manner. It is apparently there to help the continuity between two shots of Ash but because the shots never fully matched to begin with suddenly using a lower grade image that isn’t identical to the previous makes the cut stick out. There’s a full scene added during the final act showing what the alien has been doing to some of the crew which actually messes with the life cycle of the aliens in the previous films a little. Again it’s of a lower quality image so it stands out. I’m not sure if he later Blu-ray editions improved that loss of quality. The added scene is more of a curio for fans than anything but it’s a welcome addition.
Overall I prefer the original version of Alien over this director’s cut but this really served to merely be an alternate version of the film. It’s not like the Final Cut of Bladerunner that actually fixed some of the issues the previous versions had. Also it hasn’t received the sort of remastering Bladerunner did either. It’s still an excellent film that managed to change how science fiction was viewed by many people. It helped sci-fi grow up a lot more than the brightly colour voyages of the Starship Enterprise and wasn’t as polarising as the existentialism of 2001. If you’re one of those weirdos that hasn’t seen this you really should. Its one of those films that like say Taxi Driver managed to hit right at a point when the style of classical Hollywood cinema was giving way to the more mature and realistic style of modern cinema. When people say which Alien film is their favourite they nearly always go for either Alien of Aliens. Both are fair choices for the best but for me it’ll always be the original that’s the best.