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Alien: The Director's Cut

reviewed by dan heaton

Today's multiplexes seem to abound with sloppy horror pictures that draw large crowds but lack the ingenuity of their inspirations. These eighty-minute slasher pictures jump right into the action and forget to generate any caring for their victims. The characters are usually very young and exist as specific archetypes from countless past movies. The studios love these movies because they can use a virtually unknown cast, keep costs low, and make a fortune from the masses. Horror films do serve a purpose and can provide chilling entertainment, but far too many duds appear for every solid entry.

The recent theatrical release of Alien: The Director's Cut provides novices with a welcome opportunity to view a landmark picture of both the horror and science-fiction genres. Nearly 25 years after its 1979 opening, this nightmare-inducing gem still infects your consciousness and becomes nearly impossible to forget. Its three sequels each have their own strong points (especially 1986's Aliens), but they all owe a considerable debt to the original tale. The abundant success was actually a pretty big surprise at the time. Numerous studios passed on the project, and Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Gladiator) had only directed one feature film prior to this one (The Duelists). Luckily, he crafts a deliberate and slowly building pace that eventually reaches a feverish pitch. The early scenes may seem to drag a bit, but they perfectly set up the audience for the surprises that follow.

The plot is almost certainly familiar to most viewers. The seven-passenger Nostromo mining craft has successfully gained its cargo and is returning to Earth. Intercepting an apparent S.O.S. message, they set down on an unexplored planet and discover a strange vessel. A small alien being then attaches itself to a crew member's face and is returned to the ship. It eventually transforms into a larger, more hostile enemy and begins to kill the crew one by one. Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and the remaining crew members must find a way to eliminate this perfect killing machine before it destroys them all. Additionally, the profit-minded Company may have ulterior motives for saving the alien and places little value on their lives.

Alien takes its time and clearly depicts each setting before providing the action. The opening wide shots convey the vast expanse of this vessel and its practical, industrial aspects. The camera then enters the ship but doesn't immediately join the action occurring. Following several minutes of images presenting the bleak interior, we finally observe the crew waking from hypersleep. This initial sequence does not serve any definite need of the plot, but it does immediately draw us into the specific atmosphere. When characters later race through the ship, we already understand the basic layout and can focus on the events depicted. Scott masterfully follows the example of Hitchcock and Carpenter in realizing that setup is sometimes even more important than the action itself. The renowned dinner scene perfectly exemplifies this approach and uses subtle hints prior to the violent alien appearance. One crew member, Kane (John Hurt), starts coughing and it seems harmless, and then his problems persist, and we cringe and can guess what's coming.

Considering its appearance in the pre-CGI era, this picture offers remarkable set design that inventively presents a larger story beneath the surface. The massive alien ship dwarfs the little explorers and presents an unknown civilization completely foreign to humans. The long rows of eggs promise countless more nasty aliens and some grand source. The large, dead being sitting at the chair is never really explained, but it provides a fascinating grisly image. These shots raise numerous questions but fail to detract from the central plot. The impressive cinematography covers the unique locations while Jerry Goldsmith's deliberate music underscores the impending doom. These sounds complement the scene and allow the shots to live without bombastically overwhelming them, which keeps us focused on the experience.

Horror pictures aren't usually renowned for having talented ensemble casts, but this one provides a wonderful group of character actors. Tom Skerritt initially received top billing as Dallas but actually takes a back seat to future star Weaver's Ripley and Ian Holm's chilling science officer Ash. Homicide's Yaphet Kotto, acclaimed British actor John Hurt, Harry Dean Stanton, and Veronica Cartwright could carry scenes on their own, but they all work effectively together. Each actor gives their character an original personality that supercedes the tenets of the script. They mostly remain subdued and avoid the overacting often utilized in the genre. Even Holm remains eerily calm during his ultimate scene, which makes the expected revelation even more unsettling.

The Director's Cut of Alien provides only minor changes and avoids any major story adjustments. The only significant new scene involves Ripley discovering the nasty cocooned bodies of several shipmates near film's end. Scott also chopped some lengthier moments and tightened everything to provide an even scarier experience. The picture and sound have been enhanced, which keeps it from feeling dated in any way. Viewing this movie in the theater for the first time, I still felt the nervous sensations undoubtedly experienced by audiences in 1979. The sequels, video games, comic books, and marketing may have overstretched this story, but it remains extremely popular today. A nine-disc Alien Quadrology containing all four titles and a ridiculous amount of extra features appears next month. Additionally, the long-awaited Alien vs. Predator movie comes out in August 2004 and is sure to attract even more new fans to the remarkable series.

Issue 17, November 2003

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