Alien – Directors Cut

by Wartank

In the oppressive darkness, two grungy spacesuits carefully lower a third into the bowels of the alien ship. He is suspended temporarily in mid-air inside a cavernous room. The alien walls are ribbed as though alive; a raised backbone-walkway snakes along the base, towards the interminable distance. The explorer is deposited, gingerly, there. A pale, fluorescent blue light shimmers a few feet above the ground on either side of the path; it is shielding row upon row of massive, putrid, organic bulbs. This is a field of something ghastly.

The man takes a few steps in utter disbelief and confusion. One uncomprehending step after another, he ventures along the path. Suddenly, he loses his footing, slipping off the pathway toward the blue horizontal plane. He slides onto the ground, uninjured. Standing, he realises the blue light is harmless to him, and it persists at waist level like an eerie, moonlit fog. Feeling foolish at his temporary panic, now repressing it, he walks up to take a better look at one of the pods.

It is moist and veined and disgusting. He moves closer and possibly touches it, only to jump back. The pod crackles and squirts with imminent life. Four folds begin to peel back like the petals of a monstrous flower. He was again instinctively cautious, and now curious; the man now steps closer, closer, ever closer. Strands of translucent, viscous fluid stretch and snap across the egg’s yawning, widening mouth. He leans in and cranes his head forward for a better view…

Ridley Scott, the man who brought us Gladiator and Matchstick Men, is back in theatres to remind us of his cinematic range. This man knows how to make entertaining movies – movies fit for the big screen, to accept no lesser.

I admit I’m no horror movie fanatic – I’m generally not entertained by them, and don’t quite see the point. However, I enjoyed Alien immensely, which, because of my opinion of the genre, is precisely why I think this movie is incredible. Arguably, this is no longer a horror movie by today’s standards, what with the suspense and action genres confusing boundaries. However, it is this very pollution and obfuscating formulae of the horror genre which has caused this confusion and dumbing down. To be sure, there are clichés and standard plot devices in Alien, but since it was one of the first of its kind, it’s heresy to label it as derivative.

Perhaps the most convincing, endearing, and entertaining part of the movie is that the characters feel real. Someone decided at some point that any movie that is not a drama had to be populated by caricatures, but how can you be scared for characters that you don’t identify with, or who don’t seem like people at all? In Alien, you have seven passengers on the Nostromo, a transport truck of the future. Sure, they make their living in space, but they are everyday people who chat, squabble, flirt, belch, and avoid chores. They have personalities that are only hinted at, rather than flaunted like garish nametags for semi-conscious, semi-intelligent viewers. Scott realises that the crew of the Nostromo don’t need to fit into stereotypes for the audience to understand them, and the cast pulls off the subtle, petty, natural behaviours of real and believable people.

I was speaking previously of genre confusion, which is prompted in part by the recent progression towards aimless, formulaic, sexually-charged teenagers who make us eager to see them get killed (but only after their make-out scene, of course). But wait a sec, when it’s the gruesome death we’re eager to see, and not our fear we want to relish, hasn’t it become an action film? Or perhaps a murder-fetish flick? The one exception in recent memory is the Scream series. These movies essentially tore down the 3rd wall to expose the horror film’s artifice in order to create a more realistic stage. Still, this is a gimmick, and can only be used once (eventually they will stop making scream sequels…right?).

Pacing is another great strength in this movie, complemented by a slow and methodical musical score. Like the success of the notorious two-note masterwork in Jaws, Alien’s eerie soundtrack creeps along at a mind-numbing pace, one that you expect to quicken, to give you some kind of indication of the impending disaster, but which never quite gets there. It is a brilliant work that triggers your instincts to ready itself for a surprise, but fools you time and again with false scares. Rest assured, the surprises come when you least expect them.

The physical environment is a work of art. Literally. The designs of H.R. Giger are breathtaking, and Scott himself said in an interview that it took him 20 years to get over being ensorcelled with the ship – only now was he finally able to cut seconds from the epic, panning environment shots for this new edition. Nevertheless, the physical surroundings still tell a story, and the film forces a lull during the many opening scenes with sterile, blanket, cavernous rooms of whites. This both acclimatizes the audience to its calming, innocent effects, and awakens a creeping dread reminiscent of hospital hallways…but every light must cast a shadow, and towards the climax, the movie works solely within sneaking, sprawling nooks and crannies. Strobes of light cast shadows that only allow you to catch brief glimpses of things you think you saw, flashes that casually illuminate the inevitable, like the sweeping, intermittent message of a radar blip.

Though quite old, Alien still works without the revamp that the Star Wars series commissioned. Thankfully, the moments of dubious special effects are very few and far between. For the most part, the movie holds up despite the years. It was created in a period where tangible props were at their prime, before today’s age of experimentation with simulated imagery. As odd as it sounds, great, loving care was put into the saliva and other bodily fluids; when the scorpion-esque, egg-laying alien is placed on the surgical table, you don’t need to suspend your disbelief to accept that it is a living, breathing, pulsing creature.

Of course, this was a director’s cut, so I should comment on that (but, since I don’t remember the original so well, this section will just be even more dubious than the rest).

From what I remember, there were very few shots of alien before the end of the original version of the film, and almost definitely no direct shots. For certain, part of the mentality in this edition was to just get more never-before-seen footage out there, which didn’t necessarily contribute to the film. Perhaps they assumed that most people had seen the alien by now, so there is no point to hiding Giger’s great design anymore. However, that mystique really heightened the fear, because you didn’t ever know quite what you were looking for. One shot showed a silhouetted alien hanging from a chain in a large, cavernous room – and I didn’t realise what I was seeing until after the camera moved away. One scene added towards the end does break up the pacing a bit – a shot of the alien’s nest, which, if anything, I imagine most purists will object to. They may argue that the scene reveals a little too much for this movie, and that it may make no sense in terms of the alien continuity. I would argue that it adds depth to the non-speaking alien character, and prepares the audience for the myriad of subsequent films.

In the end, this is the first film in one of the great film legacies, and it speaks to the audience in that way. In some ways, the first two movies mirror the progression of a typical horror film; Alien shows but snippets of a true and overwhelming terror that is meant to continue in the sequel. A vast field of unhatched eggs and a nest of stored prey suggest a much greater, hierarchical society of sub-species within the Alien genus, like the single, exploring ant serves to indicate a nearby hive.

Alien is a masterpiece that displays all the talents of great theatrical storytellers, and no single person’s effort can fairly be highlighted without highlighting them all. You don’t like horror movies? You don’t like Sigourney Weaver? You don’t like movies at all? I don’t care. See this film, and in the theatre, as it was meant to be seen.

  • Alien – Directors Cut
  • by Wartank
  • Published on December 1st, 2003
Alien - Directors Cut
Ridley Scott
Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Ian Holm

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