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Entries in Alien [1979] (1)

Thursday
Feb022012

Alien (Director's Cut, 1979)

The Perfect Organism

"I admire its purity."

This line from doomed science officer Ash (Ian Holm) sums up my love for Ridley Scott's Alien. It's easy to forget, thirty-three years and numerous sub-par sequels later, how great the original is--not just as science fiction or horror, but as a narratively minimalist, Orwellian nightmare.

Alien is the rare, wonderful movie that one can revisit again and again, and find new things to enjoy each time. I first saw it at age ten, and was obsessed with the chest-bursting penis-monster that grew into a sleek, humanoid giant. I rewound the VHS tape and froze it during key scenes to get a better look at the mysterious creature (my parents wouldn't purchase Fangoria until much later, so jumpy freeze-frames became my horror magazines).

In my late teens, I discovered John Ford, Stanley Kubrick, and other directors who slipped big ideas and bigger human drama into films that I would have found over-long and boring years before. Watching Alien after The Searchers and 2001: A Space Odyssey is as great an eye-opener as a young cinephile can have, and I picked up on themes in Dan O'Bannon's screenplay that I hadn't considered before.

For instance, I'd never understood why Scott spent so much time establishing the Nostromo, the city-sized deep-space mining vessel whose return to Earth is interrupted by a distress beacon on an uncharted planet. For ten-year-old me, Alien could have been cut in half, with all the long corridor shots and scenes of people gathering canisters excised in favor of more eviscerations. I didn't realize the great pains the filmmakers took to tell us about this universe's bleak future; this movie takes place in the shadows of previous sci-fi space epics. The Nostromo isn't part of the Empire's fleet, or Bowman's space program--it's a creaky, grime-caked rig manned by an unwitting, expendable crew. With the exception of three lines of dialogue, none of this information is explained--it's shown.

As an adult, the film speaks to my greater (but still limited) knowledge of business and politics. The ship's creepy master computer, MOTHER, is the ultra-corporate version of 1984's Big Brother. It issues orders and subtly controls the crew's behavior (not only waking them up from their months-long sleep to investigate the beacon, but also working in concert with Ash, the manipulative, covert android who acts as the arms of MOTHER's blinking-lights-on-a-panel brain). The unholy reach of military/industrial interests is far more frightening and interesting to me now than the monster of the film's title.

Of course, there are a dozen other levels on which to enjoy the film. Sigourney Weaver's Ripley character may not have invented the Survivor Girl archetype in horror movies, but she became the template for women who begin tough and then get tougher when faced with an unstoppable killing machine (unlike, say, Jamie Lee Curtis' character in Halloween, who started out soft and kind of dopey before growing up during one, long night of terror).

The rest of the cast is terrific, too, with distinct personalities that make them interesting to watch way before the monster shows up. Sure, Veronica Cartwright's shrill whining is a bit much to take. But in the scene where ship captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt) navigates the Nostromo's hot, claustrophobic air ducts, her screaming melds perfectly with Jerry Goldsmith's heart-pounding score and Jim Shields' high-pitched pulse sounds to create a unique, primal dread that culminates in one of cinema's great jump-scares.

My latest revelation is the masterful work of Alien's art and production design team. This week, I watched the movie for probably the fifteenth time, but seeing the blu-ray image presented on a new, sixty-inch plasma television (sadly, not mine), I felt like I'd never seen it before. Keep in mind, I've caught the original version and the director's cut on the big screen; neither experience comes close to seeing it in a friend's cramped apartment. The level of detail that Michael Seymour and Roger Christian put into making the Nostromo and the derelict spaceship its crew discovers on the planet is breathtaking. From the smudged white walls of the dining quarters, to the wet, fossilized egg chamber where we first meet the alien, to the ornate bowels of the ship where Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) meets his grisly end, every inch of this movie is a high-def marvel.

Especially in the scene I just described, Scott and his crew make great use of the monster's natural camouflage. H.R. Giger's alien design looks like an organic robot, and blends naturally with a ship that has gone so far to pot that it looks like renal failure with afterburners. The director has since disowned the Director's Cut due to pacing issues, but I consider it essential viewing for all first-timers. The big draw, of course, is the missing egg-chamber scene at the climax, but for me the greatest surprise is a brief insert of the creature dangling from the ceiling as Brett looks for Ripley's missing cat. We get several shots of the room and dark passageways, but after a two-second cut-away to the alien, it's impossible to watch the rest of the movie without seeing its weird attributes everywhere.

It's a shame that, with the exception of James Cameron's sequel, no one has been able to expand on O'Bannon and Scott's mythology without devolving into over-the-top gore and dumb action. It's as if the people charged with following up the classic only took away a ten-year-old's lessons--less build-up, more exploding chests and heads. But it's a testament to Alien's greatness that the Xeroxing of its formula has done nothing to tarnish the film's impact. If anything, my reaction to most of the follow-ups has been, "I'd rather just watch Alien again".

Which, invariably, I do. And it's an amazing, new movie every time.

Note: Speaking of Dan O'Bannon, if you've never seen Dark Star, you owe it to yourself to check it out. He wrote the wacky sci-fi comedy, which is not only a low-budget Dr. Strangelove in Space, it's also John Carpenter's first film and the seed for Alien.