Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by Dan O'Bannon,
Ronald Shusett, Timothy Newman and Walter Hill
Starring Sigourney Weaver,
Tom Skerritt, Ian Holm, John Hurt, Harry Dean Stanton, Yaphet Kotto and Veronica Cartwright
With today's release of the "director's cut" of Alien, another long-cherished pop culture rumour is proved to be an urban myth.
Ridley Scott's original film, it had been reported, contained subsequently trimmed scenes so graphic and shocking, preview audiences emerged from theatres quaking as if plucked from frigid waters.
What did studio 'fraidy cats cut? fans wondered. Did something else -- something more alien -- motor through nursemaid John Hurt's chest in the film's most famous scene?
Apparently not. Cult fans may (or may not) be disappointed to learn the newly restored Alien isn't much different from the 1979 blockbuster that once went by the starkly accurate title, They Bite. There are a few new scenes that draw attention to the film's feminist and fifties' sci-fi movie subtexts. And the director has cut 10 minutes of travelogue.
But unlike, say, Scott's own Blade Runner, where a belated director's re-edit transformed the original release, the new-fashioned Alien is pretty much the old-fashioned Alien: As before, a commercial towing unit -- the Nostromo -- returns to Earth with 20 million tons of mineral ore. Before too long, however, the vessel also picks up a parasitic stowaway that shoots from an Alaskan King Crab into a great slobbering monster in almost no time.
In addition, the Alien spaceship would seem to carry cultural baggage from the birthplace of sci-fi movies -- the 1950s. In fact, the original story by B-movie keeners, Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett, is lifted from the Eisenhower-era cult film, It! The Terror from Beyond Space.
The alien is also called "the thing" in homage to Howard Hawks's classic. And the new edition restores a sequence where acting commander, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) stumbles upon crew members entombed in the bowels of the Nostromo. "Help me, please help me," one colleague mewls, just like the trapped insect-man at the end of The Fly.
All this would be of little consequence if Scott hadn't made fifties sci-fi movie themes -- particularly the fear of malignant interlopers -- relevant to his own era. But Alien is very much informed with the same liberal paranoia that distinguished many of the best Hollywood films of the seventies, from Chinatown and All the President's Men to Invasion of the Body Snatchers (the 1978 version) and Who'll Stop the Rain.
Despite the presence of a memorable movie monster, it is Ripley's battle with the Nostromo's corrupt authority figure, the oddly serene science officer, Ash (Ian Holm), that is the most interesting fight in Alien. Each is doing his or her duty. Ripley goes by the book. Ash is following orders as well. Although it becomes questionable whether the "company" he's working for is acting in employee interests.
Much was made in 1979 of Alien's feminist heroine, Ripley. Until then, sci-fi movies were a male preserve. Viewers expected beautiful bit players to be served up to the monster in the first reel. (And remember, prior to Alien, Weaver's only screen performance was a walk on in Annie Hall.)
So Ripley going toe to claw with the film's slobbering alien made for thrilling spectacle. Even today, when actress Lucy Liu kicks asses around the block as regularly as a metronome, there is no feminist screen image as potent as Ripley fighting off company man Ash, who hopes to choke her with a menacing phallic symbol -- a rolled-up skin magazine.
Scott gives that sequence more weight this time by lingering on a scene of Parker (Yaphet Kotto) reading the same magazine earlier in the film, when the alien appears in the spaceship. Also, nude pinups are more evident in the background when Ripley and Ash tear at each other.
Apart from the aforementioned tweaks, however, nothing much has changed in Alien. Which is good news, really, because director Scott in his second feature film delivered a perfectly judged thriller.
Seen again a quarter-century later, we marvel at how the filmmaker generates so much tension and sweat with a bare minimum of moving parts. Alien is as simple as "Ten Little Indians" in space, where, as the film's ad campaign suggested, "no one can hear you scream."
There is no bloodshed except for Kane giving birth to the alien on a kitchen table. (By the way, the shocked response of crew mates here isn't acting; Scott hadn't informed his troupe that a toaster with sheep entrails and a meat puppet was spring-loaded below actor John Hurt's fake chest.) After that, the barely glimpsed alien picks off the crew members one by one. In between, everyone smokes and frets. The jokes grow bitter as instant coffee. And we wait for the film's other drama -- does the monster have a corporate sponsor? -- to be resolved.
The film's slow-coiling pace allows us to savour filmmaker Scott's exquisitely wrought tableaux. In one of a dozen memorable scenes, an alien abduction is captured in an elaborate play of lights on a pet cat's widening eyes.
Then there is the matter of the film's shrewdly assembled cast, from laconic cowboy commander, Dallas (Tom Skerritt) to comically grumbling maintenance engineers, Brett and Parker (Harry Dean Stanton and Kotto). One of Scott's conceptual coups was figuring out space travel would eventually be conducted by interplanetary truck drivers as opposed to astronauts and heroes. That the characters here, except for the scientist, are all working stiffs arguing over food and pay, makes Alien's story line more credible and menacing.
Since Alien, computer-generated images have made amazing special effects routine. Most of the tricks in Alien are, by comparison, laughably amateurish. Ridley Scott dressed his own boys in space suits to make sets look big. And the filmmaker waved his hand behind a glass egg to simulate alien life in an early scene.
Still, while Matrix Reloaded startles an audience with scenes, no recent sci-fi work amazes us as a movie quite like Alien. The best thriller of 2003 was made in 1979.