Halloween movies month: Alien--The Director's Cut

>> Thursday, October 09, 2008


I don't know if this will be a regular feature this month, or if it will be a one-shot kind of thing: but I think I mentioned in my October rave that October is the month for pulling out the scary movies. Okay--as you might expect, I consider every month a good month for scary movies. But you have to admit October as a special air to it.

Whatever the reason, I found myself in the mood for Alien last weekend, the first (but not the last) scary movie pulled off the shelf in honor of the month.

I think it's safe to describe Alien as a modern classic in horror and science fiction, one of those movies that almost everyone has seen and that's a fundamental text if you want to call yourself an SF or horror geek. So I don't want to belabor the point by going deeply into the oft-said and obvious: that Alien is Lovecraft in space (which is sort of redundant, actually) or that it's a haunted-house story in space (which is true, even if it's a little bit of an oxymoron).

Alien has become such a fundamental and imitated part of the modern SF/horror canon that I think it's easy to forget what an original, shocking and different kind of movie it was in 1979. It was one of the first movies to benefit from the success of another 20th-Century Fox picture, 1977's Star Wars, and it owes a lot to the earlier film: the fact that it was greenlit as a relatively big-budget movie, the lived-in aesthetic that director Ridley Scott embraced, the industrial look of the props and the attention paid to the special effects. Had Alien been made in 1975 (and it's unlikely a project like Alien would have been approved before Star Wars showed how profitable SF could be), one imagines it looking and feeling like lesser pictures like Logan's Run or at best Silent Running (neither of which is a terrible film, and Douglas Trumbull's Running is, like 2001, a direct ancestor to the lived-in set-design aesthetics of Star Wars and Alien).

Alien wasn't the first horror movie where the heroine survives (far from it), but it was one of the first science-fiction films to feature a powerful heroine (and one of the relatively fewer horror films where the heroine survives and does so while keeping her head, her dignity, her clothes, and her vocal cords intact). Interestingly, one reason this happens in Alien is that screenwriter Dan O'Bannon's original screenplay has no first names for any of the characters (and none are given in the final film) because he deliberately wrote the characters so they could be cast blind as to gender and ethnicity. And this brings us to one of the other things that was interesting and special about Alien in 1977: the only character O'Bannon had a gender preference for was Kane, played by John Hurt; although O'Bannon wrote the script so Kane could have been a man or a woman, he has said that he thought it would be far more shocking to audiences--particularly male audience members--if it was a man who was orally raped and impregnated during Alien's first act. Regrettably, one has to admit that O'Bannon is probably right; and so there's another interesting thing about Alien that's easy to overlook thirty years later, although movies remain full of commonplace, unconscious misogyny--Alien essentially begins with a man being violated and ends with a lone woman surviving and vanquishing the film's chief antagonist.

It's also easy to forget that Alien was not the first movie in a franchise--that is to say, Alien was made as a standalone movie and didn't become the beginning of a franchise until James Cameron managed to sell everybody on the idea of making a sequel some seven years after Alien was released. And while I really do love Aliens and consider it a fairly brilliant and effective sequel, I have to tell you that I think Alien works far better by itself than it does as the Mother Of Five More Movies, A Lot Of Comic Books, And A Buncha Videogames. Taken by itself, Alien is a movie that begins out in the middle of nowhere and ends out in the middle of nowhere--both literally, as the Nostromo veers off course to investigate a mysterious signal and Ripley drifts off towards the frontier in the scuttled Nostromo's shuttle, and existentially. There's no reason any of this happened to the crew of the Nostromo besides the fact they were unlucky enough to be the closest ship, there's no explanation of why the crashed alien ship is on the planetoid, or whether the alien that implants itself in Kane is a native of the planetoid or was brought there on the crashed ship the Nostromo crew finds, or whether the egg chamber is part of the ship or part of the cliff the alien ship is perched on, or what the blue mist is, or whether the eggs were laid or (as implied in the Director's Cut) represent the remains of an alien crew. It's all ambiguous and uncertain, and the ambiguities embed themselves in the viewer's brain and chase his bad dreams around in circles.

One problem that imitators of Alien, including the lesser sequels, run into on a regular basis is they feel obliged to explain everything to the audience, and explanations are a bane of effective horror. Contrary to the popular expression, what you don't know almost always can hurt you, while the things you know can be dealt with, however ineffectually. Alien never explains itself to the audience, and that's one of the most brilliant things about the movie. Nor, it should be noted, does it ever explain itself to the characters, who scuttle their ship knowing little more than they did when they started: the times the hapless characters actually do start to think they know anything, what they don't know kills them (as when Captain Dallas tries to corner the damn thing in the ventilation system with a flamethrower--nice plan, dude).

The Director's Cut, if you missed it, actually is an improvement on the original theatrical release, although director Ridley Scott says he prefers the theatrical cut and mainly did the Director's Cut because 20th-Century Fox talked him into doing it as part of the digital restoration and reissue. One has to hand it to Scott: he added half-a-dozen deleted scenes to the movie and still ended up with a movie that is one minute shorter than the original release; Scott trimmed scenes and tightened up the pacing, and it's this more than the restored footage that makes the Director's Cut an improvement. At least one of the deleted scenes still could have been left out entirely (another, however, does bridge a conspicuous gap in the original).


Pacing is crucial in Alien. Many of the movie's imitators don't seem to get that Alien is a movie in which nothing much happens during the first thirty-five minutes or so. That sounds like a criticism, but it's praise. Those are thirty-five minutes during which we meet the characters, get used to the scenery, and then get plunged into this mystery that abruptly ends when someone who could have been the protagonist (except he's not, it turns out) getting raped by a parasite. A lot of really terrible movies have tried to get to the "good stuff" before the opening credits, even, which is a good way to end up with a pointless, gory, indifferent movie in which cartoony characters become ducks in a sadomasochistic shooting gallery.

This has gotten longer than I wanted it to without me getting to some of the really good stuff--I wanted to talk about Alien's sound design, for instance, and believe it or not. (Pay attention to it the next time you watch the movie--it's pretty brilliantly done.) I'm going to wind this up by simply pointing out that Alien is a horror movie that is just as good, just as nasty, just as effective as it was three decades ago, despite a score of ineffectual copies and several sequels that ranged from mediocre (Alien Resurrection, AVP) to bad (Alien3) to worse than the clap (AVP-Requiem). And Alien has a further quality that's a mark of great (as in "Citizen Kane great" as opposed to "The Wrath Of Khan great," i.e. just genuinely good filmmaking, I'm not actually saying Alien is as good as Citizen Kane) movies: it positively rewards repeat viewings with layers and layers and layers (pay attention, for instance, to Ian Holm's fine performance as Ash on a repeat viewing, and notice how your perception of it is different from the first time you watched it, knowing what you thought you knew then and knowing what you know now). That's something that, as much as I love Aliens, I don't think James Cameron pulled off.

Alien: a great scary movie during the right month for them.

1 comments:

mattw Friday, October 10, 2008 at 10:32:00 AM EDT  

I haven't seen Alien in years. I first saw it when I was 14ish, about 12 years ago, and it scared the crap out of me. I think every time I went to bed for a week after that I could see the xenomorphs climbing out of the shadows in my room. I should really go rent that and see it again. After all, it is the season for scary movies, and we've seen the ones we have at home too many times.

Being about 14 at the time, I was more of a fan of Aliens, but that was due to lots of guns and explosions and all of that. Anything after Aliens, I don't really need to see it again, and I never bothered with AVP-R after all the bad reviews I heard.

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