Thing That Goes Bump in the Night
Eons in the universe of SFX but a mere quarter-century later in clock time, does yet another Director's Edition of this or that improve or even measure up to its original? Revived "polished" negatives, digital and other enhancements, sound souped up, reinserted footage "discovered in a London vault," subliminal conditioning from three intervening sequels, interference from the book (read afterwards), much hype, even fuzzier memories of that first release (seen overseas, dubbed). Unclouded, pristine reactions are hard to come by, so one envies the young couple in front, who have never experienced it before on the big screen and agreed that this is one of the "scariest movies ever made."
Launching director Sir Ridley Scott into Big Time, spawning numerous imitations -- a half-dozen with unimaginative variations of the same title -- and itself incorporating elements of previous films, Alien was a cultural phenomenon even when its first follow-up proved more successful at box-office and with critics.
Memory insists that not only the retained "In space no one can hear you scream" was there, but also something about "the eighth passenger." But the mind's eye is slippery: true, the restored creepy-crawlie hanging from chains and the Ripley (Sigourney Weaver)-Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) slugfest don't ring an old bell, but an actor friend swears that the restoration Scott calls "the Nest" scene was there all along.
The story has osmosed into racial consciousness, no need to summarize it. But with the luxury of foreknowledge allowing concentration on how? instead of what?, one notices things. H.R. Giger's "bio-mechanical" Freudian design of extraterrestrial forms, for one, carried over to the planetoid and derelict ship and, in pipe-patterns, grids, bulkheads and space suits, thence to the familiar human world. The Lucas-influenced junkyard look of technology and slow under- or over-pans of hugely passing flat spacecraft; the visor-reflected computer data, coffin/flowerpetal sleeping bunks, Kubrick-inspired tracked radio signal and command room with gender-specific computer, here "Mother" to androgynous-to-gay HAL (9000); color-coded sections of commercial Earth ship Nostromo and the dark, steamy, sweaty quality of equipment, scenes and people, with fewer and less severely focused close-ups than today.
In contrast, plotline is derivative, the tale of a potential or obvious enemy/life-form/parasite/illness that enters the human sphere, accidentally or by sinister design. Like younger bother Tony, to this day Ridley is viewed in some quarters as a filmmaker of forceful visual technique but little substance or depth, a carryover from his '60s BBC TV program days followed by a period of manufacturing slick television commercials.
A haunted-house horror film, not sci-fi per se, Alien still provides what critics like to call "frisson." Significantly scheduled for Halloween release, it scares us despite our knowing what is coming. More than occasional titters from the audience indicated relief -- How silly we were! -- not humor.
How much Dan O'Bannon's script was tinkered with, how great its debt to other, earlier films, e.g., It! The Terror from Beyond Space, is debated and probably overemphasized. Rather, it is the plural-title second installment which is derivative and, by accident or intent, deluded by grandeur. Aliens, directed by O'Bannon college collaborator (Dark Star) John Carpenter, substituted Weaver's Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley for Stallone's ex-Green Beret John Rambo, furnished her with maternal instincts beneath a foul mouth --only two four-letter exasperations in 1979 -- as women and minorities applauded their new action heroine. Without calculated pretensions, the original Ripley had been courageous and intelligent, not fully rising to the occasion until no one else is left.
Perhaps there is a difference in flow in this "Director's Cut"; if so, its effectiveness lies in being unobtrusive, for, twenty-four years apart, both versions are terrific filmmaking that plays at the at the level of instinct and emotion. Like all enemies, invaders and predators, the amoral Alien obeys the same law of self-preservation as the human heroes. But, with difficulty, we good guys prevail -- and that, of course, is what scary tales are all about.
(Released by 20th Century Fox and rated "R' for sci-fi violence/gore and language. )