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ISSUE NO.
155 30 OCTOBER 2003
 
theReel
After 24 Years, 'Alien' Still Scares Smartly
By Jeremy Mathews
 

“Alien: The Director’s Cut”
20th Century Fox
Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett
Produced by Gordon Carroll, David Giler and Walter Hill
Starring Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm and Yaphet Kotto
Rated R

Ridley Scott’s “Alien” scares with a tightly wound combination of fears—those of closed spaces, dark corners, corporate conspiracies and, of course, practically unstoppable organisms that exist solely to kill. If the last one doesn’t frighten you, it’s because you haven’t seen the film. If that’s the case, you might want to hurry and see it without knowing any of the surprises.

The 1979 film, now released in a new “director’s cut” that’s quite close to the original, is one of the most aggravating suspense films in the past 25 years. Refusing to rush to the violent scenes, Scott paces the scenes slowly to create tension while he observes the ship’s claustrophobic corridors—where death may well lurk—and company politics, leading to an unpleasant discovery of how the company values its crew.

The first half of the film plays like a drama with creepy undertones for the first hour, although nowadays people are prepared for the famous scenes of the film.

The freight employees are weathered and wary, not adventurers, and when they respond to a signal from a ship, it’s not out of obligation or curiosity, but because they won’t get paid for the shipment they just completed if they don’t investigate a signal from a desolate planet on their way back. These aren’t careless partying teenagers, but older employees who want to play it safe and go home.

Sigourney Weaver has driven the franchise with her portrayal of Ripley, the heroine of all four “Alien” films. As a hard-edged action hero, Ripley takes a no-nonsense approach to staying alive. She doesn’t want to study the life form once she realizes it’s dangerous, she simply wants to kill it. She doesn’t want to let poor Kane (John Hurt) and the rest of the exploration team on the ship once the alien infects him because they should be quarantined.

Ripley marks the first strong, successful female action hero. She’s still different from many of today’s action heroines—and heroes—because she acts with thought and intelligence. She doesn’t flaunt her femininity, but rather does what she needs to do to survive.

The other crew members in “Alien” are also drawn distinctively. Harry Dean Stanton and Yaphet Kotto play engine workers Brett and Parker, who aren’t particularly eager to do anything other than get back home, but have to comply with contractual protocol if they want to get paid. The science officer Ash (Ian Holm) is the only one who wants to respond to the signal, even though it’s initially unclear whether it’s a warning or an SOS.

A common rule in scary films is not to show the monster because the idea of the monster is more frightening than the actual material. “Alien” turns the table by showing the monster periodically, but evolving it each time so it’s always different. The suspense grows because we never know exactly what it looks like or where it could be hiding. Attached to Kane’s face with several legs with non-pliable grips, it can’t be cut off because its blood is acidic. One great scene comes not from the alien chasing the humans, but from the humans running to try to stop a drop of the acid from eating all the way through the ship and creating a vacuum.

Scott skillfully executes the scenes to create anxious stress. When Dallas (Tom Skerritt), the ship’s captain, goes into the air ducts to hunt the alien, a monitoring device shows locations of Dallas and, when it works, the alien. His crew mates have to give him directions, but he can’t actually see the alien, and the ensuing confusion creates plenty of turmoil before the climax. There’s also a general tension throughout the film, as we observe the closed-off location and wonder how anyone could escape. Even after seeing the film and knowing its surprises, the quiet moments beforehand still overflow with anticipation.

Repeated viewings also allow further observations of the brilliant production design and even some humor. The inclusion of a cat on board serves as a satirical jab that brings the oh-it’sjust-the-cat moment into the sci-fi horror genre.

The combination of Sigourney Weaver’s strong portrayal of a smart character, Scott’s tight direction and the brilliantly conceived monster doesn’t resemble the current horror trend of more shocks than suspense, but it more thoroughly creates terror. It has inspired three sequels, including James Cameron’s strong “Aliens” and two later, weaker films.

The differences between the original film and the new cut don’t really add or distract from the original film. The main addition is a cocoon scene that hints a little bit at “Aliens” and the other additions that are mainly some nice shots. But the main reason to go is to see a beautiful print of a film that still has the tense feeling that seems to have a grasp on everything that’s scares us.
jeremy@red-mag.com

 
     
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