Alien: The Director’s Cut (Ridley Scott, 1979)
With the imminent (as of this writing) release of Alien: Covenant, I figured it’s as good a time as any to not only revisit the original four-film franchise, but also to catch up with the three (eventually) inter-linked “Predator” films, the two (voila, the link) Alien vs. Predator ones (yeah, I know there’ll be some pretty awful viewing going on, but what’s a completest to do?) and, what the heck, the Alien-mythology connected Prometheus as well (that last one might even provide the impetus to go the extra mile and pick up that 3D Blu-ray player I’ve been closely studying). I even started reading the collected comic Aliens Dark Horse omnibus volumes, which carry on after the first Alien sequel and I’ve found — at least, this far having read the first 3 of the 7-volume set — go their own, very philosophically interesting and well-developed direction (moving entirely apart from the mythology of the movies). So, in other words, I’m going whole hog.
The original Alien itself remains as gripping and evocative an experience as the first time I saw it in the theater… well, perhaps other than a tad less shocking, as now I at least know that gore drenched, semi-transgressive in its approach to the defilement of the human body, alien chest burster sequence is coming — a scene that, at the time, seeing it on first release in the theater, left me in stunned silence and had the friend I had coerced to see it with me feeling so ill that my mother asked if we shouldn’t leave — thankfully, my friend bucked up and we stayed (thinking back, I have no idea how I got my mother to not only take us to see it — an R rated movie with me and my friend being 13 at the time — but to actually stay — I suspect that, despite my friend’s sudden nausea and the fact that my mom has never been any kind of horror movie fan, she has always been pretty quick at recognizing quality, so despite the incredibly nastiness of that moment, she was as captivated by the film as I was).
One of things that really struck me this time watching it — along with the obvious, like the breathtaking and evocative set designs, the incredible — again, even by today’s standards — scope of the planet and alien space ship, the very real feeling of claustrophobia in those darkly lit and dank corridors of the Nostromo and, of course, those iconic HR Giger Alien designs, in all three of its stages — is just how effective a director Scott was in creating a certain free-wheeling performance style, reminiscent of Robert Altman’s work, with the (perfectly cast) ensemble of actors. They tend to speak over each other when they’re together in a way that comes across as so natural and organic, that it doesn’t matter if we’re missing a bunch of what they’re saying. Individual characters’ voices in the group scenes are rarely prioritized (it’s why they referred to Altman as one of the most democratic actor directors); instead, he allows the body language and presence of the actors to define so much for us. It’s especially interesting in that I’ve never really seen Scott duplicate this inter-performance approach in any of his other films (perhaps he did in the odd project here or there, but overall, it’s certainly not something associated with him) and yet, he manages it so effectively for Alien.
Alien is a monster movie made by an adult filmmaker with adult actors (the immediate contrast of which, I have to say, is what’s really been turning me ice cold at seeing the teasers for the new one). I would say, as flawed and occasionally wonky as the last two in the initial series are (though I’ve grown steadily more fond of them over time), the maturity and serious philosophical approach of Scott with this first one set a template for the series that makes it a pretty remarkable franchise. I can only imagine there must have been some serious hand-wringing by studio executives during the making of this very ambitious, expensive and hard R-rated monster movie — at a time when the light fantasy space movie delights of Star Wars held sway — made by a director who only had a single dramatic period piece, The Duellist to his name (and I guess a lot of commercial work) and a bunch of very good characters actors without a bonafide star amongst them.
When I re-watch Alien, I always watch the director’s cut (I guess I do with the second one, Aliens, as well, but I can’t say I even really know what’s different about the cut in that one). Often I find the director’s cut reveals material that makes sense why they cut it out, but with Alien, there are moments such as Lambert’s outburst against Ripley, slapping at her violently (calling her “Bitch” exactly what Ripley is gonna repeat herself against the Alien Queen in the next film), because Ripley was not going to let them back on the ship after Kane was ‘contaminated’ with the alien, a really great moment that emphasized the tension amongst the crew and estrangement of Ripley. I don’t know why they cut it out. And then there’s the infamous ‘Ripley finding Dallas’ scene which I’m of two minds about — I absolutely love the contents of it, and how it plays out WITHIN the scene (and also how it resolves what always feels like too abrupt a departure for the captain), but within the context of where it lies within the narrative (with Ripley desperately trying to avoid the alien and frantically get the fuck off the ship before the self-destruct countdown reaches zero) it really does slow the momentum down and has me feeling annoyed with Ripley in how long she takes to grieve over the good captain, taking the time to… well… do him a last favor (which was gonna happen when the ship’s timer hit zero anyway!). Even with these reservations (and that Scott himself apparently prefers the theatrical cut), I prefer the scene in there when I go back to re-experience the existential terrors in deep dark silent space that Alien provides.
I’ll say this about filmmaker Ridley Scott. While I kinda agree with my long ago New School film professor and one-time co-writer John Freitas’ assessment of him as “not knowing a good script from a bad one“… it must be said — when he does stumble upon that right one? — man, does he work visual wonders.