The good news: Sigourney Weaver’s famous underwear shot, which probably launched millions of now middle-aged men straight into puberty and beyond, has survived Ridley Scott’s keen eye in his digitally remastered 2003 director’s cut of Alien.
As for the bad news, well, there really isn’t any. Alien, first released in 1979 and in theaters right now, has stood the test of time remarkably well. The beautiful and ballsy Weaver is a heroine for all seasons, the movie is suspenseful in all the right spots and it plays beautifully on the big screen with big sound.
The plot concerns the crew of the Nostromo, an industrial space ship on its way back home to Earth. That trip gets delayed when the ship’s intelligence system picks up correspondence from another planet. Contractually obligated to find the source of the signal, the crew unknowingly lets on a hostile, remorseless, and indestructible alien, much to everyone’s immediate and fatal regret.
A lot of horror/thriller directors assume that people see a movie for the blood and guts. However, the splatter means nothing if we don’t know the characters, their interactions, their intentions and what they have to lose. That’s the key for the action to have any impact. And if you don’t agree, then feel free to watch the abysmal House of the Dead.
Alien provides this crucial background in key ways. We see that Ripley (Weaver in a career-making role), the third officer, is really the backbone of the ship. She’s not afraid to stand up to officer in charge, Dallas (Tom Skerritt), or the two complaining, indifferent mechanics (Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton). Scott lets the camera linger a little longer on Ash (Ian Holm), the steely science officer who seems a little too calm. And in just a few short scenes we know that Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) may act aloof, but is petrified. The characters are essentially intergalactic industrial workers, talking about bonuses, getting home and having a decent meal. As the movie progresses we realize that there’s no guarantee they’ll get home. And that’s scary. (Of course, you have to temporarily forget about the three sequels.)
With character development firmly in place and the plot analyzed, I can now say with complete critical conviction that Alien is a kick-ass flick with a buncha thrills. The alien looks toothy and formidable, and Scott widely chooses never to show the whole image, taking the “scared by what we can’t see maxim” to the hilt. We see teeth, the shape of a head, but never a discernable figure. Scott plays with the audience in other ways, introducing a cat that’s always on the prowl (the better to screw with us) and in one terrific close-up showing us why Ash isn’t someone to be trusted. And of course, there’s John Hurt’s memorable dinner scene. If you haven’t seen it, I won’t spoil it. Let’s just say, you’ll be stocking up on Pepto Bismol the next day.
For those of you who feel tempted to run over to Blockbuster instead of the multiplex, please don’t. I saw Alien on DVD a few months ago, and this version feels fuller and more informative (thanks to more footage) and, I dare say, scarier. And, as mentioned before, the movie works better on a big screen. You’re not renting a character study, but a Hungry Man-sized movie that needs plenty of room and sound to work with.
If you decide to rent, as Ash says to Ripley and her crew, “you have my sympathies.”
Ridley Scott and the bulk of the original cast offer a commentary track on the new Alien DVD release. Scott has cut in a few extra scenes on this director’s cut, which enhances the film a bit but not overwhelmingly. You’ll also find a plethora of extras, including featurettes about the making of the film and Sigourney Weaver’s screen test.
The Alien Quadrilogy includes a total of nine disks: all four Alien films, each with a separate disk of extras, and an additional bonus disk complete with a Q&A with Ridley Scott, a UK documentary on Alien, original theatrical trailers to all four films, a DVD-ROM “script to screen” comparison feature, an anthology of 11 issues of the Dark Horse Alien comics, and more. These materials will give you a whole new appreciation for the Alien films.
Thar she blows!
Review by Pete Croatto © 2003 filmcritic.com