Alien: The Director’s Cut (review)

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Blowed Up Real Good

In space, no one can hear you scream. But they can hear your quadruple Weyland-Yutani 10 Terrawatt Nuclear Fusion Transtellar engines firing up from half an AU away.

But I kid the greatest science fiction horror film ever made.

Greatest? Oh yeah. Ridley Scott’s seminal 1979 flick remains perhaps the most effective and most dreadfully entertaining example of the breed. It’s so often imitated that the glut of pale, sorry, fragile replicas have almost become a genre unto themselves: the Alien movie. But not a one of them comes anywhere near the chillingly quiet masterpiece of understatement and suggestion that is this movie. All hail Ridley Scott.

And now you can see it the way it was meant to be seen: 50 damn feet tall with those transtellar engines — and the screaming and the jaws-within-jaws snapping and Jonesy the cat hissing and the primordial wind howling and that horrid screeching as Ash goes haywire — at decibels that’ll damage your ears. Geeks, rejoice. Cuz if you’re like me — possessed of reasonable parents who’d never have taken a 10-year-old to an R-rated horror flick — you have never seen this film on a big screen, all glorious flickering projected light and the munch of popcorn all around you and hundreds of people laughing nervously at what they know is coming and will still be frightened by anyway.

What a newsflash: Movies should be seen in a movie theater. Not on DVD, fine and wonderful as DVDs are (my collection is embarrassingly large), certainly not on video, god forbid not on broadcast television. I think we all know that, but it doesn’t really hit home until you see a film that you think you know by heart the way it was intended to be seen, and it suddenly feels fresh and new.

I lost track of all the things I’d never noticed before, even after seeing Alien countless times, mostly on pan-and-scan video and once or twice on widescreen DVD. I’d never noticed before that Jonesy was sitting on the table eating his breakfast along with the human members of the Nostromo crew in that early scene. I’d never noticed the sickly sun trying to illuminate the planetoid the crew lands on. I’d never noticed that one of the computer screens contains the words “Weyland-Yutani” — I’d always thought “the company” the crew all talks about with disdain went completely unnamed. Tiny details, sure, but are you a film geek or not? It’s that kind of ferreting out of minutiae that makes revisiting a beloved movie so much fun. (You’ve already seen the extra director’s-cut scenes on the 20th anniversary DVD.)

And there’s the other things I noticed that aren’t simply a function of seeing the image blown up — things that partly result from devoting your whole attention to a film in a way that isn’t really possible when sitting in your living room, no matter how hard you think you’re concentrating, no matter how devoted you are to not answering the phone or not pausing for a snack break. Like: It had never before occurred to me that there was, ahem, maybe something going on between Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt: Tears of the Sun, Contact) and Warrant Officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver: The Guys, Company Man). There’s nothing overt, mind you, just a subtle casualness in their trust for each other that seems to go beyond that of a working relationship, in the particular pungency of the exasperation in their voices when they argue, in just the little extra hint of concern when things start getting rough.

Another shocking newsflash: Movies, even “mere” genre flicks, that feature actual actors actually acting are better than those that star, oh, preverbal thugs or bland teenage models. I’d love to know whether Skerritt and Weaver consciously conspired to add that spice to their characters’ interactions and made it work without a single line of dialogue to support it, or whether it’s just something open to viewer interpretation because everyone involved genuinely cared about such niceties as character.

In fact, it’s hard not to believe that this film would never be made today — Scott’s (Hannibal, Gladiator) restraint is simply too shrewd and sophisticated for a contemporary audience that seems not to care about characters except that they be cardboard and die in gruesomely inventive ways, that wants little but gallons of blood and buckets of gore. There’s remarkably little of either as the Nostromo crew gets picked off, and we get but quick glimpses of the acid-bleeding alien with the multiple, drooling jaws that’s responsible. The real horror is left to the imagination, and so Alien remains manifestly scarier than anything else you’ll seen onscreen this year, and likely for years to come.

So there’s one more reason to get out and pay your $10 bucks and see this on the big screen while you can: to show Hollywood that this is the kind of movie we want more of. Don’t excuse yourself because you own the DVD. If you love this movie, and if you know people who would love it and haven’t seen it, get a group together and have a geeks’ night out. Remind Hollywood that there are still people who’d rather see a great film the way it should be seen, that’s there’s an audience for revivals. Who knows? Maybe we can convince them that Aliens deserves another shot at the multiplex, too.

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