Friday, October 31, 2003
Los Angeles Before Steven Spielberg made extraterrestrials cute and cuddly, Ridley Scott made them slimy and savage.
One of Hollywood's all-time fear-jerkers, "Alien" returns to theaters this week in an updated version nearly 25 years after its debut.
"Alien: The Director's Cut" digitally restores the images, enhances the audio and sound effects, trims a few shots to tighten transitions and adds about five minutes of deleted footage, mainly a creepy scene explaining the fate of vanished co-stars Tom Skerritt and Harry Dean Stanton.
That somber, melodramatic scene has been available on the DVD as deleted footage, which Scott cut because it slowed the pacing of the film's tumultuous 17-minute climax.
"I wish to God I'd never taken that out in the first place," Scott said. "I realize now you could easily afford in that 17 minutes to take a sidetrack that has a different energy. It's a different dynamic that's spooky, and it's sad."
"Alien" ranks among "Psycho," "The Exorcist" and "Jaws" as one of cinema's greatest nightmare inducers, the story of an interstellar freighter crew terrorized by an unstoppable predator discovered on a derelict space craft.
A special Halloween release of the director's cut of the 1979 thriller Alien. On what should have been a trip back to Earth, the Nostromo, a mining freighter, is automatically re-routed to a desolate planet after receiving an SOS coming from it. After the crew is awakened, they investigate the source of the SOS, and discover a derelict alien ship on the planet. One of the crew members is put into a coma by an alien creature while investigating the ship. But the alien parasite dies and the crew think all is well. But the small ordeal was only a prelude for greater things to come...
The film set new science fiction standards in art design, creature creation and visual effects and was the prototype for today's wave of action movies with female heroes.
Like "Psycho" -- which killed off its ostensible lead actor, Janet Leigh, early on -- "Alien" positioned the top-billed Skerritt as the protagonist, then confounded audience expectations by jettisoning him and hurling Sigourney Weaver into the lead.
A reluctant warrior in "Alien," Weaver's Ellen Ripley became an all-out fighting machine in James Cameron's terrific 1986 sequel "Aliens" and two lesser follow-ups, "Alien 3" and "Alien Resurrection." A fifth installment, "Alien vs. Predator," has just begun shooting and is due in theaters next summer, minus Weaver.
One of the scariest beasts ever
For all its innovations, the original "Alien" was something of a glorified variant of cheesy '50s monster movies, with the campy look and tone replaced by top-of-the-line production values and a deadly somber mood.
"'Alien' in a funny kind of way was a really nice B movie, which we elevated to a new level," Scott said. "We changed the level, basically with everything. Gave it a really great proscenium, formidable sets, a great cast and probably one of the best, scariest beasts ever."
When "Alien" premiered in May 1979, Scott had audiences jumping out of their seats when they first saw the alien embryo hurtle itself onto John Hurt's face, the baby creature burst bloodily from Hurt's chest, the adult monster attacking Skerritt, Stanton, Yaphet Kotto and Veronica Cartwright, or Ian Holm's head toppling backward when it's revealed his character is a robot.
Weaver's frantic race to destroy her vessel, escape on a shuttle, then dispatch the stowaway alien remains one of the most terrifying action sequences ever filmed.
"Alien" is the "nightmare we all harbored when we were kids about what's underneath the bed," Skerritt said. "What's in that dark room that I've never been in down the hall?"
The film broke ground with the unheroic dynamic of the ship's crew and the ramshackle environment in which they lived. Two years earlier, "Star Wars" had created an outer-space realm whose ships and costumes showed real-world wear and tear, rather than the pristine universes of "Star Trek," "2001: A Space Odyssey" and other science fiction forerunners.
Scott dove deeper with "Alien," rendering a future that was not about fast ships, laser battles and dashing fighter pilots, but working-class schmoes plodding their way home aboard a rickety cargo vessel.
"'Alien' gave you the gritty side of science fiction," Kotto said. "This was a working crew of guys and girls. It was blue-collar, common man. This could have taken place inside of a car manufacturer. This could have been a crew of construction workers."
Nearly everything about "Alien" has influenced science-fiction films since. H.R. Giger's chilling creature designs made the guy-in-a-goofy-suit aliens of previous sci-fi flicks obsolete, forcing filmmakers to be more imaginative in creating inhuman beasties.
The monster's unreasoning hostility has been echoed in such movies as "Predator," "Species" and "Mimic."
Sci-fi directors have ladled on barrels of slime in imitation of the viscous monster in "Alien." The minimalist score has been endlessly copied, along with the lived-in look of the ship and its dark, maze-like nooks and crannies.
"I think Ridley was incredibly groundbreaking with 'Alien' and later 'Blade Runner,"' said Joel Silver, producer of "The Matrix" trilogy and "Predator." "The whole idea of a decrepit future that was evident in both those pictures was a really monumental design choice. Yes, we were all affected by it."
The film's images have permeated pop culture. Hurt reprises the alien chest-bursting scene in Mel Brooks' "Spaceballs" ("Not again," moans Hurt), while the "Cheers" pilot has the bar regulars citing "Alien" as a contender for sweatiest movie ever made ("Buckets," notes George Wendt's character, Norm).
'Very human and very real'
What resonates as strongly as the monster and effects is Weaver's performance, the character flourishes that make her a full-bodied person rather than just another superficial action hero.
When she misses the deadline to shut off the ship's self-destruct, she erupts in blind rage at the machinery. Though she knows the alien could be around the next corner, she undertakes a frantic hunt for the crew's cat so it will not be left behind when she abandons ship. As she creeps in terror toward the resting monster, hoping to blow it out of an airlock, she calms herself by singing "Lucky Star" under her breath.
"She wasn't a woman trying to be a man, which I think is a mistake that Hollywood makes a lot. They take a female character and give her all these male characteristics to make her an action hero," said Jada Pinkett Smith, who plays tough-as-nails ship captain Niobe in the final two "Matrix" movies.
"She was a woman with very clear feminine strength and didn't lose her vulnerability, which made it very human and very real. She was scared when she was fighting that damn alien, but she was like, 'It's me or you, and you gotta go, 'cause I'm staying!"'
"Alien" screenwriter Dan O'Bannon had written the characters as gender-neutral, including Weaver's, so the filmmakers could cast either sex in the roles. But he felt strongly that the character impregnated by the alien be a man to break with Hollywood conventions of women as victims.
"I wasn't so much interested in promoting a feminist agenda as I was avoiding hideous cliches of past monster movies," O'Bannon said. "The worst cliche is always having a beautiful woman victimized by your monster, feeding the sexual fantasies of the director, usually, and allowing the male contingent of the audience to feel really safe.
"I didn't want them to feel comfortable and complacent. I wanted them to be really, really scared and upset. I wanted the monster's torments to be worked on the male characters to hammer away at the narcissistic weaknesses of the male viewer."