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Alien: The Director's Cut

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*Also starring: John Hurt, Ian Holm, Harry Dean Stanton, Yaphet Kotto, Veronica Cartwright



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Review by Harvey Karten
3½ stars out of 4

Space ships are so complicated that notwithstanding the two million year history and prehistory of humankind, the ability to ascend to the heavens was gained in only the last forty years or so. Take a look at the ship trotted out by Ridley Scott in his 1979 film "Alien," today considered a classic which boasts special effects as its principal star. There are buttons all over the place, even a series of some twenty different levers and gadgets if you should want the vessel to self-destruct. While traveling beyond the ionosphere, you could be hit by a meteor and one wonders whether there's any way the crew can steer clear of shooting stars, particularly considering the hours they take to sleep and the banter that passes for conversation at meal time. The last thing anyone need to go wrong is to have some alien aboard: Some creature reflexively hostile to moving objects that do not resemble its massive hulk. When this title figure does appear, we wonder why the command center on earth, known as Mother, did not anticipate with a contingency. Then again, given the increase tense conversations engaged in by the diverse crew, especially by a guy who seems to have barely recognizable emotions, we begin to think that there's something that the command center on Earth knows about the real meaning of the mission that six out of the seven crew members do not.

This intriguing idea which is mirrored in the many American movies that fantasy about special, evil, operatives in the CIA and FBI, is just one of the subtexts of Ridley Scott's film, today considered a classic and a breakthrough event during the 1970's an era said by some to be the golden age of both American and European cinema. During the seventies the sci-fi genre gained new momentum after the public tired of the corny black-and-white features of the fifties: The "Star War" series was born. An audience of people below the age of thirty, though impressed by the special effects in "Alien," at the same time may wonder why the creepy monster that springs from the chest of one of the crew and grows larger, stronger and fiercer with each of its murders, should have been awarded an Oscar. Remember, though, that we're talking 1979, part of a decade that saw few if any computers in the homes of Americans and the Internet was strictly a tool of specialists in university. research.

What Ridley Scott has successfully created in his second feature, two years after "The Duellists," was atmosphere. The film starts slowly, like Stanley Kubrick's "2001," introducing its largest character, the ship "Nostromo," before honing in on the crew. We learn that the ship is headed back to Earth, an uneventful journey that finds its astronauts joking about whether or not they're entitled to a bonus. The captain, Dallas (Tom Skerritt), is the most relaxed, with Lambert (Veronica Carthwright) in the navigator's seat. Ash (Ian Holm) is the principal scientist, Kane (John Hurt), excels in dry humor, Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) is famous for tersely saying "right" in response to others, Parker (Yaphet Kotto) just wants to party, while Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), will prove the heavy when the ship hits the fan.

Sticklers for following the contract signed with Mother back on Earth, they are mandated to check out the source of a bizarre communication not emanating from natural channels. Landing on an seemingly barren planet, they discover what appears to be a large jellyfish. Kane looks too closely: the small, octopus- like creature attaches itself to his face.

Director Scott drives the tension as though pushing his foot slowly on an accelerator. From a quiet look at the Nostromo, he carefully distinguishes each character from the other, pushing the ante ever so slowly to bring the audience to frenzied excitement. In so doing, he repudiates the tendency of action- adventure movies nowadays that begin with a bang (think of how each James Bond work opens with fireworks before slowing down). The frights are calibrated, first by showing the small creature leaping out an attaching to Kane's face, later by the growing figure of this bizarre entity which picks off the crew one by one.

Among other attributes, "Alien" punctuates a strong role for a woman, played by Sigourney Weaver as a take-charge type who antagonizes the others in the crew by refusing to override a rule mandating a quarantine for Kane. By the final twenty or thirty minutes of "Alien," the tension has grown measurably.

To put together digitally re-mastered version, a team of film archeologists fetched boxes of original negatives in London, including outtakes and original sound recordings. Ridley Scott then chose the footage he wanted included in this new, director's cut while at the same time he trimmed increments of 10 or 15 seconds from various scenes to add to the film's energy. Jerry Goldsmith's music, influenced perhaps by Holst's "The Planets," adds to the atmosphere, tones which some consider among the scariest because of their very minimalism.

I somehow missed the first showing of the movie when it opened in May 1979 but can imagine the greater impact the effects had on an audience not accustomed to the likes of H.R. Giger's design of the creature. Michael Seymour production design is responsible for a good deal of atmosphere, keeping the action flowing through the types of mysterious corridors that appeared in, say, "The Shining." The picture was followed six years later by James Cameron's "Aliens," also featuring Sigourney Weaver, as the sole human survivor of "Alien" returns to the planet with a the U.S. Marines, prepared to liquidate the creatures.

Copyright 2003 Harvey Karten

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