Retrospective Reviews: “Alien;” Theatrical and Director’s Cuts

ALIEN is a fairly simple film of honest virtue that is elevated to god tier cinema by the strength of it's components alone.

 

ALIEN

1979: dir. Ridley Scott (2003 Director’s Cut)

Writers: Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusset

Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerrit, John Hurt, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, and Yaphet Kotto

 

The Theatrical Cut

 

Way back in 1979, a confluence of talent converged upon Hollywood. Fueled by the unprecedented success of STAR WARS, Ridley Scott decided to approach the science fiction genre with a a vested interest. Joined by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusset, as well as Swedish artist H.R. Giger, the team decided to tap into the rich wealth of the horror genre and explore the familiar tropes within a new setting. The unique creature designs of Giger come to life in a dystopian nightmare aboard a claustrophobic hunk of metal in the middle of nowhere. The “Alien” is something the world had never seen before in concept, though the idea of monsters hunting men is a tale as old as time.

Kane (John Hurt) is incapacitated with an unknown life form strapped to his face.

Probably the most interesting part of the story of ALIEN is the fact that there is no main character, at least until the film chews its way through the cast. The deaths come unexpectedly and hit with the gravitas of a roaring train engine, leaving a noticeable mark of terror on the surviving crew as they plan a way to stop “the perfect organism.” Scott imbues the film with strong visual symbolism to capture the psycho-sexual nature of Giger’s design work in subtle ways that never outright call the creature sexually aggressive, yet spell it out with obvious clues, while Shusset and O’Bannon’s script gives just enough life to our cast for us to be sucked into their terror.

Scott doubles down on the horror of the landmark film JAWS and ups the ante by adding in a second jaw and an ocean of stars, smoke and dim lighting to mask it with. Remarkably few shots give us a full look at the Alien’s design, barely more than a second at a time for us to process just how hulking of a mass we’re dealing with. We get a long take of his jaws separating to expose his inner mouth, and then he’s gone as quickly as he came.

Ripley faces down the Alien for the final time aboard the escape shuttle.

Perhaps the most critical portion of ALIEN are the scenes shot planetside on LV-426, and the interior of the Derelict. Scott pumped the budget into building the sets of the Derelict that only act as the catalyst of our story; a wealth of rich design, lore and fascination are presented to us and are just as quickly ripped away as soon as Kane stumbles into the hatchery beneath the floor of the pilot’s room. We are left with questions, and the dire state of Kane’s predicament force us away from any answers before we get a chance to have them answered.

The story of the film is one we’ve seen a thousand times before and since, but its elegance in execution and esoteric value in production and concept make it a landmark chapter in sci-fi history.

The Derelict’s cockpit and the “Space Jockey.”

 

The Director’s Cut

 

Years later, Fox wanted to release the original ALIEN with new footage. Ridley Scott agreed to supervise it, weaving in never before seen footage to one of cinema’s greatest achievements, and the Director’s Cut of ALIEN was born!

Since then, Scott has advocated AGAINST this cut being his “definitive” version of the film. He saw it as an opportunity to recut the film for a new generation, both improving on the film and taking away from it. The changes are 90% cosmetic, adding in slight continuity to specific moments in the film that are otherwise unnoticeable without research.

That is, save for the included scene of Ripley stumbling into the Alien’s “nest” and uncovering Brett and Dallas’ grisly and terrifying fates. It is perhaps the most obvious change, but also the most important; that scene is referenced in James Cameron’s sequel, ALIENS, when the Marines investigate the hive and find the young boy (presumably Newt’s brother) strapped to the wall.

Captain Dallas laments and begs for death upon discovery.

The specific edits, while mostly simple extensions, don’t always mesh into the film. The continuity edit that has Ripley being struck by Lambert outside of the medbay where Kane is investigated is a welcome narrative addition, but it is clumsily edited between existing takes. It’s slightly jarring, and hiccups the pacing. The same can be said for the overhead shot of the “Alien” swinging overhead Brett, going against the original cuts ideology of “less is more.”

That being said, the Director’s Cut for ALIEN feels remarkably sophmoric, whereas the theatrical is masterfully stitched together. Watching the director’s cut is a sobering reminder that ALIEN, despite being an incredible piece of filmmaking, was only Scott’s second feature film. The director’s cut is the film we could’ve gotten had Scott and company not had the foresight to double down on less is more, and it is the definitive difference between what could’ve been a simple horror movie in space and one of the greatest movies ever birthed.

 

The Verdict

 

You can’t go wrong with either cut if you’ve never seen ALIEN before, but truth be told, the original, unaltered cut is the seminal horror experience that needs to be experienced. The plot is perfectly paced, balanced and communicated while the truly terrifying moments are cemented for eternity through languidly slow – yet briefly shown – moments. The buildup to the attack on Brett feels like an eternity, while his actual death only happens in seconds.

Watching the original ALIEN is tremendously satisfying, but its so easy to get wrapped up in its brilliance that it’s hard to fathom this was only Scott’s SECOND feature film. The Director’s Cut is more in line with an amateurs project, and is a nice “what if” to one of Hollywood’s greatest filmmaking achievements, but will always pail in comparison to its original, structural perfection.

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