After Scott's self-flagellating Better Late Than Never entry about Harold And Maude, in which he all but committed ritual suicide for dishonoring himself, a li'l belated love to Alien might seem downright anticlimactic.
For one, my cinematic vocabulary is laughably paltry compared to the heavyweights I work with (though my knowledge of Mr. Mom cannot be touched). Second, I don't like sci-fi. Spaceships and aliens rank just slightly above wizards and dragons at the bottom of my cinematic interests. I've seen neither any Star Trek film nor a single episode of its various televised incarnations. I loved Star Wars as much as any kid who grew up in the '80s, but not with the passion that consumed some of my friends. No matter how great everyone tells me it is, I still can't bring myself to watch Battlestar Galactica. Finally, I'm a total wuss when it comes to gore—which also means I haven't seen a lot of horror movies—and I associate Alien and its sequels with gross shit.
So really, it's not all that odd that I haven't seen Alien. (I have seen Aliens, though I hardly remember it.) Still, in the interest of contributing to our new feature and expanding my horizons, I cracked open the Alien Quadrilogy box set to see where it all began for Ripley and co.
Disc one offered two options: the 1979 theatrical version and the 2003 director's cut. Ridley Scott prefaces the latter by saying that although he felt the original "was pretty good," he decided to reintroduce some new footage and make "minor adjustments Because eventually you do start to see some little things you'd like to adjust."
George Lucas couldn't have said it better. Oddly, I came across some quotes from Scott elsewhere that not only contradict this, but dismiss the director's cut as a marketing gimmick. The extra scenes—which added six minutes to the film, even though the director's cut is actually shorter than the original—seem pretty inessential. Ripley and Lambert talking shit about Ash? Meh. Lambert slapping Ripley? Meh. Maybe I'll feel differently once I watch them, but on the advice of consigliari Scott Tobias, I stuck with the theatrical version.
The films and albums in Better Late Than Never all have strong legacies, and they can be millstones for first-time viewers/listeners—or they can at least make the whole thing anticlimactic. Josh recently loaned me Safe, after making it sound like the most gut-wrenching film ever committed to celluloid. He said it'd make me want to curl up in my apartment and never leave. That it'd blow my mind. That I wouldn't be the same. So I watched it, eagerly anticipating a punch to the gut that never came. When it ended, my wife was asleep, and I just thought, "Is that it?"
Alien's sterling legacy ratchets up the potential anticlimax factor: It's generally regarded as one of the scariest films ever made, and it inspired countless copycats (which I probably haven't seen), and maybe even changed Hollywood's paradigm when it came to strong leading ladies in action movies. It's kind of a big deal—and, as such, a perfect candidate for a big letdown.
I wasn't disappointed.
Alien is a terrifying, brilliant film. From the cast to the design to the score, everything works and, perhaps more important, works well together. And hey, there's a kitty like the one I have at home!
There's no bullshit exposition, no needless narration, no obligatory love interest. Alien starts, keeps you uneasy, then ends. I really appreciate films that don't beat you over the head with messages or themes; I like to be a little unsure when it's done. I'll gladly accept loose ends if they're not cop-outs. According to IMDB, Ridley Scott thought Alien's ending was a little too happy:
"He planned on having the alien bite off Ripley's head in the escape shuttle, sit in her chair, and then start speaking with her voice in a message to Earth. Apparently, 20th Century Fox wasn't too pleased with such a dark ending."
Yikes. I may be a fan of unresolved endings, but that sounds ridiculous. The script originally had an alien egg attached to the shuttle as it escaped the ship, but that was scrapped in the final draft. Again, good idea. That's the equivalent of writing "The End?" onscreen after the final shot. Because, as we all know, Alien left no room for sequels.
I'm getting ahead of myself. The film turns 30 next year, just about the sweet spot for its futurism to look comically dated now. Maybe it's just because most of the sets are really dark, but Alien still looks good. Yeah, the computer-screen graphics are simple, and a couple of sets have that sci-fi staple, The Wall Of Blinking Lights, but the film still looks legitimately futuristic. I credit the aforementioned darkness, but also the film's minimalism: Viewers aren't bombarded with gizmos and strange words or languages. That can feel forced; instead, you get a crew of seven people talking to each other and interacting with technology in a way relatable to Joe '70s (and Joe Millennium).
Of course, the outer space in Alien is a very different place compared to Star Wars or Star Trek, where everything has seemingly been explored and identified. From the first second, Alien establishes space as an unfriendly, perilous expanse of nothingness—as the film's famous poster decreed, "In space, no one can hear you scream." One of my favorite parts of the film is the opening credits: It's a simple panning shot of an unnamed planet from outer space, but the oppressive silence just fills everything with dread. Dialogue doesn't begin for six long minutes, and there's no score—just strange sounds that grow more pronounced as time passes.
According to IMDB and Wikipedia, composer Jerry Goldsmith harbored an intense grudge against Scott and editor Terry Rawlings because they drastically changed his score. Scott apparently thought it was too lush, and it probably was; watching Alien, I couldn't imagine a big, boomy score complementing the film. Two-thirds of the way through it, I actually thought there wasn't a score because I didn't remember hearing anything. I think that's what Alien needed—a minimalist, almost atonal score that kept the focus on the film. (Again with the minimalism.)
Scott and crew skipped the minimalism in the places where it counted: guts, monsters, and external ship design. As revolting as I found the inside of the egg/pod with the face-hugger lying in wait, I was still impressed by how sickeningly realistic it looked. That's probably because they were using real innards for some of it: The tail was sheep intestine, its guts sheep kidney, oysters, and shellfish. Inside the egg/pods, Scott used cattle hearts and stomachs to make it look real, according to IMDB. Mission accomplished.
The alien itself, based on the designs of H.R. Giger, worked pretty well, I thought, though its humanoid body left me a little disappointed. You have an amazingly distinctive head—complete with some weird little mouth inside the main mouth—but the body more or less looks like a human stuntman in a costume. I'm not sure how I imagined the alien got around, but it didn't entail walking and grasping like I do.
It sure didn't look like it walked when it hopped out of John Hurt's stomach and screeched away. I would say spoiler alert, but you can't have been pop culturally aware during the past 30 years and not know about that scene. I've lost count of how many times I've seen it recreated, but the first I remember is probably Spaceballs. That's also the drag of watching a film with a really, really famous scene for the first time—especially in a horror movie. You know it's coming. I still jumped a few other times in the film, so it's okay, but I would have loved to have been in the theater back in '79, experiencing that with an audience for the first time.
Apparently, the people who brought us Alien, Aliens, Alien3, and Alien Resurrection sure would like to recapture some of that magic. Rumors of Alien 5 have circulated for some time. A 2001 blurb from EW.com said Weaver was reprising the role for a cool $22 million for a film to hit theaters in 2004, the 25th anniversary of the original. Needless to say, that didn't happen, and nothing on her IMDB page indicates that it's in the works. But really, with this golden age of Alien Vs. Predator films, who misses the magic of Weaver as Ripley anyway?