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Alien

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 09/11/09 00:00:00

"Gee, Meg, It Only Took You 30 Years. . ."
5 stars (Awesome)

For one week beginning this Friday, Chicago’s beloved Music Box Theater is going to be reviving “Alien,” the 1979 blockbuster futuristic horror film that launched both a highly profitable and thematically fascinating string of sequels (provided that you can mentally erase all memories of those “Alien Vs. Predator” craptacular) and the careers of director Ridley Scott and actress Sigourney Weaver, who became both a instant star and a lasting genre icon with her indelible performance as Warrant Officer Ripley, one of the great female character in the history of science-fiction. To commemorate this re-release, I would like to reprint this piece that I wrote for The Website That Shall Not Be Named a few years ago on the occasion of the release of the Director’s Cut. As you will see below, I regard this as one of the great films of all time and if you are in the area and have never had the chance to see it on the big screen before--or even if you have--you owe it to yourself to catch it in all its gory glory while you have the chance.

A funny thing happened to me as I sat down to once again watch Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi/horror classic "Alien". Having seen the film approximately a zillion times before, I had planned to focus my attention solely on the changes made for this "Director’s Cut" edition-in which a couple of scenes have been added and a few non-essential moments have been shaved off to make room for them-but as the movie rolled on, I found myself once again getting completely caught up in Scott’s blend of everyday behavior, mounting terror and some of the greatest "BOO!" moments ever captured on film. If the mark of a truly impressive suspense film is that you still find yourself jumping in your seat even when you know exactly what is going to happen next, then "Alien" is one of the greatest such films ever made.

For those who, for some unknown reason, still haven’t caught up with the film in the last 25 years, a brief recap. In the not-too-distant future, the crew of the commercial ship Nostromo-Dallas (Tom Skerritt), Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), Ash (Ian Holm), Kane (John Hurt), Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) and Parker (Yaphet Kotto)-is awakened from hyper-sleep in the middle of nowhere to investigate a distress signal on an unknown planet. While exploring the surface, Dallas, Lambert and Kane come across the remains of a fossilized spaceship. Well, not entirely fossilized, as Kane startlingly finds out. They return to the ship and, after they launch, they realize that some thing has tagged along for the ride and is intent on picking them off one by one.

Much has been written over the years about the style of the film-how Scott (making only his second film) took the notion of a jerry-built future first seen in "Star Wars" and expanded on it to create, with the Nostromo, a world where everything was mechanical and in constant need of repair, fluids dripped from every available pipe and the surfaces were littered with cigarette packs and porno mags-but one of the surprising things to rediscover is just how tautly and intelligently written it is. There has been much debate for years over who actually wrote "Alien"-the screenplay is credited to Dan O’Bannon (who had previously written "Dark Star", which was essentially a goofier version of the same basic story) producer Walter Hill (a gifted writer/director of lean action films in his own right) supposedly did a lot of rewriting and the final product feels like a seamless blend of their sensibilities-but no matter who did what, the end result is a truly remarkable bit of genre writing in that it actually stresses character over the lavish effects. The characters are memorable because the script focuses not on the hardware but the people running them-any audience can identify, for example, with Parker and Brett, the two guys who work in the basement and basically keep the whole ship running and feel that they aren’t getting a fair shake (or share) from the cleaner, more elite people above deck. As for the more suspenseful moments, the script always plays smart and fair and creates plausible situations for the crew to get into where they can be picked of by the creature without being forced to act like morons.

Another neat thing to recognize in hindsight is just how much Sigourney Weaver, making her screen debut in a major role (after a cameo in "Annie Hall), winds up taking front and center in her first turn in her greatest role, that of Warrant Officer Ripley. Because she was the least-known performer in a cast of little-known people (at the time, perhaps Tom Skerritt and Yaphet Kotto were the most familiar people), because her character was cold and efficient in the way she conducted her work (check out the scene in which she ignores a direct order to allow the possibly contaminated Kane back onto the ship) and, yes, because she was young and beautiful, it could have been assumed that her character might have been one of the first to be dispatched. And yet, during the group scenes, Scott subtly always has her in the dominant position so that we slowly find ourselves identifying with her after all.

The new moments included in this version of the film will be familiar to hard-core "Alien" fans, who will have seen them in one form over another in the past 25 years. There is a bit in which the crew closely examines the "distress signal" that they are receiving, an additional shot of H.R.Giger’s legendary creature design during the killing of Brett and a bit in which Lambert violently confronts Ripley after the latter’s refusal to let Kane aboard. The most significant addition is the legendary "cocoon scene", in which Ripley discovers what happened to several of her fellow crew members. Originally deleted because Scott feared it slowed the headlong momentum of the finale, its restoration is important because it closes up one giant plot hole (answering questions about the reproduction cycle of the creature) in an authentically freaky matter.

To these eyes, the four "Alien" movies have always been the dominant genre film cycle of modern times (yes, even the scandalously underrated "Alien 3" and the intriguing "Alien Resurrection") and I would take them over the "Star Wars", "Harry Potter" "Lord of the Rings" or "Star Trek" franchises any day of the week. However, the original remains the most singular and perfect entry of the bunch. It has enough wit and suspense to keep audiences of any era entertained. It contains enough psychosexual implications to fuel grad-student papers for decades to come. And no matter how many times you see the moment where Dallas turns around in the air shaft or the part where Kane sits down for dinner, you will inevitably hear yourself scream.

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