Combustible Celluloid
Stream it:
Download at i-tunes iTunes
Own it:
With: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Harry Dean Stanton, Yaphet Kotto, Veronica Cartwright
Written by: Dan O'Bannon, Ronald Shusett
Directed by: Ridley Scott
MPAA Rating: R for sci-fi violence/gore and language
Running Time: 116
Date: 05/24/1979

Alien (1979)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

'Alien' Nation

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

When Ridley Scott's Alien was first released in the summer of 1979, I was too young to see it, but it still held a certain fascination for me. I remember that scary image of the egg with unholy green light creeping out through a crack and the tagline -- "In space no one canhear you scream."

Alien came at a good time in American cinema, when studios were spending big bucks to ramp up the old genre films and make new epics out of them; what West Side Story did for musicals and The Godfather did for gangster films, Alien (along with The Exorcist) did for horror films.

Studios would have welcomed yet another Star Wars rip-off to cash in on the still-rampant sci-fi fever, but Scott turned in an Alien that's about as anti-Star Wars as you can get.

At the same time, the studios still gambled on bravery. A huge summer blockbuster could actually be made without a thundering soundtrack, a stupid romantic subplot, or brain-dead one-liners. A film could move at a snail's pace, using atmosphere, sound effects, silences, adult dialogue and great acting to build interest. These days, such films (Soderbergh's Solaris or Van Sant's Gerry) are treated with a warmth usually reserved for invasive garden slugs.

Unfortunately, Alien also invented a ton of cliches that, in the ensuing 24 years, have become all too familiar.

And so watching this classic on the big screen today in a new "director's cut," elicits four different emotions: nostalgia, suspense, boredom and frustration.

The plot, for those who missed it the first time, consists of seven astronauts hauling several thousand tons of ore across deep space. During their long hypersleep, they're awakened to investigate a mysterious signal and danger ensues.

After visiting a stormy planet, Kane (John Hurt) comes back with an alien stuck to his face. The little bugger gets loose, grows and begins killing off the entire crew: science officer Ash (Ian Holm), Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt), navigator Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) and engine room operators Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton).

The cool Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) survives and goes on to make three sequels.

Jonesy the cat is also spared to cause some of the film's biggest problems. He exists only for two purposes: either to suddenly jump out of the dark, causing a false scare, or to cause crew members to walk around the ship searching for him so that they can accidentally run into the alien.

The monster itself is still one of the flat-out scariest ever designed for the movies. That it was played by a man in a suit works mainly because -- unlike computer effects -- we can sense that the characters and the monster are physically in the room together.

But the sheer starkness of the filmmaking, Scott's brutal, inventive use of light, space and sound, and the stripped-down storytelling make this a classic nonetheless. Nearly every shot is lit from either behind or beneath, making it look like everyone's sitting around a campfire telling horror stories with the flashlight held just below their chin.

Scott was also smart enough not to show all of the creature at once, concentrating instead on bits and pieces. In this way, it seems bigger, more unreal and more menacing because it exists mostly in our imagination.

As for the "director's cut," fans will find about four new minutes scattered here and there: a brief catfight between Ripley and Lambert, a new death scene for Brett and a spooky scene that was later borrowed for the excellent sequel Aliens (1986).

Overall, Alien is a triumph of style over substance, of lean over fat. It may or may not be the scariest movie ever made, but it's a damn sight scarier than that awful Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake.

DVD Details: Probably the most spectacular DVD of the year is the Alien Quadrilogy (1979-97, Fox, $99.98), a massive nine-disc box set that's so loaded it literally took my breath away. This puts the old Alien box set completely out of commission. Now we have all four Alien films in their original theatrical versions, plus all four in alternate versions. This includes the recent Alien: Director's Cut that played in theaters, James Cameron's excellent 154-minute "Aliens" cut plus pre-release versions of David Fincher's Alien 3 and Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Alien Resurrection. And that only takes up four discs. The other five contain endless documentaries, galleries, and other stuff. We're talking several days' worth of viewing pleasure, and for a reasonably small price. Only flaw: Fincher refused to be involved in the box set's production.

Movies Unlimtied