This turned out to be a much more important asthetic change than I had originally thought it would be.
Alien was made in 1979, before the video explosion hit Hollywood and changed not only the business models associated with film distribution, but also how films were photographed and edited.
Alien is designed to be seen on a large screen. In addition to immersing the audience into the environment depicted, the dimensions of the theatrical projected image allow the scope of the proceedings to be felt on a more primal level.
Upon exiting the movie, my friend Tim remarked that the Nostromo itself was the prime beneficiary of seeing Alien on film, commenting that only on the big screen does its vastness truly come across. Since the gigantic size of the ship is a major element of the story, the film is much more effective.
Among my generation, there is something of a grudging respect for Alien, usually followed by the comment that the second film was better. This is, of course, an opinion formed from seeing Aliens first, and having unrealistic expectations for Alien. Aliens is a sequel (a great one, to be sure), but it is not the same genre as Alien. Aliens is an action movie (more specifically, a war movie), while Alien is horror, pure and simple.
Alien's success in 1979 is attributable to two elements lost on later generations. The first is the general state of unease created by the slow ramp-up to Kane's first encounter with the face hugger, generated by the long takes emphasizing the technogothic haunted house that is the Nostromo, and Jerry Goldsmith's scratching strings and plaintive woodwinds.
The other main reason for the film's success is the alien itself. A monster movie is only as good as its monster, and Alien has the best movie monster ever.
The creature's life-cycle is fascinating, and its depiction is a major element of the film. The shots of the egg coming to life are truly arresting on the big screen, as is the articulation of the face hugger, which moves and breathes in a way that seems alive, but not of this earth. The queasy sequence in which Ash examines the underside of it is a central moment in establishing the creature as something horribly real.
The final incarnation of the titular creature is a nightmare come to life; Scott and editor Terry Rawlings avoided showing its ultimately human shape until the very end, favoring quickly cut, disturbing close-ups.
It is interesting to note that there are many lengthy shots in this film, but the Alien itself appears only in quick cuts, giving the impression of a whirlwind of destruction plowing through the picture like the Tasmanian Devil. Because of this contrast, all of the alien attacks suggest brutal details that are never actually seen. The most disturbing death in the film (after Kane's) is not shown on screen at all: Lambert, unable to move, is attacked by the alien, its tail shown suggestively moving between her legs. Her frantic howls of agony have an orgasmic quality to them. The juxtaposition of these elements rather perversly suggest the alien has raped her to death.
The slick texture of the alien itself, so magnified on the movie screen, is something the film exploits to great advantage. The absence of the translucent cowl on the heads of the beasts in Aliens implied, along with the presence of a Queen, a more insectoid creature, but what we see of it in this film does not imply anything like that - in fact, it doesn't imply many analogues to any terran classification. Its nominally hominid shape can be chalked up to having been gestated within a human, but its eyeless visage, rows of sharp teeth hinding a tongue with even more teeth, its impossibly ridged and exoskeletoned body and disturbingly elongated hands - all of which shown so briefly that the viewer often has to figure out after the fact what has been seen - are all used to great advantage.
Which brings us to the crew.
The film that is often lambasted for thin characterization, but I have always found the crew of the Nostromo to be one of my favorite aspects of the movie. As I have written before, the Nostromo's crew was a major departure from both science-fiction and horror tropes.
Captain Dallas is our obvious would-be hero, but Tom Skerritt plays him like a lazy cog in the Weyland-Yutani mechanism who is comfortable being just that.
Kane is an idealist, seeing the opportunity to investigate the signal as an adventure. It is Kane from whom we get both of the film's "birth" images: the pure, "virgin" birth as the Nostromo's crew are awakened from hypersleep and the horrific birth of the alien. John Hurt brings a wide-eyed enthusiasm for the role that makes his curiosity believable.
Ian Holm delivered one of his most chilling, but subtle performances as Ash. Every line, every eye twitch, every hand gestrure implies his secret, but it is impossible to put a finger on just what it is that is so wrong about him.
Lambert marked the return of Veronica Cartwright to science-fiction horror. Unlike her turn in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, here she plays the weakest member of the crew, unable to function under pressure.
Harry Dean Stanton's turn as Brett brings to the character the same sense of lived-in reality that Michael Seymour's team brought to the sets. Brett can do his job, but he's not particularly bright, nor expressive (he says little but "right" to anybody but Parker), but he doesn't really have to be.
The flashiest role in the film is Parker, and Yaphet Kotto makes the most out of it, adding a welcome sense of humor to what is an otherwise relentlessly oppressive film. Parker is actually one of the smartest of the crew, even if he tends to be primarily concerned with the size of his paycheck.
Of course, the ultimate - and to 1979 audiences, unlikely - heroine of this story is Ripley. It is the very effect this film has had on Sigourney Weaver's career that has made younger audiences miss the fact that she was an unknown face amid character actors. Her tough, practical portrayal made her a star (and her return to the character in Aliens earned her an Oscar nomination), and it is her survival instinct that allow her to outlast the others.
The characters have interesting and varied dynamics. Dallas holds himself aloof from his crew, but he clearly knows them all quite well. Ash has no use for Ripley or Lambert; in his conversations with Ripley, he frequently takes on the tone of exasperation, which is what makes her suspicious of him. Parker tries to walk all over Ripley, but she's not having any of it, and he eventually develops a grudging respect when she's left in charge. Parker has it in for Ash as well (who acts intimidated until his nature is revealed), but everybody likes Kane.
The fact that the cast is so believable adds to the strange way in which the film juggles its horror elements. Each character deals with fear in a different way (check out Dallas' breakdown in the shaft on the big screen), and the ways in which they are marked for death is very interesting.
Kane is, of course, the sacrificial lamb. Brett's death is intentionally a standard horror movie contrivance, Dallas is killed in an elaborate cat-and-mouse game with the creature, Ash totally blows the audience out of the water...
...and that leaves three...
Ripley, it would appear, is marked to die next. She is separated from Parker and Lambert and goes to find Jones, the cat. This act of standard issue "the monster's gonna get you next" behavior, exacerbated by the similarity to Brett's death, actually saves her life as the alien savagely murders Parker and Lambert.
It is interesting to note that, contrary to standard Hollywood racism, Parker is not killed straight off, but as the result of the inability of Lambert, whom he is trying to protect, to deal with the situation.
Derek Vanlint's photography is also a majore element of revelation on these new prints. Rather than trying to minimize occurances of lens flares, Vanlint uses them to add texture to an image. Light comes from specific sources, and shots sometimes linger after the subjects lose their key. Close-ups are very close, and details fill the entire Panavision frame.
And, of course, Jerry Goldsmith. Composed the same year as another franchise-launching science-fiction movie, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Alien was subject to quite a lot of meddling by Ridley Scott, but it is a masterpiece of unease. Scott seems to have gone for the more textural elements, eschewing most of the (rare) appearances of Goldsmith's Romantic theme for the Nostromo. He further took cues from the score and moved them around, addad a bit of Howard Hanson's second symphony for the end, and even used cues from Goldsmith's own score for Freud.
This meant jettisoning the main and end titles, and moments when the score is dialed in and out of existance. While I like the more frightening replacement main title that Goldsmith composed (which is what ended up in the film), I don't see what the advantage to the Hanson piece is, nor the cues from Freud. Goldsmith chalked it up to temp-track love, and that may be so, but Freud is a unique score all its own and doesn't quite fit the surrounding material. Nevertheless, it doesn't clash with the rest of the score the way the Hanson excerpt does.
The DVD for Alien had an isolated score track, essentially preserving what Goldsmith had written for the film, and an additional track which contained several alternative versions of cues. This gave the viewer the chance to see, for the first time, what Goldsmith was originally doing.
The cue for "The Droid" is a fascinating film/music interaction on a Prokofievian level. While I do understand what Scott was going for with the retracking of parts of the attack on Brett for this scene, then emphasizing Jimmy Shield's eerie sound effects, having seen how closely Goldsmith times the hits, how intricate all his orchestrations are and how they relate to the visuals, I can only wonder about what Scott (who is notoriously indecisive when it comes to music) was thinking.
Other cues are shortened for no reason, such as "Hypersleep" and "The Landing," while others are moved all over the score.
That said, it is amazing that the score works as well as it does, and it is a tribute to Goldsmith's skills. His music ratchets up the tension to white-knuckle levels, and creates bizarre "juicy" sounds with primitive sounding brass for the alien itself.
Ambience and tone made this film a smash hit in 1979, and the new edit, aside from the addition of the cocoon sequence, is only subtly different from the original. This is not a digitally re-imagined bastardization - this could well have been what was released in 1979 - but it adds somewhat to the drama of the piece. Ripley and Lambert's antagonistic relationship has been enriched, and, interestingly, despite the existance of footage that would have reconciled the two, it is never resolved (a good decision, in my opinion). The transmission is heard (a different sound effect than the one heard on the laserdisc and DVD presentations of this scene) and the areas trimmed are not, on the whole, missed.
The chance to see this film on the big screen was one that excited me greatly. The reward was greater than I could have imagined.
Go get yourself scared...
Speaking of alien stuff, here's some images I found interesting...
Okay, this is interesting. There was an Alien action figure created, but the film's R rating kept it from being a big hit with the kids it was aimed at. "His evil brains glow in the dark."