Ridley Scott's Alien is the tale of seven castaways, not unlike Gilligan's Island if the island had been capable of eating the crew. (I can't resist. There's a salty captain, one sexy female, one not-so-sexy female, and a professor. There are, alas, no Howells.)
Alien's crewmembers are miners. And the opening of the film shows them reawakening from suspended animation after a long, interstellar mining gig. But wait they're nowhere near Earth. Why did the ship reawaken them so early, 10 months away from home? Seems that the ship's guiding force, called "Mother," has detected a sentient signal of some kind. Is it a distress call? An SOS? No -- it's a warning. But by the time they figure this out, they've stumbled onto a nest of alien eggs and foolishly prodded them -- warranting the most curious of the bunch, Kane (John Hurt), to get his face adhered to by a tentacled parasite. Some logistical bickering takes place between the Cap'n and First Mate (leading-man-era Tom Skerritt and Sigourney Weaver, respectively) over quarantine regulations, as there seems to be a silly bylaw that prohibits bringing hideous, tentacled parasites onboard a ship even if it's attached to the face of one of your crew. But this would be a shorter tale if danger were kept at bay, and before long Kane recovers and then joins what is to become one of filmdom's grossest meals. Terror ensues, and amid battling aliens and their own fears, the crew learns that there is a governmental, bureaucratic menace pervading their predicament. Was this encounter with the alien an accident? Or does the government have some military designs on this ultimate killing machine?
The trick to reviewing the director's cut of this 1979 sci-fi classic is, I suspect, intimate knowledge of the first version and true insight into the differences in the re-release. Ridley Scott has made it pressingly difficult to accomplish the latter, so subtle and slim are his changes. Very little is added, and most of what is cut (which shortens the proceedings by two minutes) is in the editing -- split-seconds at a time. The intended effect is a quickening of the suspense. The result is a sharp mix of cuts and flashes among laborious, patient pans across space, the ship, and the terror-struck faces of the crew. Added: footage of the argument between Ripley (Weaver) and her captain, and Ripley's horrifying third-act encounter with her missing crewmates, entombed in a bizarre feeding cocoon (which features my favorite recurring monster-film line: the weakly uttered "kill me" that bespeaks the suffering at the hands of some unimaginable, ungodly foe).
Unlike more populist director's cuts, Alien looks more like itself than, say, the director's cuts of the Star Wars trilogy (which mixed startling, contrasting 1970s special effects with shiny new ones) or E.T. (with the f/x retooling that Steven Spielberg would have done if he could have). There are times when it would have been beneficial to have tweaked some effects here -- particularly an end-of-film ship explosion that looks more like an early-'80s video game and a few moments with the aliens that betray their mechanical workings. But that would be cheating, wouldn't it? In life, we do not get do-overs and neither should Sir Ridley Scott.
Alien remains as scary today as I imagine it must have been to its 1979 audience. Scott wisely makes his spacecraft and its occupants as recognizable and human as possible, unlike 2001: A Space Odyssey and the original Star Trek TV series, which, for some reason, imagined their characters in stark sterility. The futuristic milieu of Alien seems as inhabitable as an oil tanker or a submarine or a bunker. The horror of the environment is real to its audience. Thus, when the aliens arrive -- their H.R. Giger-designed environs and bodies such an alarming mix of biological and mechanical, so ambiguous in their construction -- we become afraid. Very afraid.
This resurrected Alien offers nothing new and is probably only a money-making ploy as opposed to anything artistic its producers may have had in mind. But that's fine, as it isn't all that often a remastered classic makes its way back into movie theaters or that we get to look back in time and see why someone like Sigourney Weaver became a star. For a Weaver-taught lesson in hardcore action and cinematic machisma, rent the James Cameron sequel, Aliens. Take or leave the ensuing third and fourth in the franchise, but let's all pay a visit to next year's curious answer to Freddie vs. Jason, the equally clumsily monikered Alien vs. Predator. I hear it's about Governor Schwarzenegger's administrative policies on immigration. Like I said, be very afraid. -- Bo List