Thursday, December 30, 2010

"Alien" (1979/2003) - Alien Anthology, Disc 1

Starring Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt and Ian Holmes
Written by Dan O'Bannon
Directed by Ridley Scott

"In space, no one can hear you scream."

Ridley Scott's "Alien" has been called a classic, garnering numerous awards and praises since its release in 1979.  Sharply written, and excellently directed, "Alien" is more than its simple premise might imply.  Other films had been made with similar ideas, but never in such a mature, frightening fashion.

The crew of the star ship Nostromo is awakened early from their cryogenic sleep to find that they are nowhere near Earth as they'd expected.  Instead, the ship's computer has woken them after it received some kind of signal from a nearby planet.  The crew, contract workers for the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, set down on the planet to investigate and find a derelict alien vessel.  In the lower levels, one of the ship's crew, Kane (John Hurt) discovers strange alien eggs which seem to contain some kind of life form.  One of the eggs opens, and a creature attaches itself to Kane's face.  The crew brings him back aboard their ship with the creature still attached, despite the protests of second officer and pilot Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver).  

Science officer Ash (Ian Holmes) and Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt) try to remove the creature from Kane's face, but attempting to do so nearly kills Kane.  They also discover that the creature's blood is a strong acid that can eat through almost anything, making it extremely dangerous to kill.  But, mysteriously as it first appeared, the creature eventually falls off of Kane's face by itself and dies.  That night, at dinner, though Kane seems to have recovered, something goes terribly wrong.  A second creature that has been gestating within him suddenly erupts out of his chest, killing him.  Over the course of the next few hours, the creature matures and stalks and kills the crew of the Nostromo one by one.  Frantically, they attempt to kill the creature, only to suffer more losses until Ripley finally makes the decision to run away and destroy the ship.  But there's only one problem: it turns out the ship was sent to that planet on company orders.  Ash already knew about the creature and has orders to bring it back to Earth alive... and the rest of the crew is expendable.

Despite a simple setup, "Alien" is a fantastically well-made film.  It's slow, deliberate pace might be called boring, by some, but for me it's what creates such an unsettling sense of dread that permeates the entire film.  This is not a film full of big action set pieces (no, that would be the sequel) but instead claustrophobic horror.  The silence, as they say, can be deafening.  Rather than pushing the creature into the light and saying, "oohhhh look at how scary it looks!" the thing stays mostly in the shadows, and sound design is used to evoke the feeling of incredible danger.

The crew of the Nostromo are, unlike the Colonial Marines of the sequel, simple workers.  They're certainly not trained to deal with any kind of situation like this, they just want to do their jobs, go home and get paid.  "Alien" presents a world where the working class struggles of today have not been alleviated by the fantastic future technologies that allow man to traverse the stars.  Indeed, the characters bicker several times throughout the film, concerned about their shares and bonuses.  In this world we find Ellen Ripley, a fascinating cinematic creation.  Some have called her (one of) the first female action hero.  Much has been written about the fact that Ripley is not only capable, proving herself a competent female figure in a male-dominated world, but also still feminine.  That is, she is not made macho or manly in order for her to succeed, nor does she use her sex to get ahead.  Sigourney Weaver's performance is excellent.  She feels fully comfortable with all the sci-fi trappings around her, but extremely relatable and human.

Much has also been written about the creepy sexual overtones of the film, calling the creature essentially a rape allegory, describing its "phallic" shape and so on and so forth.  In the climax of the film, Ripley hears the creature killing Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), and one could interpret the sounds as terrifyingly sexual, and the preceding shots could also be interpreted as a grotesque come-on.  Whether or not you subscribe to these interpretations is your own business.  If you do, however, it makes the movie about, oh, a zillion times scarier.

I'm watching these films as they're presented on the 2010 "Alien Anthology" Blu-Ray release.  On the first disc is the 1979 theatrical version of "Alien" as well as the 2003 director's cut.  This new version alters some of the pacing of the film, some of the sound effects.  It deletes about five minutes worth of footage, but adds in four minutes of new material, making a difference of about a minute.  The new version seems to move a bit faster, and seems a little bit more aggressive somehow, even though there are relatively few wholesale changes.   A new scene has been inserted into the climax which shows Ripley discovering that some of the crew have not been killed, but rather cocooned by the alien creature.  Dallas begs Ripley to kill him as he hangs, helpless, from the ceiling in the bowels of the ship, moments before it is set to explode.  I'm not sure that this makes much sense, honestly; neither the fact that the crewmembers are cocooned rather than killed nor that Ripley does actually kill them herself.  Indeed, it creates a bit of a continuity error with the second film when Ripley states that it was the creature that killed her entire crew in a matter of hours.  But anyway, why does Ripley kill them when the ship is about to explode anyway?

Either way, "Alien" is one hell of a flick.  If you're looking for a fast-paced sci-fi action romp, skip this one and head for the sequel.  But if you want to be enveloped in some seriously scary atmosphere and great performances, by all means, dive into either version of this classic.

On Blu-Ray, "Alien" has received a brand new 4K restoration, and damn does it look good.  For a film that's over 30 years old now, it looks razor-sharp.  Black levels, which are downright imperative in a film that uses so much darkness, are awesome.  Small details like skin and clothing textures really pop, and while not an overly-colorful film, what we do get looks great.  Check out the excellent orange and yellow in the flames from Ripley's flame thrower in the climax.  I can't imagine this movie looking better than it does. 

See Also:
Aliens
Aliens (Alien Anthology, Disc 2)
Alien 3 (Alien Anthology, Disc 3)
Alien: Resurrection (Alien Anthology, Disc 4)
Alien Anthology, Disc 5