"Alien: The Director's Cut" is an old nightmare, made shiny new. It's a scream from another era that still echoes around us. Director Ridley Scott's new, digitally refurbished and re-edited version of his 1979 pop science-fiction hit -- the subzero tale of beautiful astronaut Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and the beast of space that pursues her -- is a movie that can still give you the shakes, even though most of its surprises have long since passed into popular legend.
The plot wasn't new even when the film was first released. With its hook of a seven-member, multicultural spaceship crew running afoul of a ravenous space alien who gets aboard their ship and kills them, one by one, it suggests a mix of Stanley Kubrick's "2001," Howard Hawks' "The Thing" and every monster movie since "Frankenstein." But the look of the film was new. Few science-fiction movies are as cold, as full of cavernous space, angst and horrific beings. The original "Alien" is a work of popular entertainment and movie art in which the makers took the "art' as seriously as the entertainment.Perhaps that's why screenwriter Dan O'Bannon (who wrote John Carpenter's 1974 "Dark Star") and company call their spaceship "Nostromo," after one of Joseph Conrad's finest novels. College-educated and literate, they're winking to the more sophisticated audience out there among the popcorn-chewing masses jumping in their seats. "Alien" was a movie that appealed to both, rendering its archetypal bad-dream story in images of stunning austerity or wild imagination.
This imagery elevates the story, in which a spaceship crew returning from deep space runs into the wrong alien, an unstoppable fiend that finds its foe in the lissome and pugnacious Ripley. The space jockeys are a colorful lot: earthy leader Dallas (Tom Skerritt, of the original movie "M*A*S*H"), eccentric or rough hewn mechanics Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton), nervous scientist Kane (John Hurt), mysteriously taciturn navigator Ash (Ian Holm), jumpy Lambert (ex-child star Veronica Cartwright, the little girl in "The Birds") and Ripley. Most of us know Ripley will survive and battle the alien mother in other incarnations and other movies, with a new Ripleyless one in the works. But does it matter?
Familiar plots, even a certain knowledge of what will come next, don't necessarily spare you jolts. One of the grisliest shocks in movie history occurs midway through "Alien" as the crew sits around a dinner table, eating and jawing convivially. Suddenly pallid Kane -- who's recovering from an alien assault on a nearby planet -- feels his stomach rumbling. No one who has seen the movie can forget what happens next, though some may want to.
Yet that famous moment couldn't attack our senses and sensibilities so strongly if it weren't for the weird overclean atmosphere Scott and his technicians create: the way Derek Vanlint's camera glides through the gleaming and bare ship's interiors and the great, goopy horror of the extra-terrestrial lair where aliens and eggs lie waiting. Those nerve-rending H.R. Giger-created interiors resemble the innards of some giant Satan-lizard, a black putrescent lair given over to rot and the generation of vipers.
So what happens to Kane, whose name affectionately nudges Scott favorite Orson Welles, is horrifying. So is the movie, which played on our 1979 sense that these high-grade actors and magnificent sets wouldn't veer quite so crazily into horror and gore. "Alien" was released a year after Carpenter's "Halloween" and it altered the landscape of high-budget studio horror as irrevocably as "Halloween" changed cheapo horror. "Alien" was a classy picture with classy people -- both Scott and Holm were later knighted -- but it was also gruesome, awful. "In space, no one can hear you scream," ran the original ad line; like Poole and Bowman in "2001," these astronauts are at the mercy of their ship, and even their computer, as well as the alien.
Scott has added five minutes of outtakes, including the fascinating "nesting" scene, where Ripley finds the sentient heads of her slaughtered shipmates tangled up in knots of squiggly alien organs that climb like ivy on the ship walls. And he has subtly trimmed the rest, shortening scenes by seconds to speed us along, so the recut is briefer by two minutes.
The look of "Alien" remains fabulous: a cross between the elegant austerity of "2001" and the raw funk of "Dark Star" and other low-budgeters. The sets are dazzling and macabre. The characters are both archetypal -- even slightly cliched -- and cipherlike. Being trapped on those sets, with those people, still imparts a creepy chill. There have been three other "Aliens" since, by directors James Cameron, David Fincher and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, but though all have their points, none is as relentless as this. Weaver was never quite as sexy, vulnerable or compelling. And though they kept trying and repeating, none had an alien this gruesomely, shatteringly awry and unexpected. When it jumped, or when it jumps now, so do we.
"Alien: The Director's Cut"
3 1/2 stars
Directed by Ridley Scott; written by Dan O'Bannon, story by O'Bannon and Ron Shusett; photographed by Derek Vanlint; edited by Terry Rawlings; production designed by Michael Seymour; music by Jerry Goldsmith; alien design by H.R. Giger; concept artist Ron Cobb; produced by Gordon Carroll, David Giler, Walter Hill. A 20th Century Fox release; opens Wednesday. Running time: 1:15. MPAA rating: R (for violence and language).
Ripley Sigourney Weaver
Dallas Tom Skerritt
Parker Yaphet Kotto
Kane John Hurt
Brett Harry Dean Stanton
Ash Ian Holm