- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 30, 2003

Accomplished movies often reflect a conscious awareness that spectators consent to be escorted through a stylized dream state.

In director Ridley Scott’s “Alien,” this recognition extends from fade-in to fade-out, both scenes of repose.

A new theatrical release of the elegant yet nerve-racking classic of outer-space apprehension begins today, 24 years after the original bookings on Memorial Day weekend of 1979, a date chosen to echo the phenomenally successful launch window for George Lucas’ “Star Wars” two years earlier.

At the outset of “Alien,” we glide into the habitat of a majestic space freighter called the Nostromo. Seven crew members are still slumbering away a long voyage home, nestled in “hyper-sleep” pods while the craft tows ore refineries from distant planets.

The concluding restful note is tantamount to a well-deserved sigh of relief. It dispels a nightmare that begins to intensify after an ill-advised side trip to a derelict asteroid, fabulously eerie and turbulent. This expedition proves a fatal mistake, exposing the crew to a monstrous alien organism that infiltrates the ship. Simultaneously hiding and growing inside the cavernous confines, it picks off overmatched but courageous human prey. Ultimately, a single survivor remains to confront a devil-or-the-deep-blue sea choice of instruments of annihilation.

Science-fiction spectacle was in a resurgent phase during the late 1970s. “Alien” was a stunning confirmation of that resurgence and an inducement to shift away from the benign outlook of Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Today, our terrestrial world seems to be promising far more danger and strife than reconciliation, so the model of resistance embodied in Sigourney Weaver’s valiant warrant officer Ripley, a splendid heroic brainstorm in 1979, may look even more timely in 2003.

While reminding us that certain enemies might be impossible to reason with, “Alien” proved successful enough to justify a franchise. To its credit, 20th Century-Fox, the film’s distributor, didn’t rush to the marketplace with the initial sequel. Their patience paid off with another classic, James Cameron’s “Aliens,” a science-fiction variation on the combat thriller, in 1986. From that point on the franchise became a hostage to derelict weirdness. Ripley ended up in a penal colony in “Alien 3” and was hardly herself in “Alien Resurrection,” which ceased to characterize her as a human. A clone tarnished with alien DNA, she had become a freakish life form, anticipating a bit of Uma Thurman in Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill,” where we’re never expected to mistake the resurrected and lethal heroine for a human being. She’s morphed into a facetious, stupefying weapon of kung fu mass destruction.

The value system of “Alien” was still rational. Ripley was obliged to fight for her life and performed with admirable resourcefulness, using the weapons and armor that came to hand in the Nostromo. Even the famously gory interludes that showcased the monster in attack modes seemed relatively restrained. Mr. Scott only needed two conspicuously gruesome sightings. The anticipation of horror outranked horrific depiction.

Still something of an unknown quantity at the time, Mr. Scott had directed only one previous feature, the pictorially sumptuous “The Duellists.” Mr. Scott confirmed his pictorial promise right away, utilizing a different genre but aligning himself with conscientious sensationalism. Twenty-five years later, his artful restraint makes “Alien” seem like an almost reassuring freakout.


TITLE: “Alien”

RATING: R (Occasional profanity and graphic violence, with exceptionally gruesome illustrative details)

CREDITS: Directed by Ridley Scott. Screenplay by Dan O’Bannon. Cinematography by Derek Vanlint. Production design by Michael Seymour, with art direction by Les Dilley and Roger Christian. Alien design by H.R. Giger and alien head effects by Carlo Rambaldi. Special effects supervisors: Brian Johnson and Nick Allder. Editing by Terry Rawlings. Music by Jerry Goldsmith, conducted by Lionel Newman

RUNNING TIME: 115 minutes


DVD format restores quality of film seen first time around

“It’s an ephemeral material, celluloid,” observed director Ridley Scott recently when questioned about the Halloween week revival of “Alien.”

The emergence of digital reproduction systems may prolong the shelf life of countless movies while enhancing the value of occasional theatrical revivals as a prelude to fresh home video editions in the now dominant DVD format.

“This is the first time we’ve had a system that renders film like it ought to be,” Mr. Scott explained. “DVD is still relatively new. In the interim there was a serious dropoff in quality between the first theatrical prints and all the later copies. You’re getting a fraction of the movie if you’re watching a VHS copy on a small TV monitor. Looking back, Fox realized that certain kinds of movies have been seen properly only once, by the audience that was around when they were in theaters for the first time. A year later, and now it’s more like six months or six weeks later, the opportunity is gone. Most of the ‘Alien’ prints that remained in circulation were terrible. The typical video copy was mediocre to terrible, a diminished and pale reflection of what people had seen in theaters.”

According to the director, “Alien” was overdue for maintenance and restoration. “The negative was starting to go,” Mr. Scott said. “It was getting grainy. Thank God the images can now be tracked and reproduced digitally. But no one knows how long digital systems will preserve the image quality. I’ve had to go in like a surgeon and do some nip-and-tuck where the grain was becoming noticeable. The sound was still pretty good. We always had a great sound mix, and the music was perfect.”

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