Wednesday, 16 May 2012

The Watcher Retrospective - Alien Director's Cut

It's fair to say that I'm very excited right now. Excitement that even the Avengers movie couldn't dampen, despite seeing it three times at the cinema (which those who know me will agree is unheard of)!

In just over two weeks, acclaimed director Ridley Scott returns to the science fiction genre with Prometheus, his first such movie in almost two decades. Well, slightly less than that if you count 2003, when he returned to the 1979 film for the DVD Director's Cut. For many, Ridley Scott pioneered the home release Director's Cut approach, beginning with the Blade Runner Director's Cut in 1992. The same year saw James Cameron return to Aliens and give it similar treatment, but Alien languished in its original cut for another nine years.

Languished? Yes indeed. I watched Alien and Aliens at some happy moment in my teenage years, I forget exactly when. I was left with both true fear and fascination for the xenomorph creatures, but I have to say that my preference was for Aliens. I tried to like Alien more, especially as I grew older and became a Film Studies student. Film scholars and critics will tell you that Alien is a loftier film, with better direction and true suspense, but with each repeat viewing I became more and more convinced that the science fiction action of Aliens was more to my taste. After all, Cameron's Director's Cut is incredible, balancing brutal action and nerve-wracking terror with smart characterisation and nuanced performances.

Then came the ridiculously named Alien Quadrilogy boxset and news that Ridley Scott had contributed a Director's Cut of the movie that gestated the franchise. The film was restored and remastered and an infamous deleted scene was restored, as Ripley encounters two members of the crew seemingly transforming into eggs.

And yet the finished movie was shorter than the original theatrical version. Ridley Scott took out more than he restored, shortening scenes for a very specific reason.

When Alien came out it was filled with tension and had audiences on the edge of their seats. Unlike subsequent entries into the franchise, Alien was a pure horror movie set in space. From the initial sexual mouth rape horror of the facehugger to the stalker horror of a powerful, lone monster picking off the crew - the film was designed to frighten people. Even the movie poster tag line is the famous, "In space, no one can hear you scream."

Sadly, over time our collective attention span has diminished slightly and so what was once a masterpiece in the late Seventies-early Eighties had become somewhat overblown. Hitchcockian stretches of tension building direction now seemed to overcrank the pressure to the point where the metaphorical elastic band had snapped and the reaction was less shocking. With the Director's Cut, I feel this was perfectly addressed - the resulting film is once again a tense, powerful affair.

From the initial eerie wandering around an empty ship then on to the friction between the awaking crew and the class divide between the engineers and the NCOs, the film's trademark slow opening still builds as the mysterious signal and the hitherto unknown Company standing orders leave the characters as clueless and off balance as the audience. We remain awestruck by the derelict and the Space Jockey and alarmed by the egg chamber and the facehugger attack. Really the most obvious tightening of the editing and pacing comes later as John Hurt's chestburster reaches full maturity and begins slaughtering the crew. Long, drawn out sequences become tighter and sharper and I commend Ridley Scott for that.

Hopefully, this more visceral horror vibe informs Prometheus too. Certainly the various trailers seem to show body horror and nasty surprises stalking the crew, so I have a feeling we will once again have a true science fiction horror film from one of the modern auteurs.

Ben Fardon is ready for 12:01am on Friday 1st June!

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