Based on a story by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, a crew of seven astronauts, five men and two women on board the cargo ship Nostromo are awoken when their computer answers what they believe is a distress signal. Investigating, one of their crew is attacked by an organism. Origin unknown. They bring the injured party with organism attached back onto the ship to treat him. From there, the organism wreaks havoc.
Alien the film was a box office hit when it was first released in 1979, opening to widespread critical acclaim. The careers of its cast members : Sigourney Weaver, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto, Harry Dean Stanton, Tom Skerritt and Veronica Cartwright were transformed by the experience.
It led to numerous variations in what became a new sci-fi horror genre, everything from The Thing to Sphere to Event Horizon and Pitch Black. It also spawned three Alien sequels where the likes of Brian Glover, Charles Dance, Winona Ryder and Lance Henriksen got to meet this disgusting parasitic creature. Arguably most notable of these was James Cameron’s Aliens. As the craze for the franchise grew, major cities including London, created their own live ‘Alien War’ experiences which in re-creating some of the action became a kind of scary fairground attraction, and the phenomena developed its own life independent of the films, in computer games, proving popular in video arcades the world over.
‘A Director’s Cut’ means new footage, but also better sound too. The digitally re-mastered special edition has been created through months of work Ridley Scott embarked on with Fox technicians. Scott oversaw a restoration of the original negative, added digital enhancements and of course new footage. Scott and a team of archivists went through over 100 boxes of footage, unseen in almost 25 years, which had been discovered in a London vault. Scott then selected new material to go into ‘the Director’s Cut’ which then was digitally restored to match it to the original footage. The sound which is scary and minimalist from start to finish was also given a brand-new 6-track stereo mix.
The new footage
For those that possess Alien on DVD, many of the new scenes will not be a surprise since they exist in the menu’s deleted scenes category, but for those that remember Alien as it was from seeing it on the screen or on video, the new scenes may not seem that obvious.
The first is one of the most striking, as it involves navigator Lambert deciphering the signal before the crew investigate. An audible howl suggests this is not a distress signal and Lambert, together with other members of the crew, look far from happy listening to it. Scott may have left this out, not wishing to give any clue to the audience of what was to follow.
The second most striking new shot includes Lambert venting her misgivings again as she physically attacks Ripley outside the medical bay – it’s a very interesting scene, highlighting tension that previously you would not have known existed between the two women on the ship. There are glimpses of the Alien previously unseen as it captures a member of the crew and most importantly the ‘cocoon’ sequence now exists – seeing this would now make far more sense since previously, a version of it had only been alluded to in Aliens for the first time. It existed in ‘Alien’ the book.
It is wonderful now to see the scenes shot for the film, restored to their rightful place. The sequence adds a valuable dimension that is arguably a good deal more disturbing than anything else in the film including the breakfast scene, which I’m glad to say, looks as terrifying as ever.
The only major scene not to make the Director’s cut that still only exists in the deleted scenes category on the DVD and in the book, is an interesting moment when Ripley questions Lambert as to whether she slept with Ash before they left on the mission, and both conclude out of the discussion that they don’t really know him at all. Again perhaps Scott has left this out, not wishing to give anything away, but it’s a moment when the ship’s female members seem closer again.
Sir Ridley Scott on the Director’s Cut …
What prompted the idea?
RS: When I was revisiting it, I thought well, it kind of hangs in there as a film. Even after 24 years, I was aware that new generations of moviegoers have never seen it properly. So the timing for a re-release, seemed right somehow.
What was the condition of the original footage like?
RS: Surprisingly, the negative was not that bad. It was just beginning to go a little grainy. So we put on digital data and re-transferred it to film. I’m pleased to say it looks as good today as it did 24 years ago. Almost better.
Many new cinemagoers may be surprised by the Score. In today’s horror blockbusters, film music seems to be either overdone or too much ’in-your-face’, almost detailing when the scary moments are coming. Would you agree?
RS: I think what’s particularly nice about the mix here is that it is a lesson in minimalism. You only use the score when you need to use it, so when it comes in, its always for a reason. Jerry Goldsmith’s score is both evocative and chilling, and at the same time, its beautiful. Its still for me, one of the most scariest scores I’ve heard.
Alien : The history of production
In filming Alien, Ridley Scott worked with a team of artists and craftsmen to create a totally new concept of space. Claustrophobia was to be the by-word. The Nostromo was to be a non-descript ship, an unexciting mining vessel with three decks.
A-level housed the living quarters, mess area, medical bay, the hyper-sleep pods, the computer annex which the crew named ‘Mother’ after its official technological identification sequence "MU/TH/UR/6000" and arguably the highlight, the wonderfully cluttered but brilliantly authentic Navigational Bridge. Numerous TV screens show a mass of readouts, maps and atmosphere breakdowns. It was ingeniously assembled from old aircraft, cars, radios and TV sets. "We spent thousands on old jet engines,’ divulges co-art director Les Dilley, ‘it was scrap mostly, but visually when you look at the pilots and crew when they’re flying the ship, it looks marvellously authentic."
Both Dilley and co-Art director Roger Christian had won Oscars for their work on Star Wars two years before, as had Alien’s costume designer John Mollo.
The later sequences of Alien were filmed on the two lower levels of the ship. B-level incorporates the general maintenance area and C-Level the eerily vast engine rooms inhabited by the film’s engineers Parker and Brett, and the giant ‘claw room’ into which the huge landing claws of the Nostromo retract when not being used.
"The goal of building such detailed sets,’ points out the then Production designer Michael Seymour, ‘was to give the impression that this was a very real ship. More science fact than science fiction. We wanted it to look well used too, lived in and slightly battered after years of service."
The main model of the Nostromo measured eight feet in length, but was re-created in the film as if it was eight hundred feet. "With our special techniques,’ reveals special effects supervisor Nick Allder, ‘we were able to camera-track through space, showing stars, and planets, right up to a shot of the craft and the crew inside, all in one long continuous take. We also used rotascoping a lot, taking a sequence frame by frame, making line-drawings, adding high-printed mattes, then shooting in high-contrast to create the effects. If that sounds complicated, I’ve have to admit, it was. But luckily the SFX-technicians knew what they were doing."
The future of the Alien franchise?
So, from Alien to Aliens, to Alien 3 and Alien Resurrection. Where does the franchise go from here?
Certainly the future looks promising although quite when an Alien 5 comes into fruition, is still open to debate. On the cards before that is the release of Alien vs Predator, a long-awaited clash of the titans of hostile sci-fi beasts, that should hit our shores before the end of 2004.
With luck Alien – the Director’s Cut will do well at the box office when it opens in time for Halloween this week. Although only a limited release, hopefully it will do well all over again.
Sigourney Weaver is rumoured to have not ruled out doing Alien 5 providing the script is right. Winona Ryder would also be prepared to return if the storyline was a good one.
Sir Ridley Scott would be prepared to helm a story that involves us finding out how and why HR Giger’s beautifully designed UFO crash-landed in the first place, a precursor to Alien and a chance to explore the origins of the Aliens themselves.
James Cameron has also not ruled out a return and he may go down the armed combat route that proved to be the highlight of Aliens. Arguably the biggest own goal of the franchise was the killing off of Newt and … at the beginning of Alien 3 although in this day and age with the advances in cloning techniques and use of DNA in advanced biology, perhaps a storyline could be evolved in which they are re-created. Certainly, the only thing neither Cameron, Weaver, nor Scott are interested in, is a story involving Aliens coming down to earth.
That it seems can be put off to another day .. for now at least, they remain content to dream up storylines that remind you that in space, no one can hear you scream.