Alien: The Director’s Cut (1979/2003)

2009 #13a
Ridley Scott | 111 mins | DVD | 15 / R

Famously, Ridley Scott’s 2003 Director’s Cut re-release of Alien came in slightly shorter than the original version, an unusual state of affairs. This disparity isn’t just because Scott lopped a bit out (though, he did) — he also removed scenes and put others back, in the process creating a cut of the film as edited by an older version of the same filmmaker. Or, alternatively, creating a different version to help shift some extra tickets — it depends which quotes you want to believe.

Having only seen the original version once, and several years ago, I can’t offer any meaningful analysis of how Scott’s myriad nips and tucks impact on pace. It certainly doesn’t feel faster on the whole, still exhibiting the same slow-build tension that’s as reminiscent of 2001 as any other horror films. Coupling this with a very realist style of dialogue and action — minimal, overlapping, mundane, light on exposition — makes the film feel positively indie-like today. There’s no way a major effects-filled blockbuster would progress so slowly now, though recently Sunshine came close. In these respects, Alien: The Director’s Cut isn’t all that different from the Alien so many know and love — no surprises there — and all but the most die hard of die hard fans are unlikely to notice such minor changes.

However, Scott also reinserted four deleted scenes, which even I managed to spot. Only one makes a notable difference: during the climax, Ripley discovers Dallas and Brett in alien cocoons and burns them. The Aliens’ cocooning is intrinsic to the plot of later films in the franchise, in which respect it works well to see it first crop up here; taking the film on its own merits though, such an addition in the middle of the climax serves to slow it down and feel like an unnecessary aside, tidying up a loose end that most audience members wouldn’t even think was a loose end (I know I didn’t). Of course, this just goes to show that it was a sensible cut to make back in ’79.

These small moments aside, Alien feels unchanged. It’s been said many times before but, first and foremost, it’s a horror movie — it just happens to be one set in space with plenty of sci-fi trappings. Move it to an oil tanker in the middle of the ocean and a great deal of it would function just as well. Whatever effect Scott’s trims may have had, they haven’t made it any less effective in this regard, though second time round all the jump-scares failed on me, but that’s the nature of such a shock rather than a flaw of Alien in particular. Trying to look at it objectively, we all know that Ripley’s the only survivor and the franchise heroine now, but the film gives you no/few reason/s to presume she’s any more significant than any other character: she’s third in command, Weaver’s only second in the credits, and she doesn’t even go out on the initial mission. It’s an effective step in keeping the audience guessing who might survive.

Some of the effects look rather dated now, especially the ship’s computers, but that’s not really problematic. The design work on the ship is still exemplary, and of course often copied. It’s so grimy, industrial and (for want of a better word) ‘real’ that one wouldn’t even need to reshoot much to claim it was set on that oil tanker. The Alien is still the main consideration in design and effects terms, and it’s still barely seen. This was always a very sensible move, hiding any shortcomings in the design (most of the time at least) and also helping create menace — because it’s never seen in full, and only brief glimpses are snatched in the shadows, we always believe it could be anywhere. This all builds to the great escape pod ending, which cleverly uses a calm-after-the-storm feeling and the distraction of Ripley’s semi-strip to lull the viewer into a state of total unawareness. Even on re-watching when you know it’s coming, this sequence contains arguably the film’s most effective jump.

Alien is 30 this year and the Director’s Cut is now six years old, meaning most seriously interested viewers will have seen it by now. How different this version is from the original cut should be indicated by the fact I didn’t feel justified in giving this a new number, even with my poor memory. I can only imagine that to fans intimately familiar with the film the number of trims (there are rather a lot apparently) and new scenes (just four) make a huge difference, but for a more casual viewer they don’t significantly change how it feels as a whole. That said, even with my vague memory, I’d call the original as the superior cut.

5 out of 5

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