It wasn't for nothing that Roger Ebert freaked out on Sneak Previews 20-odd years ago, brandishing a suitably ghastly Kenner Alien doll, playfully gnashing its extendable set of fangs at Gene Siskel and lamenting the moral collapse of a culture that would allow such a thing to be called a "toy." Pretty obviously, renowned Swiss designer H.R. Giger created his yicky designs for Alien to mock human sexuality, from the fierce, fetal face-hugger ("hugger" used very euphemistically) to the ultraviolent newborn chest-burster to the penile-headed, viscous slime-spitting "star beast" that gave the movie its working title. Giger -- who has signed autographs with the jarring inquiry, "Do you know the name of your solitude?" -- aims to undermine and obliterate the surface smugness of society. In Alien, then as now, his work jabs right where it counts.
With the new version looking stellar in every sense, Alien still casts us immediately into the cold and creepy void of space, where a massive cargo ship called the Nostromo (craftily designed by Ron Cobb) has been halted because of a spooky hailing signal (newly inserted, created by genius soundman Ben Burtt) emanating from a nearby planetoid. Ten months away from returning to Earth with 20 million tons of mineral ore, the ornery blue-collar skeleton crew of seven is awakened from hibernation and instructed by the ship's computer -- very tellingly called "Mother" and housed in an electronic womb -- to visit the nasty little rock and investigate. Inadvertently, they bring back to their ship something meaner and uglier than John Ashcroft. Eerie atmosphere fills nearly an hour until they figure out the true danger of their foe. Then, contrary to the movie's famous tag line, they take turns proving that, in space, everybody can hear you scream.
As for that fraction of a percentage point of a flaw, there's an outrageously terrible edit in the movie, between a fake head and a real head. Very strangely, this laughable moment hasn't been corrected with a cutaway to a reaction shot, which is unfortunate, given that director Ridley Scott was afforded a hundred boxes of original film elements for this reconstruction. Perhaps prolonged exposure to Russell Crowe rots the brain.
Horror movies are cash cows, which is why Alien returns to the big screen, strangely just a few months shy of its proper 25th anniversary. But good for us, as it's a rare and welcome work of genius, combining elements from 2001: A Space Odyssey, the old British Quatermass films, It! The Terror From Beyond Space, slasher movies and other genre staples into something unique and still fresh. It appeals to all brows: high, medium and low. Dime-store Freudians can get off on its assorted metaphors of sexual violation, right up to ol' schlong-noggin stalking the heroine who's literally desperate to save her pussy (that darned cat!). Meanwhile, social scientists can pontificate over Nazi overtones in the speech about admiring the genetically perfect species' "purity" along with its unbridled hostility (clearly screenwriter Dan O'Bannon had recently beheld The Boys From Brazil). Middling multiplex crowds can go for the thrill of exploring a haunted house that smells disturbingly like their own potential future -- from rotten cellular reception to bastardizations of organic life (now a truly horrifying reality -- ask any monkey with a brain implant). Also, for folks who simply enjoy watching John Hurt get hurt, well, there's always the chilling 10 Rillington Place, but his involuntary birth scene here's the doozie.
The casting is marvelous. The producers probably got Tom Skerritt to topline as the captain by telling him it'd be "like M*A*S*H in space, except Frank Burns is a merciless giant killer bug and Trapper John is a deranged robot." Yaphet Kotto smacking his gum and shooting the shit with fellow lazy engineer Harry Dean Stanton: totally sublime. That cute little wave from science officer Ian Holm, safe inside the ship as he delights in his crewmates' first steps toward doom: wonderfully diabolical (no wonder this guy played the devil in Ben Hopkins' unique Simon Magus). All seven feet and two inches of Bolaji Badejo is monstrous as the scarcely seen creature. Veronica Cartwright effectively blubbers through the film, but to be fair her best work here remains in the DVD's deleted scenes, about half of which make it into the new cut.
And then there's that absurdly tall woman with the jaw like a steam shovel who launched both her movie-star career and a whole generation of tough broads with Alien. Bless Sigourney (née Susan) Weaver, whose iconic presence, terrified yet resilient, still propels this ride beyond the scores of substandard imitations that followed.
Why should you view this thing on the big screen when you can see it more or less at home without even putting on pants? Several reasons. Deep space becomes much more disconcerting when it's huge. The new sound mix is aces, with Jerry Goldsmith's minimalist orchestral score inciting shivers. Above all, from its cavernous gothic chambers filled with swinging chains and inexplicable "rain" to its mounting terror in claustrophobic corridors, Alien is a distinctly sensual experience. It may have prompted the funniest-ever Mad magazine parody and the stupidest-ever Atari 2600 game, but the inherent morbidity, terror and sadness of its environment are very tough to shake. As far as sequels go, Aliens was perhaps more rousing, Alien3 was a dumb dog and Alien Resurrection got funky once the potential trilogy was ruined. None of them could top the elegance of this gem.