Ridley Scott’s “Alien” (1979), now back in theaters in a “director’s cut” version, remains one of the best examples of sustained tension. There is a sense of ominousness, a sense that something bad is going to happen, from the moment the film begins.
Assisting this feeling of dread is Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett’s script, which wastes no dialogue, and which indeed has no dialogue at all for the first six minutes. Space is a quiet place — it’s where “no one can hear you scream,” the tagline reminded us — and the cargo ship Nostromo is quiet, too. Its seven crew members don’t speak when they don’t have to. Much of their time in the hours we spend with them is spent creeping around the ship, looking for an escaped alien and being as silent as possible. Silence, you soon notice, is scary.
The hero of the film is Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), though that is not apparent when it begins. She is one of seven crew members, one of two women, and she isn’t the captain. She becomes the hero by default, though you can see her being established that way, slowly, as the film progresses. It is she who is most adamant about not bringing an alien life form on board the ship, in accordance with the law. It is also she who speaks the most powerfully: Of the five F-words uttered in the film, four of them come out of her mouth. The other female crew member is hysterical and emotional; Ripley is calm, breaking down only once, and just briefly. This is not a girl to mess with.
The fact that this is a director’s cut isn’t especially noteworthy. Scott hasn’t done anything drastic to the film; just a little nipping and tucking here and there, a bit of never-before-seen footage, some minor cuts. What’s significant is that the film is still thrilling after 24 years and that, apart from the ultra-cheesy “futuristic” computer graphics, it feels like it could have been made yesterday. Filmmakers haven’t gotten any better at creating an atmosphere of tension and suspense; if anything, they’ve come to rely more on special effects and fast editing, both of which are used only sparsely here. Fear of what may happen, as always, is scarier than what happens.
Though the film is completely engaging and one of the best of its genre, I still have issues with the ending, which I think is anti-climactic. The stalemate created between Ripley and the monster ought to have been resolved in a more interesting or clever way. But maybe that’s picking at nits. Maybe we ought to be relieved the matter is resolved at all, after two hours of anxiety.
B+ (1 hr., 57 min.; )