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Throughout history there have been many films made in a variety of different genres. Some are met with indifference from the audience at hand, while others; such as The Matrix films, are instantly hailed as classics by the people who see them on opening day. I admit that I have on occasion been guilty of this myself, as was the case with Peter Jackson's Lord Of The Rings films. Yet while I once considered them to be masterpieces I am forced to admit that it's really too soon to call them classics because a classic; by definition, is a film that is able to stand the test of time. A film that is able to work equally well many years after its initial release and prove that it can defy rules concerning advancements in special effects, changing fashions, and audience tastes. What I am forced to ask myself is; throughout history what films can stand up as genuine classics? That much is impossible to define, given the limited resources I have at my disposal, but one thing is certain, and that is that Ridley Scott's seminal 1979 chiller Alien definitely belongs in that list.
The story that Alien tells deals with a small group of miners who are woken from suspended animation after their ship receives an SOS distress call from an unknown origin. The origin turns out to be a giant derelict alien spaceship that is sending out a warning signal; not an SOS. After an accident in the depths of this ship the crew decide to leave the planetoid, but they soon find that their journey home takes a terrifying twist as a killer Alien; the likes of which no human has ever seen, begins to stalk the crew picking them off one by one.
This again raises the question of why Alien is considered a classic. After all the plot is really nothing more then 10 Little Indians in space, and the general concept is a complete rip off of the one used in John Carpenter's début Dark Star. (Though Alien uses an armour plated alien killing machine as its monster, whereas Dark Star used a psychotic planet destroying beach ball. I'll leave it to you to decide which one sounds scarier.) Both are valid points and yet Alien is now held in a higher regard than both of those films, and the reason is simple. Ridley Scott's direction on this film is simply phenomenal.
Using a combination of his own amazing visual style and a stark minimalist soundtrack, Scott has been able to create one of the most genuinely scary films in history. Not scary in the way modern audiences have come to expect as it's not a jump out of your seat gore fest like the majority of scary movies, but rather a film that gets under your skin attempting to disturb you on a psychological level. It subtly hints at the true nature of the Aliens without feeling the need to explain them away like the sequels did. Rather the writers leave it up to the viewers discernment to understand the real scares. For example the very notion of a creature that attacks you from the inside out has deeply disturbed a number of people, while others have allowed it to pass right over their heads while they await the next shock.
Before watching it you really need to decide which group you fall into, because there are very few people from the second group who managed to sit through Alien from start to finish. That's not to suggest in anyway that the film doesn't have any traditional tension but even the films infamous suspense will not be found by those looking for quick fix. It certainly has its fair share of shocks as the infamous chest bursting scene is one of the most iconic horror scenes in history; matched only by the shower scene in Psycho. It's just that these jumps are few and far between in a film that's far more concerned with drawing out its thrills for an audience willing to become completely absorbed by its unrelenting atmosphere.
The combination of cinematography and soundtrack that I mentioned previously accomplishes this in the largest way. Right from the films very first shot the cinematography absorbs you. It sees the camera slowly pan around the ship, examining every crack almost as if it represents some malevolent force that is stalking the crew. Then when you factor in the subtle musical score that is quietly playing out in the background the tension becomes unbearable. You suddenly become aware of every movement in the halls of the Nostromo; every flicker of light, every dripping pipe, and this gives off the kind of atmosphere heavy scares that you would normally expect to find in a haunted house movie.
It's for this very reason that I have come to the decision that Alien is still the best film in the series. Throughout my teenage years I held the opinion that the pure adrenaline rush of James Cameron's sequel was better, but nowadays I prefer the creepy atmosphere of the original. It has everything; good acting from a great cast, a story that constantly picks plot points out of its hat without ever feeling contrived, and some of the best art design ever by H.R.Giger. Watching the film you can see Giger's imagination at work in the organic meets mechanical design of the Alien sets, as well as the creature itself. The design of the creature works so that most times, even when you see the creature you don't see the creature. The mechanical look of its body means that it perfectly camouflages itself into the wires and metalwork of the Nostromo's interior making the sets feel even more claustrophobic.
Included on this Definitive Edition DVD is the option to select between both the theatrical and the more recent Directors Cut of this movie. So what about this directors cut of the film? I'm sure that most of you reading this have actually seen Alien but may be wondering how well this directors cut stands up to the classic original. Well to put your mind at ease I can now tell you that they have not messed up the classic. Those of you who had the original Alien DVD will have already seen the deleted scenes and know that most of them don't really make a difference to the plot. (Thankfully, the comical scene that made the Alien look human has still been left out.) Seeing them re-inserted proves that most don't slow up the narrative structure at all. Some; such as the scene where Bret And Parker try and get a power switch to work stand out to fans, but don't really ruin it for anyone else. Others; such as a scene where Lambert goes crazy at Ripley after she finally gets back on board, help to humanize the characters by showing that they do have realistic reactions as opposed to just forgetting things. The one most talked about is the infamous cocoon scene where Ripley discovers Captain Dallas alive and cocooned to a wall. Fans claim that this scene totally destroys the continuity of the series, and to a degree it does interfere with the Alien's life cycle. However having read the books that the films are based on I can say that this is the way it always was, and Alien 3 was the film to change their life cycle. It's an important scene though that again subtly hints at the true nature of the Aliens, but was removed after the studio's decided that the implications were just too disturbing; for a 70's audience anyway.
At the end of the day, Alien is he single greatest horror movie in existence. However some of the younger teens will be put off by the pace, but if you put in a little concentration and patience then the rewards are well worth while. Purists may be disdained at the idea of a directors cut, but if that's true for you then remember that even then it remains the second best horror movie in existence; beaten only by itself, which is no bad thing. By allowing you to choose for yourself this edition gives you the best of both worlds anyway, so there shouldn't be any real reason to complain.