As the infant alien — looking like a monstrous, fleshy and reptilian sperm — broke through a hapless astronaut’s rib cage and showed its metallic teeth, so director Ridley Scott made Alien his genre-bending breakout vehicle nearly 25 years ago. It became a sci-fi classic.
When Scott returned to the cinematic vault for this new version, he must have scoured the cutting room floor for the lost moments that he skillfully sutures in. Some scenes showcase Ian Holm as the “artificial” science officer, Ash, an android. Another restored scene foreshadows sequences featured in Alien’s sequels. And since most of us interested in this theatrical re-release have already seen the original (if only on video or DVD), Scott drops the horror flick convention of saving the best, most explicit shots of the monster for last: Even as it emerges from the shadowy bowels of the mining starship Nostromo to strike its second victim, Brett (Harry Dean Stanton), Scott displays his alien, its body darkly lustrous, its metal teeth dripping wet and glistening as its gleaming jaw slides from its mouth like a steely tongue aroused for the kill.
Sounds sexual? It is. Scott’s new cut only intensifies Alien’s perversions of sex and birth as the repressed wellspring of its horror. Or, at least, what a Freudian would interpret as such.
But that’s an old story. If you dust off and page through the classic unholy trinity of 19th century gothic horror — Frankenstein, Dracula and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde — you’ll find sex seeps between their lines, though it’s filtered through science or myth. Alien’s screenwriter, Dan O’Bannon, seems to warp and twist the literary genes of these three modern horror mothers and splice them into his interstellar space yarn.
Frankenstein’s monster and Mr. Hyde, for instance, are both the result of unnatural conceptions. In Alien, Scott illustrates O’Bannon’s horrific perversions of the birth cycle by splicing together parts from mundane creatures that evoke our disgust and fear. An alien egg opens like a horrible vagina and blasts a monster — crablike, with a snake’s constricting tail — through the space-helmet visor and onto the face of the astronaut Kane (John Hurt). When the creature thrusts a tubular appendage down Kane’s throat, it’s a kind of oral rape. The spawn of this brutal union makes a womb of the man’s guts and eventually breaks out of his rib cage in the goriest birth in cinema to that moment. Scott’s vision is like a bad acid trip of primordial human horrors: the vagina dentata, castration and darkest side of childbirth.
Where O’Bannon seems to tap into the classics of gothic horror literature, Scott and designer H.R. Giger visually quote from the sci-fi flick canon. The Alien (the rubber-suited African giant Bolaji Badejo) is the bastard child of the titular Creature from the Black Lagoon. Parts of the terrorized ship seem like mutations of sets in the Frankenstein pictures, Metropolis and 2001: A Space Odyssey. (The omnipresent onboard computer, Mother, is a female version of 2001’s sociopathic HAL; Ash is an anthropomorphic version.)
But Alien is more than a pastiche of gothic horror literature and sci-fi cinema. It’s a milestone.
O’Bannon and Scott democratize space by allowing the working class — a black man and two women — entry into what was previously the starry country club of mostly professional white men. Labor disputes arise throughout the film; a black man, played by Yaphet Kotto, flirts with and is partnered with a white woman, played by Veronica Cartwright; and Ripley, a woman and third in command, must deal with crewmembers who don’t seem to take her seriously.
Star Wars may have been the first film to break the convention of immaculate spacecraft, but Scott takes that realism a few steps further to make the Nostromo look lived-in.
Few classics are perfect, though. In two-and-a-half decades, spectacular advances in special effects leave a couple of scenes in Alien looking clumsily dated. Meanwhile, the level of gory horror has been so pumped up that some moments that made audiences jump from their seats in 1979 now just get nervous laughter.
But Alien is still a seminal genre film worthy of Scott’s resurrection and the big screen.
James Keith La Croix writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.