a zoo in hell


Alien: Redux

I saw Alien (Director’s Cut) on the big screen last night at a midnight screening. Ridley, Giger, and O’Bannon’s masterpiece sits close to the top of my favorite films, if not the top. So, I’ve seen the film many times and expected this viewing to reinforce everything I knew and loved about the film. Seeing this new print on a big screen was a revelation.

There is a common notion, mostly correct, that the most effective part of Alien is that the monster is kept in the dark during so much of the film. It is the idea of the Alien out there killing that provides more terror than the actual creature itself. (Although Giger’s Alien is plenty terrifying, for sure. I had nightmares after seeing a model of it in the toy department at Dayton’s in 1979.)

This notion isn’t entirely correct, though. On the big screen, with a clean print, the fact is you can see the Alien is everywhere. In some shots, it is hiding in plain sight, in others it is merely suggested by the shapes in the walls and halls of Nostromo. When Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) meets his doom, there is an overhead shot of him entering the space. The Alien is right there, takes up most of the screen, and unless you know what the Alien looks like, you have no idea that overhanging machinery is going to climb on down in a few seconds. Even after the cut, when we look up past Brett to the ceiling, there is little to announce the shape is the Alien, unless you know what it is already. This begins a visual motif that carries throughout the film. It’s like a paranoiac Dali painting (something Giger was no doubt familiar with) where a central image repeats itself in multitudes of images and shapes through the rest of the frame.

Look closer.

Seeing it on the big screen provides other insight too. Shrunk down and compressed for a DVD, even a Blu-Ray, you lose some of the latitude and gradation that the film retains. There is more color subtlety in the ship than video would suggest, and a lot more color work in the various scenes with the Alien. The presence of the Alien cools color temperature down, presumably, as scenes with it develop an icy cast, and the brief close-ups of the creature are near total desaturation.

Cold blooded killer.
Also notable is the subtle changes in contrast ratios between the dark spaces of the ship. Except in the safe domestic spaces, the key light is always much brighter than the fill or base light. Yet, unlike a noir, all of these lights are motivated by the ship’s interior. Why did they have no overhead lighting in most of the ship?



Shadows arrive.

Shadows consume.

(These are video screen caps, of course, so much of the effect is lost.)

The effect is part of the charm, but I think part of the anxiety created by the film is the fact that most of the Nostromo is very uncomfortable to behold. There is no escape, and what light there is on this ship merely enhances and deepens the darkness.