Alien: a gut-busting good time.

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Oct. 30 2003 7:14 PM

Alien Autopsy

What makes Ridley Scott's horror film so unnerving?

Photograph of Sigourney Weaver
Weaver: before the underwear scene

In Pauline Kael's essay "Why Are Movies So Bad? Or, the Numbers," which she published in 1980 after a brief, unhappy stint as a producer in Hollywood, she lamented that moviegoers had become "jaded" and wanted "images that move along in an undemanding way, so they can sit and react at the simplest motor level." She singled out Ridley Scott's new picture Alien as an example, writing that the audience "thought it was terrific, because at least they'd felt something: they'd been brutalized." Most of us don't go to the movies to be brutalized, but Kael's comment gets at the mysterious appeal of horror films: Why do we subject ourselves to them? Alien was the fourth-highest-grossing picture of 1979. Its release opened a perennial fault line in the moviegoing public: those who sought out its lacerating horrors and those who preferred The Black Stallion.

Now, Alien has returned to theaters with a director's cut, once again daring audiences to come and see it. The original trailer offered one of the great taunts in movie history—"In space no one can hear you scream"—and few earthbound horror fans could resist the provocation. But the open secret about Alien, then and now, is that if you discard its notorious scene of indigestion, the movie contains few bloody appendages. It will, however, scare you to pieces.

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The late-'70s pitch meeting is all too easy to imagine: "Star Wars meets Jaws!" Yet Alien does something neither of those movies does: For the first 45 minutes, nothing happens, just like some European art-house films. It's all buildup, all prologue. Scott shows the crew waking up from hypersleep and exchanging pithy banter. He feeds you details about how a commercial towing starship operates. Although Scott admits to being influenced by the technophilia of Stanley Kubrick, this is not the antiseptic future of 2001: Everyone is smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee—it's just another day at the office. Scott is laying down a foundation of reality; he's showing us that the shadows are empty, for now. The scariest movie in history is actually a bit shy. The subtle, romantic score by Jerry Goldsmith is what keeps the tension at a simmer.

The cast is your standard motley crew: the black guy (Yaphet Kotto), the black guy's white sidekick (Harry Dean Stanton), the science stiff (Ian Holm), the European (John Hurt), the babe (Sigourney Weaver), the other babe (Veronica Cartwright), and the handsome captain (Tom Skerritt). But Scott sets up a great decoy. Audiences were expecting Skerritt to survive the voyage since he was the star with top billing, but it's Weaver, young and smooth-faced, who faces down the alien and lives to make the sequels. Critics have called Weaver's character, Ripley, an influential and trailblazing female action hero, but outside of perhaps Linda Hamilton in the Terminator series, the trail seems to have faded. My guess is that Scott had simpler motives: He wanted to fool the audience and then exploit the sexual frisson of the movie's final scene, when he has Weaver dodging the alien in her underwear.

The dissenting view on Alien has always been that it's just a haunted-house movie in outer space, and Scott couldn't resist a few manipulative "boo" moments. (A ginger cat jumps out of nowhere; the alien's hand reaches from the wall to grab Ripley.) But the staying power of Alien lies in the way it dredges up primal fears. Scott's long shots emphasize the vastness of space, the sense of being marooned in a hostile environment. The spaceship interiors were designed for maximum claustrophobia. And the alien itself, created by the Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger, is not completely foreign. It's a corruption of nature—an intelligent insect—both comprehensible and terrifyingly unknown. Then there's the way many scenes play like a sophomore biology-lab experiment gone awry: Ian Holm poking at the glistening organs of the alien body or Skerritt cutting one of its fingerlike appendages with a laser saw, releasing a spring of acid blood. And the queasiness is intensified by the old-fashioned, analog look of the effects: The alien that leaps onto John Hurt's space helmet, for example, is a mass of sheep's intestines, steam-cleaned to be white.

The scene in which the alien chews its way out of Hurt's stomach remains the pièce de résistance. When the movie was first released, there was speculation that Scott had cut in some subliminal images of graphic sex to heighten the shock effect. It's one of the handful of movie moments that once seen can never be unseen, as much as you'd like to erase it from memory. We may not be brutalized by it in the same way that audiences were in 1979, but it's not a tantalizing image or a grotesque glimpse into some dark side of human nature. It's a pure pop moment: leading nowhere and full of sensation. It's something for celebrities to talk about on VH1. You saw it, and you felt something.

Thankfully, Scott has resisted the urge to refurbish the movie with a digital airbrush. (I'm still smarting from what happened to poor E.T.) The soundtrack has been enhanced, and the new scenes are ones Alien fans have already seen on DVD and laserdisc, the most famous being the "cocoon" sequence where Weaver discovers Skerritt trapped by the alien but still partially alive. This director's cut, like a lot of these efforts, acts as a promotional campaign for a soon-to-be-released DVD. So what? The movie is on the big screen again. After all these years, Alien is still our bad dream about the future.

Michael Agger is an editor at The New Yorker. Follow him on Twitter.

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