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On Second Thought: Alien (Director’s Cut)

To celebrate the release of Prometheus this week, we’ll be taking a look at the other movies in the Alien franchise.

Alien: The Director’s Cut is a curious beast. It’s more of an alternate cut than a director’s cut of Ridley Scott’s iconic Alien. It actually runs a few seconds shorter than the original theatrical cut of the film, although it contains more than five minutes of different footage. While five minutes of footage can have a significant impact on the final cut of a film, I’d be hard-pressed to argue that they add considerable depth to Scott’s science-fiction masterpiece. Aliens: The Special Edition re-inserted scenes that expanded and developed the themes of Cameron’s sequel, while Alien³: The Assembly Cut offers a glimpse of a movie far different from the one released. In contrast, Alien: The Director’s Cut… doesn’t really do much of anything. It’s just an alternative to the theatrical edition.

Ship shape?

Okay, there are differences between the versions. Still, we’re not talking about an entirely different film here. I don’t think the footage improves the film, nor would I argue that it diminishes the film – I think I’d prefer to watch the theatrical cut, but I’d have no objection if my companion opted for the director’s cut instead. I don’t think there are any flaws with the original film that really mandate an alternative cut like this, and Scott himself concedes that in the introduction he filmed for the set. “I’ve always been proud of it,” Scott muses, about the theatrical cut of the movie, and he’s quite right to be. This isn’t like Blade Runner, where the director has been slowly trying to recover his version of the film for decades.

Indeed, it sounds like the people producing the “Alien Anthology” came up to Scott and politely stated that James Cameron had extended his cut of Aliens and that editors were trying to salvage Alien³, so would Scott like the chance to produce his own alternative version of the first film? It almost seems like he produced it so that his film wouldn’t be the only movie in the set with only one version available. Scott has always been clear that he feels his version of Alien is as close to perfect as he could get it, and it’s hard to disagree.

Take my Brett away…

That’s not to complain, or to be too cynical about this cut. It’s clear that Scott didn’t just trim some footage, add some footage and stick his name on it. One can definitely get a feel for what Scott is attempting to do in constructing this alternative cut of a classic and cult film. In many ways, it feels like Scott is trying to adjust the film for modern audiences who are already familiar with it. The biggest single change, at least in terms of style, is that Scott trims down on those atmospheric tracking shots. Those wonderful panning shots through the ship seemed to evoke a haunted house in space, creating an unnerving and ethereal quality. Scott trims those in order to pace the movie a bit faster.

He sacrifices a little bit of form for a little bit of plot. Instead of those long, roaming shots, we get a hint of the alien’s reproductive cycle, considerably different from how James Cameron would imagine it a few years later. We get to hear the beacon from LV-246, and it becomes immediately apparent that the crew are dealing with something completely outside their own frame of reference. It does slightly change the tone of the film, but not radically and not dynamically. Those without an intimate knowledge of the series would probably be hard-pressed to notice the changes, outside two key scenes.

Can’t Hurt, I suppose…

The first, and the most interesting, occurs when Ash lets Kane back inside the ship, against Ripley’s orders. When Ripley comes to visit the sick bay, Lambert attacks her hysterically. Then, almost immediately, Dallas lambastes her for trying to lock them out of the ship. “Ripley,” he clarifies, “when I give an order I expect to be obeyed.” Ripley inquires, “Even if it’s against the law?” Dallas answers, “You’re goddamn right!” In case the audience hasn’t picked up on the subtext, Parker explicitly comments, “Maybe she has a point. Who in the hell knows what thing is?”

It’s a nice scene, if only because it very clearly identifies Ripley as the character with the most common sense on the ship. The theatrical cut tries to present Ripley as a supporting character until Dallas meets his untimely end, albeit one well characterised. Here, Scott puts an emphasis on her decision to lock Kane and the others outside the ship, while drawing the audience’s attention to the fact that Ripley might have avoided this whole mess had anybody listened to her. It also, and I think effectively, contrasts the stoic Ripley with the hysterical Lambert, as two different feminine characters.

She’s been to Ellen back…

Of course, it’s not essential. After all, we’ve literally just seen Ripley make her decision and we’ve seen Dallas protest it. It doesn’t take the most astute viewer to realise that Ripley is the smartest character on the ship, and that the failure of her male colleagues to actually listen to her accounts for a major part of the massive tragedy that unfolds. So, with that in mind, the scene seems to exist just to clarify that situation. Still, I think it makes for a nice inclusion, as it makes explicit a lot of the stuff that was heavily implicit.

The second major scene is the one that most fans of the series seem to pay attention to, when Ripley discovers what can only be described as a nest in the cargo bay. It looks like the creature is trying to make eggs out of Dallas and Brett. A lot of people make a fuss out of how different this is from the life cycle suggested by James Cameron’s Aliens, but I don’t mind. It was, after all, made first and deleted from the film. I just think it’s a very effective way of illustrating how alien the ship itself is, that the alien would actually be able to construct a nest in one of the most open areas of the ship without anybody realising it. I think it plays well into Scott’s core themes and works well with other sequences where the creature “camouflages” itself against the inside of the decaying ship.

Not an entirely Alien landscape…

That’s really about it, as far as differences go between the two cuts. There’s a very slight tonal difference, but not one that a casual observer would pick up. It doesn’t add too much, nor does it take away too much. It’s just a nice, fun, optional movie-length extra for fans of the series.

You might be interested in our reviews of the other films in the Alien series:

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13 Responses

  1. In the theatrical version, when Ripley decides to lock Dallas and the others out of the ship, she comes off almost villainous. She coldly and dispassionately decides to keep a possibly dying crew member in inhospitable conditions against the urgings of her commanding officer–the person who receives top billing and is the most sympathetic, thereby assuming the mantle of the protagonist in the minds of the audience. This is a great psych-out, because by the end of the film, our allegiance is to the person portrayed as the human antagonist early on. By changing the scene, it sets Ripley up as the protagonist far sooner than the original does. I’m not sure it undermines anything, especially since most people watching the film already think of her as the hero.

    As for the egg scene, other than a curiosity of seeing more of the life cycle, it brings back Dallas, thereby giving his character closure. In the theatrical cut, we just assume that he’s been killed. I always thought that he was cocooned in order to be impregnated, like Kane, and that Brett was just used as food, not to be actually turned into an egg as most people now say. I guess that confusion was good enough reason to cut the scene.

    • Fair points. As you said, it’s unlikely anybody will be watching this who hasn’t already seen the theatrical cut. And I think Scott did intend to change the way we perceive events – there’s a tiny bit less atmosphere, but a little more plot and character, so it’s a conscious trade.

      I never really missed Dallas. I know there are lines about there being no trace of him in the theatrical cut, but I think that just makes the beast more ominous than a random killing machine – it didn’t brutally murder him there, it subdued him and took him away to do whatever it needed to do. Like with Lambert, I don’t think I needed to know what that was – it was sinister either way.

      But I do like the scene if only ebcause it suggests the creature has been cocooning in the cargo bay for a while and nobody noticed. Of course they didn’t – it’s a big ship and they have bigger concerns, but I think the nest just underscores the “alien” nature of Nostromo itself as a relatively hostile environment..

  2. Fine examination, Darren. I’m pretty split between both versions, as well. There are things I like in each. Certainly, since I saw the theatrical cut first-run, and still recall the experience vividly, that one probably remains closer to my heart. But, you’re right, Scott “… trying to adjust the film for modern audiences who are already familiar with it works best for those of us who continue to come back to it.

    That’s really about it, as far as differences go between the two cuts.

    True, with one notable exception (even the well known online comparison IMDB links to missed it, also). It’s the additional parts of Brett’s “Here Jonesy” sequence from the room of chains. The DC includes a new (though brief) downward shot of the Alien hanging above Brett. This then introduces the fully grown creature to the audience (unlike the theatrical cut that waits until Brett locates the cat). If the viewer has never seen the film, or known what the Alien looks like, they probaly won’t recognize it’s “the xenomorph” (as the next film will describe) they’re glimpsing — until the cat hisses, that this ;-). I think the DC will have Parker on the receiving end of Brett’s blood drops, too.

    But yes, the additions are a distinction without a difference. It’s still in keeping with what Ridley original scared the crap out of us all back in ’79. They don’t inhibit and improve that fact. Well done and thanks.

  3. Not sure I’ve seen the director’s cut. Will definitely be giving this a watch before Prometheus. Interesting comparison!

    • Well worth a look, Pete. If only for comparison. But I’d rank the alternative cuts of Alien 3 and Aliens a higher priority.

  4. I’ve only seen the movie once, and recently on TV, and I think it was the Director’s Cut, though I’m not sure. I remember sympathizing with Ripley’s concerns when she locked the crewmembers out of the ship, so the version I saw probably wasn’t making her look too villainous. Or maybe it was, and I just saw the sense in her actions anyway. At any rate, I’m glad there doesn’t seem to be much difference between the two versions. While I’m glad I saw the film, I doubt I’ll be seeing it much in the future, as horror doesn’t appeal to me.

    • What about Aliens? That’s more of an action adventure in space.

      • So I’ve heard. I look forward to seeing it for myself.

        (It’s interesting to think of why you grow up with one set of movies you’re familiar with while being mostly unfamiliar with another set of famous movies. I was raised on Cary Grant, Danny Kaye, and other more light-hearted movies from the Golden era, and only started exploring the later great movies on my own in high school. I saw E.T. for the first time earlier this year, and I still don’t think I’ve seen all of The Godfather Part II from beginning to end. Such facts about myself remind me not to gasp in horror when a friend admits they have no idea what The Maltese Falcon or The Great Escape is. Everyone’s film education is different!)

  5. Reblogged this on randomrewriting and commented:
    I am an unabashed action film fan and a little bit of a sci-fi geek… So this is definitely on my to-watch list!

  6. id like to see the directors cut an why dalls an brett got cocoond so on an what thay turn into after it ok

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