A space odyssey
>> Sir Ridley Scott looks back on his classic Alien almost a quarter century after it was first unleashed
by MATTHEW HAYS
As Sir Ridley Scott chomps on a stogie at the Toronto International Film Fest, he acknowledges he wasn't so sure about a director's cut rerelease of his '79 sci-fi suspenser Alien. "We've done two discs recently and then there's the VHS tapes," he concedes. "But when we discussed the idea of it getting into cinemas, I liked that even more, because for a couple of generations, no one knew the film as a big-screen experience."
Fans and the newly inducted will be thrilled that Scott caved to studio pressure. Watching Alien on the big screen is a total thrill, one that will hearken back to your first time watching it - or, impress you for the first time as the ultimate Hal loween rerelease. To my reckoning, this is one of the best horror-suspense movies ever created, and I'm happy to report it's stood the test of time. But don't just take my word for it, legions of sci-fi and horror geeks worship this movie as one of the creepiest, nastiest, set-in-outerspace features ever - replete with rape metaphor and corporatemalfeasance undertones. After the crew of the commercial space vessel Nostromo are awakened from deep sleep by an apparent distress signal from a nearby planet, they begin to realize that all is not well - and that the critter subsequently allowed on board their ship is far from benign. In '79, but one year after the release of that other landmark horror, the gore-filled Halloween, Scott made the then-radical choice to set the clock back to Hitchcock: the less the audience is shown, he reckoned, the more freaked out they might be. He was dead right.
Scott is clearly pleased that what was his second film has had such staying power with audiences. The pitch was famously sold to studio suits in one tag line: "Jaws in space." But while the premise might sound simple, the dynamics of the film were complex and perfectly thought out. "I think the film works very hard to introduce you to a world that's very, very real," says Scott, re-lighting his stogie. "It's exotic beyond your possible experience, but it's also very real - that's why I took so much time with the opening waking- up scene. I have them having breakfast, and so on. Then the question comes up of why they were awoken. I take you by the hand and into the texture of their environment. That's as important as the script and the acting."
Then, of course, there's Alien's now-legendary central casting call. Dan O'Bannon's original treatment for the film called for a male protagonist named Ripley. But Scott decided to give Sigourney Weaver the role, a precedent for the genre and something that made feminist folk heroes out of both him and Weaver.
"That was a pragmatic move, originally," Scott explains. "I thought, ‘Why not?' I've always gotten along with females, as friends and equals. I never understood the fuss over what roles they should fill. I never saw it as significant, that the hero is a woman."
But Scott concedes that part of the film's surprise element is the casting of a woman in the lead. "When you see this pretty woman, or girl, virtually, as Sigourney was in her early 20s, you think she's going to be the one who goes first, or in the middle of the film. And when she hangs on, and becomes the boss, that surprises people. When Hitchcock did Psycho, he murdered his star in the first 40 minutes. And that shocked us, because we thought, ‘Well, now we're really vulnerable.' I think Alien surprises people too, because of their expectations."
Scott says the sci-fi film that will always set the standard is 2001: A Space Odyssey. "I had enjoyed sci-fi before, films like The Day the Earth Stood Still, but 2001 really was a turning point. I was just out of college and was working at the BBC when I went to see it by myself. I thought, ‘My God, this world can exist, it could be real.' It was like NASA in about 20 years time. When Kubrick was making it, the space program was in full swing. They spent a lot of time figuring out precisely how the technology would be designed and how it would look, so it had this incredible authenticity. I worked to make Alien feel that real too."
And that brings Scott to one of his main points of pride about Alien. "I'm very proud of the sets. They were very good. Even now, they're not dated. That's why I don't think I've touched science fiction again, because I did it so well with Alien and Bladerunner. And what do you do know, in terms of looks? They have to grapple with this every week with Star Trek, God bless 'em. Our sense of future has so much to do with film." So no truth to the rumour that Scott and Weaver may reteam for an Alien 5? Not right now, he indicates.
Of course, Scott's career has taken varied and sharp turns since '79, from another sci-fi highlight (Bladerunner) to road movie (Thelma & Louise) to war movie (Black Hawk Down) to epic (the Oscar-winning Gladiator) to the low points (G.I. Jane and 1492 among them). That litany of filmmaking led to a letter from Buckingham Palace last spring, one which asked Scott's permission to be knighted. Upon reading the letter, Scott assumed a friend was playing a practical joke. "Then I looked carefully at the letterhead and saw that it said Downing Street. So I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is serious.' I wasn't nervous about it at all, until I actually had to get into the car and head for Buckingham Palace. Then I really was quite nervous. But it happened. And it really was sweet, in the nicest way."
The director's cut of Alien opens Wednesday, Oct. 29
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