The rerelease of Alien in a tweaked director’s cut 24 years after its debut turns out to be a great corrective to certain prevailing warps in movie space and time. In one dimension, the classic sci-fi thriller’s wide-screen grandeur and director Ridley Scott’s verve in filling his huge canvas with elaborate, abstract landscapes of glistening anxiety is an upside-the-head rebuke to DVD. Home-theater viewing is no match for the awesome movie-theater experience of sitting in the dark with strangers and watching John Hurt’s chest bust open. And Tom Skerritt wield a flamethrower. And Sigourney Weaver, then a soft, lithe, little-known theater actress, stare down fear armed with feminist grit and good taste in string-bikini underpants. (Female buff biceps were still a futuristic notion waiting for James Cameron to fetishize; smoking was still in vogue at the dining table.)
In another, simultaneous dimension, the movie’s tantalizingly slow, oozing pace is a heartbeat-tripping reminder that today’s sped-up blockbuster conventions may improve on speed, but not on thrills. Those first 45 minutes before the creature drips the first spiral of goo – that eternity in which the camera tracks across a deserted control room and there’s nothing for an uneasy audience to do but wait and worry – are more unnerving than the most explosive opening-act stunt in the repertoire today. Even the rib-ripping birth scene, a creationist doozy in which monstrous life is hatched from a man, unfolds at a measured tempo more familiar to a waltz than a rupture.
”Alien” is being promoted as a polishing of a 1970s-era treasure: restoration of the original film’s negative, digital remastering, the scalpel-shaving of several shots by a matter of seconds, even the insertion of brief additional footage that’s less necessary than novel. Pay attention, though, to the enhanced detail audible in a new six-track sound mix, which may be the most important cleaning job of all; silence and Jerry Goldsmith’s score have never twined so hauntingly.
In space, the famous tagline went, no one can hear you scream. In ”Alien,” you can hear lessons for the sci-fi future in a great milestone from the recent past.