The Early Days of a Better Nation

Saturday, October 25, 2003


I've been asked to take part in a live preview discussion about the cinematic re-release (and digitally remastered director's cut) of Alien for BBC Radio Scotland's 'Arts Show' on Wednesday 29 October 2003. The nice people at Radio Scotland asked me to go to a press screening of it, which I did yesterday.

Press screenings are easier to get into than I'd expected. No checking, no pass or special ticket required. If I'd known, I'd have brought the family. Another thing I didn't know is that the time given for the screening is twenty minutes of advertising before the film actually starts, just like a regular screening, except that instead of film trailers and mildly entertaining full-screen versions of telly ads you get a much-repeated sequence of still ads for colleges, Chinese restaurants, and cinema advertising. Perhaps viewers of press screenings are thought to be a key target demographic for all three. Of the other three people in the auditorium, one was already a student and the other two already had something to eat.

One of the reviews quoted in the publicity for this re-release says something like: 'Make no mistake - if you haven't seen Alien in the cinema, you haven't seen Alien.' It's true. To be honest, I'm not entirely sure if I did see Alien on its first release. I've certainly seen it several times since on television or video. That's just a way of wearing out your response to it.

Almost all of the action takes place in enclosed spaces. Seeing it on the big screen puts you there. You also see a lot more detail. One of the joys of Alien is the saturation of the background with details. Some of them are so tiny that I've never noticed them before, such as a glimpse of a tacked-up picture of an alien: a sketch taken from a UFO close encounter report. As far as I know Alien was the first film to show a starship as a workplace, and its crew as workers. The details are what makes that believable.

Alien obviously takes place in an alternate universe. The laws of physics are slightly different: gravity, for a start, is not as we know it. This explains why planets are so close together that you can see them lined up like billiard balls, why a planetoid 1300 kilometres across has a surface gravity of .86 g, why interstellar distances are traversable in months, and why hauling twenty! million! tons! of mineral ore across these distances is economic. It probably also explains how all this happened by the 1970s. You can tell it's the 1970s by the computer and electronic hardware. It's wonderful.

The story's pretty good, too, but you know that.


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