The 1980s were a simpler time. Back then, girls just wanted to have fun, a man could unironically rock out to Toto’s “Africa” without fear of judgment, and TV sitcoms gleefully ignored anything that was controversial (or, y’know, funny).
And, with few exceptions, there was only one version of every movie you love.
If in the late 80s I had said to you “I love Star Wars!” you would have known exactly what I was talking about. By the late 90s, though, things had changed. Suddenly there was more than one version of the film, with the original theatrical release being joined in 1997 by George Lucas’ “Special Edition.” If I tell you now that I love Star Wars, there’s some uncertainty. Do I love the version with or without the CGI Jabba? The version with the cheap-looking Death Star explosion or the version with the unrealistic CGI one? The version where Han shoots first or the one where Han shoots second?
This phenomenon isn’t limited to Star Wars. Since the 80s, dozens of films have been released in “Director’s Cuts, “Special Editions,” or “Extended” versions, with Blade Runner, E.T., the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Apocalypse Now, and, yes, the first four Alien films joining the original Star Wars trilogy as among the most notable. In some cases, these new versions represent a restoration of a director’s original intent, free of any kind of studio interference. In other cases, they’re a blatant money-grab.
The case of Alien falls somewhere in-between. In 2003, 20th Century Fox approached Ridley Scott in hopes of securing his participation in the Alien Quadrilogy DVD set and with the idea of re-releasing Alien theatrically for a limited run. They hoped that Scott would agree to make some changes to the film so that they could call it a “Director’s Cut” for marketing purposes, similar to how Apocalypse Now: Redux had been marketed a few years earlier. Scott agreed to re-introduce several deleted scenes into the film, but he remained steadfast in believing that the original theatrical version of Alien is “perfect” and that it remains his “version of choice.” The “Director’s Cut” is, according to Scott, a “completely different beast.” And in truth, the alternate version isn’t too different from the original; the only addition of substance involves Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) finding her still-alive crewmates trapped in cocoon-like pods, in a scene that is almost identical to the one in James Cameron’s Aliens.
That being said, the 2003 version of the film complicated matters. Where once there was only one Alien, there are now two, just as there are two different versions of Aliens (the original theatrical version and Cameron’s “Special Edition,” which he considers to be the definitive version of the film), and at least FOUR different version of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, some of which seriously alter the film’s story and its possible interpretations.
(A brief Blade Runner sidebar, since it’s probably the best example of the complications that arise from having multiple versions of the same film out there. As noted above, there are four distinct versions of the film that have been released to the public: the original American theatrical version from 1982, the original International theatrical version from 1982, the 1992 “Director’s Cut,” and the 2007 “Final Cut.” (There are actually other versions of the film out there, like an early “workprint” cut, but these are the four major ones.) The two versions from 1982 are very similar to one another; they only differ in the fact that Scott had to edit out a few extra moments of violence from the American version in order to get the rating they desired from the MPAA. Both of these versions contain voice-over narration and the so-called ‘happy ending,’ in which Deckard (Harrison Ford) and Rachael (Sean Young) escape to live happy lives in the countryside. With 1992’s “Director’s Cut,” however, the voice-over and the ‘happy ending’ were removed and a new element was added: Deckard’s Unicorn Dream. This dream (which is exactly what it sounds like: Deckard has an unprompted dream about a unicorn) seriously alters any interpretation of the film. To explain: in all versions of Blade Runner, the film ends with Gaff (Edward James Olmos) leaving Deckard an origami unicorn. In the 1982 versions, it’s simply a quirky character moment. With the addition of the Unicorn Dream, however, the gesture suddenly carries sinister undertones: Gaff is implying that he knows about Deckard’s dreams, which could mean that Deckard himself is a replicant. The 2007 “Final Cut,” which is Ridley Scott’s preferred version of the film, is essentially the 1992 “Director’s Cut” with some minor alterations and upgraded special effects shots, and it too includes the Unicorn Dream. So you tell me: if I say “Blade Runner’s awesome,” do I mean the film in which Deckard’s a replicant or the film in which he’s just another human?)
So the multiplicity of versions of these films begs a question: what is Alien? When we speak of Alien in abstract, are we speaking of the original version, the “Director’s Cut,” or both? And more broadly, what is a work of art? Is it merely a theoretical concept, or is it something real and physical?
Noted British philosopher Richard Wollheim explored many of these questions in his 1980 essay “Literary Works as Types.” (Yet another great thing to come out of the 80s, though not quite as great as “Africa.”) In the paper, Wollheim utilizes James Joyce’s novel Ulysses and Strauss’ opera Der Rosenkavalier to illustrate the concepts of “types” and “tokens.” Wollheim deduces that works of art cannot simply be physical objects, because “if I lost my copy of Ulysses, Ulysses would become a lost work” and “if the critics disliked tonight’s performance of Der Rosenkavalier, then they dislike Rosenkavalier.” Works of art, then, must be something else: types. According to Wollheim, types are essentially universals: abstract concepts that represent the essence of a work. Going hand-in-hand with a type are its tokens, the individual examples of a particular type. One might say that Ulysses is a type, but my particular copy of Ulysses is a token: it contains most of the characteristics of Ulysses in general, but it might also contain a typographical error here or a blotted-out word there. The same with Der Rosenkavalier: the opera itself is a type, but tonight performance, in which perhaps one of the actors forgot one of their lines and there was a lighting miscue, is its token. In general, this framework for examining works of art helps us to “account for their principles of identity and individuation,” which is exactly what we’re looking to do in the case of Alien.
So is Alien a type? The answer is yes, but it’s a tad more complicated than the examples Wollheim put forward in 1980. A straightforward application of Wollheim’s matrix would lead us to say that Alien is a type and than my individual DVD copy of Alien is its token. This holds some merit; for instance, my DVD may have a scratch on it that differentiates it from someone else’s DVD, just as a particular copy of Ulysses might have a typo. But this simplistic scenario doesn’t account for Alien’s “Director’s Cut.” How does it fit into this rubric?
The question boils down to this: do “Director’s Cuts” and the like represent independent works of art separate from the original, or do all possible versions of a work of art together comprise that work? It is here where we reach the limits of my interest in the ontology of art, because further meditation on the issue would seem to be unnecessarily semantic in nature. Wollheim does, however, offer a possible way of looking at somewhat more complex patterns when he notes that in the case of opera, one might say that the sheet music of an opera might be a token, and that the many possible interpretations of that sheet music are in turn its tokens. The choice, then, seems clear: if you believe the original version and the “Director’s Cut” of Alien to be separate, individual works of art, then they’re each their own type, but if you think they’re both merely subsets of an abstract concept known as Alien, then they’re both tokens. Which you choose to believe is up to you.
The case of Alien and its “Director’s Cut” is, thankfully, one of the more simplistic examples of the problems inherent in the existence of multiple versions of a film. Philosophy aside, my position is clear, and it’s the same as Ridley Scott’s: the theatrical version of Alien is the genuine article, and the “Director’s Cut” is merely an eccentricity, a riff on the original. I know that for me, if I say “Alien is one of my favorite films,” I’m talking about the theatrical version. But I have no way of knowing how my statement will be interpreted by other people. And if I say that “I love Blade Runner,” I honestly don’t know if I’m referring to the original version, one of the newer versions, or all of them together.
Like I said: the 80s were a simpler time.
Wollheim’s essay “Literary Works as Types” originally appeared in the second edition of his book Art and its Objects, published in 1980 by Cambridge University Press.
And to see the other articles I’ve written so far in the 30 Days of Alien series, visit the link below: