Welcome to Shadowvision, a regular column in which Fangoria.com revisits modern horror films in black-and-white. The purpose is to analyze these films through a new lens, seeing if the classically informed viewing experience will give a new angle to familiar images. If you’d like to watch along at home, it’s simple: go into your TV settings and desaturate the picture completely, then adjust the contrast and brightness to fit either standard or high definition.
When revisiting a modern film in black and white, science fiction films often have an advantage over their contemporaries. Whether they’re noir-inspired, like DARK CITY or BLADE RUNNER, or inspired by classic sci-fi, like TOTAL RECALL, there’s an additional element of nostalgia that comes with the passionate display of one’s influences. This especially rings true for horror/sci-fi hybrids, as the combination of cultural influences and genre conventions make the viewing experience much more exciting and captivating.
Of course, ALIEN was always high on the list for SHADOWVISION, as Ridley Scott’s art film aesthetics and the designs of H.R. Giger translate fantastically in black and white. However, the sci-fi influence is what truly makes the monochromatic experience unique, as the story feels so organic in its universe that ALIEN still doesn’t feel dated or campy in its depiction of the future. Instead, the film’s tone of atmospheric, hopeless dread makes the black and white experience feel like a stark, scary twist on the sci-fi creature feature.
Technically speaking, viewers may want to increase the contrast in moderation, as the industrial look of the film already provides a mostly wonderful shadow and color design. Brightness should be increased slightly as well, but be extra careful as to not lighten the image to distracting levels. As mentioned before, the film does most of the heavy lifting for you, and while some of the intricate production design is lost in the monochrome conversion, that loss is necessary for shift of the visual aesthetics.
The most interesting aspect of revisiting ALIEN in black and white isn’t as much as it changes the narrative, but rather, how black and white adds to the visual engagement of the audience. The cinematography from Derek Vanlint is shockingly smooth and slick for a genre film in the late ‘70s, and in black and white, these images are much more striking, especially when the film descends into chaos in the final act. Even the scenes with the Xenomorph become more suspenseful and terrifying, and his presence once again becomes as monstrous and ominous as it was upon first viewing.
Scott’s uncompromising eye is even more apparent in black and white, with the gothic imagery of Giger creating a world more nightmarish than wonderous. Paired with a restrained score by Jerry Goldsmith, Scott’s direction feels more brooding and calculated in specific monochrome images, and the film’s philosophical allegories are somewhat easier to follow as well. But once again, the visuals of the film are truly scarier in black and white, as an element of mystique is reinstated and certain sequences, such as Brett’s coaxing of Jones the Cat and later, Ripley hiding from the Xenomorph, is compelling in its presentation while also being frighteningly paralyzing.
In terms of performance, there are some pretty significant changes one may notice in black and white, specifically in terms of the nuances of the characters. Weaver’s body language is more visible in black and white, painting her as a much more unnerved woman and her futile efforts to prevent the Xenomorph become even more depressing. Likewise, Ian Holm’s Ash is much easier to spot among the crowd in this version, as his stilted, clinical demeanor feels much more out of place when his visage is removed of color.
Overall, ALIEN is highly recommended for a black and white experience, as you’re more likely to get lost in Ridley Scott’s gorgeous world and horrifying narrative. Almost every aspect of the film benefits from the conversion, and some may actually prefer the black and white version as its absolutely more suspenseful. It’s horror by the way of thought-provoking sci-fi, but in black and white, Scott’s patient and suspenseful art film truly fulfills its potential as a classically-informed monster movie in the darkness of space.