Looking back on the "Alien" series, its fun to once again see how different all of the films are. While the third and fourth films met with negative reaction, even they were distinctly done in the style of their director. Although James Cameron's follow-up to Ridley Scott's original was a very effective all-out thriller, the original is a spooky, creepy film that largely works on atmosphere for the majority of its running time - the "action" one expects doesn't really start until the film is half over.
Although most are likely familiar with the film's plot by now, it focuses on the crew of the Nostromo - Dallas (Tom Skerritt), Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), Ash (Ian Holm), Kane (John Hurt), Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) and Parker (Yaphet Kotto). The crew is awakened from hypersleep by their ship, and sent to investigate a signal coming from what appears to be a desolated planet.
After one of the crew members has a particularly nasty encounter with an unknown object, the ship takes off, unaware that the crew member, Kane (Hurt) has brought back a very nasty guest. Although even some fans of the film maintain that the opening is a tad slow, I still enjoy the film's opening, which paints a portrait of the ship's activities as ordinary - people are focusing more on going home and getting paid then anything else. Then, there's the famed scene where Kane begins to realize that the creature left something behind inside him. After that, its a hunt for the escaped creature, who, in turn, is hunting them, as well.
"Alien"'s legacy continues today, for many reasons. The film was the first major sci-fi/action film to star a woman, and Sigorney Weaver proved - beyond a shadow of a doubt - that she could fill the role. Scott's dreamlike, slow-moving camera and the film's production design remind one of Kubrick and "2001". H.R. Giger's memorable creature designs provided a memorable fright in the film's most famous scene. Of course, the film was also the first of four films where no one listens to the fact that Ripley thinks that gee, maybe it's not a good idea to bring the alien back for testing, or training, or whatnot.
Director Ridley Scott offers an introduction to the new 2003 cut of the film, which inserts/deletes some footage, resulting in only minor differences. The 1979 version is still the one to see, but the new cut does offer another option.
VIDEO: "Alien" was recently restored for the film's recent theatrical re-release and, although I didn't get a chance to catch the re-release theatrically (bummer, as it was being shown in DLP), this DVD edition looks tremendous. Sharpness and detail remained stellar throughout the film, as definition and depth to the image were noticably better than any prior edition I've seen. Despite the somewhat dated looking production, this certainly doesn't look like a 20-year-old picture; in fact, it looks like one that came out last weekend.
The picture seemed to suffer from nearly no flaws. Grain, which appeared previously pretty mild, seemed lessened even further here. Compression artifacts were not spotted, but there was a tiny bit of edge enhancement present in a couple of shots. The film's color palette is pretty subdued, aside from a couple of reds. Colors remained crisp and clean, though.
SOUND: "Alien" is presented by Fox in Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1. As with Cameron and "Aliens", Scott obviously had the right plan on how to approach sound for the film. While modern sci-fi/horror hits audiences over the head with loud shock cords and swirling effects, Scott's film is enjoyable for its great passages of quiet and unease. Subtle, atmospheric sounds can be heard all around the viewer, and the score only arrives in at appropriate moments. For a film that's over twenty years old, the film's sound recording is quite superb, as dialogue, effects and score may not sound up to modern levels, but remained clean and full-sounding, nonetheless. As for the comparison between Dolby Digital and DTS, both sound options presented a very similar experience.
EXTRAS: (there are "Play All" options included under the "navigation options" menu on disc 2)
Commentary: This is a commentary from director Ridley Scott, actress Signorney Weaver (the two were recorded together for some stretches, while Scott also has more snippets recorded alone), screenwriter Dan O'Bannon, executive producer/co-writer Ron Shusett, actors Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton and John Hurt and editor Terry Rawlings. Oddly, neither the solo commentary with Scott or the isolated score that appeared on the prior release have been carried over here.
This commentary is a good one, but I liked the Scott solo commentary from the prior release a little more - this one's a little too edited for my tastes. Scott is, once again, the best aspect of this track, as he provides an intelligent and informative discussion of not only the production of the film, but its themes and ideas. Scott easily moves between talking about the technical aspects to the storyline to working with the actors without becoming confusing and frequently, he's absolutely fascinating, rarely stopping his talk. He's also fun here with Weaver, who has a sharp sense of humor and also, is able to share a great deal of memories about her experiences working on the picture.
Although Scott does do most of the talking, the other actors do provide some interesting discussion, chatting about their experiences on the film and talking about how they become involved with the project. The executive producer and editor also talk about obstacles and issues during production, as well as how Scott and crew managed to create as much atmosphere as they did.
Star Beast: The Making of "Alien": This featurette starts off the second disc and the "pre-production" section. Comments from executive producer Ron Shusett, producers Gordon Carroll and David Giler, writer Dan O'Bannon and others discuss the origins of the screenplay and how the story developed over the course of several months. The participants are funny and spirited in their discussions of trying to come up with some of the classic scenes in the film.
The Visualists: Former Fox chairman Alan Ladd, producer David Giler, writer Dan O'Bannon, producer Gordon Carroll, Ridley Scott and others discuss trying to find a director for the film - a particularly difficult task when everyone thought they were making a goofy monster picture. After the discussions about trying to bring Scott in to helm the film, we learn more about the creation of the Alien and trying to lock in on a certain design for the creatures.
Truckers in Space: This featurette focuses on casting and trying to connect the right person with the right part. This piece also goes into further detail about the decision to make Ripley a woman.
Sigorney Weaver's Screen Test: One of the neatest little supplements in the set, here we get a screen test for Weaver, complete with optional commentary from director Ridley Scott.
Also in Pre-Production: Conceptual art photo gallery, cast portrait gallery, Ridleygrams (rough sketches that detail Scott's visual ideas, often seen includes on DVDs of his films), storyboard archive and Dan O'Bannon's first draft screenplay.
Fear of the Unknown: This documentary is a fascinating look at the pressures that Scott and crew encountered on the set. Scott wanted to achieve a certain look for the film, but producers weren't understanding. Other issues occured, including the immense heat of the set, Weaver's allergies to cats and the fact that the space suits did not have any way to breathe outside air. During the documentary, we hear from Scott, the film's producers, the actors and other crew members.
The Darkest Reaches: Nostromo and the Alien Planet: This piece focuses on the discussions of the small and large details of the ship: what Scott wanted to see in the ship, from the screens to the symbols to the halls to the rooms. We learn more about the production design, see some of the concepts for aspects of the ship and the overall look of the ship, and hear interviews from Scott, the film's production designer, concept artists and others.
The Eighth Passenger: This documentary focuses on the work of artist HR Geiger, as well as the creation of the film's most famous sequence. We also get to see some of the outtakes, hear about the actor's reactions to seeing it for the first time and learn more about some of the issues behind the creation.
Chestburster Sequence: This is a multi-angle, multi-audio look at the film's most famous scene. The two angles offer a look from one of the two cameras operating during filming of the scene, while the two audio options offer the choice of production audio or commentary from Ridley Scott.
Also in "Production": Production photo gallery, continuity polaroids, sets still gallery and Giger workshop photo archive.
Future Tense: Editor Terry Rawlings offers most of the discussion in this documentary, as he talks about going from being involved in sound for years to starting editing with this picture. The editor also talks about the style and pacing of the picture, and deciding on what exactly to use. We also hear from composer Jerry Goldsmith, and hints of tension between the composer and the editor are apparent.
Visual Effects: This piece offers a look at the creation of the film's practical effects, how the budget effected the effects department and how the film's effects were integrated into the final scenes.
A Nightmare Fufilled: This piece offers a chance for many of the participants to recall the time around the film's release, starting with issues with the sound of a couple of the theaters during the early test screenings. Thankfully, these discussions aren't really the usual "happy talk" about how wonderful things were, but instead, about the cast and crew's memories of watching the film become a phenomenon.
Also in Post-Production: Promotional photo archive, premiere photo archive, poster explorations, deleted scenes (including some footage not in the new cut, as well as some that is) and visual effects photo archives.
Final Thoughts: Although the new edition of "Alien" leaves out a few of the enjoyable supplements included on the prior release, this is still a terrific new edition, complete with more in-depth supplemental material, great audio and noticably improved image quality. Along with the other films, this version of "Alien" will only be available in the "Quadrilogy" box set until early 2004. The box set - a truly amazing 9-disc affair - is certainly a must-see.