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If they gave Most Valuable Player awards to movie franchises for their performance in various technical leagues, the Alien series would certainly be the most decorated. Since the debut of Ridley Scott's 1979 original feature, or perhaps more importantly the against-all-odds sequel, Aliens, in 1986, the franchise has continually shown how to do things right, be it smart planning for continuing the story or taking advantage of new technology. The 2003 release of the Alien Quadrilogy boxed set was definitely a game changer in digital video packaging. The extensive 9-disc collection gave fans a new context in which to enjoy all the movies--special cuts for all four films, extensive bonus features, state of the art picture and sound, and a pretty, shiny box to put them in. I bought myself an early Christmas present that year, and I didn't see sunlight for several days.
Seven years later and DVD is becoming the Digital Video Dodo and the new Alien Anthology once again marks a sea change. While it's not drastically different than the Quadrilogy in terms of content, the Anthology set does take full advantage of Blu-Ray technology and, lo and behold, improves on what we would have once thought the ultimate in picture and sound. No joke, no hyperbole, these films never ever looked or sounded better. The highest compliment I can pay the Alien Anthology is that I only upgraded my entertainment system a couple of weeks ago, and watching these movies in this format justifies every cent of my purchase.
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But it's not just technical presentation that counts, it's the quality of the movies that, in the long run, justifies the continual upgrade. The Alien series is quite possibly the gold standard for blockbuster franchises. Even if the later films don't work as well as the first two, the way producers eschewed formula to try and deliver something new each time makes errors forgivable.
The series started high with Scott's original feature, and I would contend Alien is still the best of all the movies. The fact that thirty years later, it still causes my pulse to race and manages to shock and surprise even after more viewings than I could conceivably remember is a testament to the storytelling skills of all the people involved. Alien isn't so much a science-fiction movie as it is a horror film. Space just so happened to be the final frontier where the crew of the Nostromo met this particular monster. It was originally conceived by writers Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett as the very simple story of intergalactic truckers hauling a deadly cargo, and the final product doesn't stray too far from the core concept.
The long and short of it is this: a transport ship has its original route interrupted by a distress beacon. The crew of seven sets down on an uncharted planet and discovers a long-since-crashed extra-terrestrial cruiser rotting there. One of the astronauts, Kane (John Hurt), stumbles upon a nest full of a bunch of odd-looking eggs, and a parasite emerges, attaching itself to his face. Despite the protests of the ship's second-in-command, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), he is brought back on board, and before they know it, the whole crew is under threat from a malicious space creature whose only function is killing. They hunt the alien through their corridors, but it picks them off one by one. There is also a conspiracy from the contracting corporation: they have programmed their science officer, an android (Ian Holm), to keep the monster alive regardless of cost. They want to weaponize it.
Alien's effectiveness is in its restraint. Ridley Scott has definitely studied at the Val Lewton Academy of Less is More. Sure, a case can be made that we don't see a lot of the alien because, in the late 1970s, before computer graphics, special effects were a lot harder to pull off and they had to pick their shots carefully, but that really misses the point. This kind of storytelling engages the imagination far more effectively than the more blatant big-budget flicks we see nowadays. The power of suggestion is an amazing thing, and what we think we see gets under our skin far more than what we obviously see. Remember once upon a time when filmmakers would closely guard their creature designs prior to a movie coming out? It's because it really meant something back then. It was quite an achievement to not just get H.R. Giger to design your monster, but to bring it to life, as well. Now anyone can whip up something on their computer. Ho-hum, I saw that last summer.
Amazingly, all of these old school effects--including a man in a rubber suit--hold up to this day. They were done that well. In fact, the overall vision of the future Ridley Scott gave us still works. I think the only thing that most futurists didn't realize was how compact technology would become. Everything is so big!
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When it came time to create a sequel several years later, the producers hit on a rather obvious concept: if Alien had only one creature, then the second film would have many. Hence Aliens plural. Rather than just try to recreate the first movie and establish a formula, however, writer/director James Cameron, who at that point was just the guy who did The Terminator, took it in a whole different direction. If Ridley Scott had made a science-fiction horror movie, Cameron would make a science-fiction war movie.
Sigourney Weaver returns as Ellen Ripley, who herself has returned to the loving arms of the corporation that employs her, only to be labeled as crazy. No one believes her story about a galactic killing machine, especially since in the half-century she spent in stasis while drifting toward home, they have colonized the planet where her crew got slaughtered and have had no problems. Well, until now, coincidentally enough. The company has lost contact with the settlement, and Ripley is recruited to join a group of space marines to go find out what happened. Among them, another android (Lance Henriksen), who adds to Ripley's fear that this whole endeavor is going to be another big-business bamboozling.
As it turns out, what happened is that with a whole slew of people to infect, the alien eggs have hatched a colony of their own, and there is only one survivor, a little girl named Newt (Carrie Henn). The mission becomes to rescue Newt and get out of there alive, a task that grows more difficult as the size of the opposing "army" becomes more and more evident. Where Alien is spine-tingly scary, Aliens is adrenaline fueled excitement and action. There is still suspense, but it's the threat of combat, of the fear that your enemy might be lurking around the corner, and that his weapon is way bigger than yours.
Perhaps more important to the overall Ripley story than the gunfire and explosions, however, are the themes of motherhood that Cameron inserts into the script. Ripley left a daughter behind when she joined the Nostromo. In the time it took her to get back, her little girl lived her whole life and died. Saving Newt will serve as a kind of redemption for Ripley, a second chance to be a parent. There is a saying that if all mothers were in charge of the world, there would be no war, but Cameron challenges that. The instinct to protect one's children is paramount, particularly when the other mother across the way is an alien queen. Whose maternal powers will be stronger?
I note this because the themes of motherhood continue to be important in Alien 3, the troubled threquel that came six years later. The 1992 film was lensed by first-time director David Fincher, who has since made good with a slew of peerless efforts (most recently, The Social Network), but whose transition from commercials and music videos to feature films appeared to be dead on arrival with the release of Alien 3. The movie dropped amidst reports of on-set turmoil and studio tinkering, and the distress showed. There wasn't much to like in the theatrical version, and not even really that much to hate. It just didn't work.
Alien 3's reputation only started to change after the inclusion of a "work print" on the 2003 Quadrilogy. Not a director's cut, per se, but rather some middle-ground that gives us a glimpse into what Fincher was going for prior to the movie being taken out of his hands completely, the "work print" gives us a much more satisfying conclusion to the cycle than what we got initially. (The original theatrical release is included here, as well, for those who wish to compare.)
In this story, Ripley's Aliens escape pod crash lands on a prison planet where a small group of condemned men have adopted a monastic lifestyle in exile. They remain there to power the refinery that has long since gone into disrepair. Though they initially think the introduction of a woman is going to be the most dangerous change to their environment, the bigger threat will come when it's discovered that Ripley had an extra passenger or two on board. Ripley also realizes that she now has a special connection with the aliens due to her contact with the queen, one that will add new complications to the third installment and will help complete the cycle of her story.
And it does complete. In terms of where this tale needed to go, Alien 3 is right on the money. There is satisfaction to be had in how Ripley defies her enemies one last time. Fincher and the many writers strip back the film and take the story closer to its beginnings, using a limited space and less aliens, and they also take away the big weapons and make this more of a game of wits. The chases through the prison tunnels are exciting, and the use of an alien point-of-view camera for the hunt is surprisingly effective. Though still not perfect, the "work print" serves as a suitable send-off to the series, and it definitely holds together better than the butchered theatrical version. The story could still use some tightening (this edit is nearly two-and-a-half hours), but Fincher and his crew did create a believable new environment that was definitely in line with the aesthetic of the prior films. Some of the effects look unfinished, and the computer animated alien doesn't look at all convincing, but this version of the film goes a long way to redeeming Fincher and showing us what might have been.
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Aesthetic consistency is about all the fourth film, Alien: Resurrection, has with its predecessors. Five years after Alien 3 failed to resonate with audiences and the book was assumingly closed on the Ellen Ripley adventure, Fox went back to the well. On paper, it's not a bad idea: a young writer named Joss Whedon would write the script, and hot French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, fresh off of City of Lost Children, would direct. Unfortunately, both men had such a distinctive storytelling style that, despite the fact the sets and everything else are right in line with the visual style of the trilogy, the tone of the movie never quite jibes with what came before.
Alien: Resurrection is set 200 years after the death of Ellen Ripley, and military scientists (Brad Dourif and J.E. Freeman) have cloned the soldier in order to see what secrets they can learn from her. Sigourney Weaver returns to play Ripley a fourth time, only this is a changed Ripley. There is some crossover with her DNA and the alien DNA, making her superhuman with a killer instinct.
Hoping to cultivate his own army of deadly assassins, Colonel Perez (Dan Hedaya) has hired a band of intergalactic smugglers (including Winona Ryder and Jeunet regulars Ron Pearlman and Dominique Pinon) to bring in human specimens that can be implanted with chest bursters. Naturally, the aliens get out of control, and it's up to the brigands and the badass clone to take on this renewed threat and stop the space station from plummeting to Earth.
I genuinely like Alien: Resurrection. As entertainment, it delivers. It's witty and full of tense action sequences, and though the film maybe goes too far in the mutations it cooks up for the finale, it works overall. You can hear Whedon developing his dialogue skills (the Buffy the Vampire Slayer series had only just begun when Resurrection came out), and Jeunet and Darius Chonju's playful, vivacious camera work fits that lighter approach very well. The only thing is, that lighter approach is so much lighter, I have to divorce Resurrection from the Trilogy in order to enjoy it. It doesn't sit well next to its siblings, it's the clown of the family--and all the lesser for being so.
All four Alien movies are included in the Alien Anthology in two separate cuts: the theatrical versions and some version of a director's cut or alternate edit. Ridley Scott and Jean-Pierre Jeunet both added a small amount of footage to their films, things they left behind the first time but decided to revisit for the upgrade; Alien 3 has the earlier working version; and Aliens is the extended edition James Cameron put together for home video release. Each film gets its own Blu-Ray disc, and you can choose which cut to go with as the menu loads. All the versions are presented in their original widescreen aspect ratios, all of them have been remastered in HD, and all look tremendous. Great colors, amazing clarity, sharp resolution--these all look freshly minted, straight out of the film can. I was astounded.
There have been some early reports of some issues with playback, particularly on the first disc. These are believed to be issues with the BD-Live interface. I will say, the only problem I had on my LG is, yes, it did choke a little on loading the first disc, and there were three spots in the playback of the Alien director's cut that were jumpy. Most have found these problems fixable with firmware upgrades, and hopefully it will smooth out for everyone. All the other discs load and play without any problems.
The 5.1 sound mixes on the movies are equal in quality to the impressive image work. All of the mixes have excellent range, working as well with the quiet dread of the horror in the first film as it does the louder gun battles in later films. There is excellent movement within the speakers, and a realistic atmosphere created from movie to movie.
The English soundtracks for the first two movies also get 4.1 and Dolby Surround mixes, and all four films have alternate language dubs in French, Spanish, and Portuguese, all three mixed in 5.1. Subtitles are available in all four languages, including English for the Deaf and Hearing Impaired.
In addition to the regular soundtracks on the films, each movie also gets a variety of alternate audio tracks, including commentaries. In some cases, these include more options than the Quadrilogy boxed set--particularly, the isolated musical scores.
For Alien, we get the following choices:
* The group audio commentary featuring a compilation of comments from Ridley Scott; actors Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerrit, and Veronica Cartwright; writer Dan O'Bannon; editor Terry Rawlings; and producer Ronald Shusett
* The original DVD commentary from Ridley Scott, available on the 1999 disc, but left off the Quadrilogy
* two isolated scores on the theatrical cut: Jerry Goldsmith's original compositions, and the final theatrical mix.
Aliens alternate audio:
* Group commentary with writer/director James Cameron, producer Gale Anne Hurd, Alien effects creator Stan Winston, effects supervisors Robert and Dennis Skotak, miniature effects supervisor Pat McClung and actors Bill Paxton, Michael Biehn, Lance Henriksten, Jennette Goldstein, Carrie Benn and Cristopher Benn.
* two isolated scores on the theatrical cut: James Horner's original compositions, and the final theatrical mix.
Alien 3 alternate audio:
* Group commentary with cinematographer Alex Thompson, alien effects designers Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff, Jr, editor Terry Rawlings, visual effects producer Richard Edlund and actors Lance Henriksen and Paul McGann.
* Isolated score by Elliot Goldenthal.
Alien: Resurrection alternate audio:
* Group commentary with director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, editor Herve Schneid, Alien FX creators Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff, Jr., Visual FX supervisor Pitof, conceptual artist Sylvain Despretz and actors Ron Pearlman, Dominique Pinion and Leland Orser.
* Isolated score by John Frizzell.
The Alien Anthology comes in a shiny slipcase, and the discs are held in an interior hard-cardboard book. I tend to dislike packages that force us to slide our discs in and out over a scratchy surface, but this one is nicely done and compact. All six discs have what is being called "Mu-Th-Ur Mode," a viewing option that allows communication between the various discs (it is named for "Mother," the onboard computer in Alien). The one active option is a data stream that you can watch during the movies, getting factoids and enhanced information. The Mu-Th-Ur Mode also allows for toggling between audio tracks, and you can have a menu showing you corresponding extras that appear on the supplemental discs. If one of those extras strikes your fancy, you can select the featurette and your player will remember which ones you wanted to watch when you put those discs in. I kind of found it to be a needlessly complicated way of doing things, but techheads will maybe dig it.
Each DVD has deleted and extended scenes pertaining to their particular movies, all of which were on the previous releases as far as I can tell. Likewise, the director introductions before the alternate cuts are also intact.
All of the documentary and supplemental features from the Quadrilogy have been ported over to the Anthology, though instead of each movie getting its own bonus disc, these have now been relegated to two different bonus discs--essentially, Disc 5 and Disc 6.
Disc 5 is labeled "Making The Alien Anthology" and compiles all of the behind-the-scenes featurettes, which you can watch one at a time or play at once. These are amazingly detailed looks at the construction of these films, and honestly, are hard to beat. These extras are covered in-depth in DVD Talk's original Quadrilogy review, as well as the extensive disc-by-disc reviews our writers did for each movie (find those by searching "Quadrilogy"), so I won't go point by point here. One important note, however, is that the Alien 3 documentary has been restored to its original content. On the Quadrilogy release, archival footage featuring David Fincher and parts of the narrative about what went down with the film had to be removed. This material has been put back in for the BD package and is a must-see for how much it adds to the complicated story of this troubled production. (Note: Fincher still does not participate, and I can't say that I blame him.)
Also new to the Anthology are the "Enhancement Pods," billed as "nearly five hours of additional video...presenting behind-the-scenes footage, raw dailies, and interview outtakes from all four films." These are essentially short supplements that go with each longer documentary, extra documentary scenes that might have been left on the cutting room floor, each containing some focused tidbit about the production, be it new interview footage (like Michael Biehn talking about alternative ideas for Hicks' future, to give one example) or even added artwork. The discs also have a Data Stream, a far more handy resource than the Mu-Th-Ur Mode and not to be confused with its "data stream." It's an index of the supplements and topics. So, to use Michael Biehn as an example again, if you want to see all the instances where he appears in the supplements, you can go to his entry in the data stream and look through your choices.
Disc 6 is "The Alien Anthology Archives." This essentially compiles all the various galleries and production materials from the Quadrilogy set, including screen tests, artwork, multi-angle scenes, comic books, parodies, and promotional materials, from original TV spots and EPKs to a look at Aliens-based theme park rides. This is the disc for everyone who wants to get into the nitty gritty of all the detail work, including H.R. Giger and Stan Winston's creature designs, set construction, costumes, everything. Again, this material has been ported over from the old set, just reconfigured to be on one disc together.
Finally, there is a booklet in the set detailing what is on each disc, an explanation of the interactive mode, and an intro by Ridley Scott.
DVD Talk Collector Series. Surprised?
Top to bottom, the Alien Anthology is an amazing collection. Four good movies, two versions of each, and over a whole day's worth of informative extras--it doesn't get bigger than this. On top of that, Alien Anthology uses the technology well, giving us remastered prints and experimenting with the capacity of Blu-Ray. One of my favorite DVD sets is now my current favorite BD set.
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Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.