This Alien Anthology Blu-ray set is definitive. How definitive is it? I can't remember years four through six of my childhood due to the 60+ hours of movies and special features. There are stars less massive than this six-disc set. (Harry Dean Stanton?) A beloved horror franchise, the Alien series has as many flaws as it does accolades, falling prey to the watered-down-sequel syndrome. I suppose we're lucky that the plots started out in outer space, saving us from the inevitably schlocky outer space sequel. But even at their lamest, these films still stand a head taller than many sci-fi/horror/action/adventure films that have preceded them. When the least impressive entry is directed by David Fincher, you've still got something going for you.
It's hard to under- or over-estimate the power and influence that Ridley Scott's original Alien has had on cinema in the last 30 years. It masterfully re-established the bar set by the original The Thing for thrilling monster movies. Despite taking place in a ship the size of a university, Alienis wholly claustrophobic and tight, oozing tension through each empty corridor. While the film's surprises have lost some impact due to rampant dissection and parody over the years, there is no denying the raw atmospheric dread that claws at the viewer's psyche from the ominous opening to the dialogue-lite finale. It's a true testament to the structure and story (and cast, and direction, and set design, etc.) that boredom remains absolutely absent.
The next three films could never match the thrills of the original because those films chose to replace atmosphere with guns and mayhem. The exact circumstances that plague the Nostromo's workforce aren't entirely relatable, but the prospect of mundane reality being intruded upon is universal. Unwitting characters are always easier to root for, because they have to improvise their way to safety, and the constantly adapting alien species leaves little room for error. Scott's direction and pacing invoke genuine fear for the crew without a single shot of overdramatization. Even when everyone else is chow and Sigourney Weaver is worried about her damn cat, there's still urgency, even after all these years and rewatchings. And my older self recognizes the anti-corporate and sexual subtext that the sequels hammered home.
So, from this subtle horror burst James Cameron's Aliens, firing bullets and one-liners through every air vent and around every corner. By replacing Ripley's everyman cohorts with trigger-pumping Marines, a stoned-out Lance Henriksen, and a detestable Paul Reiser (is there any other kind?), Cameron stripped away the nervous tension and built a roller-coaster ride of angst-ridden action. Aliens are now running rampant, having used a human colony as a breeding ground, so the pulse-pounding excitement is constant once it begins. Though Michael Biehn, Bill Paxton, and the rest of the Marine unit bring the proper amount of carnage, it isn't until child survivor Newt (Carrie Henn) is found that the story finds another dimension to work with. In looking at the two-note storyline, there's no denying this is a James Cameron film. That said, you also know it's his because the action scenes can stand alone and completely blow everything else in the mid '80s out of the water. Academy Awards for visual effects (which the original also took home) and sound effects editing prove my point there. Even Ripley got a nod, though Weaver did not take the statue home.
Does everybody remember the plot to the third one? I certainly didn't, and had trouble believing it came out 17 years ago. Another 17 could have passed before I would have felt the need to rewatch it. Alien 3 is stunningly out of place within this franchise due to ever-changing scripts and a young David Fincher's plagued production. I know genre-specific sequels are usually distended and shoot for gusto over canon, but this is beyond normal. Against all rational and popular thought, Ripley is the only returning character, having crash landed on a planet populated with the vilest of criminals, all male and all bald. This setting isn't conceived organically, and just becomes a toy box with a big body count for the alien to massacre. The horror only exists because of an alien egg on the escape pod that Ripley, Newt, and Hicks used at the end of Aliens, another overly coincidental aspect written out of ease rather than necessity. Despite middling to strong performances from Weaver, Charles S. Dutton, Charles Dance, Paul McGann, and others, there just isn't enough story here to tip the scales. I'm liberal minded, but even I'm not going to root for a bunch of rapists against any sort of threat.
Now we come to the last entry, Alien: Resurrection, a film I was surprised to find standing on much stronger legs than its immediate predecessor. Like Alien 3, it should have been conceived as an unrelated sci-fi feature, but the familiar elements are inserted smoothly. Working from a choppy, though completed, script from future fiction-god Joss Whedon, director Jean-Pierre Jeunet re-ignites the series' tension and reminds viewers that an actual plot can co-exist with the inevitable monster moments. The 200-years-deceased Ripley is cloned, along with the alien offspring she died trying to destroy, because human scientists will never ever quit trying to understand what makes the alien species tick. By using human hostages brought over by mercenaries, scientists are able to replicate the birthing process of the cloned alien eggs.
Due to a malfunction with the cloning process, Ripley becomes a hybrid between herself and the alien, giving her traits from both, giving the character a foot on either side of the moral compass. When the military scientists (including Dan Hedeya and Brad Dourif) become suspicious of the mercenaries (including Ron Perlman, Winona Ryder, and Michael Wincott), the film manages to prevent a multi-headed conflict that equals the first three combined in terms of possibility. That doesn't mean a masterful conclusion was reached, but a tiered story is much more interesting than one with a single and obvious throughline. The subtle twists and set pieces, particularly the underwater scenes, make this a film still worth your time.
Honestly, in the last two decades of the sci-fi/action/adventure genre, both originals and remakes, it's hard to find many examples of movies that are better than even the two lesser Alien sequels. If one would even mutter Alien vs. Predator ever so slightly under their breath, I would push them into a river. Story notwithstanding, each film is visually and audibly breathtaking, even on limited budgets. By sticking with miniature models and practical special effects, even when digital effects were available, the filmmakers created timeless images that remain memorable long after the dialogue does.
And timeless is just what this set will be until technology ups the ante. I'll give Aliens the most gruff simply because James Cameron didn't use a widescreen lens, so this transfer has the most grain and visual artifacts, though I use a PS3 for viewing, so that's probably the problem there. The audio mixes for each movie are as good as any I've heard. I'll wave my nerd flag and admit that after watching the audio-specific special features, I went back and listened to certain sections of the movies using the isolated effects tracks; they're there for a reason. It makes sense that an otherworldly movie would sound better than things do in real life.
I'm not sure how I feel about the innovative Mu-Th-Ur Mode featured here. It's an elaborate set up of data tags connecting almost every aspect of the movie together, and is more infotainment than a movie-going experience. For example, if the scene has an alien egg in it, and you want to find out how they made the alien egg, just hit the button and it takes you to a featurette about it. They say it's to personalize your Alien experience for repeat viewing. I'll applaud the effort made to create this vast network of facts and fiction, but I'll never ever use it for my own personal benefit. I just want to watch the movies.
Take this weighty set in your hand and slip it from the classy and sturdy slip case. Marvel at the book-like design, and flip through the pages that alternate the discs with film imagery. Wonder how much they could possibly fit on the two discs in the back devoted to special features.
Each film comes with both a theatrical version and a second one cut by the director or the studio. In the third film's case, the differences between the two vary wildly; Fincher is pretty much absent from that film's extras. Depending on the version you choose, you get options of isolated score audio, or a round-robin commentary with the cast and crew. The Alien theatrical cut contains a commentary from Ridley Scott alone. The large number of commentators are sectioned off in pairs or trios, avoiding interruptions or talking over one another. Everybody has a lot of interesting input, especially in the cases of the latter films and the non-unanimous public opinion about their quality. It must feel odd to publicly cloak defensiveness in pride like that. If you choose to watch the theatrical cut of a film, the deleted scenes are available to watch separately.
Now for the non-exhaustive list of supplemental material. Each film gets two groupings of features; one covers the main beats, and the other has shorter, more specifically themed pieces. These first, meatier bits (around eight per film) chronicle the life of each entry in 30- to 60-minute installments that cover everything from concept to critical reaction. You cannot walk away from this without learning everything possible about anything Alien related. Casting issues? Covered. Production problems? Got it. Visual effects both practical and digital? No worries. It's all here.
Learn how ego-mad screenwriter Dan O'Bannon, whose student film with John Carpenter inspired Alien, almost had a nervous breakdown when studio heads revised his screenplay and attempted to assume credit for it. I had no idea that the first sequel was put on extended hold as James Cameron completed work on The Terminator. A sequel was actually delayed in order to get the best possible man for the job, certainly contrasting the gluttonous stereotypes of the '80s. The opposite happened for the third film, as the infuriating extras show, which was pigeonholed by a set release date, and went through daily script and story changes during production. And then, for Alien: Resurrection, find out about Winona Ryder's near-drowning experience as a young girl, and how hard all the underwater scenes were for her. Yes, it's that exciting. Oh wait, no...
Not every story is a nail-biter, it's true, but the vast amount of them creates a pleasant average, and nothing is completely unwatchable. I understand that most people won't find interest in composers explaining why silence creates more tension than noise, especially when hours are devoted to this kind of thing. However, almost anyone can appreciate a short snippet that has two effects creators talking about morphing a sheep's bleating to create the sound of the alien creatures.
The shorter bits are all grouped under the heading of "Enhancement Pods," and each film has between two and three dozen to choose from, which means over a hundred nuggets of wisdom are waiting. You'll see H.R. Giger a lot, and it's needed, because that guy is a genius to say the least, and no one sounds normal talking about him. Proposed but unused storylines are discussed. There are effects tests, and a lot of time is spent looking at designs and battling sensibilities in that area. Oscar night is relived. Directors talk about their important decisions. Actors talk about their motivations and character arcs. A couple of practical jokes are explained. Chest-buster scenes of all sorts are sectioned out. I'm dwarfed by the amount of material here. I'm not meaning to de-mystify any of it or shorthand it. It's hours of material. The production-focused parts are trying to the patience, but almost every interview is worth a watch, even if you've seen part of it in other features. There's a lot of repeated info here.
Did you think I was done? There's an entire sixth disk full of propaganda. Spoiler alert: There are more than 12,000 photos and posters on this mothershipper. That's according to the box, because I'm not counting. It feels like more, believe it or not, but it's all brilliant enough. Beyond the mounds of set and prop photographs (including Stan Winston's gorgeous work on the second film), there are loads of storyboards, theatrical posters and unused theatrical posters, costume patches and logos, unused opening credits, and Sigourney Weaver screen tests. Each film gets a couple of extra deleted scenes not used in even the regular cuts, so the quality is rough. It's also split up into the three production phases, so there are making-of bits for HBO and documentaries about the series of films as well, spanning four decades. There's the short Family Guy parody, as well as the scene from Spaceballs. If that isn't enough, there are also full drafts of the first, second, and fourth films' screenplays to read. There are multi-angled scenes. Ridley Scott does a Q&A. The theme park ride gets a featurette. Bob Burns' prop collection, impressively massive as it is, also gets a 15+ minute look.
I may have left something out. Call it an Easter Egg. Call it a cab. You need this set. It's abominable. It hides in the shadows. I'm pretty sure when they said, "In Space No One Hears You Scream," they meant that you were too far away from Earth, and not because the vacuum of space holds no sound, because there's lots of outer space sound, as opposed to Whedon's Firefly series. Was that a plug? Yep. Buy this set. Buy it. It's a lot of money, yes. But you didn't buy the other ones because you waited for Blu-ray, and no one can hear you scream at your credit card bill.