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Blu-ray Review: Alien Anthology

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The Films

The Alien film franchise gets a lot more respect than it deserves — consider this comprehensive Blu-ray release, which packs hours upon hours of extras on top of the already mammoth amount of bonus features previously available on the DVD box set that came out in 2003. One would think the series was the holy grail of cinema, receiving a deluxe treatment that very few other films can boast.

But think about the films for a second — the latter half of the quadrilogy is comprised of two absolute duds that would be regarded as even worse if not for their association with the first two highly successful films. And while Alien is a masterpiece of horror/sci-fi cinema, Aliens is an overlong, overblown, utterly ridiculous action film (what one might call the James Cameron special). Sure, it’s technically astute and has some great set pieces, but Cameron’s godawful dialogue and ham-fisted storytelling — with plenty of noise and motion to make up the difference — make up a film that marked a watershed moment in the dumbing down of Hollywood cinema.

Anyway, onto the films.

Alien (1979) marked the arrival of a supreme cinematic talent in Ridley Scott, who directed this harrowing, minimalist tale of survival. The crew of the Nostromo, a towing spaceship, is awoken from stasis to investigate a mysterious transmission on a nearby planet. Their investigation leads to the discovery of a hideous alien lifeform, which attaches itself to the face of Executive Officer Kane (John Hurt). The creature eventually dies on its own, but the terror has just begun, as Kane’s body has become an incubator for another alien, which will soon be stalking the crewmembers across the ship.

The carefully crafted intensity of Alien is matched by the superior production design of H.R. Giger, Ron Cobb and Chris Foss, as well as the cast populated by fantastic character actors like Hurt, Ian Holm and Harry Dean Stanton. Sigourney Weaver’s star-making turn as the rather unconventional female hero Ellen Ripley is about the only thing that allows the subsequent films to retain any shred of interest. Her combination of ferocity and vulnerability is brilliant here.

Aliens (1986) is about the polar opposite to its predecessor in every way, opting for a “bigger is better” approach that may have been technically revolutionary at the time, but now just renders it as one of the first in a long line of ho-hum action blockbusters, filled with sound and fury and not much else.

Now, after drifting in space for 57 years, Ripley has been discovered by her employers, who decide to send in a team of Marines along with her to wipe out the alien species the Nostromo had encountered all those years ago. On the all-but-wiped-out colony of LV-426, the crew discovers the last survivor — a little girl named Newt (Carrie Henn) — who serves as a figure of the crassly calculated sentimentality that Cameron thrives on.

Of course, all does not go well, and a shadowy plot by the corporation to use the alien technology for creating a super-weapon puts the lives of all of the crew in danger — especially the private played by Bill Paxton, whose outrageous overacting is the soulmate to Cameron’s dialogue here.

The iconic finale of Aliens is a great set piece, but ultimately the film asks its viewers to turn off their brains in the name of entertainment for far too long.

Alien³ (1992) is known for its tumultuous production history, with then-novice film director David Fincher struggling against studio forces to make the film he envisioned, and, by his own standards, failing. All of that shows in the finished product — although not in the way one might expect. Rather than being a mess of contradictory ideas and styles, the film is instead relentlessly bland, with hardly a single moment in it that stands out after viewing.

The film’s events follow the escape pod in which Ripley escaped during Aliens crash landing on the prison planet of Fiorina 161. Ripley is the only survivor of the pod, and she suspects an alien may be inside of Newt’s dead body. It’s not, but of course there was an alien elsewhere on the pod, and the creature soon begins wreaking death upon the members of the all-male penal colony.

Alien³ tries to ratchet up the tension in a similar way to the first film, this time in a post-industrial wasteland, but it doesn’t take. By this film, it’s just a poorly executed formula, and it’s hardly scary or surprising when the inhabitants of the planet start to get killed off.

Alien Resurrection (1997) is perhaps the most disappointing of the sequels because it feels like it had the most potential to be something unique. Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet fails to bring the sense of visual wonder he had to previous films like The City of Lost Children or future films like Amelie, and screenwriter Joss Whedon hadn’t quite found his writing rhythm yet, resulting in a stilted screenplay that often falls back on familiar franchise touchstones.

The film takes place 200 years after the events of Alien³, with a group of scientists looking to clone Ripley and the alien queen inside her in the name of scientific research. Their aim is aided by a mercenary ship, which provides kidnapped humans to act as hosts for the aliens.

Weaver gets some good scenes in which she has to come to grips with her status as a clone, and the delightfully weird Brad Dourif and Ron Perlman get a few chances to give the film some character, but it eventually just turns into another race-against-the-clock situation, and there’s hardly a shred of imagination to be found anywhere.

The Blu-ray Discs

All four films are presented in 1080p high definition in their original aspect ratios — 1.85:1 for Aliens and 2.35:1 for the rest. Every film shows a marked improvement over previous DVD incarnations, with the first two coming off as more impressive than the last two. The interplay between dark and light areas of the Nostromo in Alien is marvelous, with fantastic depth and color consistency visible. Aliens retains more heavy grain than the rest of the films, but that seems true to intention, and the improved sharpness and fine detail is readily apparent. Alien³ has the blandest color palette of all the films, but its earthy tones are well-represented. Alien Resurrection features a bright and sharp presentation of its metallic-tinged look.

5.1 DTS-HD master audio tracks for each of the films highlight each film’s respective strengths, from the eerie quiet of Alien to the rip-roaring gun battles in, well, all of the other films. Each track showcases excellent clarity and movement of sound throughout the films.

Special Features

Each film comes on its own Blu-ray disc, and accompanying the films are plenty of different ways in which to view them. Each one includes an alternate cut in addition to the theatrical versions — Alien has Scott’s 2003 director’s cut, Aliens has Cameron’s 1991 special edition, Alien³ has the 2003 workprint version and Alien Resurrection has Jeunet’s 2003 special edition. Each film also has an audio commentary — two for Alien — along with isolated score tracks.

Also on the film discs are deleted and extended scenes for each, and a new “MU-TH-UR” mode, which provides for related production content and trivia to be displayed onscreen while watching the film.

The set also includes two Blu-ray discs dedicated to further extras, with the first including the 12-hours-puls of making-of featurettes that were previously available in the DVD set. Adding to those is nearly five more hours of footage, labeled here as “Enhancement Pods,” which can be integrated into the other footage or watched on their own.

The other special feature disc includes material all previously available — a ton of pre-production images and storyboards, trailers, marketing material and interviews.

The Bottom Line

How could anyone complain about a set this comprehensive? For fans of the franchise, it’s a no-brainer, but for those less enamored of everything Alien, like myself, a lot of this will seem like overkill. The films will no doubt be released individually on Blu-ray at some point, and then the only great film of the bunch, Alien, can be purchased on its own. I’d recommend waiting.

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About Dusty Somers

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based editor and writer. He is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.