It's safe to say that "Alien Quadrilogy" at a whopping nine discs is one of the biggest sets of DVDs ever devoted to a specific series of theatrical releases. The package includes regular and special editions of each of the four "Alien" movies, plus five discs devoted to various bonus items. Whew! I'm not sure I found the eight movie versions and countless hours of extras worth all the fuss, but you can't say Fox was stingy about offering fans everything they could ever have wanted in an "Alien" set.
The last time I was scared by a film in a theater it was 1979 and "Alien." Before that it was the 1963 adaptation of "The Haunting," and when I was a kid it was "The House of Wax." What do all of these films have in common besides fright? They're basically about haunted houses. That is, they are all set in enclosed areas with things largely unseen going bump in the night, then springing out and going "boo"! So "Alien" is more than a hair-raising sci-fi thriller; it's a darned good horror flick, too, that just happens to be set among science-fiction trappings.
Director Ridley Scott said that his idea for "Alien" was to make a kind of space truckers picture, featuring a crew of long-haul space jockeys on an interstellar cargo run. The gigantic space freighter makes a perfect stand-in for the old dark house of earlier times, and Scott is canny enough not to let the audience see too much of his monster until the very end. Even then we aren't sure what we've seen, except that it's really scary. The story plays on the principle that people are most frightened by things they don't see, that imagination can be more terrifying than reality, that suspense can be more hair-raising than mere shock. So when the cargo ship Nostromo accidentally picks up a deadly alien creature that keeps changing shape as it matures, we see the thing almost exclusively in the background, blending in among the shadows and ducts and hanging chains, only occasionally popping out to do its dirty deeds.
The cast is a prime example of ensemble acting, with each performer formidable enough to carry the film alone, yet each working seamlessly with the others to produce an on-screen unit we care about. Sigourny Weaver stars as Lt. Ellen Ripley, a woman of sense and resource, whose heroic qualities would come to the fore even more strongly in the film's sequel, "Aliens." Tom Skerritt plays the Captain, Dallas, a strong, charismatic personality who at first appears to be the main character, a notion squelched before the film gets too far along. Ian Holm is Ash, the science officer, a menacing presence with a cold, detached manner. John Hurt is Kane, the man who inadvertently brings the alien creature aboard the ship. Veronica Cartwright plays Lambert, the crew's most vulnerable character. And Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton play Parker and Brett ("Right"), the ship's maintenance team.
Not least among the filmmakers is H.R. Giger. Much of the motion picture's creature design, set design, and artwork is based on his drawings. Giger is the fellow whose soft, round, intricately curving, often cold, yet fluid designs have influenced everything from video games to automobiles. His vision of the alien spacecraft is that of a gigantic womb and the alien monster's head a giant penis; viewers may make of this whatever they like.
Finally, there is Mother, the ship's onboard computer, as vital, as comforting, and as sinister as HAL was in "2001." Mother serves to remind us that the business corporations behind these intergalactic cargo operations value money and power over human lives.
In addition to the regular theatrical release version of "Alien," there is the Director's Cut, which Fox asked Scott to create by adding many of the scenes he had initially left out, including the famous cocooning scene. When Scott was finished with it, however, he thought it was too long and that the added material threw the pacing off. Therefore, he cut his own Director's Cut. The result of his tinkering is a freshly edited film that includes more new stuff and less old stuff, coming in one minute shorter than the original. Scott says he still prefers his original version, but now, at least, you have a choice of the two editions.
"Alien" is among those films that did not get the best reviews when it first appeared but has since gained a reputation as a classic. The picture joins Scott's later "Blade Runner" in taking a while to catch on. I hope by now "Alien" doesn't need any further praise to ensure its place as one of the best sci-fi horror films ever made. Both versions of the movie get a Film Value rating from me of 9/10.
"Aliens," from 1986, is that rarity in Hollywood, the successful sequel. Its accomplishment is due in part because it retains the dark, brooding quality brought to it by its predecessor's director, Ridley Scott, and in part because its new director, James Cameron, completely changes its temper. Where "Alien" was largely a gothic horror flick, packed with suspense, "Aliens" is an action adventure, loaded with thrills. The notion that either of them is a science-fiction flick is entirely coincidental.
As you know, at the end of the first film, Lt. Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) was the sole survivor of an attack upon her interstellar cargo ship by an alien creature. She ended up getting into an escape module, scuttling the main spacecraft, placing herself into hibernation, and more or less hoping for the best. Fifty-seven years later she's finally picked up. Naturally, the company she works for is peeved that she blew up an expensive space freighter and is none too willing to believe her story about monsters. She gets stripped of her command, demoted, and humiliated. Things are tough all over.
Then a snake shows up in the person of Carter Burke (Paul Reiser), who represents the corporation. He wants Ripley to return to the alien planet. Seems they have lost contact with the colony of settlers they sent up there some years before. Colonists? On the alien planet? Are they mad? With no little persuasion the company gets Ripley to go back, and the adventure starts all over again. Only this time, it's with a vengeance. There is no longer just one creature to deal with, but dozens, maybe hundreds of them. More is not necessarily better, but in this case it's just as good.
The movie starts with a thrill a minute and works its way up. There's never a dull moment. The only blemish on the film is the crew of Colonial Marines that Ripley has to put up with. They are an embarrassment to an otherwise intelligent script, a group of gung-ho hotshots who are arrogant, immature, wisecracking show-offs with attitude. Their presence is meant to add color and excitement to the story, but, in fact, they are just plain silly. No serious military unit would put up with their antics for a minute. Among them is Hudson, a perpetual whiner, played by perpetual whiner Bill Paxton; Hicks, a reluctant hero, played by Michael Biehn; Gorman, a useless young lieutenant with almost no combat experience, played by William Hope; and yet another robot, Bishop, played by Lance Henriksen ("I prefer the term 'artificial person' myself.") Finally, there is Newt, an adorable little girl they find on the planet, the only one to escape the alien creatures alive (or without being cocooned), who gives Ripley someone to mother. Ripley is clearly the only capable character in the bunch, and before long she takes over like Rambo. Maybe it's no coincidence that director Cameron was the screenwriter for "Rambo II" a year earlier. Ripley gets ample occasion to act heroically and, as usual, to run around in her underwear.
Cameron adds a few surprises to "Aliens" to make it as different as possible from "Alien," but basically it's the same idea. Just more ugly critters, some of the best monsters ever designed, by the way, and more action. It was the right route to take. We had already been served up the suspense of wondering what the alien creature was all about in the first story, so what was left was fighting a battle royal with a whole army of them. Even better, we not only get the original theatrical release but the newer Special Edition in which Cameron appended about twenty minutes of additional material, including scenes revealing Ripley's past and depicting the colonists' first discovery of the alien creatures. This is one film in either version that will definitely keep you awake. As with the first film, I have to give it a 9/10.
The third and fourth installments in the "Alien" series--"Alien 3" and "Alien Resurrection"--are every bit as bad as the first two movies are good. Not even director David Fincher, who went on to better things ("Seven," "Fight Club"), was much help. In 1992's "Alien 3" the filmmakers actually seemed to be going out of their way to end the whole affair so they'd never have to make another sequel. They certainly do everything in their power to turn an audience off, not only by creating a painfully depressing atmosphere for their picture but by killing off every sympathetic character in sight, including the star! It didn't help, of course; they merely brought Sigourney Weaver back from the dead in the fourth movie. Never underestimate the power of money.
You will recall that at the end of "Aliens," Ripley was headed back to Earth along with her pal Hicks; the adorable little girl, Newt; and the faithful artificial person, Bishop. Well, sorry to disappoint anybody, but as soon as the new movie begins, her friends are already dead. Only Ripley survives. So much for sentiment. You know from the outset this trip isn't going to be pleasant. Ripley crash-lands on a near-deserted planet inhabited by only a few dozen people in an abandoned maximum security prison. Need I say she brings another alien creature along, unbeknownst to her, which soon runs amuck, picking off each character one by one? You're right; I didn't need to tell you.
Weaver's supporting cast is weaker this time out, too. Where she had a strong group of individuals around her in "Alien" and a goofy troop of stereotypical hotshots in "Aliens," in this third entry her fellow actors are almost nondescript. Charles Dance as Clemens, the prison doctor, comes closest to being an interesting character, but it doesn't last long. Charles Dutton as Dillon, the leader of the prisoners, is also in the running but has little to do. Brian Glover doesn't make much of an impression as a blustery prison superintendent. Not even the usually dependable Pete Postlethwaite stands out in this crowd. Part of the blame must go to the director, who seems to know only one speed, fast forward, and another part to the script, which is basically more of the same. Speaking of which, everything in the film even looks the same. The colors are the same, various shades of brown, the prisoners' uniforms are the same, and their facial appearance is the same, thanks to their shaved heads. To make matters worse, the filmmakers want to be sure that we won't find Ripley's looks any longer appealing, so Ripley shaves her head, too! It doesn't work. She's still attractive.
Whether you watch the regular theatrical release or the new, thirty-minute longer Special Edition of "Alien 3" (an "assembly cut," with rough patches in some parts of the dialogue that require subtitles), the film adds little beyond more blood and gore to mark its entry into the "Alien" canon. It is an insufferably dismal story of doom and gloom meant to close out the series forever. But didn't. If you are truly an "Alien" fan, you will want to quit after "Aliens" and assume that Ripley and her friends make it back to Earth safely. Just pretend the last two sequels didn't happen. Film value: 5/10.
There are some people I've talked to who liked 1997s "Alien Resurrection" quite a lot, but they were young folks who had never seen the first two installments in the series or hadn't seen them in theaters. I suppose if you have nothing to compare "Resurrection" to, it might seem all right. In this final (one hopes) episode, it's two hundred years down the road from "Alien 3," and Ripley is long gone. If only. No, she's been cloned, and the replica has an alien queen in her! I find that idea corny, but what are you going to do? Whatever; the reason she was cloned was to obtain a new alien creature and create an army of them. The half-human, cloned Ripley is then kept alive, and when the film begins we find her on a spaceship with the alien monster.
By the way, about this ship. I mean, two hundred years of technological advancement have passed, and the spacecraft looks basically the same to me, inside and out, as the ones in the first two movies. Well, a dark, old haunted house is a dark, old haunted house.
The main change in "Resurrection" is a weird mother-daughter relationship between Ripley and the alien, plus the usual assortment of supposedly colorful characters we have come to depend on. Another spaceship, you see, docks with Ripley's and it contains an assortment of grizzled occupants. There are also a few interesting set design variations to keep one entertained and some bizarre humor, but I'm not sure any of it is worth the trouble.
Co-starring with Ms. Weaver this time out are Ron Perlman, Dominique Pinon, Gary Dourdan, Michael Wincott, Dan Hedaya, Kim Flowers, J.E. Freeman, Brad Dourif, and, of all people, Winona Ryder. None of them are particularly noteworthy, but they all give it their best shot.
Again, the viewer has the choice of watching the regular theatrical release or a new Special Edition, which director Jean-Pierre Jeunet calls an "alternative expanded cut." It is about seven minutes longer than the original version and includes new opening and closing sequences. In the case of either version, the result is more of the same, with only a few differences in the cheeky wisecrack department.
Neither of the last two movies has the suspense or thrills of the first two entries in the series. Film value: 5/10.
All four films are remastered to THX-certified standards in their original theatrical dimensions, all but "Aliens" presented in an anamorphic widescreen ratio measuring approximately 2.13:1. "Aliens," the odd man out, is presented in a 1.74:1 anamorphic ratio.
I found the video quality of the first, older film, "Alien," the best of all, crisper and sharper than on any previous tape or disc incarnation I'd seen of it and better defined than the other three, newer "Alien" films. The other films seemed a little less well delineated, a tad softer, than "Alien." I wondered why this might be the case, the older film looking better, and could only hypothesize that the older film being shorter might have needed less compression to fit two versions of it on one side of a disc. A check of the bit rates of the four films, however, revealed that they were all transferred with about the same amount of compression. Maybe the differences I saw were just in my mind's eye. In any event, all the films come off well, with only minor moiré effects noticeable here and there and occasional darker areas of the screen very slightly obscuring inner detail. Nothing to worry about. Certainly, the two newer films looked the cleanest. I'd give "Alien" a 9/10 and the others an 8/10 or 9/10.
The THX-certified audio is presented in both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1. In DD 5.1 it ranged from good to brilliant. As expected, the sound quality gets better as the movies get newer. "Aliens," originally recorded in Dolby Stereo, has fewer discrete surround effects, while "Alien Resurrection" has the most. All four films display ample frequency range and dynamic response, however, with the later movies sometimes shaking the rafters. Still, for me it was the small, delicate sounds that created the best atmosphere and suspense rather than the loud booms and crashes. For this reason, "Alien" still wins the day, regardless of its somewhat limited surround. I'd give the sound for "Alien" and "Aliens" an 8/10 and the other two 9/10.
The extras are found on four alternate discs (one disc of bonus items devoted to each movie), plus a fifth disc of sundry other supplemental materials. They make a formidable array of things to click on and seem designed to keep a viewer from buying anything else on DVD for at least a month, because that's how long you'll need to get through it all (providing you devote most of your life to it).
Two things before we begin, though, one pleasant, the other annoying: (1) the number of individual bonus items is so large you're sure to wear your fingers ragged with punching buttons unless you choose the easy navigation system, whereby you can play all the featurettes or artwork or photos in one continuous sequence; and (2) the packaging has to be the most awkward ever devised for a DVD set. All nine discs are housed in a single, foldout box, which, when completely open, measures over five feet from end to end. Now, here's the problem: The whole thing starts fanning out in the middle, so in order to get to disc one, you have to unfold two-and-a-half feet of box. Worse, in order to reach the booklet insert, located in a pocket at the other end, you have to unfold another two-and-a-half feet! That's a nuisance, to say the least. Individual, slim-line double keep cases for each movie and one regular keep case, housed in much the same slipcase they use now, would have been more practical for the user. But perhaps Fox felt it would be too expensive.
Anyway, here are a few of the items in the multitude of extras department: All four movie discs include THX Optimizer sets of audiovisual tests, English and Spanish spoken languages, English and Spanish subtitles, and from thirty-two to forty-four scene selections. I won't even attempt to cover all the rest of the things on the bonus discs--the reader can check out the "Disc Details" for that--but I'll highlight some major components I found interesting.
Disc one contains the 1992 theatrical version of "Alien" (117 minutes) and the 2003 Director's Cut (116 minutes). In addition, it contains a short introduction by director Ridley Scott; an audio commentary with director Ridley Scott, writer Dan O'Bannon, executive producer Ronald Shusett, editor Terry Rawlings, actors Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, and John Hurt; plus optional deleted-footage markers to indicate where changes were made in the Director's Cut.
Disc two contains the "Alien" supplemental materials. As with all four film-specific bonus discs, it is divided into three categories: Pre-Production, Production, and Post-Production. Within each category of each bonus disc, there is a plethora of documentaries, featurettes, multi-angle sequences, poster galleries, and still galleries. Among the things I liked best here were a thirty-one minute segment on "Creature Design"; an eighteen-minute segment on "Developing the Story"; a series of seven deleted or extended scenes; and a fourteen-minute bit on casting, "Truckers in Space." Various cast members contribute their input via recent interviews. In all, there are about two dozen different bonus items on disc two.
Disc three contains the 1986 theatrical version of "Aliens" (137 minutes) and the 1991 Special Edition (154 minutes). In addition, it contains a brief introduction by director James Cameron, in which he admits to liking the Special Edition better than the original because he thinks it's "more intense"; an audio commentary with Cameron, producer Gale Anne Hurd, "Alien" effects creator Stan Winston, visual effects supervisors Dennis and Robert Skotak, miniature effects supervisor Pat McChung, actors Michael Biehn, Bill Paxton, Lance Henriksen, Jenette Goldstein, Carrie Henn, and Christopher Henn; plus optional deleted-footage markers for the Special Edition.
Disc four contains the "Aliens" supplemental materials. Among the many features here, I enjoyed "Preparing for Battle: Casting and Characterization," seventeen minutes; "Beauty and the Bitch," a twenty-two minute featurette; and "The Power of Real Tech" on visual effects, twenty-six minutes. Altogether, there are about twenty-three bonus items on disc four.
Disc five contains the 1992 theatrical version of "Alien 3" (114 minutes) and the 2003 Special Edition (144 minutes). In addition, it contains an audio commentary with cinematographer Alex Thomson, editor Terry Rawlings, "Alien" effects designers Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff, Jr., visual effects producer Richard Edlund, and actor Paul McGann; plus optional deleted-footage markers for the Special Edition. No participation from director David Fincher, though. It's the only major ingredient the set lacks.
Disc six contains the "Alien 3" supplemental materials. Among the best segments here are "Xeno-Erotic: H.R. Giger's Redesign," ten minutes; "Adaptive Organism: Creature Design," twenty minutes; and "Optical Fury: Visual Effects," twenty-three minutes. In all, there are about twenty-four separate items on disc six.
Disc seven contains the 1997 theatrical version of "Alien Resurrection" (109 minutes) and the 2003 Special Edition (116 minutes). In addition, it contains a brief introduction by director Jean-Pierre Jeunet; an audio commentary with director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, editor Herve Schneid, "Alien" effects creators Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff, Jr., visual effects supervisor Pitof, conceptual artist Sylvain Despretz, and actors Ron Perlman, Dominique Pinon, and Leland Orser; plus optional deleted-footage markers for the Special Edition.
Disc eight contains the "Alien Resurrection" supplemental materials. Here I enjoyed "French Twist: Direction and Design," twenty-six minutes; "Death from Below: Underwater Photography," thirty-one minutes; and "A Matter of Scale: Miniature Photography," twenty-two minutes. In all, disc eight holds about eighteen different bonus items.
Disc nine contains the miscellaneous supplemental materials on all four movies, the best of which is the 2001 "Alien Evolution" documentary, which in a little over an hour covers just about everything you'd ever want to know about the making of "Alien." For instance, director Scott admits his movie was inspired in part by "2001" and in part by "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre." According to creature designer Carlo Rambaldi, "Ridley Scott firmly believed that the more you see of the monster, the less frightening it becomes." Exactly, which is why the first movie is scarier than the rest. The disc also contains shorter bits on the other movies, plus a whole lot of trailers, teasers, and TV spots; and, for the benefit of laser-disc lovers, all the bonuses found on the laser discs of "Alien" and "Aliens." Finally, disc nine contains a gallery of "Alien" covers from the "Dark Horse" comic book series and a feature on Bob Burns's collection of "Alien" props and figures.
Assigning an overall "Film Value" rating to this set is a delicate task. If one takes into account the last two films, the rating would be much lower, so I'm ignoring them. My final 9/10 rating is based on the first two movies only and on the comprehensive nature of the extras.
Incidentally, I could not find the word "quadrilogy" in either my "Random House Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language" or my "Merriam-Webster's Third International Unabridged," but no matter. Taking our cue from "trilogy," we can easily see that the term refers to a closely related series of four books or movies. It's too bad in this case that Fox didn't see fit to offer an alternative set of just the first two movies at a reduced price; now, that would have been a bargain.