Well, here we go then. The reality is I am not entirely sure that anything I write here is going to influence you one way or another – I am fairly certain you already have your order winging to you as we speak. But perhaps the pinnacle of DVD box sets was reached with the original Alien Quadrilogy on DVD (and yes, I did own that fantastic Alien head edition from Japan) – and now the ridiculous name is dropped in favour of an Anthology on Blu-ray. Amazingly, though – it is actually possible that Fox may have even trumped their original Quadrilogy release. At the time, many critics said that it would never be possible to better that 9 disc behemoth – but it is my job to check whether they actually have (transfers aside, of course). So come with me, and hold my hand, as we take a somewhat lengthy trip through four films and 65 hours of extra features. It's going to be a fascinating ride.
When discussing a seminal film series such as Alien it is almost impossible not to bring the personal into the equation. In my case, even though I was only nine the original film reached out to touch me in ways that make me wake in a cold sweat even now. It is almost impossible for anyone who wasn't there at the time to imagine what an impact the film had back in 1979. THAT scene was constantly referred to, and it garnered coverage in the media that was almost unprecedented. I was in Brighton, securely tucked up in bed, and excited about seeing the new Disney movie at the cinema the next day. It may even have been Return to Witch Mountain. Anyway, about 11:30pm I wake up in a cold sweat screaming. I still remember the dream - the big white pristine cinema building, the walk down the dark aisle, the screen flickering into life. Only it wasn't my Disney film that sparked into life in front of me, but Alien. And for some reason I couldn't move. That's when I woke up. The film had gained such recognition in the media for being the pinnacle of terror that the furore had seeped into my subconscious. I was terrified by the concept of even witnessing a tiny bit of the film.
31 years on and the film is still recognised as being ground breaking, still revered today as a classic of the genre. Only now, the reputation is not just about the terror and the gore, but of a meticulously crafted movie that is just about perfect in every way. It is a true genre classic, in which every aspect of the film just comes together to make a complete whole.
I am sure it is not entirely necessary for me to repeat the plot ad infinitum here. But for the few who have not seen it, a brief recap may be helpful. Somewhere in the future, deep space exploration has become commonplace. Where explorers go, big business often follows. In this case, it is mineral mining from distant planets that has got the corporations all excited. The minerals are mined and then loaded onto a processing ship that does all the refining during the long trip back to earth. One of these ships is being towed by the tug Nostromo, and the occupants of the tug are woken halfway home by the ship's computer which has detected a distress call on a nearby planet. Company rules dictate that such calls should be investigated, so the crew are woken from their cryogenic sleep and head to the surface of the planet to investigate.
What follows is a beautiful example of slow, steady building of dread. In these days of modern frenetic movie making, hand held jerky camera movements, and sudden jump-cuts – it is refreshing to remember that movies used to be made like this. Scott shows remarkable restraint in building up the terror (and it IS terror) slowly but surely. He takes his time over the build up to THAT key scene, never rushing the pace and languidly developing his characters so that you truly get to know them. The by-product of this approach is that everything becomes that much more believable. Life as a corporation space-tug jockey is explored at length and really allows the viewer to get to understand the characters and their individual characteristics – with the result that when they meet their grisly ends the terror is heightened by the fact that we truly know the victims.
This approach allows a stellar cast to really stretch their acting muscles – and this they do to great effect. The one constant throughout all four movies is, of course, Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley. Here she essays a character that is in the background for much of the movie until she is eventually facing off against the enemy on her own. Other performances are similarly impressive. The cast list is full of talent – Ian Holm, John Hurt, and Tom Skerrit to name but three and all of them do an absolutely fantastic job of portraying their characters – selling the believability of the whole enterprise. But it would be unfair to single out individual actors. This is not because some are stronger than others – but rather because they work together so well as an ensemble. There is not a moment during the film where you are not anything but completely sold on the situation due to the strength of the performances.
But one thing that goes so far towards selling this believability is the sheer brilliance of H. R. Giger's creation of the Alien itself. We may not actually see it very often in the film (Scott adapts the "Jaws" theorem that less is more – to great effect), but every aspect of the creature is so meticulously thought out and designed that it adds much to the atmosphere of the whole film. The creature is a masterpiece both in concept and execution. The beginning stage, and the way it impregnates the human, is gruesome yet believable. The less said about the creatures "birth" the better (if you haven't seen it, then I don't want to spoil it), and then the adult iteration is just fantastic. The elongated shape of the head, the mechanism of the jaws, and the genius stroke of giving it acid for blood (meaning that on a spaceship you cannot risk spilling it's blood), all combine to make the creature one of the most iconic creations in all of cinema.
However brilliant the basic monster is, though, it still needs to be well handled by the director – and Scott certainly does that here. As already mentioned, his style in this film is not in any way showy. He favours the slow steady build up, allowing the environment to truly come to life. And the production design is easily the match of the quality of the rest of the production. The alien planet still looks impressive today, managing to look nothing like a strangely dressed movie set, as alien environments often do. In fact the only time I can remember being this convinced by an alien planet in the movies since Alien was released was in Duncan Jones' fantastic Moon. Both films utterly convince you that you are no longer on your home planet, but actually a long long way from it. But the Nostromo as well is a masterpiece. Grungy, dark, and gritty – the film would be nowhere near as effective without the fantastic design work.
I have mentioned Scott already, but I must come back to him once again. I have mentioned how superb every aspect of the production is, but the bottom line is that it is Scott that pulls the whole enterprise together. He is not afraid of keeping the atmosphere dark, and the claustrophobic environment of the ship is utilised to good effect. He uses the tension between the crew to help create an unsettling atmosphere even before the Alien first appears. This is no tight-knit crew united against a common foe, and as their situation becomes more desperate so their relationships become more fragmented – a situation which is all too believable and about as far from archetypal Hollywood as it is possible to get.
That is the cinematic version as originally released into cinemas, but this disc also contains the Director's Cut version of the film. This version actually lasts a minute less than the original version, and consists of some fairly minor changes. A few brief scenes are cut completely, and others are very slightly truncated. Some would argue that this improves the pace, but I actually prefer the more languid approach of the original version. A few scenes have been added as well – most of these are minor but notably the cocoon sequence is now included. The fact is that the differences are pretty subtle and I suspect that fans are equally divided on which they prefer. I am firmly in the original version camp – but it is nice to have both included.
Phew so there we have it. One down, three to go. Now, it's time to look at probably my favourite out of all of the films – Jim Cameron's Aliens.
Alien : 10/10
Alien Special Edition : 10/10
As the original's tagline memorably declared "In Space, No-one can hear you scream!" so Cameron's Aliens manages to sum up it's whole ethos in another memorable slogan : "This Time it's War!". When this film was released in the cinema, I was 16 (yes, there was that long a gap) and the difference now was that I was desperate to see it. The trouble was, it was an 18 – and my parent's would not let me go. I fought with them for weeks over it, always losing – until eventually an adult friend of the family, who my parent's trusted, intervened on my behalf and I was allowed to go. Thus the franchise that had interrupted my sleep when I was nine became the first 18 certificate film I saw in the cinema.
Again, a brief recap of the plot should be in order. Over 50 years later, Ripley is adrift in space, floating on a course to nowhere whilst in cryogenic freeze. She is picked up and taken back to Earth – and the poor girl just cannot get a break! No-one will believe her story, the company won't take her back, and even worse she discovers that the planet where they originally picked up the Alien has been colonised by Terraformas. There have been no reports of any strange beasties……..yet.
Ripley gets a job in a space dock shifting cargo – until suddenly contact is lost with the planet. The company is going to send in a group of marines, and they want Ripley to go along as advisor. She reluctantly decides to take the commission. She has been suffering nightmares and she hopes that facing her fear will help her conquer it.
The amazing thing about Cameron's approach to the sequel is just how brave it is. He has no interest in merely retelling the same story, or essentially remaking the original with just a few original twists. Instead he takes almost the polar opposite approach. Gone are the original crew with the tensions and strains. Instead we have a tight group of marines who would literally die for each other. This is a group who take no s*** from anyone – even an alien with acid for blood. Cameron is clever enough to realise that some human conflict is needed, hence the distrust between the company (represented by Ripley and Burke (Paul Reiser)) and the marines. Cameron also realises that however many weapons are discharged, however many muscle bound individuals are running around – the aliens still need to be a fearsome creature that seem all but unbeatable. Thus the aliens, now being faced on their home planet, are more than a match for the marines. Cameron gleefully works his way through the whole cast in various interesting ways until yet again, we are faced with the final showdown between Ripley and (this time) the alien Queen.
The cast may be mere alien fodder, but Cameron follows the creed of the original film, and fills his movie with people who can really act. The script does not require as much from the actors as the original film did – there are no subtle tensions woven into the plot, and no great showcase scenes. But we have all seen action pictures where the acting is worthless, and there are no missteps at all to be seen in this film. I could mention how fantastic Weaver is in my review of every film – but you are going to have to take this as read. However, a more interesting side of her character is explored here with the introduction of Newt – an orphaned girl who adopts Ripley as her mother. We are shown how Ripley has lost her family life in the 50 years she has been away, and the scenes where she finds herself bonding with Newt despite her misgivings are very moving.
The rest of the cast have less to do but still are nothing less than convincing in their various roles. Paul Reiser (as Carter Burke) puts in a decent shift as the corrupt company man, putting business before human life – and Michael Biehn also brings the character of Corporal Dwayne Hicks to life, displaying a nice slice of humanity amongst the carnage. The rest of the marines are less roundly realised, but all have a nice line in banter and tough guy camaraderie. When talking about the cast, an honourable mention must also go to Lance Henrikson as the synthetic Bishop. Considering the major role that the ship synthetic played in the first film, and the result of his interactions with Ripley – Henrikson gets to perhaps vie with Carrie Henn (Newt) with some of the most dramatic scenes in the film. His interactions with Ripley move the viewer and his portrayal of an android who is aware of his very nature are certainly on a par with Brent Spiner's portrayal of Data in Star Trek : The Next Generation
But the major difference between James Cameron's vision and Scott's is that this is much less of a character piece and more of an action movie. After the slow build-up the movie becomes a roller-coaster ride that just draws the audience in and leaves them on the edge of their seat until the end. Yes, I am aware of what a cliché that statement is – but it is really difficult to think of any other way to describe it. Cameron does have the (same) long build up that Scott introduced (us to) in his film – but (this time it) is less nuanced. Instead of concentrating on the characters, and exploring the deep nature of their relationship, Cameron is concerned with a platoon of hard-ass soldiers preparing for a war. Thus we get lots of shots of military hardware being prepped, and many scenes of soldiers bonding. But in many ways this is actually the equal of Scott's build up in the first film. This meticulous preparation really draws the audience in and completely sells the concept of reality. You really do BELIEVE that this is a troop of soldiers and that they would die for each other. The bonding and banter also achieves the same effect – you don't notice it as the audience, but before long you feel that you know these characters just as much as you did the crew of the Nostromo. It is a very clever trick by Cameron, and it apes the original well.
Of course, once things kick-off the film has a very different modus operandi. The original was about one Alien slowly picking off a crew before meeting its match. Here, a whole group of marines with every piece of hardware possible (including those ultra-cool sensors on their weapons) get involved in a fire fight that they haven't got a hope of winning. We have got the impression that they are cold, professional killers – but when things start going wrong we start to see the humanity behind the soldier's personas. It is brutal and very effective.
And again, it should be stressed how well Cameron uses Giger's designs. The creatures are subtly different but always remain respectful and true to Giger's original designs. Cameron may be throwing much more mayhem at the screen than in the original, but he does so with respect for the creature's lifestyle and habits. There really are no major changes here apart from the addition of a Queen Alien and that is meticulously designed so that it fits in with what we know of the creatures lifecycle.
Normally, if a film takes a well respected classic movie (and Alien IS a classic not just of sci-fi but of film in general), and just throws more mayhem, gore and chaos at the audience then it would normally be a failure. But this is emphatically not the case with Cameron. Alien won an OSCAR - Aliens won two. Of course, this does not mean that either is better than the other. I would put them about equal with each other, and rate them both as two of the finest genre pieces in the history of cinema. Beyond this, I would suggest that Aliens is one of the best action movies ever made – it is a film about the army versus alien hoardes that also has a very human heart. It takes everything that we have learnt in the original film, and turns it on its head, going in a completely different direction. It is this choice that makes the film such a success – and such a superb complement to the original.
Whereas the original film's director's cut has debatable merits (Scott would not have done it if he had not been asked to), the director's cut of Aliens is Cameron's preferred version and it is not hard to see why. The director's cut is 17 minutes longer and has lots of new footage – most notably exactly how the colonists first met the Aliens. I am with Cameron – the special edition is easily the best version of the film (yes, I know that some will disagree) and adds much needed emotional background for Newt. It is good that the original cinematic cut is included here – but only completists need bother with it in my opinion.
I also wish to note that the new Blu-ray of Aliens has been somewhat cleaned up – and this is an excellent thing. The scene with Bishop at the end, where you could originally see the actor's body under the prosthetic (in the hole in the set) has been digitally improved so that now the gaffe is not visible. Other slight clean-ups have been made at various points – and this makes Aliens even better on Blu-ray than it has ever been before. It is great that this much care has been taken. Anyway, head off and grab a coffee should you wish. Take a break. Have a quick walk. We are now at the half-way point of the films. When you arrive back we will take a look at Fincher's brave and bold stab at the franchise.
Aliens Theatrical Version 9/10
Aliens Special Edition 10/10
Are you back? Good stuff. Now I am sure you are an Alien fan – you wouldn't be reading this if you weren't right? But there are certainly different breeds of Alien fans out there. You'd be hard put to find anyone who dislikes the first two films, for example. And opinions on the fourth film are pretty universal – but of course we will get to that later. It is the third film that is the real measuring stick for Alien fandom. Alien 3 nearly polarised fans – some loved it, some hated it. Some hated the original cinematic version, but found their opinion turned on its head with the Quadrilogy special edition that lasted a whole half hour longer. Of course, of all four films this was probably the one that received the most care and attention on the original Quadrilogy, and it remains so here. However, as we will see in this portion of the review and also in the extras section – the film has received even more love (if that was possible) then the original box set version.
But I am jumping ahead of myself. Firstly, let's look at the plot. As with the first two films, we open with Ripley returning to Earth, but this time she has an unwelcome and unannounced companion. The Alien Queen from the end of the first film has laid an egg on the ship, and a facehugger is born. When it tries to get at the occupants, it bleeds acid causing enough damage to mean the crew are ejected in an escape pod. They crash land on a planet which is nicknamed Fury – a pretty indicative name in this case. Ripley is the only human survivor but sadly the facehugger also survives the crash, with grimly predictable results. And remember that word grim – we will come back to it later.
Alien 3 has a history that many devotees of the franchise will be familiar with. Fincher was under intense pressure from the studios whilst the film was being made. The script was being rewritten on a daily basis, and at the end the studio took hold of his finished film and cut swathes through it. Fincher was so furious he refused to have anything more to do with it. When the Quadrilogy was announced on DVD, Fincher was given the chance to come back and make a new Director's Cut. He refused but did give his blessing to the Special Edition version we see here, which was created by a team who took the original script, the work print, and various other notes and made this edition. I struggle to think of any other time something like this has been attempted, although I am sure our readers are likely to put me right on this! Amazingly, for the Blu-ray even the Special Edition has been improved! The sound on the original DVD version was very poor in places – but the original actors have been brought in to re-record their dialogue. Impressive indeed.
So – is Alien 3 any good? Well, many will tell you emphatically that it isn't. It starts of in an extremely grim way. I am not going to spoil it for those of you new to the film but not many Hollywood movies would dare do what Fincher does in the opening scenes. From here, it just gets darker, and more depressing. There is no levity, no humour here. The film is just completely dark in a way that foreshadows his later Se7en. But I love this about the movie. Most people reading this will know my tastes. They will know that the darker a movie is the more I like it. And this is easily the darkest entrance into the franchise. When I say dark, I am not talking about it being particularly violent or gory. It isn't anywhere near as bad in these areas as the first two. No, it is dark in that it provides no way of avoiding the impending sense of doom that Fincher creates. He populates his film with excellent actors, but they all portray very unsympathetic characters. Fury, you see, is a prison planet – populated by the most violent criminals that can be contained in no other way. This means that those who want loveable individuals, people they could identify with, are sorely disappointed when they see this film. But the thing I love about the franchise is the fact that every movie goes in a different direction. Alien 3, to me, is another completely original film that takes the central idea created way back in 1979 and extends it and moves it in a new direction.
In this respect, it is perhaps closest in spirit to the original film, where you have a group of desperate individuals, who do not particularly get on with each other, but who are in close proximity and have to battle against a single Alien foe. Another similarity with the original is the idea of populating the cast with British thespians – and the likes of Brian Glover, Paul McCann, Charles Dance and in particular Charles S. Dutton all deliver absolutely excellent performances as their various characters. Of course, you are not going to like them – but that is sort of the point! After two movies of Ripley being rather sidelined until the end of the film, she now becomes the one character in the film that you root for, the one who you end up cheering for and wanting to survive.
But Fincher is determined to make everything as depressing as possible and there are no happy endings here. He begins the film in an audacious way, and ends it even more bravely. He has no interest in holding your hand, no desire to reassure you everything is alright. In the first two films, the Alien was almost a match for the protagonists but always ended up losing. It may do so here too, but not completely – not in the way you might expect. There is a sting in the tail here, and it is a perfect ending to the film.
I may love Alien 3, but only in the special edition version. I have no interest in the butchered theatrical version that Fincher so despised. It is just so vacuous compared with the special edition. Events occur with bewildering rapidity in the OV, never allowing time to fully develop the characters. Certain motivations are confusing to the viewer and the film fails to make sense in key areas. The special edition, though, is a very different film. It is more atmospheric, more measured, and perhaps even more depressing than the original. Alien 3 is much maligned and it really doesn't deserve to be. The Alien franchise has always been about each director heading off in radically different directions than his predecessor and Fincher does that here. For a first time director dealing with unimaginable pressure he does extremely well and producers what is, to me, a valued entry into the franchise.
Alien 3 Theatrical : 6/10
Alien 3 Special Edition : 8/10
If I was giving this set a rating based on the movies so far it would probably get a nine (deducting one mark as I am aware that however much I love Alien 3 it is not the classic that the first two are). Sadly, though, the rating has to include the fourth film – and I suspect that this unites viewers as much as Alien and Aliens albeit in a different way…
It really shouldn't have gone so wrong. It was written by Joss Whedon, had good actors, and was directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet – who fitted the profile of being a highly-rated, intelligent and visionary director. When I sat down and watched this again for this review, I was wondering if it was so maligned because of the quality of the other films in the franchise. If it was a move suffering from association, as it were. Well, I am afraid to say that this is not the case. This film IS as bad as everyone says and unfortunately drags the overall score down quite dramatically. Of course, it had to be included – there are no arguments from me on that one. But it really would have been easier if it just didn't exist.
But exists it does and we must acknowledge that. The gap between the first two films was 57 years, and the ending of the third really did seem to end Ripley's story. But in science fiction anything can happen and 200 years after she took her fiery plunge, she is back. 200 years? I hear you say. Stick with me. This far into the future, the company no longer exists – obviously people finally realised their agenda – but a new big bad organisation has been trying to clone Ellen Ripley in order to gain access to the Alien Queen she was carrying inside her. They have tried and failed many times but they did eventually succeed and have also been breeding aliens under controlled conditions. However, the nefarious leaded of the experiment General Perez (Dan Hedaya) has hired a group of smugglers to capture a spacecraft and steal the crew in order to be hosts for his aliens.
If there is one thing we know about science experiments with unscrupulous leaders is that they are likely to go wrong. The first inkling the viewers get of this is when we start to realise that Ripley is not quite the woman we have known and loved. The DNA of the Queen got mixed up with her – she thus has acid for blood and super-strength. In return the Alien Queen got her intelligence. Aliens escape, and smugglers and Ripley are left trapped aboard the ship with a group of very intelligent Aliens.
From the plot above, you can already see that things make absolutely no sense whatsoever, and when the story gets so silly then you alienate the audience and disrespect the franchise. I have no desire to go through all the stupid plot holes that are present here – suffice to say that I can only suspend my belief so far, and this film stretched it to breaking point. The effects are awful, the acting barely functional, and apart from one underwater scene the whole film just descends into a barely coherent mess. And then we get to the ending………No, I'm sorry. I can't even bring myself to write about the ending. It is that poor.
Perhaps if I was to sum up the failings of the film it would be that Jeunet's style just does not fit into the franchise. The major problem is that he just takes what we have learnt about the Alien breed and turns it on to its head. He seems to feel the need to mess with the creations and make them more weird and creepy. He seems to have missed the point that the alien lifecycle as created in earlier movies is just so perfect, just so terrifying – that there is no need to alter it in any way.
Like the rest of the films in this set, you can view the original theatrical version or the eight minute longer special version. As with Aliens and Alien 3 if you must watch Resurrection then the special edition is the one to watch. But forgive my language – you cannot polish a turd.
Alien Resurrection Theatrical : 3/10
Alien Resurrection Special Edition : 4/10
I want to sum this part of the review up by taking a moment to talk about my movie rating. Unfortunately, I have to rate the box according to the movies within it, and Resurrection does drag the set down somewhat. This is why I have taken the liberty of marking each film individually within my review. I am not saying for one second that two classics, an interesting departure, and a stinker do not make for a much-buy box set (they do) but that rating is adversely affected by the last film.