[box cover]

The Alien Quadrilogy

20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Starring Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright,
Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm,
Yaphet Kotto, Michael Biehn, Lance Henriksen,
Charles S. Dutton, Charles Dance, Winona Ryder,
Ron Perlman, Dan Hedaya, J.E. Freeman,
Brad Dourif, and Michael Wincott

Written by Dan O'Bannon, James Cameron, David Giler,
Walter Hill, Larry Ferguson and Joss Whedon

Based on characters created by Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett<

Directed by Ridley Scott, James Cameron, David Fincher,
and Jean Pierre Jeunet


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Review by Clarence Beaks                    


Yes, the technical specs are daunting, but one can only hear "Nine Discs with Nearly Fifty Hours of Supplements" so many times before it is robbed of its ability to intimidate. It isn't until the set arrives, gets removed from its protective covering, and is unfolded to its 5'5" length that the enormity of the undertaking that is The Alien Quadrilogy really hits home. It was only a year before this December 2003 release that DVD aficionados were wowing over the four-disc platter for The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring Extended Edition; however, taken on size and packaging alone, this appears to be a new benchmark.

As for "Why choose the Alien franchise," consider it a matter of influence, rather than box-office success, since the series has never produced a single $100-million-grossing entry (combined domestic take is $267 million) and was last seen in theaters pissing off fans left and right with the ineffective Alien Resurrection. It really is a strange run of films for the way the installments have segued from straight-up horror to militaristic action to somber allegory to unaware self-parody. The only unifying elements of these pictures are the titular creatures and their human nemesis, Ellen Ripley, the role that transformed Sigourney Weaver from respected stage actress to geek sex-symbol.

But even these constants are forever in flux, due to the producers' preference for unique creative vision over audience-friendly familiarity; an understandable approach given that the enduring appeal of the original film is derived from the groundbreaking stylishness of Ridley Scott. In fact, this story — the creative evolution of the Alien franchise — winds up being more fascinating than the saga itself; thus, giving the Quadrilogy its own throughline of sorts that unfolds with a measure of gossipy suspense unusual for such a massive, studio-approved box-set (especially considering that most of the major players are still alive). Participants freely express dissatisfaction with the finished films, and, on several occasions, trash the work of others. In other words, this is the contentious process that is filmmaking laid bare, and, as such, much of it should be considered required viewing for anyone with an eye toward venturing into the on-set trenches.

Not content to give the viewer an unprecedented behind-the-scenes look into the perils of franchise building, the Quadrilogy is after something even grander: the repairing of the last two films' reputations through brand new "Special Edition" cuts. Most extraordinarily, Alien3 has been significantly lengthened by a half-hour to an expansive 144 minutes, intended to provide insight into Fincher's sadly unrealized intentions for what was supposed to be the final chapter of the then-"trilogy." All four films have alternate cuts (Scott's new version of Alien is the only one labeled as a "Director's Cut"), but those who prefer the theatrical releases shouldn't despair; they're included here as well.

It's all terribly extravagant and perfectly overwhelming, but does it hold together as a cohesive, emotionally satisfying journey?

Alien

Put simply, and without an ounce of hyperbole, Ridley Scott's Alien (1979) is one of the most brilliantly sustained exercises in cinematic suspense in the history of the medium. As a horror film, it is on a par with Psycho, from which it borrows for the way in which it kills off a character (John Hurt) who seems positioned to be the story's protagonist. For anyone who has enjoyed the chest-burster sequence without being clued in to what's coming, it's as indelible as a child's birth.

Coming off of the striking, but comparably sedate, The Duelists (1977), Scott was just another gifted TV-commercial director in the style-over-substance tradition. Applying his pre-AVID (or is that ADD?) predilection for establishing atmosphere through meticulously composed long takes, Scott conjured up a suffocating sense of dread that effortlessly held the audience's interest through nearly an hour's worth of slow mounting tension that climaxed with the aforementioned sequence. In Scott's new "Director's Cut," that build maintains its unnerving power despite some minor changes. And while that big scare is a one-time only sensation, it's played with such verisimilitude by the actors — particularly poor, blood-sprayed Veronica Cartwright — that it still carries the requisite power to set the big haunted-house bug-hunt of a third act in motion.

That's where Scott's alterations begin to annoy. One major snip is Dallas's (Tom Skerritt) consultation with the ship's computer, "Mother," as to the probability of his wrangling and jettisoning the xenomorph. Though it's a classic example of bad cinematic computer science (an endlessly entertaining sub-category in and of itself), it was nonetheless an effective raising of the stakes for Dallas before his tense showdown in the air shafts with the alien. Still, at least the payoff sequence remains relatively untouched; on the other hand, Scott has completely wrecked the death of Brett (Harry Dean Stanton). In its original form, it was a terrific instance of Scott's affinity for strange character moments, segueing suddenly into the first horrifying encounter with the grown alien. But while Brett's amusingly impromptu shower in the dripping water remains intact, Scott has now inexplicably chosen to show the creature dangling in the chains before it drops down behind an oblivious Brett, who is trying to coax Jones, the ship's cat, out of hiding; thus, giving audiences a pretty full, if brief, glimpse of the alien. Though this seems a minor, geeky quibble, it's actually the difference between an artless, all-at-once reveal and a far more frightening gradual depiction of the elegantly designed monster. Finally, to cap off his mangling of the sequence, Scott has reinserted a shot of Ripley and Parker (Yaphet Kotto) arriving just in time to see the alien whisking Brett back up into the chains. True, this restoration does better explain how Parker can describe the size of the beast in the next scene, but it also ruins the eerie shot of Jones calmly watching Brett's massacring.

Thank heavens, then, that Scott has the good sense to allow the viewer to choose which version they prefer by allowing both to exist side-by-side on the same disc. It's a lesson other enhancement-happy filmmakers would do well to learn. Hopefully, Scott's decision will force the George Lucas's of the industry to recognize the error of their tyrannical ways.

Aliens

As the last woman standing at the end of Ridley Scott's bloodbath, Sigourney Weaver's Ellen Ripley earned the audience's respect for outlasting her more formidable-looking costars, while also winning the… er, hearts of men everywhere for doing it in an outrageously skimpy pair of panties that amazingly retain the power to titillate in this era of the imagination-less thong. But while Weaver went on to become a sought-after leading lady in films like The Year of Living Dangerously and Ghostbusters, her career path met a fortuitous juncture when it dovetailed with that of director James Cameron. An infamous purveyor of the tough-mama persona, Cameron was still at a make-or-break moment when he was handed the reins for his first studio film. But, as he has ably proven since, scale doesn't bother him. And while Linda Hamilton eventually transformed from a shrinking violet into a no-nonsense heroine at the end of his previous picture, The Terminator (1984), in Aliens (1986) Ripley would be his first fully-realized depiction of "I am woman, watch me kill and kill again" empowerment.

The fearlessness with which Weaver threw herself into this hardened incarnation of Ripley was so convincing that it would win her a well-deserved Academy Award Best Actress nomination, which was all the more impressive considering that science-fiction films rarely registered with the Academy outside of the technical categories. Had the film been released at the length Cameron had intended, which would have included an unwisely excised sequence in which the audience learns that Ripley had a daughter who passed while the character languished in hypersleep, she might've actually won. That pivotal moment near the beginning of the film better informs the ferocity of Ripley's maternal instincts once she encounters Newt (Carrie Henn), the lone survivor of a colony set up on the planetoid that is home to the derelict ship carrying the alien eggs. These creatures have, in essence, already robbed her of the chance to be a mother once, and it'll be over Ripley's dead body if they succeed at doing it again.

If there is a problem with any of Cameron's additions, it's in his over-plotted conceit that Newt's father was the fatal first host to the face-hugger that set in motion the colony's destruction. Simply knowing that her parents and brother were wiped out is more than enough motivation for the young girl to be scared witless by these creatures. That said, it would be hard to justify the inclusion of the pre-massacre colony sequence without that scene, so it is an understandable, if too-neat, bit of story threading.

Otherwise, this cut of Aliens remains the sole argument in favor of Cameron's multiplex-unfriendly narrative instincts. With The Abyss and Terminator 2, the expanded editions mostly consisted of ham-handed message mongering that bogged down the director's already anodyne sentiments with super-sized dollops of sap. This version works precisely because the additions serve the characters rather than the abundantly clear theme. Aliens features some of Cameron's best on-the-fly characterizations, particularly Bill Paxton's blustery chickenshit Hudson and Jenette Goldstein's butch Vasquez.

A good deal has been made of the importance of Newt and Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn) to this franchise, but, on successive viewings, they seem less like characters and more like devices through which Cameron is able to reconfigure Ripley as a tough-talking heroine for the 21st century and beyond. In Alien the iconic moments mostly belonged to the monster; in Aliens they belong exclusively to Ripley. In a way, Cameron is almost too taken with his main character, making her final showdown with the Alien Queen feel more like it has to do with bragging rights than the salvation of a family. That's because, ultimately, Cameron just isn't successful at selling Ripley as a mother; in his imagining, she's too at home in the trenches to be believable as someone who'd settle down and raise a kid. And while there's an undeniable attraction between her and Hicks, there's no future for them. In the end, Aliens endures thanks to Cameron's sure sense of pacing, not because of its facile emotional content. It may be one of the best thrill rides of the last 30 years, but that's all it is.

Alien3

Even though Weaver had insisted that the next director conceive of a way to kill off Ripley, the unremittingly (i.e. uncommercial) dour tone of Alien3 (1992) is still something of a miracle for such a major Hollywood production. Thankfully, the producers and the executives all seemed to be asleep at the wheel when they cluelessly pursued Vincent Ward's bizarro concept of a monastic order of hermitic luddites and allowed rookie replacement director David Fincher to retain the most depressing elements in putting Ripley through what were intended to be her final paces.

Unfortunately, once the money started getting spent, the studio woke up, and suddenly it was Fincher who seemed inexorably headed down a contentious path to career suicide. What remains of what could have been is best viewed in the 104-minute theatrical cut than the intermittently fascinating, but still compromised 144-minute "Special Edition" that, if anything, exposes at more stultifying length the wrongheaded decisions that were being made onset as the filmmakers flailed to pull together a commercially viable meditation on sickness and death.

Poor David Fincher never stood a chance, but it would be disingenuous to suggest that this was completely the studio's fault. Take, for instance, the subplot concerning the crazed Golic (Paul McGann), who believes that the alien is some kind of mythic dragon sent to feast on the sinners. His arc necessitates a prolonged sequence of an attempted capture, which he immediately sabotages as soon as it is successfully carried out. Since it has only a tangential connection to Ripley's spiritual struggle, while looking wholly identical to the later chase scene that finds the convicts trying to lure the alien into a vat, it's the kind of entirely useless sequence that should be all too easy to cut. Furthermore, the geography in both chases is so poorly managed that it's impossible to tell where anyone is at any given time.

A good deal of the frequent confusion in Alien3 is attributable to the casting of lots of British actors who look like Pete Postlethwaite — including Pete Postlethwaite. That they all scurry with shaved heads, and are shot at low angles, certainly doesn't help one better identify them. The two standouts among the supporting cast are Charles Dutton as Dillon, a murderer and rapist who acts as the spiritual leader for his fellow convicts, and Charles Dance as the sympathetic prison doctor Clemens. It's in Clemens that Ripley seeks, for the first time in the series, a degree of sexual satiation, though it is initially staged as a dodge of the doctor's increasingly personal line of inquiry. But Ripley begins to warm to Clemens, and their mutual affection is nicely established through the silences that pass between Weaver and Dance. After the tumult of Aliens, the relaxed pace is welcome, and the actors use that space to suggest layers beyond their surface types. This achievement is most apparent when Clemens is killed by the alien in a cruelly arbitrary manner. From that point on, it's clear that hope is a commodity that is to be forever denied to Ellen Ripley. By the time Fincher springs the final nasty twist — Ripley is carrying a Queen inside her — it almost comes as a relief; having run out of reasons to live, Ripley, at the very least, has something to die for.

That final moment of sacrifice, beautifully scored by Elliot Goldenthal, is strangely truncated in the Special Edition, as Ripley simply falls back Christ-like into the molten lead. It might be awfully obvious and convenient to have the baby queen burst from her chest as she plunges, but it also personalizes the sacrifice, and steers it away from such banal Christian connotations. Alien3 is easily the most heavily flawed, borderline schizophrenic entry in the series, but in its tersest form, it provides an emotionally satisfying closure to Ripley's saga.

Alien Resurrection

...In which geeks learned that everything Joss Whedon touches does not turn to gold. Wildly anticipated at the time of its 1997 release, this is an impressively mounted, brilliantly shot (by cinematographer Darius Khondji), and technically polished turd of a send-off to Ripley that plays even worse divorced of its pre-release hype. Conceptually, it's an undoubtedly intriguing idea to merge the series' heroine with her acid-blood antagonist, but while it allows Weaver the chance to flex her thespian muscles, it leaves an unavoidable hole at the center of the story where Ripley used to be. To possibly combat this, Whedon has invented another tough and sexy gal who turns out to be a droid. This might've worked had they cast someone who fit that type. Unfortunately, some misguided casting director cast the waifish Winona Ryder to fill out this role. While it certainly plays to her robotic strengths, words like "tough" and "sexy" are not normally used to describe the morose actress.

There are smart ideas here — pirates selling pilfered cryo-tubes to the military for alien experimentation being the best of them — but the film's rhythms are too closely in step to the funky sensibilities of director Jean Pierre Jeunet. As a result, the picture plays entirely too broadly, and works best when taken as a bizarrely elaborate bit of self-parody, which doesn't mesh at all with Whedon's notions of fanboy adventurousness. By the time Ripley gets it on with an alien, which, in turn, gives birth to a goofy looking human/xenomorph half-breed, the whole thing collapses under the weight of its own unintentional absurdity.

The Special Edition of Alien Resurrection is, oddly enough, a cut that Jeunet has approved without endorsing. He maintains on a video interview prior to this version that the theatrical release is the film he intended to make, and, indeed, it is the better of the two if only because it is shorter. For the most part, the additions in the Special Edition are inessential, though the film now ends on the Earth's surface overlooking the ruins of Paris in the distant future. This was intended to be Ripley's monumental return to her home planet, but since this isn't really Ripley anymore, the moment is completely hollow. As a piece of visual storytelling, Alien Resurrection is a more competent work than Alien3, but it's only blandly entertaining. It's always better to fail ambitiously than to succeed within the parameters of narrative convention.

Supplements and Tech Specs Unbound

To the trimmings! 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment presents each chapter of the Alien Quadrilogy with outstanding picture and audio for both versions of each film. Alien, Alien3, and Alien Resurrection are absolutely resplendent in their 2.35:1 anamorphic transfers, while Aliens looks about as good as it ever will, given the inherent graininess of that era's Kodak film stock (Cameron discusses this on the film's commentary) in its anamorphic 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Audio for all films is Dolby Digital 5.1, and while the two older films occasionally show their age in this department (i.e. in terms of mixing, as the sound itself is perfectly clear), only the most finicky of nitpickers will be disappointed.

The package is wisely designed so that each film is immediately followed by its supplementary disc. Starting with Alien, the first sign that this set is determined to go the extra mile in terms of offering up brand-new insights is its brand-new commentary, which even features Ridley Scott chiming in after contributing a fantastic track on the old DVD. He's in fine form here, citing The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Old Dark House as his chief influences in directing the film, while going into great detail on the rather uncomplicated manner in which they achieved the movement of the face-hugger in its pod. He's joined on the track by Dan O'Bannon, Ronald Shussett, editor Terry Rawlings, Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton and John Hurt. It's entertaining stuff, but it can't even begin to compete with the three-hour documentary on Disc Two entitled The Beast Within: The Making of Alien. As with the other docs, the viewer can choose to watch all of the featurettes in one fell swoop, or individually. Most notably, David Giler and H.R. Giger join the fray, which significantly spices up the proceedings. It's an unexpected treat to hear Giler talk condescendingly about O'Bannon and Shussett's original screenplay, while O'Bannon disparages the additions made by Giler and Walter Hill as the product of an "inferior mind" (it would've been nice to get Hill on the record, too). But as both struggle for the lion's share of the credit in making the script work, at least they're in agreement as to who is responsible for elevating their "B" movie to the level of art (i.e. Scott). Meanwhile, the interviews with Giger at his private workshop offer a fascinating, if genuinely unsettling, glimpse into a fractured artistic mind. This is also the only supplemental disc to offer up deleted scenes, some of which are holdovers from the old DVD, but a few of which are new to the Quadrilogy.

The best commentary of the set can be found on Disc Three with Aliens. Fans should be thrilled with Cameron agreeing to share his thoughts on this track, and he delivers with a vastly entertaining mixture of technical detail and production history. In fact, he's so good, one wishes that he had the entire track to himself, though it should be noted that the rest of the assembled yackers — including Gale Anne Hurd, Stan Winston, Robert and Dennis Skotak, Pat McClung, Michael Biehn, Bill Paxton, Lance Henriksen, Jenette Goldstein, and Carrie and Christopher Henn — contribute their own interesting anecdotes and observations. As for the rancorous shoot, Hurd is most candid in talking about their combative relationship with the British crew that came to a head with a walkout staged to protest the firing of the First Assistant Director. This is discussed further on the three-hour documentary Superior Firepower: The Making of Aliens, which is as exhaustive as its length indicates. Because this is a Cameron production, the most fascinating featurettes are those concerning the myriad technical innovations. Due to his budgetary limitations, Cameron relied on his visual effects wizards, the Skotaks, to suggest scale by using in-camera perspective tricks, which resulted in complaints from puzzled Fox execs who were unhappy with the lack of effects. There's also an in-depth look at the groundbreaking weaponry that was designed in part by gun fetishist Cameron, who gleefully recounts the day he turned lefty Weaver on to shooting. "Another liberal bites the dust," laughs the director. And for those who've always wondered, the Smart Guns used by the Marines are actually MG-42 German machine guns retrofitted with motorcycle parts.

Compared to the excellence of the first four discs, things get comparatively bumpy with Alien3. A huge problem is, of course, the absence of David Fincher's voice from both the commentary and the Disc Six documentary. This is somewhat fixable on the latter, but the former really suffers, as the heavy lifting on the commentary is left to Alex Thomson, Alec Gillis, Tom Woodruff, Jr., Richard Edlund, Paul McGann and Terry Rawlings. The most interesting contributions come from the f/x folk, most notably the legendary Edlund, who discuss how this film came at the end of the optical era. They also discuss the design contributions of a young effects artist named Chris Cunningham, who, appropriately, sculpted the alien's head. The supplementary disc features the documentary entitled simply The Making of Alien3 (2:40). Again, the lack of Fincher really hurts this track, though everyone is quick to praise his talent while lamenting his lack of experience and, most importantly, his additional burden of directing a film without a finished script (producer Jon Landau tellingly admits that they started out not to make a movie, but a release date). It's a reasonably candid documentary, but there seems to be something missing. Ten years later, no one is willing to discuss where the film fits within Fincher's own work; they only heap scorn for its inability to deliver on the expectations within the genre. When Giler bemoans the picture's lack of scares, it underscores the almost across-the-board lack of understanding for what Fincher was trying to accomplish. Most dispiriting is that no one really seems ready to accept blame for the film's flaws; thus, it all lands on Fincher's shoulders by virtue of his absence, which seems unfair (though it must not bother the director, since it's to be assumed that he was asked to be involved in the disc's production).

Discs Seven and Eight will be manna for fans of Alien Resurrection, while everyone else will shrug. To be fair, the commentary is very informative, with engaging contributions from Jeunet, Herve Schneid, Gills and Woodruff, Jr., Pitof, Sylvain Despretz, Ron Perlman, Dominique Pinon and Leland Orser, but it's unavoidably dry. Perhaps the participation of Whedon would have enlivened the discourse, but he seems to be relatively mum when it comes to his thoughts about the actual film. This is clear on the Disc Eight documentary, One Step Beyond: The Making of Alien Resurrection, another 2:40 affair that treats the finished product like something of a minor triumph. The juiciest bits can be found in the pre-production featurettes, where it's made pretty explicit that it was Jeunet's decision to go Hollywood that effectively ended his creative relationship with Marc Caro. (Thanks, Fox!) But if it's minutiae that one craves, it can be found on the excruciatingly complete half-hour deconstruction of the picture's underwater sequence that would've been twice as entertaining at half the length. There's certainly good stuff to be found in the featurette, but it gets dangerously close to bland EPK pap when Ryder's childhood near-drowning experience gets doted on. On the other hand, it would've been nice to get a bit more on the CGI contributions from Blue Sky VFX, given their recent ascendance to the elite level of computer animation with Ice Age. Also of note on this disc is a copy of the first-draft screenplay by Joss Whedon, which is worth reading if only for its rather exciting finale that proved too expensive to film.

Finally, there is Disc Nine, on which a shorter Alien documentary called Alien Evolution can be found, along with a 1979 promotional featurette, a Ridley Scott Q&A from a 2001 Egyptian Theater screening of the film, and a Laserdisc archive for those with fond memories of the old Alien Special Edition (there's also one for Aliens, too). There's also a fun 17-min. visit with super-collector Bob Burns, who has a veritable Alien museum in his house. This is where one can also find a bevy of theatrical trailers and television spots (yes, the early Alien3 teaser promising their arrival on Earth is on board), a Dark Horse cover gallery, and a DVD-ROM feature that offers a very nicely designed script-to-screen comparisons for all four films.

— Clarence Beaks



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