In space no one can hear you scream.
If you love Ridley Scott's taut science fiction thriller but don't want to shell out big bucks for the recently released Quadrilogy box set, you're in luck. The Quadrilogy version of Alien is now available as a stand-alone release. And is it better than the 20th Anniversary Edition of Alien released back in 1999? You better believe it.
Facts of the Case
The Nostromo is a commercial towing vessel on its way back to Earth with 20,000,000 tons of mineral ore. Its journey is interrupted by a strange signal, and the crew of seven is awakened from cryo-sleep to investigate. When Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt, M*A*S*H), Executive Officer Kane (John Hurt, The Elephant Man), and Navigator Lambert (Veronica Cartwright, The Birds) go out on the surface of a violent and inhospitable planet to track the source of the signal, they find a ruined alien craft filled with large, leathery eggs. Kane is attacked by the creature in one of the eggs and, against the orders of Warrant Officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver, Ghostbusters), brought back on board the Nostromo for medical care. When Kane births a horrifying creature with acid for blood and the ability to rapidly adapt to any environment, the surviving crew—including engineers Parker (Yaphet Kotto, Homicide: Life on the Streets) and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton, Escape from New York), and Science Officer Ash (Ian Holm, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring)—must struggle to stay alive in the face of increasingly long odds.
One of the things most mind-blowing about Alien is that it originally hit movie screens only two years after Star Wars. It's difficult to imagine two science fiction films more disparate in tone and visual style, but Alien (and Scott's other experiment in science fiction, Blade Runner) has proven nearly as influential as that most massive of space fantasies. Even if one ignores the three sequels Alien spawned, and sub-par ripoffs like Species or Mimic, what would the dystopias of The Terminator or The Matrix have looked like if Scott's thriller hadn't provided James Cameron and the Wachowski brothers a visual blueprint? If Star Wars reintroduced the pulp style of Flash Gordon to American movie theaters, Alien was the first science fiction blockbuster to posit a dark, dangerous, and cynical future with characters recognizably modern.
Scott cites three films as having influenced Alien's style: Star Wars and 2001: A Space Odyssey for their dueling visions of science fiction's potential on film, and, most importantly, Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre for its startlingly brutal reinvention of the horror film. It's an odd combination, to be sure, but a fairly obvious one if you think about it. The world of Alien mixes 2001's clean corporate order with Star Wars' dilapidated universe, creating a stifling, grimy world of corporate pawns more in keeping with the general tone of post-Vietnam American filmmaking (Alien, remember, was released the same year as Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now and contains a similar undercurrent of paranoia and distrust of authority). Even the film's opening shots—the behemoth Nostromo crawling above our heads in dark outer space, a slow dolly down the ship's cramped corridors, and Kane's awakening from cryo-sleep in a series of placid dissolves—evoke equal parts Lucas and Kubrick. Hooper's influence comes in the film's no-holds-barred brutality. A quarter of a century later it's easy to forget how bludgeoned audiences felt by Scott's combining slowly-building dread with the subconscious-tickling quality of H.R. Giger's phallic, bio-mechanical creature design and graphic payoffs like the explosive arrival of the baby alien. The movie delivered on a Hitchcockian scale: people left the theater feeling as though they'd taken a beating…and wanting to go back for more.
Despite the blood and guts, much of Alien's power at the time came from Scott's deliberate pacing and his clever nurturing of the sense that no one on the Nostromo was safe. His casting of Sigourney Weaver (her first major film role) as the movie's hero was a masterstroke. In Dan O'Bannon's and Ronald Shusett's (Total Recall) script, none of the characters (referred to only by their last names) are necessarily male or female, and the screenwriters noted that a couple of them might be cast as women. No one expected Ripley to be one of those characters. Audiences were no better prepared for a female hero of Ripley's strength and substance. As a result, they first attached themselves to Kane as the story's hero, and then to Dallas. By the time those characters met their respective demises, there was the terrifying sense that anything could happen. Scott, meanwhile, had laced the first half of the film with clever hints that Ripley was indeed the hero. Most notable is the scene in which Dallas and Lambert bring the injured Kane back to the Nostromo. Ripley's refusal to open the airlock because it is both illegal and a danger to the rest of the crew is purely pragmatic. And the heroes of these films, like Kenneth Tobey's Captain Hendry in The Thing from Another World (1951), are nearly always pragmatists, the middle ground between the emotionalists (Lambert) and cold rationalists (Ash) around them. Ripley is Hendry all over again, made fresh by her gender and our culture's hesitance to associate pragmatic leadership with a woman. Scott used casting to defy audience expectations much the way Alfred Hitchcock did by killing off Janet Leigh in Psycho. It's a brilliant manipulation that transcends the monster-movie script, and makes Alien no simple science fiction/horror film. It was so effective that Ripley established a new brand of hard-assed, competent heroine so often copied in the intervening decades that, when watching Alien today, one must look through the lens of historical context to appreciate how ground-breaking both the character and Weaver's performance were, as well as how crucial both are to the movie's overall emotional and visceral impact. Ridley Scott thought he was making a B-movie on an A-movie budget, but his meticulous sense of style and the gender twist he wove so cleverly into the movie's soul have made it one of the most significant and influential genre movies of the 1970s.
This new two-disc Collector's Edition of Alien presents the same transfer and extras as those on the first two discs of The Alien Quadrilogy box set. Disc One contains two versions of Alien. The first is the 117-minute cut that was seen in theaters in 1979; the second is a 116-minute director's cut assembled by Ridley Scott in 2003. Scott provides an insert essay explaining that he's always been happy with the original theatrical cut, and has never had a desire to produce an alternate version. The 2003 cut is basically a sop to fans and Fox, created by Scott out of the kindness of his heart. He began by inserting previously deleted scenes into the original theatrical cut but found it too great a disruption to the film's pacing, so other scenes were removed to make room for the new material. Hence the shorter running time. The 1979 version is, as Scott asserts, still the version to see (one particular scene in the 2003 cut slows the film's finale terribly), but the minute differences in the new cut make a decent study in the effects of precise editing. The restoration of all source elements that took place in advance of this DVD release and the construction of the new version of the film paid off in spades, though. The 2.35:1 anamorphic image is magnificent. There's no sign of dirt or damage, colors are perfectly rendered, blacks solid, shadow-detail suitably deep and nuanced. And just try and find the slightest bit of haloing from edge enhancement…go on, I dare you. The overall look of the transfer is gorgeous, pristine celluloid. If only all films could look this way on DVD (and, remember, we're talking about a movie released in 1979).
Audio options are Dolby 5.1 and DTS surround, both in English, as well as 2-channel mono in Spanish. Both surround tracks are only limited by the age of the source material. They're excessively clean and detailed with a natural soundscape. There's even some strong use of directional panning. The track doesn't have quite the low-end punch we've become accustomed to in modern action filmmaking, but leveling that observation as a complaint would be entirely unreasonable. When assessed as a soundtrack for a 25-year-old film, both the Dolby and DTS offerings exceed expectations.
The majority of supplements are on the set's second disc, but Disc One has an impressive array, too. There's a commentary by Scott and a variety of the cast and crew that's playable on both the 1979 and 2003 versions of the film since the two cuts are delivered via seamless branching. It's an edited track with Scott having been recorded in two different sessions: one by himself, and one paired with Sigourney Weaver. Actors Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, and Tom Skerritt were recorded together, while John Hurt, editor Terry Rawlings, and writers Dan O'Bannon and Ron Shusett were each recorded individually. The track, which gives Scott the lion's share of talking time, is fast-paced and informative, providing both screen-specific and behind-the-scenes information. Scott's track with Weaver is the warmest, while Cartwright, Stanton, and Skerritt turn in the most raucous (and sometimes racy) session. I'm not normally a fan of commentaries pieced together from a variety of recordings but this is a good one. It's well-balanced and informative. Particularly interesting are O'Bannon's discussions of the changes made to his script.
The scenes Scott worked back into the 2003 cut of the film have also been indexed on Disc One so they can be viewed separately. One can also access the portions of the feature commentary that cover these scenes from the index. In other words, if you don't care for the new cut of the film, you can still check out the added scenes via a standard DVD deleted scenes menu. A deleted scenes marker is also available when watching the 2003 cut. It indicates in the bottom right corner of the frame when you're viewing a scene not in the theatrical cut. Subtitle options are disabled when the deleted scenes marker is being played.
Finally, Ridley Scott provides a brief introduction to the new cut of the film, explaining its genesis and how he views it in relation to the 1979 cut. It's brief, blunt, and much appreciated.
The extras on the second disc are divided into three sections for easy access: Pre-Production, Production, and Post-Production. The centerpiece of the whole affair is a comprehensive three-hour making-of documentary called The Beast Within: The Making of Alien. The documentary is organized in nine chapters, three in each of the disc's Pre-Production, Production, and Post-Production sections. The chapters cover the development of the script, the hiring of Ridley Scott and his vision for the look of the film, casting, H.R. Giger's creature design, Ron Cobb's and Chris Foss' conceptual designs, the shoot, editing the film, the visual effects, and audience and critical reaction to the film upon its release. Each chapter can be played individually, or the The Beast Within can be played in its entirety via a Play All feature. The excellent thing about this piece is, not only does it cover the film's production in more detail than the numerous Alien making-of documentaries and featurettes made in years past, but it's incredibly candid. Dan O'Bannon is still bitter about changes producers Walter Hill and David Giler made to his script, and Giler's still insistent O'Bannon's draft screenplay was basically crap (you can judge for yourself as O'Bannon's entire original screenplay is among the extras on this disc). For his part, Ridley Scott seems to appreciate what all the feuding parties brought to the table and couldn't care less about their squabbling over details like pieces of dialogue and character's names. Similarly, composer Jerry Goldsmith is still palpably angry over changes made to his score by Ridley Scott and editor Terry Rawlings. Feeling his first pass was too lush, Scott made him rewrite the main title score, and Rawlings used a piece from Goldsmith's score for Freud (1962) for Alien's finale instead of the piece written specifically for that part of the film. That these folks are still angry after so many years says a lot about their passion as creative people, and the candidness with which the documentary handles these tensions, editing parties in conflict so they are essentially rebutting one another, makes the piece more dynamic than your average making-of.
Disc Two also contains Sigourney Weaver's screen test, with an optional commentary by Ridley Scott. It's entertaining as Weaver smokes throughout and plays Ripley like a true hard-ass, a take she toned down considerable when actually shooting the film. There are a wealth of photo galleries in each of the disc's three main sections, covering everything from O'Bannon's screenplay, Ridley Scott's detailed storyboards, Giger's creature designs, promotional materials, and much more. Like the documentary, the photo galleries can be accessed individually from the menu, or there's an option to view them all. Nearly as amazing as the wealth of supplemental material here is how well organized it is, allowing the viewer to get to it in a variety of ways.
Chestburster: Creature Design is a multi-angle featurette that presents the raw, two-camera coverage of the infamous scene in which the baby alien makes its first appearance. You can toggle between the two camera angles, or watch them simultaneously, as well as selecting whether you want to listen to the production audio or a commentary by Scott. The piece is a study in how practically Scott shot these key sequences, giving them life and energy with precise editing later on. It's also fascinating to watch Ian Holm, on whom one of the cameras is nearly always trained: he plays the entire scene as though Ash is waiting expectantly for the creature to burst out of Kane.
Finally, there are seven deleted and extended scenes that differ from those presented on Disc One. Scott had rejected these for inclusion in the 2003 director's cut. They vary significantly in quality, some being raw production footage with live mono sound, some fully remastered with 5.1 surround audio. All were rightly left out of the new cut of the film, but it's cool they're included here.
Pardon the pun, but this new edition of Alien is killer. If you love the film but didn't want to take the expensive plunge into the Quadrilogy box set, this two-disc set is a must-own.
What? You already own the 1999 DVD release? That's what eBay's for. This edition is so much better, the extras so comprehensive, it's well worth a double-dip.
Not guilty, of course.
Hey, has anyone seen the cat?…
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Scales of Justice
• 2003 Director's Cut of Alien with Introduction by Ridley Scott
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