This package is intended to replace the earlier 4 disc Alien Legacy box devoted to the films Alien, Aliens, Alien3 and Alien Resurrection. The new package offers two discs for each film, plus a bonus disc of further extras. Each film will also be available as a two disc set, though the bonus disc will only be available in the "Quadrilogy".
Discs 1, 3, 5, and 7 offer the films themselves, each in two versions, original cinema release and director’s cut / special edition… For Alien this means Ridley Scott’s new 2003 "Director’s Cut"; for Aliens, the Special Edition version first issued on video in 1992, (the original theatrical cut makes its DVD debut here), for Alien3 a completed version of David Fincher’s pre-release workprint for the film and for Alien Resurrection a Special Edition which incorporates a newly made alternative beginning and ending plus minor further additions.
Alien, Aliens and Alien Resurrection have DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks, though Alien3 is presented only in DD. Each film has a commentary track and subtitles for the hearing impaired as well as further subtitles for the commentary. Each film is presented in its original aspect ratio, 2.35-1 for all except Aliens, which was filmed at 1.85-1, anamorphically enhanced for widescreen TVs.
Sound and vision are excellent throughout, and though I only have the NTSC version of the Alien Legacy set, it is clear that these transfers look clearly more film-like, are smoother and almost entirely lacking in grain. The newly inserted material blends all but seamlessly with the cinema release footage. The films sound better than they ever have, bar perhaps the limited 70mm engagements Alien played in select prestige cinemas on its original run. There are certainly low level sound details here I have never heard before, and the music scores have more presence and clarity than in previous incarnations.
The documentary material on the extras discs can be played through all at once, or individual documentary sections can be selected individually. Rather like in the extended Lord of the Rings box sets. In-fact the approach here is very similar, in every respect bar that the new documentary material has been shot in conventional television ratio of 4:3, with the scenes from the films then letterboxed at the correct ratio within this area. The widescreen 16:9 documentaries on the Lord of the Rings extended sets make this appear to be a decidedly retrograde, very 20th Century approach. Perhaps it simply reflects that 4:3 is still very much the television norm in America, while widescreen TVs and 16:9 anamorphic widescreen broadcasting is now the accepted standard in the UK.
Assuming that 99% of people reading this review have seen the films and have their own opinions on their respective merits, I don’t intend to say a great deal about the movies themselves, but rather I’ll comment on the alternative versions offered in this set.
Alien is a great film. I saw it four times during its original cinema run and re-release and have seen it several times since on video and DVD. Then abruptly in 2003 Ridley Scott unleashed a "Director’s Cut" of the film, which had a brief cinema appearance, before rapid transfer to this DVD set. The changes are minor but unnecessary and damage the film. Scott has removed around 5 minutes of film and replaced the footage with extra character interaction, as well as reinserting the once legendary "cocoon" sequence – which was included as an extra on the previous Alien DVD.
The majority of the changes are in the first 40 minutes of the film, where by cutting the slow, majestic introduction, and by trimming establishing shots, introductions and exits, Scott has destroyed the detached, Kubrickian grandeur of the enterprise, leaving a much more conventionally paced picture lacking some of the cold detachment of the original. The reinstated "cocoon" sequence seems comes too close to the end of the film, inserted so that it not so much slows the pace as jarringly alters the tone, the scene clashing with the stroboscopically lit look of what comes before and after. Inserted earlier, perhaps as Lambert and Parker go looking for coolant, the scene might have worked better. Where it is, it also manages to make a nonsense of the timing – given that the clock to the destruction of the Nostromo is running during this time, we are expected to believe that Ripley goes down a ladder, finds the "cocoon", comes to grips with the situation, takes action then leaves and goes back to where she was, all in less than 120 seconds.
Given Scott’s useful Director’s Cuts of Blade Runner and Legend, one can not help but feel he has got carried away and decided to fiddle with Alien for the sake of it, because he could. Or else Fox suggested it as a marketing hook on which they could hang a reissue of Alien to promote this massive DVD project.
The original purpose of director’s cuts was to present films as their director originally intended, but which had in someway been interfered with by the studios or producers. Scott has never voiced any previous discontent with Alien as issued in 1979, and it would have been as well to leave well alone. With a film this famous and well known, even when the changes don’t damage the film directly, they still attract attention to themselves by their very existence, which is enough to through the audience out of the movie – making the viewer self-consciously aware of watching a film, rather than being fully absorbed within the on-screen drama. To this extend this Director’s Cut is counter-productive for the audience which knows the film well, though new or more casual viewers will not see anything "wrong". Alien: The Director’s Cut still "works", but simply seems surplus to requirements. A version to watch once out of curiosity, before returning to the real and definitive edition, the 1979 cinema print which started it all.
Aliens lacks the sheer stylish elegance and groundbreaking visual sheen of Alien, but is in every other respect superior, being arguably the most relentlessly exciting adventure in all cinema. James Cameron’s Special Edition is not a case of tinkering, but a legitimate release of the director’s full intentions for the film, not compromised by contractual limits on the theatrical running time. (If you’ve ever wondered why a suspiciously large number of major features run around 138-140 minutes, its because the filmmakers are often under a contractual obligation not to exceed this length. 140 minutes is the longest US cinemas can fit in a film four times a day without having to pay staff overtime – though they could of course simply stop wasting time with commercials.) Aliens: Special Edition is the definitive version of Aliens. It is nice though, if only for reference, to have the theatrical release available DVD.
Alien3 is the most controversial of the Alien films, and it is a film on which I hold a controversial opinion. As I have written and argued many times elsewhere, I believe Alien3 is the finest of the Alien films. I feel that the bad reception of the film was due to director David Fincher not giving the audience what it wanted. The audience wanted Aliens 2, they got the world’s first $60 million Hollywood European style art movie. I saw Alien3 five times on its original theatrical release, and was amused later when the mass of critics praised Fincher for the darkness of Se7en (1995), rather confirming that they hadn’t reviewed Alien3 for what it was, but for what they wanted it to be. True the making of Alien3 was famously chaotic, but that is no argument for it being a bad film – no one knew what they were doing on Casablanca (1942) from day to day, and no one would argue that film is less than a classic. True David Fincher had a horrible time making the film, and has declined any involvement with this DVD set, but that does not mean that what ended up on screen was not superb in its own right. Alien3 was a bold, daring, extremely brave film for a major Hollywood instalment in a summer franchise… which brings us to the alternative version of the film on the DVD set.
According to the Fox Alien Quadrilogy website "There is no wondrous lost "Director’s Cut" of Alien3. It doesn’t exist. Indeed, for such a dream to be realized, Fincher would have to be allowed to remake the film from scratch with complete creative control. What does exist is something perhaps equally fascinating…"
And that is what is described as a fully restored, remastered presentation of the 1991 Assembly Cut, with "a combination of vintage, previously unreleased optical effects and several newly completed digital effects necessary to seamlessly integrate new footage into the body of the film."
This version of Alien3 runs approximately half-an-hour longer than the release cut and includes – not restores – much fascinating material which was excised before the edition which was shown in cinemas. The finding of Ripley at the beginning is different and includes several beautifully bleak seascape shots and images of the derelict docks near the refinery, the fire storm sequence is much long and leads to the alien being captured, and there are notable moments elsewhere including somewhat different finale. Music is looped in effectively from the score, but the new CGI used to complete the creature effects is of a comparatively low-budget TV standard. Some other reviews have criticised the film for this material, seemingly not realising that the poor grade effects are ten years after the event additions. Doubtless had Fincher included these sequences in the film they would have been completed properly to a high standard, but it would seem Fox were not prepared to spend the money to do the job well. This version of the film is like an alternative universe look at what could have been. It does not replace the release version, but compliments it in a unique way, and contains much in itself which is excellent.
Alien Resurrection is a beautifully designed and shot film with several powerful sequences, but which ultimately fails through its ill-judged tone, poor plotting and over-dependence on recycling elements from previous films in the series. The Special Edition version makes the film right minutes longer but does not make it significantly better, while the new credit sequence demonstrates the same utterly inappropriate comic book level black comedy which so damaged the original release, proving that directior Jean-Pierre Junet still hasn’t a clue what makes the series work in the first place.
Each film is accompanied by vast amounts of extras. There are reportedly around 45 hours worth, though I haven’t checked this myself by timing everything. The films themselves are accompanied just by a commentary, all the other extras being on the supplementary discs. It should be noted that for whatever reason, the UK release of this set is less complete than the US version – which is a shame as it seemed we were long past the days when UK DVDs of major titles were routinely inferior to their American counterparts. What is missing isn’t a lot, but one has to wonder why anything is missing at all. The US discs reportedly have commentary on both versions of each film – not different commentaries it should be made clear, but simply more commentary on the longer versions. The UK discs only have commentary tracks on the theatrical versions. Further, the US sets have optional on-screen markers to indicate additional or alternative footage. These markers are missing from the UK version of the "Quadrilogy". If these things are important to you it may be worth considering importing the Region 1 version of the set, though it must also be remembered that the UK PAL discs have 100 lines extra picture resolution than the NTSC DVDs, so should look significantly better, particularly when played back on a large TV.
I’m not now going to review all the extras in detail – there are many sites around the web which have done that already – but make some specific observations about the music related content.
First it is important to note that neither isolated music track which appeared on the earlier DVD of Alien is used here. Likewise, the original commentary track with director Ridley Scott is missing, in its place a new group track with Scott and Weaver together, plus editor Terry Rawlings, writers Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, and actors John Hurt, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, Tom Skerritt. Scott does perhaps 50% of the talking, with other generally interesting comments added by the others.
There’s little said in detail about the music on the commentary track, though Scott describes Jerry goldsmith’s score as "Chilly, beautiful and elegant". In the documentary section devoted to scoring the film Terry Rawlings notes that he temp tracked the "airshaft" sequence with music from Goldsmith’s own score for Freud (1962), and that Goldsmith was not happy that this music remained in the final release version of the film. Further, it was Rawling’s choice to temp the finale with part of Howard Hanson’s Symphony No.2, music which again stayed in the movie. Rawlings feels that Hanson’s music gave the film the lift it needed at the end, which however good Goldsmith’s cue was, he feels it did not do.
In a 15 minute documentary on Music, Editing & Sound for Aliens composer James Horner complains about his lack of time to write the score, how the facilities at Abbey Road studios were 30 years out of date and how the engineer who, without naming names, recorded the LSO so brilliantly for Star Wars was completely "out of his depth" when attempting to commit his music to tape. There are also comments from James Cameron and producer Gale Anne Hurd.
Alien3 has a comparable documentary in which composer Elliot Goldenthal talks about samples and sounds from found objects, blurring the line between music and sound effects, and creating music to remind the audience of earth, and interweaving compassion and religiosity; he explains that he used the Angus Dei as metaphor for the characters being as lambs to the slaughter. Talks about blurring the line between music and sound effects. We learn that he rewrote the ending to make it more heroic in tone in one night, and observes that there is a "Whole electronic score with then a whole 90 piece orchestra playing over it."
John Frizzell is featured in a 13 minute documentary, Genetic Composition, explaining how he blended sounds, drew upon aspects of the approaches from all three previous scores, and even managed to herniate two discs in his neck through the writing of the score. We also see the composer demonstrating how to obtain some truly unearthly sounds from a gong – tonalities I had always assumed to be electronic.
Beyond this music related material there is a simply astonishing wealth of features, while the bonus disc even includes all the material from the original Alien and Aliens laserdiscs!
Fine as the "Quadrilogy" is, and it has already set a benchmark for future retrospective releases, it is not as good as it could have been. There is material, as noted above, missing from the US version of the set, and film music devotees will regret the loss of the isolated score tracks from the previous incarnation of Alien on DVD. Likewise we must lament the fact that Fox saw fit to finish off the Alien3 workprint on the cheap, while it is equally regrettable that by several accounts last minute face saving cuts were made to the extras relating to this film documenting its troubled production. So, not perfect then, and doubtless some would wish for four commentary tracks per film, like those on the Lord of the Rings box sets, or on the R1 version of Fincher’s Fight Club. Normal people will not be bothered about this, and to all intents and purposes there is more to learn here than most are ever going to have the time or interest to work their way through.
To put things in perspective, it wasn’t so long ago that the best one could hope for to learn more about a much loved film was a magazine article, or if you were fortunate, a making-of book. To have what is a veritable film school in a book-sized box devoted to some of the most entertaining films of the last 25 years is something few fans would ever have imagined a decade ago, or even when Alien Resurrection reached the silver screen just six years back. Not, the "Quadrilogy" is not perfect, but when its as good as this, really any criticisms have to be taken in context. So far as DVD does it doesn’t get much better than this.
Disc 1-Alien contains both the 1979 theatrical version and the 2003 Director's Cut; a commentary by Ridley Scott, Dan O’Bannon, Ronald Shusett, Terry Rawlings, Sigurney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, John Hurt, Harry Dean Stanton, Veronica Cartright, and an introduction by Ridley Scott.
Disc 2-Alien contains Star Beast: Developing the story (first draft of the screenplay by Dan O'Bannon; The Visualist: direction and design; Ridleygrams: Original thumbnails & notes; Storyboard archive; Art of Alien (Cobb, Foss, Giger, Moebius); Truckers In Space: Casting; Sigourney Weaver's screen test with optional commentary by Ridley Scott; cast portrait gallery; Fear Of The Unknown: Shepperton studios, 1978; The Darkest Reaches: Nostromo and Alien Planet; The Sets Of Alien; The Eighth Passenger: Creature design; The Chestburster: Creature design; Future Tense: Music and editing; 8 deleted scenes; Visual effects gallery: Photo archive; A Nightmare Fulfilled: Reaction to the film; Poster explorations and Special shoot.
Disc 3-Aliens contains the 1986 theatrical version and the 1991 special edition version; a commentary by Michael Biehn, Jenette Goldstein, Carrie Henn, Terry Henn, Lance Henriksen, Gale Anne Hurd, Pat McClung, Bill Paxton, Dennis Skotak, Robert Skotak and Stan Winston and an introduction by James Cameron.
Disc 4-Aliens contains 57 Years Later: Continuing the story; Original Treatment: by James Cameron; Building Better Worlds: From concept to construction; The Art Of Aliens: Conceptual art portfolio; Pre-Visualisation Anamatics; Preparing For Battle: Casting & characterisation; Cast Portrait: Still gallery; This Time It's War: Pinewood Studios, 1985; Continuity Polaroids; The Risk Always Lives: Weapons and action; Weapons and Vehicles: Photo archive; Bug Hunt: Creature design; Beauty And the Bitch: Power Loader vs. Queen Alien; Stan Winston's Workshop: Photo archive; Two Orphans: Sigourney Weaver and Carrie Henn; The Final Countdown: Music, editing and sound; Aliens Unleashed: Reactions to the film; Film finish & release and Easter Egg: A Boy And His Power Loader.
Disc 5-Alien3 contains the 1992 theatrical version and the 1991 workprint version with commentary by Alex Thomson, Terry Rawlings, Alec Gillis, Tom Woodruff, Richard Edlund and Paul McGann.
Disc 6- Alien3 contains Development: Concluding the story; Tales Of The Wooden Planet: Vincent Ward's vision; The Art of Aceron: Conceptual art portfolio; Part III featurette; Art of Fiorina; Xeno-Erotic: H.R. Geiger's Redesign featurette; Production: Part I featurette; Furnace Construction: Time-lapse sequence; Adaptive organism: Creature design; ADI Workshop; E.E.V. Scan multi-angle vignette; Production: Part II; Optical Fury: Visual effects; Music, editing and sound; Visual effects: Photo archive and Post-Mortem: Reaction to the film.
Disc 7-Alien Resurrection contains the 1997 theatrical version and the 2003 special edition version; Commentary by Jean-Pierre Junet, editor Herve Schneid, Alien Effects Creators Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff, jr, Visual Effects Supervisor Pitof, Conceptual Artist Sylvain Despretz, Actors Ron Perlman, Dominique Pinon & Leland Orser. Introduction to Special Edition by Jean-Pierre Junet.
Disc 8-Alien Resurrection; From The Ashes: Reviving the story; First draft screenplay: by Joss Whedon; French Twist: Direction and design; Under The Skin: Casting and characterisation; Test footage #1 Hair/make up; Mark Carro photo gallery; The Art of Resurrection: Conceptual gallery; Pre-visualisations: Multi-angle rehearsals; Death From Below: Underwater photography; Unnatural Mutation: Creature design; Genetic Composition: Music, Reaction to the film.
Disc 9-Bonus contains a brand new Q&A with Ridley Scott; "Experience in Terror" - A promotional featurette from 1979; "Alien Evolution" - Channel 4 U.K. exclusive documentary on Alien; A complete laser disc archive of Alien and Aliens; Original theatrical trailers and TV spots from all four films; "Aliens In The Basement" - Inside the Bob Burns Alien Collection; Dark Horse cover gallery - Anthology of 11 issues of the Alien comics and DVD-ROM feature - Script to screen comparisons.