If a movie series can be judged best by how often it reinvents itself, the Alien films must be at the top of the list. While the most successful action and science fiction film series like Lethal Weapon, Predator, et al, essentially stuck to the same formula, the Alien saga running from 1979 to 1996 has, for better or worse, constantly aimed to surprise audiences by changing directors and approaches with each entry. In honor of the first film's 20th anniversary, Fox has issued the series in a lavish four-DVD box set (with a fifth DVD by mail coupon) which puts a bit more perspective on this daring, sometimes perplexing, and always fascinating chapter in American cinema.


Color, 1979, 117 mins.

Directed by Ridley Scott

Starring Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, Ian Holm, John Hurt, Yaphet Kotto, Harry Dean Stanton / Music by Jerry Goldsmith / Written by Dan O'Bannon & Ronald Shusett / Produced by Gordon Carroll, David Giler & Walter Hill / Cinematography by Derek Vanlint

Format: DVD - Fox (MSRP $29.95)

Letterboxed (2.35:1) (16x9 enhanced) / Dolby Digital 5.1

Though director Ridley Scott had made an art house splash with his first feature, The Duellists, he seemed an odd choice for a big studio project containing elements of drive-in sci-fi B movies like It! The Terror from Beyond Space and Planet of the Vampires. As the results proved, however, Scott's immense visual gifts and cinematic storytelling skill produced a classic. The excellent ensemble cast, Dan O'Bannon's primal, terrifying narrative, and Jerry Goldsmith's ferocious score managed to give class to what could have easily been a failure in lesser hands.

Aboard the spaceship Nostromo, a seven man crew awakens from hypersleep to answer what appears to be a distress signal. The captain, Dallas (Tom Skerritt), instructs the crew to land and explore the signal, which is coming from a seemingly desolate planet containing only caverns and the remains of an ancient crashed spaceship bearing an alien astronaut. One of the crew members, Kane (John Hurt), discovers a cave containing a vast numbers of strange egg-like formations... one of which promptly opens and discharges a face-hugging alien onto his face. Kane is brought back aboard, despite the protests of second in command Ripley (Sigourney Weaver). After scientific tests at the hands of the cold, manipulative science officer Ash (Ian Holm), the face hugger mysteriously falls off, crawls away, and dies. Kane revives, and all seems well... but not for long. After one of the screen's most memorable dinner sequences, it appears a rapidly growing alien is on board, and like the classic movie monster it is, the alien's primary intent is to wipe out the entire crew as nastily as possible. As the crew's numbers dwindle, the survivors try to outwit the seemingly indesctructible presence and escape with their lives.

The alien itself, marvelously designed by pioneering artist H.R. Giger, is quite a beauty and still scares the bejeezus out of many viewers. Scott wisely drops most of the cliches associated with earlier science fiction films (weak secondary women, cutesy romantic subplots, etc.) in favor of a ruthless haunted house thrill ride approach that gives the film a timeless appeal. In fact, along with Scott's Blade Runner, this is one of the few futuristic movies that remains amazingly modern in its attitude and appearance and will likely remain so for several decades. Weaver's tough performance, her first major role, quickly established her with audiences worldwide, though Ripley would obviously reveal much deeper character traits in the sequels. By now this film has become so iconic that its youngest audiences may have difficulty believeing this was actually panned by a number of critics on its original release, primarily for its gore content which, in fact, is actually quite low when you really pay attention; only the chestburster is even close to being graphic. Like Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, this is a prime example of how to manipulate an audience into thinking they've seen far more than they really have.

Fox's laserdisc special edition of Alien was something of a watershed for its time, and the DVD manages to take it a step further. The anamorphically enhanced transfer from the original 35mm release materials (unlike the alternate 70mm sound mix included on the CLV laser version) benefits greatly from the enhanced shadows and chiaroscuro effects offered by DVD; also, the 5.1 remix sounds terrific considering the film's age. Few films use sound in a more manipulative fashion than this, and on a good sound system, you'll be cowering up in your sofa. The extras encompass the majority of the laser's supplements (ten deleted scenes including the notorious cocoon sequence, production art, effects demos, etc.) plus a new running commentary with Ridley Scott. The DVD also includes the isolated Goldsmith score as it appears in the film, as well as an earlier production audio track with the Goldsmith music placed as it was originally intended (plus some odd early sound effects and alternate dialogue). Less historically significant but interesting is the inclusion of the film's real theatrical trailer - it's a keeper! - along with the teaser included on the LD. As with the other DVDs in this series, hats off to Sharpline for the striking menu design and excellent organization of the extra features. Incidentally, some Toshiba players have evidently been experiencing problems with this title due to its CD-ROM compatible features; hopefully Fox will issue an alternate DVD-only variant for interested consumers.

Click here for pictures from the ALIEN 20th Anniversary celebration at the Egyptian Theater in Los Angeles!


Color, 1986, 154 mins.

Directed by James Cameron

Starring Sigourney Weaver, Carrie Henn, Michael Biehn, Paul Reiser, Lance Henrikson, Bill Paxton, William Hope, Jenette Goldstein / Music by James Horner / Written by James Cameron, David Giler & Walter Hill / Produced by Gale Ann Hurd / Cinematography by Adrian Biddle

Format: DVD - Fox (MSRP $29.95)

Letterboxed (1.85:1) (16x9 enhanced) / Dolby Digital 5.1

If sequels by definition are lesser products than their originals, James Cameron's kinetic Aliens is a sterling exception. A relentless rollercoaster that extends the premise of the first film into startling new directions, this is that rare film that holds up after countless viewings and represents everyone involved at the peak of their craft. Frankly, movies just don't get much more exciting than this.

After her narrow escape in the first film, Ripley is rescued from her escape pod which has been sent floating adrift in space. Unfortunately, it's fifty-seven years later... After recovering from the shock, Ripley finds everyone unwilling to accept her explanation of the Nostromo's destruction and has her pilot's license stripped. After yuppie Burke (Paul Resier in between his stints on My Two Dads and Mad About You) informs her that the Earth families inhabiting the alien-hosting planet as a colony have disappeared, Ripley begrudginly agrees to accompany a group of gung-ho space marines to investigate. Among the marines are Hicks (Michael Biehn, right after The Terminator), android Bishop, smartass Hudson, and tough gal Vasquez (Lance Henrikson, Bill Paxton, and Jenette Goldstein, all reteamed later in Near Dark). What they find, of course, is not pretty.

Though the film originally ran 137 minutes in the theater, Cameron expanded it with several deleted scenes for its laserdisc special edition. The extra footage, notably footage of the colonists before the alien takeover and some valuable insight into Weaver's maternal instincts, generally helps the film and doesn't slow it down at all. While purists may object at seeing the colony thriving with life instead of its original first apperance as an ominous ghost town, the scene is nevertheless fascinating and works well within the film. While a truly immaculate edition of Aliens may never exist, this DVD is much closer to it than the laser, which was impenetrably grainy at times. Some persistent grain still pops up here during scenes with extra footage, but a lot of clean up has obviously been done. The 16x9 transfer is more detailed than but similar to the earlier LD in terms of color and general appearance, while the 5.1 mix gives a little more dimension to Horner's high-throttle score and the numerous bursts of firepower. The extras are the same as the LD (behind the scenes FX footage, production drawings, etc.), though this time the trailer is also included. The film itself continues to hold up well, with Weaver's remarkable Oscar-nominated performance shining as brightly as ever. Her relationship with Newt (Carrie Henn), a young colony survivor found in the abandoned corridors, gives the film a human resonance that lingers even beyond the thrilling action setpieces (and boy, are there quite a few of them). As with most Cameron films, this one continues to deliver long after other films would have called it quits. Just when you think it can't get better, it does... and when you think it's all over, you're not even close.


Color, 1992, 117 mins.

Directed by David Fincher

Starring Sigourney Weaver, Charles S. Dutton, Charles Dance, Paul McGann, Brian Glover, Ralph Brown, Daniel Webb, Lance Henrikson, Pete Postlethwaite / Music by Elliot Goldenthal / Written by Larry Ferguson, David Giler, Walter Hill and Vincent Ward / Produced by Gordon Carroll, David Giler & Walter Hill / Cinematography by Alex Thomson

Format: DVD - Fox (MSRP $29.95)

Letterboxed (2.35:1) (16x9 enhanced) / Dolby Digital 5.1

Ah, here we go with the most controversial installment in the series. This film from first-time director David Fincher (who cut his teeth on Madonna videos) begins with a series of merciless jabs at series fans that immediately alienated (er, sorry) much of the primary audience, and as part of the continuing saga, these bleak twists which continue all the way to the infamous downer finale managed to obscure whatever virtues the film may contain. Looking back, it's hard to believe anyone involved, particularly the studio, expected this film to have a warm reception, and its notorious production difficulties (which involved extensive cutting and reshooting up to the last minute) would have made this perhaps the most fascinating special edition out of the bunch. However, Fox has given this film (and its successor) a fairly chilly treatment on DVD. In this case, the viewer gets the film itself (at least given a sharp new 16x9 transfer, far surpassing the mediocre laserdisc), the trailer, and the HBO half-hour documentary issued on video upon the film's theatrical release. Still, its inclusion does welcome a reevaluation of the film, and while it's not even close to a success, time has made it somewhat more interesting and satisfying as a viewing experience solely unto itself.

After the breathless escape at the end of Aliens, Ripley wakes up to find her escape pod crash landed on a windy, desolate planet, Fury 161. It seems the planet, out in the space equivalent of the middle of nowhere, contains the remaining inmates of a prison colony; the prisoners have taken on fundemantalist religion as a means of psychological survival but find their beliefs tested by the presence of a woman. Ripley's companions, Hicks and Newt, died in the crash (nice, huh?), so within the first few minutes the viewer is treated to a charming autopsy on a twelve year old girl to determine whether her body bears an alien inside her chest. She's clean (no one thinks to check out Hicks' remains for some reason), but a face hugger was on board and has infested a local dog. Pretty soon it's alien stalking time all over again, and Ripley's momentary happiness in the arms of a local prison doctor (Charles Dance) offers only temporary solace as she finds herself up against the demonic force once again.

While Fincher is undoubtedly a talented director and showed remarkable artistic growth with Seven and The Game, here he seems to be flailing around at times to deliver both a personally satisfying product and a commerically viable installment in a Hollywood series. As a result, his nihilist outlook is constantly at odds with the action and thrills the fans would expect. Gore splashes constantly, but it's consistently ugly and unpleasant; furthermore, the extremely slow pace and dour characters (think Ingmar Bergman in space) will test the patience of many viewers. The striking visuals manage to compensate, while Elliot Goldenthal's marvelous score (the best thing about the film, though the cues aren't always in the correct scenes) entertains the ear even when the eyes and brain have nothing to do. The rushed ending easily screams studio interference, though at least it gave Fincher the artistic presence to play with audience expectations later on for a similar sequence at the end of The Game. Essentially, an enriched and expanded cut of the film would probably help its reputation, though many will never forgive it (perhaps deservedly) for the callous opening sequence, which bascially destroys the entire purpose of the second film. Beyond the obvious flaws and general wrongheaded aspects of the project, however, Alien 3 does offer some food for thought here and there, and at least the bald prison cast is a little easier to keep track of now that a few actors (namely Pete Postlethwaite and Dr. Who's Paul McGann) can be recognized. If you like the film, this DVD shows it on its best behavior so far; if you don't like it, hold off until Fox gives it the treatment it deserves.


Color, 1997, 109 mins.

Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet

Starring Sigourney Weaver, Winona Ryder, Dominique Pinon, Ron Perlman, Gary Dourdan, Michael Wincott, Kim Flowers, Dan Hedaya, J.E. Freeman, Brad Dourif, Leland Orser / Music by John Frizzell / Written by Joss Whedon / Produced by Bill Badalato, Gordon Carroll, David Giler & Walter Hill / Cinematography by Darius Khondji

Format: DVD - Fox (MSRP $29.95)

Letterboxed (2.35:1) (16x9 enhanced) / Dolby Digital 5.1

Hiring the director of such wild and wooly art house favorites as Delicatessen and City of Lost Children for an Alien movie may seem quite insane on the surface (well, maybe not as insane as hiring a music video director), and the results understandably split series fans down the middle. The extreme visual quirkiness and bizarre stylish flourishes which characterize director Jeunet's work are in great abudance here, and the presence of Winona Ryder (who still hasn't recovered from the loss of her teen ingenue status) only serves to make the experience even more surreal. While Alien 3 was essentially a film long on substance but woefully short on ideas outside of its vaguely defined religious symbolism, Alien: Resurrection is so packed with new, funky concepts from beginning to end that it really should have been much longer to reach its full potential. By far the shortest entry in the series, this one speeds by so quickly that it takes multiple viewings to absorb exactly what happened. If you haven't seen Alien 3, read no further as some necessary spoilers are contained below.

After Ripley's suicidal plunge to destroy the baby alien queen inside her at the end of the previous film, screenwriters resorted to one of the hoariest concepts in the book: let's clone her! (At least they didn't write off the last film as a dream, which was a rumor going around before this one was shot.) However, the cloning concept is taken to such a marvelously surreal extreme that it actually works. See, the scientists have cloned Ripley so they can remove the alien fetus inside her; as a result, the new "Ripley" has retained some of the alien's DNA characteristics: retained memory, super strength, and acid for blood. The idiot military scientists (led by Brad Dourif with a really odd hairdo) smuggle in some human specimens via a band of space pirates including Ryder, The Crow's Michael Wincott, and Jeunet regulars Dominique Pinon and Ron Perlman (TV's Beauty and the Beast). Pretty soon aliens are popping up all over the lab and conspire a very funny method of escape. Determined to preserve herself, Ripley tags along with the freelancers for a wild ride through the ship as they maneuver the aliens and discover a few more nasty secrets about the DNA splicing process.

Boasting a nifty underwater chase sequence, outrageous camerawork by pro Darius Khondji, and yet another fantastic Weaver performance, Alien: Resurrection bends over backward to give the viewers their money's worth. The new Ripley turned off fans who were used to the strong but tender leader of the other films, but it's interesting to see a familiar character transformed so interestingly. Her relationship with the aliens obviously takes some new turns, and the bizarre final act resembles nothing seen recently in science fiction cinema. The huge doses of humor sit a little oddly with the grim basic material, though the bloodshed this time (and there is quite a lot) is far too cartoonish to be taken seriously. A few less one-liners would have probably been better and may unfortunately cause this to sound a little dated; for the most part, though, time will most likely be very kind to this film and allow it a more positive critical reception down the road.

Like Alien 3, Fox's DVD treatment is basically a throwaway. The transfer itself is the crispest of the bunch (this is the most recent title, after all). Strangely, this was the first entry shot in Super 35; in theaters it was exhibited at 2.35:1 and is presented as such (in 16x9) on the DVD. However, the previous laserdisc release opened the matte to 1.85:1, revealing a tremendous amount of information on the top and bottom of the screen. The scope framing really works greater for the film, lending it a sense of epic sweep missing in the postcard framing of the LD. The 5.1 mix sounds terrific, not surprisingly, though John Frizzell's serviceable score remains largely buried deep within the mix. Skimpy extras include the original trailer and a very brief studio promotion piece (too bad they couldn't include the entire made-for-cable half hour special).

The fifth DVD, available by mail only with the complete box set, contains a 66 minute documentary on the making of Alien. The box also contains a small packet of collector's photo cards and fold out booklets with liner notes for each film. (Unfortunately, the Alien: Resurrection booklet makes the regrettable goof of mixing up the cast pictures, rather hilariously - Dominique Pinon is placed above the bio of J.E. Freeman, who isn't pictured at all, while Leland Orser's picture contains no bio at all). Each disc is dual layered with discreet layer switches.

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