Alien Quadrilogy

Alien: Director's Cut
Tom Skerritt, Sigourney Weaver, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto. Directed by Ridley Scott. Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 (anamorphic). 5.1 Dolby Digital, DTS (English), Mono (Spanish). 116 minutes. 1979.
Picture ***1/2
Sound **1/2
Film ****

Aliens: Special Edition
Sigourney Weaver, Carrie Henn, Michael Biehn, Paul Reiser, Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton. Directed by James Cameron. Aspect ratio: 1.85:1 (anamorphic). 5.1 Dolby Digital, 2.0 Surround (Spanish). 154 minutes. 1986.
Picture ***
Sound ***1/2
Film ***1/2

Alien3: Special Edition
Sigourney Weaver, Charles S. Dutton, Charles Dance, Lance Henriksen, Pete Postlethwaite. Directed by David Fincher. Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 (anamorphic). 5.1 Dolby Digital (English), 2.0 Surround (Spanish). 144 minutes. 1992.
Picture ****
Sound ****
Film **1/2

Alien Resurrection: Special Edition
Sigourney Weaver, Winona Ryder, Ron Perlman, Dan Hedaya, J.E. Freeman, Brad Dourif, Michael Wincott. Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 (anamorphic). 5.1 Dolby Digital, DTS (English), 2.0 Surround (Spanish). 116 minutes. 1997.
Picture ***1/2
Sound ***1/2
Film *1/2

All: THX-certified. 9 discs. 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment 2009823. R. $99.98.

Alien might just be the definitive haunted-house movie. One of the scariest films ever made, it's a classic horror story cleverly disguised as science fiction. Described by its creator, Dan O'Bannon, as a high-budget remake of his quirky film-school project, Dark Star (directed by John Carpenter), it might never have been made except for the remarkable success of 1977's Star Wars.

It also spawned—pardon the word—a franchise that included three sequels of varying quality and video releases in all popular formats, including DVD. But you've never seen anything like this before. If you're a fan of the four Alien films, the new Alien Quadrilogy boxed set is as exhaustive a compilation of the saga as you could hope for.

Two discs are devoted to each film. The first disc includes both the theatrical version and a special cut referred to as either a Director's Cut or a Special Edition (the distinction is explained in the package, so I won't dwell on it here). The running times given above refer to these revised cuts. The two versions are encoded via seamless branching, a technique that avoids having to encode each cut in its entirety, and thus saves disc space. All have commentary tracks and multiple sound formats. And all of the films allow the viewer to select optional flags that pop up onscreen to indicate the added scenes.

The second disc for each movie contains a flood of extras, including mostly excellent "Making of" documentaries on the pre-production, production, and post-production phases, stills and photos, deleted scenes, and more. And as if that weren't enough for the obsessed, there's a ninth disc with trailers and TV spots, a complete archive of special features that appeared on the laserdisc releases of the first two films (the primitive nature of these LD extras, all of them stills, is a stark reminder of just how amazing the best of today's DVD sets really are), and a grab bag of other features. Most of the latter are a little redundant after you've digested the content of the other discs, and of dicey technical quality as well, but will be welcomed by diehard fans regardless.

It's hard to work up any serious complaints about the overall production of this package: The producers appear to have given us nearly everything they could dredge up on the making of these four films. The only obvious omission: isolated music tracks, as were included in 2001's otherwise much less exhaustive Alien Legacy set. If the special features are better, for the most part, in some boxed sets of more recent productions—the extended editions of The Lord of the Rings films jump immediately to mind—it's largely because those movies were shot in the DVD era, with the DVD special features planned as far back as the films' pre-production stages.

But if the extras here are the icing, the films themselves are the cake. Little need be added to the above description of Alien except to note that I preferred the original theatrical cut to the newer director's version. There isn't much changed: a few added scenes and snippets of scenes, a little tightening-up here and there. Overall, the Director's Cut is a minute shorter than the original, which must be a first.

The only problem with Alien is that it makes watching the rest of the films a bit of a chore. That's particularly true of Alien3 and Alien Resurrection, the third and fourth installments. In either version, Alien Resurrection is a waste of time. The characters are totally unlikable—even Sigourney Weaver's Ripley, an appealing heroine in the first three films, is a little creepy here, if understandably so. While none of the Alien films are exactly bright and sunny, the atmosphere in this installment is the grimmest of the lot. I also could have done without the additional gore that made its way into the longer version (true of Alien3 as well). And the less said about the laughable conclusion, the better. The only possible compensation is the respectable though not amazing DVD transfer. Both the picture and sound quality are good, though the images—filmed in Super 35—are a little softer than in the anamorphically lensed Alien and Alien3. But that's an issue with the original photography, not the DVD transfer.

The Special Edition of Alien3 is a significant improvement over the theatrical cut in making sense of what's going on. Some of the added scenes have rough-cut dialog tracks. You can select subtitles for these spots, though it isn't really necessary—none of the hard-to-hear dialog is critical. I did appreciate director David Fincher's vivid style (this was his first major theatrical film), but not the story, which alienates (pun intended) the viewer from the very beginning by what it does to three key characters. On the plus side, the picture and sound quality are easily the best of all four films. The images are crisp and clear without visible edge enhancement, even in the darkest, most difficult scenes. The sound is expansive and enveloping, including a fine recording of composer Elliot Goldenthal's excellent, and underappreciated, score. The overall sound is so good on this DVD that the rating has not been downgraded for the unpolished soundtracks of the Special Edition's few added scenes.

Aliens is easily the most intense of the four films, and the most controversial. Few will defend the last two entries, but many fans of Alien dislike the abrupt shift in tone that director James Cameron brought to this first sequel. Though it does have its share of scares and chills, Aliens is more a straightforward sci-fi action film than a tense thriller. Nevertheless, I've always thought it a science-fiction masterpiece, and one of Cameron's best films, if not the best. I still do. The extended edition doesn't really improve on the original; it provides additional background, but in doing so slows down the film's pace. Overall, I prefer the theatrical cut.

As for picture and sound, the video on Aliens is a mixed bag. It's the only one of the four movies photographed at 1.85:1. Some early scenes aboard the medical station look flat and washed-out (particularly the inquiry). Things pick up a bit when the action gets moving, but this is still far from the best-looking DVD you'll see this year. The sound, however, is solid, and James Horner's atmospheric score is particularly effective. (Some find it bombastic. See the special features for a detailed discussion of the impossible conditions under which it was written. The participants try to be diplomatic, but Horner makes it clear why he didn't write another score for Cameron until Titanic, 11 years later.)

All four films are rated R for both language and violence—particularly blood and gore. Take the rating seriously. Alien and Aliens make an effort to keep most of the terror in the viewer's mind rather than present it vividly on the screen, but each has a few graphic scenes (in both cases involving a chest-burster and something about an android). But Alien3 and Alien Resurrection, particularly in their longer editions, are not at all subtle. There's a big difference between the truly scary and the merely gross. Scott and Cameron honor that difference in their Alien movies; Fincher and Jeunet do not.

If this release is something of a mixed bag, it's only because it gives us two superb films along with exhaustive supplements, and two more that will be sure bets only to completists. Only you can decide if the asking price and contents make this a must-have set.—TJN