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Alien Anthology

(2010) *** 1/2 R
552 min. 20th Century Fox. Directors: Ridley Scott, James Cameron, David Fincher, Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Cast: Sigourney Weaver, John Hurt, Tom Skerritt, Yaphet Kotto, Harry Dean Stanton, Ian Holm, Paul Reiser, Bill Paxton, Michael Biehn, Charles S. Dutton, Charles Dance, Pete Postlethwaite, Winona Ryder, Ron Perlman, Dan Hedaya, Michael Wincott, Dominique Pinon.

/content/films/3866/1.jpgIt's time to get cra-zay, Alien fans. With original Alien director Ridley Scott in pre-production on a prequel, it's as good time as any to revisit the four films that comprise the Alien franchise mothership (let us forget—as does this set—the two Alien vs. Predator films). The franchise evolved into a playground for auteurs: following Ridley Scott's indelible Alien, James Cameron helmed Aliens, David Fincher took the reins of Alien³, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet directed Alien: Resurrection. These films and over sixty hours of bonus features populate Alien Anthology on Blu-ray, a positively encyclopedic reference to the beloved science-fiction horror series.

Alien (1979): **** When Alien hit cinemas in 1979, it was certainly a direct successor to 1977's Star Wars, capitalizing on the immediate commercial viability of space adventures. All the same, Alien was distinctive in its power to shock, upping the ante for creature features and so skillful in its construction and its scares as to suggest a sort of Psycho in space. The crew of the commercial towing ship Nostromo inadvisedly answers an emergency beacon and allows an alien predator onboard: matters go from bad to worse to bowel-loosening mayhem. Alien has lost little over the years; its restraint, in particular, speaks well for it as one of Ridley Scott's most tastefully directed films. Given the plot's "ick" factor, "tasteful" may not be the word for everyone, but the picture is practically perfect in every turn of the screw. The designs of Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger astound, the score of Jerry Goldsmith (resolved in the end by Howard Hanson's "Symphony No. 2") unsettles, and Scott's patient visual storytelling via Derek Vanlint's photography and Terry Rawling's taut editing give the picture a sweaty tension. More so than later entries in the series, Alien follows the Jaws standard of "less is more": glimpses of the alien more often than money shots. Veronica Cartwright amplifies the fear factor with her memorably terrified crew member; she's part of a crack ensemble that also includes Tom Skerritt, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Harry Dean Stanton, Yaphet Kotto and, of course, Sigourney Weaver, who became the face of the series as Ellen Ripley. [Scott's alternate 2003 "Director's Cut" offers approximately four new minutes of footage, while snipping about five from the original cut: though he approves of both versions, Scott still considers the original 1979 cut definitive.]

Aliens (1986): ***1/2 James Cameron's amped-up sequel is big and loud, and though subtlety is not its strong suit, it delivers the goods as a slam-bang entertainment. It's a quintessential Cameron construction, with lusty roughnecks and a lustful approach to high-tech. Trash-talking Colonial Marines accompany a reticient Ripley back to the place from whence the aliens made first contact with humans, but it's not long before the tables are turned with Ripley taking charge and the Marines soiling their fatigues. Cameron gets final screenplay credit, from a story co-authored with original scribes David Giler and Walter Hill, and something of a saving grace for the film is the attention given to Ripley's evolving emotional status as it relates to the science-fiction premise du jour—she's over-hyperslept, outliving her own daughter—and the fallout of that stolen motherhood, a point pressed by the presence of survivalist orphan girl Newt (Carrie Henn). Michael Biehn of Terminator fame offers Ripley a worthy partner in action as well as a romantic prospect, Paul Reiser lends a bit of levity as a slippery agent of the ruthless Weyland-Yutani Corporation, and Lance Henriksen plays the latest model of android (can he be trusted?). Way over the top as an a-hole marine, Bill Paxton gets the immortal line "Game over, man! Game over!" Truth in advertising: Aliens multiplies the threat, pointing the way for the age of bigger-means-better sequels. [Cameron prefers his 1992 "Special Edition" cut, which restores seventeen minutes of footage.]

Alien³ (1992): **1/2 The basic formula for the Alien franchise doesn't offer a lot of wiggle room, a problem that became clear with the third and fourth films of the series. Not unlike a Die Hard outing, an Alien film requires returning its protagonist to an unlikely situation only she can handle, in opposition to a familiar enemy. Everyone around Ripley will behave skeptically, and she will always be proven right, as aliens begin busting out all over. Director Vincent Ward had some very intriguing (and some questionable) ideas for Alien 3, involving a wooden planet of space monks, but we'll never know if he would've been able to pull them off. Instead, first-time feature director David Fincher was recruited to beat a preordained release deadline (working from a perpetually unfinished script) after Ward was released over creative differences. The results reflect Fincher's stylistic promise and resistance to commercial compromise; for better and worse, Alien³ wins the prize for grimmest franchise sequel ever made. Relentlessly dark and disturbing, the picture crash-lands Ripley at a prison planet, where she must fend off aliens without any conventional weaponry. Though there are reactionary wardens, and a smart but world-weary doctor (Charles Dance), the roost is ruled by a strain of revivalist millenarian Christians (as the pivotal inmate, Charles S. Dutton makes a typically strong impression). Fincher goes for the gut with a story that steadily diminishes hope rather than building it; it's unfortunate that the process resulted in largely incoherent thematic exploration and a clunky structure despite the film's stylish tech credits. [The 2003 "Assembly Cut" undoubtedly comes closer to Fincher's original intent, although the director has never participated in a final edit of the film, having walked off the project in frustration during the original editing phase.]

Alien: Resurrection (1997): **1/2 Fox convinced Weaver to return to the well for this oddball entry, which—in the hands of director Jean-Pierre Jeunet (The City of Lost Children)—skews closest to a cartoon. Weaver gets completely new notes to play as a human-alien hybrid clone of Ripley 200 years after the events of Alien³ (how's that for tying the franchise in knots?), but all the plot dressing around this development hardly disguises that it's aliens stalking humans in a spaceship, again. Much of the curiosity factor for this entry comes from screenwriter Joss Whedon (who warms up on space pirates in anticipation of his 2002 series Firefly) and the unusual cast, which includes Jeunet vets Ron Perlman and Dominique Pinon, Winona Ryder, Brad Dourif, Leland Orser, and Dan Hedaya, most of them mugging it up like there's no tomorrow. Content to be a team-playing hired hand, Jeunet crafts some eye-popping visuals (an underwater sequence involving the aliens particularly impresses) but doesn't have a strong take on the material, understandable given the extensive studio tinkering under which Whedon's script suffered. There's some fun to be had here, if one doesn't take any of it very seriously, which seems to have been precisely the point after the dour (though surprisingly profitable) Alien³. [The 2003 "Special Edition" of the film isn't Jeunet's preferred cut, but he's game to offer it as an alternate experience with an alternate opening credits and reincorporated deleted scenes.]

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Aspect ratios: 2.39:1, 1.85:1

Number of discs: 6

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 10/26/2010

Distributor: 20th Century Fox Home Video

I'm telling you, Alien fans. This is the MU-TH-UR of all Alien sets to date, and it's not likely ever to be topped in terms of content provided for the first four Alien films (unless David Fincher decides to revisit the heartbreak that was his first film). All four films unequivocally look and sound their best in their hi-def debuts, and seamless branching enables viewing of either the original theatrical cut of any film, or its alternate "Director's" or "Special Edition" cut. "Grotty" is the one word that applies to the look of all four films, so these transfers don't have the spit-shine of a bright and uber-dimensional contemporary film on HD, but that's no knock to this set, which faithfully renders film-like transfers with natural grain, best-yet color representation, spot-on contrast and black levels, and revelatory detail across the board (the most dramatic difference in appearance rests with Aliens, which has undergone a careful upgrade for HD under Cameron's supervision: this means less grain and noise but higher resolution for a pleasingly detailed image). The potent lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround mixes can be considered definitive, with comparable attention to detail in effects, brilliant separation, and bold, full character for the musical scores.

I cannot think of any set on Blu-ray that can match the depth of bonus features on Alien Anthology. For starters, there's MU-TH-UR Mode, an interactive feature that communicates across discs to personalize your viewing experience. When activated during playback, the mode provides access to audio commentaries and trivia tracks (the "Weyland-Yutani Datastream"). One can also peruse bonus-feature content and set "data tags" to teach the discs which bonus features one wants to watch. It's a "bells and whistles" feature that doesn't, in fact, add much, but some may prefer this way of organizing their viewing experience while taking in the audio commentaries.

Disc One (Alien) offers the 1979 Theatrical Version and 2003 Director's Cut with Ridley Scott Introduction. Audio options include a 2003 audio commentary with director Ridley Scott, writer Dan O'Bannon, executive producer Ronald Shusett, editor Terry Rawlings, and actors Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skeritt, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, and John Hurt, as well as a separate audio commentary by Scott (Theatrical Cut). Presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 are the Final Theatrical Isolated Score by Jerry Goldsmith and Composer's Original Isolated Score by Jerry Goldsmith. Disc one also includes "Deleted and Extended Scenes" (6:39, HD) and a handy Deleted Scene Footage Marker that, when selected from the menu, plants an unobtrusive icon on the "Director's Cut" footage that differs from the "Theatrical Version."

Disc Two (Aliens) serves up the 1986 Theatrical Version and 1991 Special Edition with James Cameron Introduction. One can listen to an audio commentary with director James Cameron, producer Gale Anne Hurd, alien effects creator Stan Winston, visual effects supervisors Robert Skotak and Dennis Skotak, miniature effects supervisor Pat McClung, and actors Michael Biehn, Bill Paxton, Lance Henriksen, Jenette Goldstein, Carrie Henn, and Christopher Henn, or check out, in Dolby Digital 5.1, the Final Theatrical Isolated Score by James Horner or Composer's Original Isolated Score by James Horner. Lastly, you'll find "Deleted and Extended Scenes" (19:57, HD).

Disc Three (Alien³) delivers the 1992 Theatrical Version and 2003 Special Edition (Restored Workprint Version), along with audio commentary (Theatrical Version) by cinematographer Alex Thomson, editor Terry Rawlings, alien effects designers Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff, Jr., visual effects producer Richard Edlund, and actors Paul McGann and Lance Henriksen and the Final Theatrical Isolated Score by Elliot Goldenthal in Dolby Digital 5.1. 31 "Deleted and Extended Scenes" (49:28, HD) round out the disc.

Disc Four (Alien: Resurrection) presents the 1997 Theatrical Version and 2003 Special Edition with Jean-Pierre Jeunet Introduction, plus audio commentary by director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, editor Herve Schneid, alien effects creators Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff, Jr., visual effects supervisor Pitof, conceptual artist Sylvain Despretz, and actors Ron Perlman, Dominique Pinon, and Leland Orser. Also on hand are the Final Theatrical Isolated Score by John Frizzell (in Dolby Digital 5.1) and "Deleted and Extended Scenes" (11:54, HD).

Believe it or not, you ain't seen nothing yet. Disc Five (headlined Making the Anthology) offers up extensive making-of documentaries on each film (as well as tons of bonus clips) made accessible in a number of ways, including through a thorough and easily navigable index in the disc's menus. Since this material mostly derives from the earlier Alien Quadrilogy DVD set, it's presented in SD, but there's one hugely important upgrade for this BD edition: the Alien³ documentary, previously censored, now appears in its original Wreckage and Rage: The Making of Alien³ form, including sensitive footage of David Fincher denouncing Fox from the set of the film. Kudos to Fox for presenting this unexpurgated version demanded by film fans.

The Beast Within: Making 'Alien' comprises "Star Beast: Developing the Story" (18:14, SD), "The Visualists: Direction and Design" (14:54, SD), "Truckers in Space: Casting" (14:54, SD), "Fear of the Unknown: Shepperton Studios, 1978" (24:03, SD), "The Darkest Reaches: Nostromo and Alien Planet" (17:28, SD), "The Eight Passenger: Creature Design" (31:35, SD), "Future Tense: Editing and Music" (16:28, SD), "Outward Bound: Visual Effects" (18:52, SD), and "A Nightmare Fulfilled: Reaction to the Film" (19:22, SD). Alien Enhancement Pods (1:19:43, SD) continue the behind-the-scenes narrative with "Conceiving the Alien Lifecycle," "The Influence of Jodorowsky's Dune," "O'Bannon Working with Shusett," "Ridley Scott's Epiphany," "Jon Finch Sets the Record Straight," "Finding the Right Ripley," "Actors as Props," "Sigourney Weaver Learns the Ropes," "The Functional Art of Ron Cobb," "Dailies: Parker and Brett Ad-Lib," "That Used Future Look," "Bolaji Badejo Alien Movement Tests," "Discovering Bolaji Badejo," "Giger on Giger," "The Disturbing Brilliance of H.R. Giger," "James Cameron Dissects Alien," "Cocoon of Love," "Jerry Goldsmith Recalls Alien," "Goldsmith on Silence," "The Pros and Cons of Temp Tracks," "Same-Sex Relationships in Space," "Toy Birds of Destruction," "Oscar Night Memories," "Test Footage: Nostromo on Forklift," "End of a Genre," "First Impressions," and "O'Bannon's Fight for Credit."

Superior Firepower: Making Aliens covers "57 Years Later: Continuing the Story" (11:05, SD), "Building Better Worlds: From Concept to Construction" (13:29, SD), "Preparing for Battle: Casting and Characterization" (17:00, SD), "This Time It's War: Pinewood Studios, 1985" (19:39, SD), "The Risk Always Lives: Weapons and Action" (15:12, SD), "Bug Hunt: Creature Design" (16:23, SD), "Beauty and the Bitch: Power Loader vs. Queen Alien" (22:25, SD), "Two Orphans: Sigourney Weaver and Carrie Henn" (13:48, SD), "The Final Countdown: Music, Editing, and Sound" (15:31, SD), "The Power of Real Tech: Visual Effects" (27:47, SD) and "Aliens Unleashed: Reaction to the Film" (12:33, SD), along with Aliens Enhancement Pods (58:31, SD) "Without Sigourney Weaver," "Origins of Acheron," "Building Hadley's Hope," "Cameron's Design Philosophy," "Finding an Unused Power Plant," "Cameron's Military Interests," "Working with Sigourney Weaver," "The Importance of Being Bishop," "Paul Reiser on Carter Burke," "The Paxton/Cameron Connection," "Becoming Vasquez," "On Set: Infiltrating the Colony," "Props: Personal Light Unit," "Simon Atherton Talks Weapons," "Prasing Stan Winston," "Test Footage: Chestburster," "Fighting the Facehugger," "Test Footage: Facehugger," "Stan Winston's Challenge," "Test Footage: Queen Alien," "Stan Winston's Legacy," "Cameron's Cutting Edge," "Sigourney Weaver's Triumph," "Re-Enlisting with Cameron," and "From Producer to Stunt Double."

You'd better believe Wreckage and Rage: Making Alien³ is especially fascinating; the chapters include "Development Hell: Concluding the Story (17:42, SD), "Tales of the Wooden Planet: Vincent Ward's Vision" (13:11, SD), "Stasis Interrupted: David Fincher's Vision" (14:13, SD), "Xeno-Erotic: H.R. Giger's Redesign" (10:20, SD), "The Color of Blood: Pinewood Studios, 1991" (23:42, SD), "Adaptive Organism: Creature Design" (20:58, SD), "The Downward Spiral: Creative Differences" (14:55, SD), "Where the Sun Burns Cold: Fox Studios, L.A. 1992" (17:33, SD), "Optical Fury: Visual Effects" (24:04, SD), "Requiem for a Scream: Music, Editing, and Sound" (14:53, SD) and "Post-Mortem: Reaction to the Film" (8:25, SD). Alien³ Enhancement Pods (1:14:03, SD) include "Renny Harlin Quits," "Explaining the Wooden Planet," "Ezra Swerdlow's Concerns," "Intimidating Baldies," "Roaming the Fury 161 Set," "The Art of Storyboarding," "Hicks' Alternative Future," "Costuming for Character," "On Set: Filming the Alien's POV," "Head Casting with Charles Dutton," "On Set: Filming the Oxburster," "Sausage-Motivated Alien Whippet," "Fincher's Alienation," "Lance Henriksen Returns in Style," "Sucking Up to Fincher," "Detailing the EEV Miniature," "Matte Painting Memories," "How to Make Alien Acid Saliva," "The Sulaco's Cameo," "The Weaver Wagger," "Bald Cap Blues," "Bragging Rights," "Stealing Sigourney's Top," "Creating Alien Sounds from Scratch," "Dangerous Location Recording," "Painful Low End Frequencies," "The Power of Silence," "Ripley's Evolution" and "Mixed Reactions."

One Step Beyond: Making Alien: Resurrection unfolds with "From the Ashes: Reviving the Story" (10:10), "French Twist: Direction and Design" (26:09, SD), "Under the Skin: Casting and Characterization" (12:45, SD), "Death from Below: Fox Studios, Los Angeles, 1996" (31:36, SD), "In the Zone: The Basketball Scene" (6:43, SD), "Unnatural Mutation: Creature Design" (26:21, SD), "Genetic Composition: Music" (13:10, SD), "Virtual Aliens: Computer Generated Imagery" (9:53, SD), "A Matter of Scale: Miniature Photography" (22:50, SD) and "Critical Juncture: Reaction to the Film" (14:28, SD). Alien: Resurrection Enhancement Pods (1:15:17, SD) include "Costuming the Betty Crew," "Intentionally Uncomfortable Costumes," "Creating Ripley's New Look," "Downsizing the Design," "Dueling Design Sensibilities," "Breaking the Language Barrier," "The Storyboard Bible," "Preparing for Action," "Winona Ryder Answers the Call," "Surviving the Shoot," "Swimming with Aliens," "The Art of Slime," "The Cloning Process," "Considering Giger's Legacy," "Newborn Dick Removal," "The Evolution of the Alien," "Designing the Newborn," "Becoming a Film Composer," "The Burden of Temp Music," "Animating Underwater Aliens," "VFX: Knifing Ripley's Hand," "VFX: Shooting Miniature," "Abandoning the Bug Opening," "Ending After Ending After Ending," "Remembering the Premiere" and "Future Franchise Directions."

Disc Six gathers various other orphan bonus materials, including screenplays, storyboards, screen tests, deleted scenes, visual effects footage and a ton more. These are The Anthology Archives. Alien Pre-Production includes First Draft Screenplay by Dan O'Bannon (HD), Ridleygrams: Original Thumbnails and Notes (HD), Storyboard Archive (HD), The Art of Alien: Conceptual Art Portfolio (HD), Sigourney Weaver Screen Tests with Select Director Commentary (SD) and Cast Portrait Gallery (HD). Alien Production moves on to "The Chestbuster: Multi-Angle Sequence with Commentary" (5:28, SD), "Video Graphics Gallery" (5:31, SD), Production Image Galleries (HD), Continuity Polaroids (HD), The Sets of Alien (HD) and H.R. Giger's Workshop Gallery (HD). Alien Post-Production and Aftermath includes seven "Additional Deleted Scenes" (16:33, SD) not included in the Director's Cut, Image & Poster Galleries (HD), vintage promo "Experience in Terror" (7:10, SD), Special Collector's Edition LaserDisc Archive (HD), feature-length making-of doc The Alien Legacy (1:06:53, SD), "American Cinematheque: Ridley Scott Q&A" (15:40, SD), two "Trailers" (2:06, SD) and two "TV Spots" (1:02, SD).

In Aliens Pre-Production: Original Treatment by James Cameron (HD), "Pre-Visualizations: Multi-Angle Videomatics with Commentary" (3:13, SD), Storyboard Archives (HD), "The Art of Aliens: Image Galleries" (HD) and Cast Portrait Gallery (HD). In Aliens Production: Production Image Galleries (HD), Continuity Polaroids (HD), Weapons and Vehicles (HD), Stan Winston's Workshop (HD), "Colonial Marine Helmet Cameras" (5:01, SD), "Video Graphics Gallery" (4:04, SD) and "Weyland-Yutani Inquest: Nostromo Dossiers" (3:35, SD). In Aliens Post-Producton and Aftermath: "Deleted Scene: Burke Cocooned" (1:31, SD), "Deleted Scene Montage" (4:07, SD), Image Galleries (HD), Special Collector's Edition LaserDisc Archive (HD), "Main Title Exploration" (2:55, SD), "Aliens: Ride at the Speed of Fright" (8:16, SD), four "Trailers" (4:15, SD) and a "TV Spot" (:32, SD).

In Alien³ Pre-Production: Storyboard Archive (HD), The Art of Arceon (HD) and The Art of Fiorina (HD). In Alien³ Production: "Furnace Construction: Time-Lapse Sequence" (4:35, SD), "EEV Bioscan: Multi-Angle Vignette with Commentary" (2:02, SD), Production Image Galleries (HD) and A.D.I.'s Workshop (HD). In Alien³ Post-Production and Aftermath: Visual Effects Gallery (HD), Special Shoot: Promotional Photo Archive (HD), "Alien³ Advance Featurette" (2:56, SD), "The Making of Alien³ Promotional Featurette" (23:24, SD), five "Trailers" (6:07, SD) and seven "TV Spots" (2:15, SD).

In Alien: Resurrection Pre-Production: First Draft Screenplay by Joss Whedon (HD), "Test Footage: A.D.I. Creature Shop with Commentary" (9:51, SD), "Test Footage: Costumes, Hair, and Makeup" (4:40, SD), "Pre-Visualizations: Multi-Angle Rehearsals" (2:52, SD), "Storyboard Archive" (HD), "The Marc Caro Portfolio: Character Designs" (HD) and "The Art of Resurrection: Image Galleries" (HD). In Alien: Resurrection Production: Production Image Galleries (HD) and A.D.I.'s Workshop (HD). In Alien: Resurrection Post-Production and Aftermath: Visual Effects Gallery (HD), Special Shoot: Promotional Photo Archive (HD), "HBO First Look: The Making of Alien: Resurrection" (25:40, SD), "Alien: Resurrection Promotional Featurette" (3:56, SD) two "Trailers" (3:39, SD) and four "TV Spots" (1:24, SD).

Finally, the Anthology includes some franchise overview bonuses: two versions of the British doc Alien Evolution (48:58, SD and 1:04:33, SD), the John Hurt-narrated feature-length doc The Alien Saga (1:49:02, SD), Aliens 3D Attraction Scripts and Gallery (HD), Aliens in the Basement: The Bob Burns Collection (16:54, SD), parody clips from Family Guy (:32, SD) and Spaceballs (1:47, SD), Dark Horse Comics Still Gallery (HD), and a Patches and Logos Gallery (HD).

Add in Credits and Easter Eggs and you have six full-to-bursting Blu-ray discs that could basically be your full-time job for two weeks. Sci-fi fans, you have my permission: geek out.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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