Alien Quadrilogy

Starring: Sigourney Weaver
20th Century Fox
RRP 69.99
Certificate: 18
Available now

The crew of the deep-space freighter
Nostromo are awoken early from hypersleep by automatic systems to investigate a mysterious transmission. On a desolate planetoid, they discover the sinister, pulsating eggs of a deadly unknown life form. For crewmember Ellen Ripley, this is just the first of several terrifying encounters with the bloodthirsty alien species...

This box set contains all four Alien films. "So what?" you may ask, "So did the Alien Legacy box set." Well, this one contains two versions of each film, including Ridley Scott's 2003 director's cut of the first movie.

The differences between the two editions of Alien are minimal. There's a significant extra scene (which pre-empts one of the ideas in the sequel Aliens) but, because Scott has tightened up other scenes, the film actually ends up running 50 seconds shorter overall. It should come as no surprise that Scott, the director who took more out of his special edition of Blade Runner than he put back in, doesn't go in for pointless tinkering. As we get to see from the deleted scenes among the special features, there was plenty of other footage that he decided not to incorporate.

The truth is that there isn't much room for improvement in the original version of Alien. Admittedly it has, to an extent, lost its key weapon: surprise. You'd have to have been living on a desolate planetoid yourself not to know that alien eggs contain gruesome facehuggers, which impregnate their victims with a baby alien that, in due course, bursts out of the victim's chest. But somehow that doesn't make it any less scary to watch as John Hurt's character, Kane, leans over one of the eggs. Not for the first time, I found myself thinking: "Don't stick your face over there, John!"

And fortunately, like Monty Python's Spanish Inquisition, the film has several other key weapons at its disposal. One of the most crucial is the design. The use of two different artists, production designer Ron Cobb and Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger, makes for a dramatic contrast between the human and alien environments. The grotty interior of the Nostromo is the antithesis of slick spaceships such as Star Trek's Enterprise. Cobb created a look that would influence fictional futures for years to come, including the rest of the Alien saga. Meanwhile, Giger provides not only the famous creature design but also one of the most unsettling alien ship interiors ever seen. Scott makes the most of these sets, hinting at hidden horrors in every corner. The pipes and buttresses of the Nostromo, together with the biomechanical look of the alien itself, fiendishly deceive the eye into thinking that the creature might spring from a darkened recess at any moment.

Natural and strong performances from the entire cast, an eclectic combination of American and British actors, and an unnerving score by Jerry Goldsmith, also help to maintain the tangible tension throughout.

When he came to direct Aliens, James Cameron knew that he couldn't top the shock tactics of Alien, so instead he upped the ante with shiploads of action and adventure. He once likened the difference between the two films to that between a ghost train and a roller-coaster ride. In the former you don't know what's coming. In the latter you know exactly what's coming - but there's nothing you can do to stop it!

In the case of this movie, the special edition is generally considered to be the definitive one, by audiences and the director alike. This extended version has already been widely seen on video, DVD and television, so much so that the theatrical edition is the rarity on this occasion. Both versions are classics, though the 148-minute special edition provides valuable back-story for Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), Newt (Carrie Henn) and the other colonists of LV-426, which heightens the drama rather than dilute it. Cameron is a master at balancing jaw-dropping visuals with emotional intensity, as Terminator 2 and Titanic have also proved, never letting the action get in the way of telling a great story.

As with Alien, the director is aided by strong performances from his cast, particularly Sigourney Weaver, the young Carrie Henn, and Lance Henriksen as Bishop. Here Weaver paves the way for Linda Hamilton's kick-ass Sarah Connor in Terminator 2.

James Horner (who, coincidentally, similarly took over from Jerry Goldsmith in the Star Trek movie franchise) also does excellent work, though I do wish that he hadn't recycled some of his Trek themes!

Whereas Ridley Scott already had The Duellists under his belt when he was hired to helm Alien and audiences were already familiar with The Terminator when James Cameron unleashed his Aliens, Alien 3 marked the first time that David (Se7en) Fincher had ever directed a movie. His work is a fascinating effort and a good debut movie, but the franchise and the audience demanded more of a known quantity.

Fincher was also hindered by studio interference, which ultimately watered down several decent script ideas (as the documentaries among the special features reveal). The all-male prison colony's treatment of the female Ripley as "the root of all evil" is interesting, but would have made more sense in the intended context of a colony of monks, rather than the muddled notion of a group of hardened convicts who have found God.

The use of a mainly British cast was possibly a response to the all-American flavour of Aliens, but it seems conspicuously unlikely to have a space prison entirely populated by Brits. Brian Glover's performance as the warden Andrews isn't terribly convincing either.

The special edition in this instance is not a director's cut (indeed, Fincher refused to be involved with the project) but an earlier 1991 edit, featuring an extra half-hour of footage. I prefer the theatrical version, because the extended edition is just too long and too loosely paced. However, there are some startling variations here, including a different landing site for Ripley, a very different birth for the alien, and an extra subplot for Golic (Paul McGann). Some new CGI looks a bit cheap, though, and, worst of all, variations in sound quality and balance between the old and the restored footage are irritatingly noticeable.

Alien Resurrection makes a bigger impression in terms of action than Alien 3, though I remain unconvinced about its overall tone. Moments of character-based humour have their place in this saga, as exemplified by many of the exchanges that take place between the marines in Aliens, but I think writer Joss (Buffy) Whedon and director Jean-Pierre (Delicatessen) Jeunet go too far with their bizarre death scenes and (in the special edition) a live-action title sequence more suited to the offbeat TV series Lexx.

The main thing that this film has in its favour is the role played by Ripley. Resurrected, along with the alien queen she was carrying inside her, from a blood sample 200 years after her death, the new Ripley has acquired some of the alien's characteristics, including increased strength and acidic blood. Weaver takes the opportunity to inject unearthly qualities into her performance as a creature whose loyalties are divided between the humans and the aliens.

Interestingly, Alien Resurrection revives several ideas originally considered during the making of previous instalments. The research vessel setting is notably similar to the research station setting toyed with during the turbulent pre-production of Alien 3, when the notion of posing a direct threat to the planet Earth was also mooted. The airlock scene at the end of the film was originally planned during the making of Alien, but was ruled out as too expensive to achieve at the time.

As with Alien 3, the theatrical edition is its director's preferred version. The "special edition" merely restores the original idea for the title sequence and an extra seven minutes of footage, including a slightly different ending.

Each movie is presented with DTS sound, apart from Alien 3, which makes do with Dolby Digital 5.1. With the exception of the Alien 3 special edition, the films sound excellent. The prints and transfers are mostly flawless, though some parts of Aliens remain a little grainy. One version of each movie is accompanied by an audio commentary - in the case of Aliens this is on the special edition, while on the others it accompanies the theatrical version.

Each film is complemented by a companion disc, each containing several hours of no-holds-barred documentaries, plus hundreds of stills, storyboards and conceptual artworks, original drafts of screenplays and loads of other stuff.

A ninth disc comprises "miscellaneous" material, including the acclaimed 65-minute Channel 4 documentary, Alien Evolution, teasers and trailers, and even the extras from the laserdisc releases of Alien and Aliens. Truth be told, the only truly miscellaneous feature is a gallery of covers from Dark Horse comics. The contents of this disc could easily have been divided among the other four bonus discs, with the Dark Horse stuff being added to disc 2 of Alien Resurrection.

Nevertheless, this is a truly awesome package, a beast of a box set that should keep you occupied for days, if not weeks.

Richard McGinlay

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