The re-re-packaging of ALIEN still features stunning audio and terrific video.
The world of ALIEN is hard to match; an ugly future imagined by Ridley Scott not only set the tone for most Science-Fiction films since its release in 1979, but also put the director on the map. To be truthful, it’s quite possible he’s been chasing that respect ever since, currently stuck in a malaise of awful films including EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS that detract from his other impressive achievements like BLADE RUNNER. And while the home release of ALIEN is stellar in every way, one has to ask themselves if the constant re-packaging of these discs has dulled its once pristine allure.
When the crew of mining vessel Nostromo are awakened from their cryo-sleep one year early to investigate a distress signal from LV423, they discover a horrific monster that science officer Ash (Ian Holm) admires because of, “its purity, its sense of survival; unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.” For Warrant Officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), Ash’s words ring hollow, as she witnesses one Xenomorph born from an attack on Executive Officer Kane (John Hurt) kill the rest of the crew including her captain (Tom Skerritt). Their attempts to kill it only result in more casualties, with Ripley learning of the devious reason behind their diversion in the first place. Even when she sets the auto-destruct on the Nostromo, the alien manages to find its way to the rescue pod, leading to a now-epic final battle between them.
At its heart, ALIEN is a magnificent horror film set in space. It’s STAR WARS, JAWS, and 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY blended together into a terrifying spectacle of survival in the face of a superior and deadly life form. Of course, the scene of a scantily-clad Weaver near film’s end also helped to elevate it in the minds of geeky boys who hadn’t seen such beauty before; but that’s a subject to debate later. This is one I can put away for awhile, then watch it again and see so many new things I hadn’t caught before. The Theatrical and Director’s Cut aren’t much different, with scattered moments captured for our criticisms; but there is one inconsistency I’d like to understand. Scott has completely transformed some of the monochromatic screens on the Nostromo into updated dynamic versions, while leaving others woefully primitive. I have no idea why Mu-Th-Ur would be so enhanced while every other screen seems to have been forgotten. In my OCD world, it’s probably a minor blip on most other’s radars, but one I hope to one day understand better.
Ultimately, ALIEN is an example of the way film can sometimes achieve a magical quality, when everything seems to fall into place regardless of the challenges. Some might claim that the score by Composer Jerry Goldsmith really doesn’t match the movie in places, but it’s clear he got most of it dead right, setting a tone that James Horner would use quite well in ALIENS. But when you affect the genre so much – even after suffering a last-minute casting change, a tight shooting schedule, and a director who mostly made commercials before doing ALIEN – you realize just how magical the final product is.
ALIEN arrives with MPEG-4/AVC transfer that is simply impeccable. Scott and his team have brought the movie into the 21st Century with impressive results, delivering a transfer that is as clean and sharp as any I’ve seen from a library release. It looks more splendid than I ever imagined it could, considering the rather dirty print that was used in the DVD release. The reason for the success lies in a new (at the time) 4K transfer of the master print. The film retains its fine grain, especially during any interior shot of the Nostromo; there’s also surprising detail on the ship’s hull. The ships are a thing of miniaturized beauty, and the transfer reveals details I had missed in my DVD copy. Space scenes are gorgeous and realistic, featuring the now-famous shots of sunlight dotting the screen ala JJ Abrams’ STAR TREK. None of the blue-screen ‘blocking’ that every Science-Fiction movie in the pre-CGI world utilized is present here, which gives everything a very polished look. Color is balanced perfectly, with both human and non-human features enjoying equal attention. The sweat on Hurt’s neck with the Facehugger is extraordinary, while Weaver’s curly hair reveals individual strands. The transfer is so good that one can notice pores on Ripley’s face as she deals with the Alien in the film’s intense climax. Yet what impresses me most about this transfer is how much of Ridley Scott’s universe retains its relevance, thanks to the brilliant work of Set Designer H.R. Giger. This is a used and ugly world that Ripley and the Nostromo find themselves, the promise of a better life in space reduced to grimy conditions with work contracts and misogynistic bantering. If there was a film restoration award given in Hollywood, ALIEN would have easily deserved the honor – it’s simply stunning.
The Blu-ray release for ALIEN is spectacular in every way. The audio, improved to a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, sounds more like a 7.1, with enough power and detail to compete against most of today’s releases. From the beginning credits, it’s clear that Scott and his team have lovingly improved upon the original 5.1 Dolby Digital, turning this experience into something completely new. It’s totally immersive, beginning with the forward speakers which give us the standard mix of audio, sound effects, and Composer Jerry Goldsmith’s terrifying score. But there’s a layer beneath it that not only amps up the volume but makes it crystal clear so that every field is equally represented. The center channel delivers perfect dialogue, with no pops or hisses to speak of. Sometimes, editors turn the gain up to dial in the voices, only to hear background noise. Not here. The real pleasure arrives in the surround speakers, which give us a nearly unending supply of environmentals, from ship interior sounds to the violent world of LV423. There’s a lot of contrasting sounds here, from the hissing of the Xenomorph to the thudding of machinery, all handled exquisitely. When bigger moments arrive, such as the Nostromo’s landing on the planet, it’s full speed ahead, with the rears rippling but never overwhelming you. The other strength of this track lies in the LFE, which pulses, pounds, and thumps with chest-exploding results. Every Xenomorph attack, musical effect, and explosion are all captured for our appreciation. For a film released in 1979, Scott and his team have turned in a masterful reworking of the original soundfield, on par with some of the best I’ve ever heard.
The supplements behind ALIEN are one of the most staggering ever offered, with a treasure trove of extras that frankly defy most efforts made today. Simply put, there’s enough here that one could watch ALIEN six or seven times and not see and hear all that’s being offered. Although no EPX-style featurettes are included, there’s really no need for them, as you’ll see below:
- MU-TH-UR Mode: This is an interactive “experience” that can be turned on and off while watching the film. Essentially, you’re given an interface on both sides of the screen, with four choices. The interface allows you to do things like listen to the isolated score by Composer Jerry Goldsmith, switch to audio commentaries that are listed below, while at the same time read from the Weyland-Yutani Datastream, which presents story anecdotes, production details, and various trivia from the film. Due to the location of the interface – which covers a portion of the screen – you’ll want to delve into it after watching both the theatrical and extended cuts. The one problem here is one of the disc’s most interesting features: the “data tags”. While engaged in this mode, you can select an item from the ‘Visual’ section as a sort of bookmark. Under normal circumstances, you could simply select the item and it would pop up in the interface or pause the movie to play it. However, you have to access it using Discs 5 & 6 of ANTHOLOGY, which are not included in this release. Clicking on the item merely disappears when you try to access it. If anyone out there can provide me with details to access the tags without using the other discs, I would be happy to re-review this portion. Otherwise, MU-TH-UR Mode is still splendid and will provide you with literally hours of content.
- 1979 Theatrical Version (1:56:37)
- 2003 Director’s Cut with Ridley Scott Introduction (1:55:49)
- 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: This is a collection of recordings from the creative team that uncover all sort of interesting tidbits, from the sudden departure of Actor John Finch due to illness/re-casting of John Hurt to Sigourney Weaver’s interesting footwear that she wore during her audition. Again, this commentary is only available in the Director’s Cut.
- Audio Commentary (for Theatrical Cut only) by Ridley Scott: This is the 1999 commentary to celebrate the film’s 20th anniversary. There is some overlap between this one and the 2003 version; but if you’re into camerawork and tonal discussions with a real master of cinema, it’s a necessity.
- Final Theatrical Isolated Score by Jerry Goldsmith: For someone like myself who appreciates a terrific score, we get that here in Dolby Digital 5.1. Goldsmith was a true craftsman, and his score here doesn’t disappoints. You learn through other tracks that audiences didn’t like some of his work here, but I think it’s an essential component to the film’s success.
- Composer’s Original Isolated Score by Jerry Goldsmith: Here, we’re given another version of Goldsmith’s work, demonstrating the evolution that scores usually take before their final release. Again, this one is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1.
- Deleted and Extended Scenes (6:39): To its name, these are very short sequences that really aren’t a necessity to the film.
- Deleted Scene Footage Marker: By activating this option during the Director’s Cut, an on-screen prompt will appear to identify footage not present in the Theatrical release.
Even the menu is extraordinary, filled with neat breakdowns of the Xenomorph and distorted video streams.
Our evaluation copy arrived in a non-slipcase edition Eco-Amaray with no interior artwork. The cover is new, which might appeal to some of the superfans, but it’s ultimately nothing inventive. Regardless of these inconsistencies, I’ve decided to award this five stars due to its wealth of features, even if the sacred fifth and sixth discs are not included. This is probably the packaging we’ll have until the 40th anniversary edition, which under certain conditions might be worth your time. I’ll explain why below.
The re-re-repackaging of ALIEN proves the enduring legacy of this classic, and yet one has to ask if interest is still there when better versions are available. I suppose if you only wanted ALIEN and ALIENS – the only worthy submissions in the franchise – this might be an acceptable option. But at current pricing, I’d still recommend the ANTHOLOGY edition. There is absolutely no difference between the disc in the standalone case and the one in the box set. In some cases you can get PROMETHEUS added at only a minor cost. The lack of the fifth and six discs is frustrating, which might drive towards a larger investment and hopefully a more enjoyable experience.