Alien Anthology Review

Let’s level with each other: you’ve already seen all of the (or at least the first two) Alien films, and have formed an opinion roughly in alignment with the rest of society that the first two in the series are excellent, but that the latter two were largely ruined by a combination of repetitiveness and studio interference. You probably already have the Alien Quadrilogy, and have ample resources to find out what new supplemental materials are featured on this release (and they are legion). But as much as anything, you don’t need me to tell you what each of these films is about, what characters appear in any of them, and why you should go out of your way to see any of them. The Alien franchise is established in a way that few are, with its rules, aesthetic, and central themes renowned to those who have not even seen any of the films. But unlike most popular franchises, which tend to be produced within a relatively confined period of time with consistent behind-the-camera talent, these four films were released over the course of 18 years with a constantly rotating director’s seat. Watching them altogether, the series feels less like a serialized narrative spread out over four films and more of an open forum for filmmakers to experiment (and in at least one case do the best work of his career). Fortunately, the Alien Anthology is a set that recognizes and appreciates these nuances, rather than trying to fuse it all together into one commodity. This review has spoilers for each film.

The one character consistent to all of these films is Lieutenant Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), and it is her evolution (and parallel development of her relationship with the xenomorph aliens) across them that provides the series with its sense of cohesion. In the first film, she is a crew member aboard the spaceship Nostromo when they come across an alien vessel bearing the xenomorph, then unwittingly bring it aboard their own ship. Anyone who’s ever seen a monster movie knows exactly what’s happening from thereon out (though the level of style and sophistication that Ridley Scott brings to it more than makes up for any inspired guesswork), and anyone who’s ever seen a sequel knows full well that no matter what happens in the first film, the creature is absolutely not dead, and will continue to kill everyone that it can until the only person with any sense figures out a way to kill it. The same formula goes for Alien 3 and Alien Resurrection, in which good old Ripley finds herself thrown into situations with the nefarious creatures twice again. At their most essential level, each of these films derives what success they do from (with some unquestionably more potent than others) from the same appeal: seeing perhaps the most effectively designed monsters in cinema history (courtesy of H.R. Giger) square off with people potentially smart enough to actually defeat them. And though the clearly elaborated rules of the game require that the door be left open enough for a sequel to fit through, the manner in which each director finds a way through proves to be idiosyncratic and revealing.

Alien was pitched as ‘Jaws in space’, which doubtlessly helped it get produced in the wake of that film’s success. For the most part, though, that’s a fairly accurate assessment of the film’s approach to its subject, with most of the crew being unable, unequipped, or unready (psychologically as well as physically) to combat the alien threat, which waits unassumingly in the shadows of the future’s unrestrained military-industrial complex. Not to make it sound minimal, but Ridley Scott’s main contributions to the series was undoubtedly his sense of foreboding atmosphere, embodied both in the underexposed photography (a clear road marker leading to the even more technologically advanced Blade Runner three years later) and in the sinister machinations of the unseen Weyland-Yutani corporation, whose interstellar vessels resemble Dickensian mineshafts for the space age. Even the most ardent of Scott fans could probably admit that emotional intensity and multifaceted characterization aren’t the old man’s strong points, leaving a vacuum of space which James Cameron (barely thirty at the time) was all too able to fill. While Alien will probably always be remembered as the breakthrough in design, it is Aliens in which Cameron found his voice as a director, and determined the trajectory that the rest of the series would follow.

While Scott’s Ripley is (understandably) frightened by the carnivorous creature with acid blood, Cameron’s heroine has all but completely abandoned such feelings, more than handily showing up a squad of corporate-hired colonial marines (later to be cast as the villains in Avatar). Here, we are introduced to the Ripley that decides that one gun isn’t enough; she needs to tape two guns together so that can be fired at the same time. This is also where we are introduced to Ripley the mother. In the 1991 special edition, it is revealed that Ripley’s daughter died in the interim between the first two films (of old age, as Ripley herself, caught in hypersleep for 56 years, did not age). It’s not completely necessary to enjoy the film, but it’s nice context for understanding why she takes to Newt (Carrie Henn), the lone survivor of the besieged colony, in the way that she does. It’s also a cue to better develop the physiology and natural processes by which the xenomorph thrives (indeed, their species seems like a natural extension of the spaceships they live in, as organic an outcropping of their environments as rats and cockroaches are to ours). Just as Ripley finds herself acting as a mother again, so too do we find out that the xenomorphs procreate from a hive, their organization a matriarchal one led by ‘queen’ that births the eggs that create the facehuggers. Although the conflict between Ripley and Weyland-Yutani (whose negligent practices provide the aliens with a seemingly constant diet) remains in the final films, it is here that the central relationship is established: that between Ripley and the mortal enemies with whom she is able to find more kinship than she is with her male comrades who consistently ignore her well-educated opinions. There is a moment immediately before Ripley torches the alien nest in which she looks directly at the face of the alien queen, and it pauses briefly, as if in recognition. There could be any number of interpretations of this, but one thing is certain: in a more righteous society, Ripley would hold an equivalent position, and on a level playing field (minus the superior size, strength, and legions of hostile offspring), this bitch would be toast.

It would seem natural that a sequel would build on this relationship, which is exactly what Alien 3 and Alien Resurrection seek to do, and it is probably regrettable that they did. Alien 3 visualizes this symbiosis in the most literal way possible, having Ripley impregnated with the seed of the next alien queen, ready to create the next generation of xenomorphs (as if the concept wasn’t clear enough, Ripley even says to an alien that refuses to kill her “don’t be afraid, I’m part of the family”). Alien Resurrection takes it even further, regenerating her two hundred years after her death in the prior film to retrieve the alien specimen inside her, making her the rather literal mother of a whole new breed of alien (culminating in the Newborn, a human-alien hybrid that recognizes Ripley as family). Neither film could really be described as lazy, but it wouldn’t be entirely accurate to say that their furtherance of the mythology feels entirely organic. Alien 3, though it certainly bears the trademark technical excellence of its forebears, seems so relentless in its quest to be the bleakest major science fiction release in Hollywood history that the cumulative effect is more often depressing than exciting or scary. And Alien Resurrection, try as it did, never truly overcame the hurdle that its lead character was in fact dead, and thus a mere simulation of her character from the prior films (making the whole outing seem more like a Wolverine style offshoot than a sequel). Both directors on their own are clearly very talented, but due to either their novice status (this was the first feature-length film to be produced in Hollywood for the both of them) or their thematic incompatibility with the material, they failed to develop the series thematic subtext into a plain old text that could walk on its own two legs. They were astute enough to see that the heart of the series was the bond of motherhood that links Ripley and the Queen alien; they weren’t quite sharp enough to find a better embodiment of that theme than the Newborn, which sports one of the ugliest and least affecting creature designs in recent film history.

None of which, of course, should you dissuade you from getting the entire set, which has been produced with a comprehensiveness usually reserved for Senate subcommittee investigations. Virtually every aspect of the conception, production, and release of each Alien film is presented in minute detail, with interviews, storyboards, and other material to back it up. But best of all, it hasn’t all been conjured up with an eye towards making any of the participants look particularly good. Scott, Cameron, and Fincher (not to mention all of the directors who came and went along the way) all have reputations as demanding directors, but they are more than matched by the studios, producers, crew members and sheer logistical challenges that faced them in getting these films off the ground. As all of these directors were fairly new to their careers at the time of production, it made for a hectic and challenging shooting experience, which in each case was by turns fruitful and devastating, and there are long lines of people involved eager to tell us which category they think they fall into. Rather than diminishing the posture of an already revered film series, it enhances it, and allows you to understand that no matter what creative disagreements you may have had with certain aspects, more thought went into it than anything you’ve ever done in your entire life.

Blu-ray Bonus Features

The four films are each contained on their own discs, with both the original theatrical version and a later cut produced for home video (with the exception of Aliens, these were edited for the 2003 release; for Aliens, it is the 1991 director’s cut). They also contain deleted and extended scenes and the final theatrical score by the film’s composers. There is at least one commentary for each film. There is one for the theatrical version of Alien with Ridley Scott, and another that features Scott, Dan O’Bannon, Ronald Shusett, Terry Rawlings, Sigourney Weaver, John Hurt, Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, and Harry Dean Stanton. The commentary for Aliens features James Cameron, Gale Ann Hurd, Stan Winston, Robert and Dennis Skotak, Pat McClung, Bill Paxton, Lance Henriksen, Jenette Goldstein, Carrie Henn, and Christopher Henn. The commentary for Alien 3 features Alex Thomson, Terry Rawlings, Alec Gilis, Tom Woodruff Jr., Richard Edlund, Paul McGann and Lance Henriksen. The commentary for Alien Resurrection features Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Herve Schneid, Alec Gillis, Tom Woodruff Jr., Pitof, Sylvain Despretz, Ron Perlman, Dominique Pinon, and Leland Orser.

As if that weren’t enough, there are two whole other discs worth of supplemental material. The first is Making The Alien Anthology, which features four documentaries on the making of each film, being The Beast Within, Superior Firepower, Wreckage and Rage, and One Step Beyond respectively. Collectively, they add up to about 12 hours in length, but this set features additional “enhancement pods”, which provide another five hours of interviews.

The second disc is the Alien Anthology archives, which very well might be setting the precedent for some sort of virtual museum. Here, there are storyboards, concept art, portraits of the cast, trailers and television spots, continuity polaroids, featurettes on construction of sets and props, promotional featurettes that coincided with the original film’s release, and other materials more specific to each film. In particular, Alien features a number of retrospective pieces with Ridley Scott, and Aliens features the original treatment that James Cameron wrote. In addition, there are extras included for the anthology itself, including materials for the Aliens 3D attraction, two versions of Alien Evolution, parodies and galleries for both Dark Horse and patches and logos created for the series.

"Alien Anthology" is on sale October 26, 2010 and is rated R. Sci-Fi. Directed by David Fincher, James Cameron, Jean Pierre Jeunet, Ridley Scott. Written by Dan O' Bannon, Ronald Shusett, David Giler, Walter Hill, James Cameron, Vincent Ward, Larry Ferguson, Joss Whedon. Starring Bill Paxton, Brad Dourif, Carrie Henn, Charles Dance, Charles S Dutton, Dan Hedaya, Harry Dean Stanton, Ian Holm, Jenette Goldstein, John Hurt, Lance Henriksen, Michael Biehn, Michael Wincott, Paul Reiser, Ron Perlman, Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, Winona Ryder.

Nov
09
2010
Anders Nelson • Associate Editor

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