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When it comes to milking a franchise to death, DVD has made things a whole lot easier for the studios. Those of us who scarcely bought VHS tapes (remember those?) are now quite happy to hand over large sums of cash for the privilege of owning the latest incarnation of our favourite movies. In some instances this becomes slightly ridiculous (Army of Darkness anyone?), but in others the re-release can almost be justified. While 20th Century Fox’s original boxed set of Alien films was an impressive package, there were some, including me, who felt that the three sequels were short-changed when it came to supplemental features. Thankfully the release of the ludicrously named Alien Quadrilogy (why make up a word when the English language already contains words that will do the job nicely?) does more than its fair share to redress the balance.

Alien Quadrilogy

Feature


Now I’m sure most people reading this review are going to be fans of the series, or at the very least have a good idea of the plots, so I’ll dispense with any lengthy film critique. Instead you’ll find a brief summary of the four films, along with a list of the major differences between the original theatrical cuts and the special versions presented in this set. If you don’t want to know too much about the new versions I’d advise skipping this part of the review!

Alien
Set in the not too distant future, the crew of the mining ship Nostromo is ordered to land on a hostile planetoid in order to investigate a mysterious distress signal. When one of the crewmembers is brought back with a strange parasite attached to his face, it is only the beginning of the nightmare. The creature ‘impregnates’ the unfortunate crewmember, and before long, in one of the most memorable scenes in cinema history, an alien creature bursts forth from his chest. Maturing at a staggering rate, the alien begins to hunt the crew one by one until, finally, with the rest of the crew either missing or dead, the fate of the Nostromo, and perhaps event he human race itself, rests with one woman - Ellen Ripley.

In addition to Ridley Scott’s original theatrical cut, the disc also contains the recent ‘Director’s Cut’ by way of seamless branching. While this cut contains approximately five minutes of additional footage, including a number scenes from the deleted scenes section of the original release of the Alien DVD, Scott has made many subtle cuts for pacing, the end result of which is a movie that actually runs a minute shorter than the theatrical version. It’s also worth noting that this is not a true ‘Director’s Cut’, as the decision to market it as such was made by Fox, not Ridley Scott.

Alien Quadrilogy
Aliens
Fifty-seven years after the events of the first film, a salvage crew recovers the sole survivor of the Nostromo incident. Ripley, who has been in stasis for the duration of her trip, is horrified to learn that everyone and everything she knew is gone, and is tourmented by nightmarish images in her sleep. Although less than enthusiastic when her employers request that she return to LV-426, the planetoid where the alien creature was originally discovered, she agrees in order to get her flight status reinstated.

In the intervening years over fifty families have colonised the planet, but now that contact has been lost with the outpost a team of hard-as-nails Colonial Marines are being sent to investigate. Ripley tags along as an advisor, but when the team encounter an entire hive of alien beasts she must overcome her fears to rally the troops and save the day.

The original Alien Legacy set contained the Special Edition of Aliens, so it’s fair to say that the original theatrical cut is the ‘alternate’ version in this instance. The theatrical version omits a number of scenes that add depth to the characters, specifically that of Ripley and her motivation for saving Newt, the young girl stranded on LV-426. Also missing are a couple of action sequences involving automated gun turrets. While not strictly necessary to further the plot, they do serve to highlight the alien’s intelligence, and they also look pretty cool! Overall I’d have to say that I prefer the Special Edition to the theatrical cut, as it’s a more rounded film.

Alien 3
The third instalment in the series sees the escape pod carrying Ripley, Hicks, Newt and Bishop crash land on an inhospitable word known as Fiorina ‘Fury’ 161. The inhabitants of the planet, a group of maximum-security prisoners serving life terms, discover the wreckage and recover Ripley and the lifeless bodies of her companions. After a brief period of convalescence, Ripley has not only to contend with the loss of her friends, but the harsh conditions on the penal word and an unwanted alien stowaway. Trapped on the planet with only rudimentary weapons, Ripley and the convicts come up with a desperate plan to try and capture the beast, but there’s more going on than even Ripley first suspects.

For this boxed set, Fox have seen fit to provide us with the ‘assembly’ cut of Alien 3. While not a true director’s cut (such a thing does not exist), a number of scenes have been axed and an additional thirty minutes of footage reinstated. This creates a ‘bastard’ cut; a sort of cross between the theatrical version and what director David Fincher originally intended. While interesting, I wouldn’t say that this version is necessarily better than the theatrical cut as it still has a lot of problems. The pacing is off, and there is generally very little suspense or horror (although gore levels are beefed up a bit). In spite of this the assembly cut is still a worthy addition to the set.

Alien Quadrilogy
Alien Resurrection
Set around two hundred years after Ripley’s apparent death on Fiorina 161, military scientists operating outside of regulated space have succeeded in cloning the late lieutenant. Their purpose for doing this is simple: they want the alien queen that Ripley is carrying within her. After they successfully extract the beast they begin to breed an army of warriors, but they didn’t count on some unexpected side effects of the cloning process resulting in a merging of characteristics between alien and human. Of course the aliens soon escape, and it’s left to Ripley, and a bunch of shady mercenaries caught up in the proceedings, to try and stop the alien menace spreading to Earth.

The special edition of Alien Resurrection includes a number of subtle changes, and a few no so subtle ones. The main differences are the alternate opening and closing sequences, which, it has to be said, are more of a curiosity than anything else. The opening is little more than an extended effects shot, while the much talked about Earth epilogue was a little anticlimactic for my liking. Still, while it’s obviously a flawed piece, director Jean-Pierre Jeunet injects some much-needed pace into the series after the terribly pedestrian Alien 3. Alien Resurrection also has a comedic tone to it, albeit a very black one, with some impressive alien effects to boot. Unfortunately there are several plot points that conspire against it, most notably the fact that cloning Ripley wouldn’t have cloned an alien, as it’s not part of her DNA…

It’s tough to say which of the films is my favourite. As with most people it comes down to a choice between the masterful original, and Cameron’s gung-ho sequel. If I’m being honest I’d have to say that I can’t really chose between them, so I’m not going to. I’ll just enjoy them for what they are – two of the best examples of horror or sci-fi to be found. While I don’t loathe the remaining sequels quite as much as some people, I will concede that they’re vastly inferior to the first two films. However, Alien 3 and Alien Resurrection are more palatable in their special edition incarnations than their theatrical versions.

Video


Alien
Both cuts are, of course, presented in their original aspect ratio of 2.35:1, and are anamorphically enhanced. Fox have done an amazing job with this transfer, which tops even the impressive first attempt they made with the Alien Legacy release. The image is razor sharp, with little or no print damage, edge enhancement or other digital artefacts. Shadow detail is also excellent, which is a must for a film that is set in predominantly gloomy locations such as tunnels and derelict spaceships. Contrast is spot-on and the palette, which ranges from the muted colours of the lower decks to the almost vibrant hues found in the mess hall, are all faithfully reproduced.

This is possibly the finest example of restoration I’ve yet seen, surpassing even the amazing effort made for Superman: The Movie. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that this transfer is on a par with some of the best modern releases, which is a remarkable achievement for a film fast approaching its twenty fifth anniversary. From a reviewer’s point of view this is a difficult transfer to criticise, but from a moviegoer’s point of view it’s simply stunning.

Alien Quadrilogy
Aliens
Rather than the ‘scope’ ratio of the other films, Aliens is presented in anamorphic 1.85:1. Sadly, as was the case with the original Alien Legacy set, Aliens fares the worst when it comes to visual quality. However, I get the feeling that the best was done with the available material, as the cinematographic process used to shoot the film resulted in a very grainy image (or so I’ve read).

Excessive grain was a major issue with the first release, and while it’s significantly reduced here it comes at the expense of detail. I’ve compared screenshots from both releases at high magnification, and it’s apparent that the new transfer looks a little too ‘fuzzy’ in places. However, I still think it’s an improvement overall, being that it features better contrast and black levels to complement the reduction in grain. I also failed to notice any obvious edge enhancement, and the digital artefacts, reported by Richy in his region two review, didn’t materialise. This is by no means a poor transfer, but it just can’t match the brilliance of the restoration job done for Alien.

Alien 3
Presented in anamorphic 2.35:1, Alien 3 is another great looking disc. Events in the film take place in the predominantly gloomy environment of a maximum-security prison, but the transfer delivers rock solid blacks. Both shadow detail and contrast are also very good, being neither to soft or harsh. Unlike the first two films, Alien 3 features an ‘earthy’ colour palette, which is faithfully reproduced here. As before, I was pleasantly surprised by the lack of digital artefacts and print damage.

While the improvement over the previous release isn’t as significant as with Alien, or even Aliens, this is still a fine transfer. The visual effects in this movie aren’t quite as convincing as in the other three, most notably the shots of the creature as it is running, but it’s nothing beyond suspension of disbelief.

Alien Resurrection
The anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer is very good, as one would expect from the newest film in the series. The muted palette is accurately represented, and black levels and shadow detail remain excellent throughout. Once again I didn’t notice any obvious instances of edge enhancement, and no distracting digital artefacts were apparent.

Alien Resurrection is the only film in the series to use CGI to any great extent, and thankfully it still holds up fairly well. Some of the shots in the newly created footage that bookend the film look a little too ‘Babylon 5’ for my liking, but the quality of the computer generated aliens themselves is convincing enough, especially during the underwater scenes. However, as with the other films in the series, the constant ‘streamlining’ of the alien design actually serves to lessen the impact of the creature, and Alien Resurrection is possibly the worst offender yet. Giger created the ultimate xenomorph – stop tinkering with it!

Alien Quadrilogy

Audio


Alien
For this new release, Fox offer the viewer a choice between both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 tracks, with the latter being the track of choice for review purposes. Although it features the least dynamic soundtrack of the series, Alien boasts a chilling score that ensures that it remains the most atmospheric of the films. The stark mix serves its purpose very well, and makes for refreshing listening in this day of ‘crash bang’ soundtracks. The subtleties in the mix provide some genuinely eerie moments, be it the general clicking, humming and creaking in the lower decks, or the unsettling ‘breathing’ emitted by the ship’s computer, Mother.

I was also pleasantly surprised by the amount of surround action, with plenty of discrete effects present throughout. Bass, while not particularly dominant, is powerful enough when it needs to be, with the landing of the Narcissus serving as a good example. If I had to find one thing to complain about it would have to be the dialogue, which is occasionally a little ‘hollow’. However, this is more than likely a product of the film’s age, rather than any defect in the mix. All things considered this is a fantastic effort.

Aliens
We ‘only’ get a Dolby Digital 5.1 track here, but it’s not a bad effort. Unfortunately there’s not really enough surround action for my liking, especially given the action-oriented nature of the film. While it’s true that the track can be quite lively on occasion, it’s mostly confined to the front of the soundstage, and although the rear channels do occasionally spring into action it all sounds rather forced. Unfortunately the mix also lacks subtlety, something that its predecessor had in abundance, which can lead to a lack of atmosphere during the quieter moments.

Dialogue is clear enough for the most part, but I swear there was a reduction in audio quality during some of the special edition scenes. I could, of course, be imagining it, but it seemed to happen on a couple of occasions. It’s nothing too distracting, and is certainly nowhere near the reduction in quality that is found in Alien 3 (more of which later), but I thought it prudent to mention it just the same. I don’t want to give the impression that it’s a poor effort; for the most part it does a fine job, but I’m aware that I may sound a little harsh in my criticism. This is simply because I have been spoiled by a recent glut of discs featuring outstanding soundtracks, which given rise to an elevation in expectation on my part.

Alien Quadrilogy
Alien 3
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track found here is a definite improvement over Aliens. Featuring a more enveloping soundstage, with clever placement of dialogue, music and audio cues throughout, there are some truly subtle moments in the film that help to heighten the tension. When the action starts to hot up the track has no problem in delivering a lively and engaging experience, with some nice use of the rears during the climactic scenes of the film. Although this film isn’t choc full of explosions, there’s just enough punch to the bass when required.

Unfortunately, in order to incorporate some of the new scenes in the ‘assembly’ cut, it was necessary to use footage that had only production audio available. Usually when a scene is filmed in noisy conditions the actor or actors will re-record their dialogue in a studio; this is a process often referred to as ‘looping’. However, for reasons best known to themselves, Fox chose not to get the original actors in to loop their lines for this cut of the film, the result of which is very poor quality dialogue during several scenes. If the truth be told, many reviewers have over exaggerated this issue, and for the most part things are perfectly audible. Thankfully there are some handy subtitles that pop up during the muddier moments, although these can be disabled if you so desire.

Alien Resurrection
As with Alien we’re given the option of both Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 tracks. For a great deal of the first half of the film the mix is very quiet, with only subtle ambient effects for the most part (although these are very good). However, once the aliens get loose all that changes! The mix explodes into life, with an almost constant utilisation of the surround channels and plenty of discrete effects. I’d have to say that Alien Resurrection features the most satisfying, atmospheric mix of the series, most likely because of its relative ‘youth’.

Extras


Where to begin? No, really? This set contains so much additional material I had nightmares just thinking about covering it all. Aside from individual audio commentaries on all eight cuts of the movies, each film includes its own extras disc. I’ll try to be as comprehensive as possible, but I won’t be able to go into as much detail as I normally would or you’ll be scrolling through this review well into the New Year…


Alien Quadrilogy
Alien
As I said before, each film features an audio commentary. For Alien Fox have assembled director Ridley Scott, actors Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerrit, John Hurt, Harry Dean Stanton and Veronica Cartwright, and writers Dan O’Bannon and Ron Shusett. The commentary is completely different to the one found on the Alien Legacy, so you’ll have to hang onto that one if you want the complete picture.

Each film has its own extras disc, which is divided into three menus: pre-production, production and post- production. The various menus contain both video and still material relating to the particular stage of filming, and navigation options allow you to either watch each item individually, play all video segments, or view all still galleries.

The pre-production menu here includes featurettes such as Star Beast: Developing the Story, The Visualists: Direction and Design, Truckers In Space: Casting and Sigourney Weaver’s Screen Test, as well as a First Draft Screenplay, Ridleygrams, a Storyboard Archive, The Art of Alien and a Cast Portrait Gallery.

The production menu continues with a another set of featurettes entitled Fear of the Unknown: Shepperton Studios, 1978, The Darkest Reaches: Nostromo and Alien Planet, The Eighth Passenger: Creature Design and The Chestburster: Multi-Angle Sequence. To accompany these the menu is also home to still material such as a Production Gallery, Continuity Polaroids, The Sets of Alien and H. R. Giger’s Workshop.

Finally we come to the post-production menus, which includes the featurettes Future Tense: Editing and Music, Outward Bound: Visual Effects and A Nightmare Fulfilled: Reaction to the Film. The menu also contains a Deleted Scenes sub-menu, which allows you to examine some scenes that didn’t make either cut of the movie. Rounding things off we have a Visual Effects Gallery, Poster Explorations, Special Shoot and Premiere, all of which are still galleries.

I particularly enjoyed the Star Beast featurette, which is an interesting look at the genesis of the movie. The Deleted Scenes we also a welcome edition, and they’re significantly different to the scenes found on the previous release of the film. Some of the scenes were actually under consideration for inclusion in the new cut, and as such they have been given Dolby 5.1 soundtracks.

Alien Quadrilogy
Aliens
Fox have assembled a great line-up for the audio commentary on this disc. Alongside director James Cameron we have producer Gale Anne Hurd, FX wizards Stan Winston, Robert Skotak, Dennis Skotak and Pat McClung, and actors Michael Biehn, Bill Paxton, Lance Henriksen, Jenette Goldstein, Christopher Henn and Carrie Henn. When I say alongside it’s not strictly true, as the participants have been recorded separately, either individually or in small groups. This isn’t as disjointing as it might sound, and it allows them to focus on individual scenes that have relevance to their characters. The track moves along at a cracking pace, and is very enjoyable to listen to. The other benefit of a track of this nature is that the dreaded pauses, scourge of commentary tracks everywhere, don’t rear their ugly heads.

Moving to disc two, the pre-production menu contains the featurettes 57 Years Later: Continuing the Story, Building Better Worlds: From Concept to Construction, Previsualizations: Multi-Angle Videomatics and Preparing for Battle: Casting and Characterization. We also get still galleries in the shape of The Art of Aliens and a Cast Portrait Gallery. Also included is James Cameron’s Original Treatment.

The production menu contains some of the most interesting featurettes, including This Time It’s War: Pinewood Studios, 1985, The Risk Always Lives: Weapons and Action, Bug Hunt: Creature Design, Beauty and the Bitch: Power Loader vs. Alien Queen and Two Orphans: Sigourney Weaver and Carrie Henn. Stills include a Production Gallery, Continuity Polaroids, Weapons and Vehicles and Stan Winston’s Workshop.

Finally we come to the post-production menu. The contains the featurettes The Final Countdown: Music Editing and Sound, The Power of Real Tech: Visual Effects and Aliens Unleashed: Reaction to the Film, as well as a Visual Effects Gallery and a Film Finish & Release photo archive.

Of all the featurettes I particularly enjoyed This Time It’s War, which focuses on the problems that Cameron and company encountered when working with a British crew who had their own way of doing things (taking breaks and drinking tea mostly).

Alien 3
It’s a great pity that David Fincher declined to be involved with this set, as I’d have very much enjoyed his participation in a commentary track. However, we do get comments from Alex Thomson, Terry Rawlings, Alec Gillis, Tom Woodruff, Jr., Richard Edlund and Paul McGann, who deliver an enjoyable an insightful piece.

Alien Quadrilogy
As with the film itself, the Alien 3 bonus disc was the one I was looking forward to the most. After reading may rumours relating to the production difficulties, I hoped that there would be some valuable insights into just how tough conditions really were. I wasn’t disappointed. To kick things off the pre-production menu contains four featurettes - Development: Concluding the Story, Tales of the Wooden Planet: Vincent Ward’s Vision, Pre-Production: Part III and Xeno-Erotic: H.R. Giger’s Re-Design. These featurettes provide a fascinating look at the issues that, for all intents and purposes, sank Alien 3 before it was even launched. Problems with the script, directors coming and going, fallings out with the Giger; all of these things contributed. This section also contains two conceptual art portfolios – The Art of Arceon and The Art of Fiorina. I was especially interested to hear about the original script idea by Vincent Ward, although I imagine it would have been nigh on impossible for anyone to shoot it back in the early nineties.

Moving on to the production menu, we come to another six featurettes and two still galleries. The featurettes – Production: Part I, Furnace Construction: Time-Lapse Sequence,   Adaptive Organism: Creature Design, EEV Bioscan: Multi-Angle Vignette, Production: Part II and Production: Part III - cover pretty much everything you could possibly want to know about the day-to-day goings on at the set. Rounding off this section we have a couple of photo archives – Production Galley and A.D.I.’s Workshop. I particularly enjoyed the Adaptive Organism featurette in this section, with its designs for a ‘super facehugger’ and a whippet in an alien suit!

The post-production menu features three featurettes – Optical Fury: Visual Effects, Music, Editing and Sound and Post-Mortem: Reaction to the Film. As with the other sections the featurettes are complimented by two photo archives, Visual Effects Gallery and Special Shoot, which are fine if you’re not already tired of sifting through hundreds of still pictures.

Alien Resurrection
The first disc features a commentary track from Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Herve Schneid, David Gillis, Tom Woodruff Jr., Pitot (?), Sylvain Despretz, Ron Perlman, Dominique Pinon and Leland Orser. Once again, while not as good as the Aliens commentary, this is still a fairly entertaining and informative track.

Alien Quadrilogy
The supplemental disc begins with the pre-production menu, in which we have the featurettes From the Ashes: Reviving the Story, First Draft Screenplay: by Joss Whedon, French Twist: Direction and Design, Under the Skin: Casting and Characterisations, Test Footage: Creatures and Costumes, The Marc Caro Portfolio and Previsualisations: Multi-Angle Rehearsals. Also included are The Art of Resurrection and Storyboards.

Featurettes in the production menu include Death from Below: Fox Studios Los Angeles, 1996, In the Zone: The Basketball Scene and Unnatural Mutation: Creature Design. Still images here include a Production Gallery and A.D.I.’s Workshop: Photo Archive.

Post-production includes the featurettes Genetic Composition: Music, Virtual Aliens: Computer Generated Imagery, A Matter of Scale: Miniature Photography and Critical Juncture: Reaction to the Film.

Oddly enough, the most maligned picture in the series ends up with some of the most interesting bonus features. I really enjoyed the Death from Below and In the Zone features, while Unnatural Mutation gives an invaluable behind-the-scenes look at how the creature effects are accomplished.

Bonus Disc
The ninth disc houses all of the material that either didn’t belong, or couldn’t fit onto the individual extras discs. As before the disc is divided into four parts, one for each film, although the bulk of the extras relate to the original Alien.

Chief among the extras in the Alien portion of the disc is the Alien Evolution documentary, as narrated by Mark Kermode. The documentary is in a similar vein to the Alien Legacy documentary found in the set of the same name, and a great deal of the content actually overlaps (although this new documentary includes interviews with Sigourney Weaver). However, some people have reported that this is an edited version if the documentary originally shown by Channel 4. I can neither confirm nor deny this. Other features include Experience In Terror, a promotional featurette from 1978, a Ridley Scott Q&A, an extensive Laserdisc Archive and four Trailers and TV Spots.

Alien Quadrilogy
The sequels aren’t as well represented but, as with Alien before it, Aliens’ extras consist of an extensive Laserdisc Archive and five Trailers and TV Spots. In addition to a whole host of Trailers and TV Spots, Alien 3 also includes an Advance Featurette. Alien Resurrection brings up the rear with the least amount of content devoted to it, featuring as it does only the obligatory Trailers and TV Spots.

The final supplements on the disc include the Bob Burns Alien Collection, a Dark Horse Still Gallery and a few perfunctory DVD Rom features. Burns’ collection really is very extensive, and the guy has many of the props, creatures and costumes from all four films in his possession. We’re talking everything from Facehuggers and aliens, to spaceships and vehicles. He even has the full sized miniature of the refinery from the original film, which weighs in at a cool 1200 pounds!

The Dark Horse gallery is an extensive look at the Aliens comic book series; the same series that has spawned the forthcoming Alien vs. Predator flick. Each still shows a cover alongside a text-based description of the issue. Phew! That lot took some doing!

Overall


Well, what can I say? It may be the latest in a string of re-releases, but by God it’s a good one. This set contains pretty much everything that an Alien fan could ask for: eight separate cuts of the movies themselves, superb audio-visual quality, excellent presentation and hours upon hours of bonus content to wade through. While the official price tag is fairly hefty, the Internet savvy among you will have no problem picking this set up for under £50 from online retailers such as CD-Wow. I really can’t say enough good things about this package, which has strolled in at the last minute to snatch the coveted “Best of the Year” award for me. Sure there have been films I enjoy as much or more, but the overall quality of this package is light years beyond the first Alien box set, and indeed anything else I’ve seen in 2003.

Alien Quadrilogy
If pushed to say something negative, I would have to single out the packaging. While it’s very pleasing to the eye it’s not particularly functional, and already one of the plastic disc holders has come away from its backing! The region two packaging looks to be a little more sensible, not to mention sturdy, but then the region two set is missing a number of key features. With that largely inconsequential bit of knit-picking out of the way, I strongly urge anyone with even a passing interest in the films to snap this set up as soon as possible. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to lie down!


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