Wednesday, October 27, 2010

ALIEN ANTHOLOGY: Blu-Ray (Fox 1979-97) Fox Home Video

The 1970s were a period of seismic shift in both the film-making industry and audience tastes and cultural mores. Save the justly deserved resurrection of nostalgia via MGM musicals featured in the compendium film, That's Entertainment! (1974), the decade was framed by a split from that fabled 'dream factory' ideal that had once been the main staple and blueprint for Hollywood's golden age. By mid-decade, declining audience revenue and a tightening of budgets across the board saw glamour replaced by a more grittier/less expensive realism.

This pervasive 'look' of reality eventually found its way into the realms of horror and science fiction; two of the most prominently featured genres of the decade to collide in one masterwork exemplifying both. That film was Ridley Scott's Alien (1979); a sustained and viscerally neurotic tale generating more inner hysteria than outward horror for its chills.

In retrospect, a lengthy period of gestation seems to have benefited the production immensely. Alien began its life as a screenplay by Dan O'Bannon, later fully fleshed out with an assist from Ronald Schusett. Making no apologies for borrowing ideas and plot elements from practically every influential sci-fi movie from the preceding decades, O'Bannon and Schusett's screenplay was shopped around to limited interest before being sold to 20th Century Fox.

In passing the project to writers David Giler and Walter Hill, management incurred a creative rift that gradually boiled over into legalities when O'Bannon and Schusett accused the studio and its writers of attempting to steal the project outright. For all their backroom antics, Fox's executive board was unconvinced of the project's saleability.

Alien might have languished indefinitely as just another script in perpetual turnaround had not the overwhelming success of Star Wars (1977) illustrated that sci-fi had come of age with audiences. Even with Star Wars colossal success, finding a director for Alien proved elusive. After mandarins of their craft, Jack Clayton, Peter Yates and Robert Aldrich all turned it down, the film was offered to relative newcomer Ridley Scott whose early enthusiasm along with some high concept production designs produced by Swiss painter/sculptor H.R. Giger coaxed the powers that be into doubling Alien's budget.

As it eventually unfolded, the great success of Alien relied on a sense of claustrophobia rather than gut-wrenching thrills; although the film was to have its share of these as well. In recasting the lead protagonist as a female (in the original Ripley is a man), Alien also made a progressive leap towards the postmodern feminist age.

Save a few initial establishing shots, the narrative is confined aboard a vast commercial towing vessel, the Nostromo; returning to earth after a lengthy refinement operation in space. Under corporate orders, the crew picks up a weak communication signal and lands on a small and seemingly uninhabited planetoid to investigate its origins.

Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt) takes Executive Office Kane (John Hurt) and Navigator Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) on the exploration, leaving Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), Science Officer Ash (Ian Holm) and Engineers Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) and Parker (Yaphet Kotto) on the Nostromo to monitor their progress. But their mission goes horribly awry when Kane is attacked by a bizarre alien 'face hugger'. Returning with their fallen colleague to the Nostromo, Ripley denies Dallas, Kane and Lambert permission to re-enter the ship on the assumption that Kane's attacker may pose other infectious concerns for the rest of the crew.

After a few taut moments, Ash overrides Ripley's authority and Kane is brought to the ship's infirmary for treatment. The alien, however, is unwilling to give up its prey, spewing highly corrosive blood when attempts are made to cut it loose from Kane's face. Determined to return to earth for further assistance , the Nostromo rises from the planetoid with the alien on board.

But hours later, Dallas returns to sick bay and discovers the alien quite dead with Kane showing remarkable resiliency after his encounter. Physical tests show no abnormalities. However, as the crew prepare to rejoice in Kane's full recovery the real threat to all of them makes its presence known. The face hugger has used Kane as its host to incubate an offspring. The new alien child bursts forth from Kane's stomach, before burrowing deep into the bowels of the Nostromo.

The rest of the story essentially follows a conventional 'race against time' scenario with the full grown alien attacker picking off crew one at a time. Brett follows his frightened cat into the ship's loading area and is devoured by the creature. Dallas attempts to force the alien into the ship's airlock where it can be expelled into space, but the creature ambushes him inside one of the ducts. Lambert encourages the remaining crew to board Nostromo's escape shuttle - a decision thwarted by Ripley who awkwardly finds herself in command.

Accessing classified computer files, Ripley learns that Ash was assigned by the corporation to apprehend the alien and return it to earth for study - even at the expense of Nostromo's crew. This revelation is short lived as Ash attacks Ripley but is decapitated by Parker instead, revealing that he is actually an android.

Ripley initiates the Nostromo's self destruct sequence, instructing Parker and Lambert to incinerate Ash before making ready their escape in the shuttle. But the alien kills Parker and Lambert and narrowly misses Ripley as she boards with Brett's cat.

The Nostromo self destructs and Ripley prepares for hyper-sleep aboard the shuttle, only to discover that the alien has made the escape with her. In the final moments, Ripley initiates explosive decompression by opening the shuttle's hatch, propelling the creature into outer space, but with her own solitary future uncertain.

When it debuted, Alien was not the blockbuster that Fox had banked on and, in retrospect, for good reason. It's story is brutally low key and, in Star Wars wake, unapologetically depressing; a postmodern epitaph arguably light years ahead of its time. In re-envisioning a sequel with Aliens (1986), director James Cameron initially ran into opposition from Fox precisely because the box office tally from the first film had not matched their level of expectation. Nevertheless, Cameron was bolstered by his cache as a director after the premiere of The Terminator (1983) - a certified box office dynamo.

Under Cameron's direction Aliens (1986) arguably takes the very best elements from the original film and makes them better. Ellen Ripley's shuttle is recovered by the Weyland-Yutani Corp. 57 years after the disastrous Nostromo venture. In that passage of time her only child has died and Ripley - alone and accused of having overridden company policy - is 'encouraged' by her former employers to return to the planetoid where the original creature was discovered. At first outright refusing to comply, Ripley is told by corporate 'yes man' Carter Burke (Paul Reiser) that the planet has long since been inhabited by a human colony without incident. That is...at least, not until recently when all communication was suddenly terminated.

With a military escort aboard the Sulaco overseen by Colonel Lieutenant Gorman (William Hope), Ripley reluctantly returns to the alien planet to find a colony seemingly abandoned by its human inhabitants. The one prospect for learning what happened to the rest of its members materializes in the form of a traumatized, mute little girl nicknamed Newt (Carrie Henn) whom Ripley bonds to as her own child that, in fact, she never knew.

But the cocky Colonel and his equally brash crew have severely underestimated the situation. Inside the colony's science lab, they find remnants of alien face huggers preserved in formaldehyde. Realizing that the rest of the alien eggs have hatched, Ripley attempts to warn Gorman and his team of impending doom.

But Gorman disputes Ripley's concerns and attempts to set up a command centre instead. With precision, he and his brigade are picked off one by one - this time by an army of aliens who brutalize and dismember their prey with exceptional ease. After Newt is captured by an alien while hiding in one of the colony's sewers, Ripley summons up all her courage to go deep into the bowels of the mining centre with only a flame thrower and gun as protection.

Once inside, she discovers Newt wrapped inside an alien cocoon. Freeing the child, Ripley comes face to face with the alien queen (a multi-pronged bit of malignant magnificence created by Stan Winston) who is in the process of harvesting a new host of offspring. Torching the field of eggs that lay all around her, Ripley makes her way back to the Sulaco with the queen in pursuit. After a brief battle, Ripley and Newt board the Sulaco and bid the planetoid farewell.

Aliens is arguably a better constructed film than its predecessor. With a screenplay credited solely to Cameron (despite story assists from Giler and Hill) and a more centrally focused narrative on Sigourney Weaver as the series' star, Aliens became a much more profitable movie for 20th Century Fox.

Regrettably, the success of Cameron's movie at the box office gave way to two more instalments in the series; both inferior to either the first or second films. In truth, Sigourney Weaver did not want to return to the franchise after Aliens, prompting Giler and Hill to pen a screenplay that omitted her character entirely - a ploy designed to resurrect Ellen Ripley in a fourth feature. Fox vetoed this idea, however, leaving director David Fincher to scramble for plot consistency as he dove head strong into production on Aliens 3 (1992) without ever having a finished script. After completion of the film, the studio reworked this rough footage without Fincher's participation or consent, leaving the final edit suspect as to the director's original intent.

The film begins with an unforgiveable sin - removing Newt from the series by having a fire break out on the Sulaco. The ship crash lands near a prison/refinery with Ripley as its sole human survivor. Unbeknownst to the prisoners or Ripley, a face hugger has also survived the crash and shortly thereafter begins its usual - and by now - conventional spree of carnage with Ripley discovering by plot's end that she has been impregnated with an alien offspring.

In Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Alien Resurrection (1997) the plot concocted by Joss Wedon grows even more tedious and removed from the series roots - this time by 200 years with Ripley cloned and an alien queen surgically removed from her body; all part of a diabolical U.S. military plan to study alien/human hybrids. Tossing in the briefest whiff of lesbianism between Ripley and Capt. Annalee Call (Wynonna Ryder), the story goes nowhere fast, its predictable results and wizardry of state of the art special effects enjoyed to better effect elsewhere in the franchise.

Fox's Blu-Ray debut of the Alien franchise is stunning and will surely NOT disappoint. As this reviewer has often stated in the past, I rarely have doubts that a film made within the last 20 years will look stunning in hi-def. But what about 30 years and beyond - particularly when so much of what has been archived throughout the decades has been stored with less than stellar attention to film preservation?

Yet, in these transfers we have that rare treat for fans of the original movie and its masterful first sequel. Alien and Aliens have been given the deluxe treatment on Blu-Ray - along with their less fondly remembered counterparts. Image detail takes a quantum leap forward. Flesh tones have been nicely realized throughout all four films, with the first film retaining its cooler palette and more pasty hues of skin when directly compared to the other three films in the franchise. The image on all four movies is razor sharp with no visible signs of compression artefacts. Rear projection and model work is more evident to the keen eye, but Stan Winston's creature effects hold up remarkably well under such close scrutiny.

The audio has been given a 7.1 Tru-HD upgrade and again, the outstanding moments on these discs comes from the renewed sonic experience attributed to the first and second movies; neither the benefactor of exemplary sound design at the time of their original release. When the alien bursts forth from Kane's chest in the first feature, surround channels become aggressively spatial. Are there still dated characteristics to the sound field in general? Absolutely. After all, this is a 30 plus year audio sound mix - but one meticulously gone over with all of today's advantages for creating state of the art sound design.

Delving into the goodies, this box set also comes with a myriad of new and previously released footage, documentaries, featurettes, commentaries, stills and theatrical trailers that chart the series creation from virtually every conceivable aspect. 'Comprehensive' is a grossly inadequate term to sum up Fox's efforts on this outing. The Alien Anthology is a MUST HAVE Blu-Ray event. Very highly recommended! Please note that Fox has also made this set available in a flashier 'egg' package complete with batteries that make the translucent plastic shell shimmer and glow; a nice added touch for the finite collector except that the 'egg' set is sold for nearly $50 more than the one reviewed herein.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

Alien 4

Aliens 5

Alien III 2

Alien Resurrection 1

VIDEO/AUDIO

4

EXTRAS

5+


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