The austere minimalism of Ridley Scott’s Alien has kept it from becoming dated. Originally released in 1979, this “haunted house in outer space” scary movie still manages to spook audiences, though its infamous “chest bursting” scene plays somewhat comic now, with the crew looking on aghast like a bunch of stooges. Best known for creating an atmosphere of dread through production design and art direction (the cavernous ship looks like a sci-fi variation of a dilapidated car garage) and, of course, H.R. Giger’s creature (all limbs and shiny black skin and protruding jaws—watch those teeth!), Alien may be the most artfully directed and well-acted slasher movie of all time. Here’s the rub: If you’ve seen the movie, it’s exasperating to watch poor Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) march through one wet, filthy engine room after another, chasing the ship’s cat for five minutes, en route to impending doom. Alien is a one-trick pony, but it does its job remarkably well. One wishes Ridley Scott still possessed this kind of cinematic restraint. He’s helped by an especially fine cast whose characters grow increasingly paranoid, addled, or insane. Also welcome is the late-‘70s distrust of corporate authority, where the mother ship winds up being more duplicitous and evil than the marauding alien. Horror films used to have that edge, the feeling that they were actually about something.
After Piranha Part Two: The Spawning, James Cameron scored a major hit with the nihilist action flick The Terminator, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton, so it made sense then that he was brought on to direct the sequel to Alien. Cruder than the original, Aliens is a distinctly greedy mega-production. For sure, there’s only so many times you can tell the same story and rewrite the same set pieces: Because the film’s human melodramas play second fiddle to the kick-ass action sequences, it’s obvious that 20th Century Fox wanted to bank on the success of the original film.
Some time after its release, Alien began to develop a following among feminists, confirmed when one of my film school professors would frequently reference the set design’s phallic and vaginal imagery. But it’s Ripley’s battle to be heard by the film’s alpha males and mother ship that truly resonates today. This mostly subtextual war of the sexes is on whorish display throughout Aliens: the mother alien is referred to as a “badass” by Bill Paxton’s insufferable Hudson; Ripley’s cigar-chomping sergeant doesn’t think she can do anything; and the tough, eager-to-please Latina lesbian who calls Ripley “Snow White” is teased for looking like a man.
After floating in space for 57 years, Ripley is picked up by a salvage ship and is treated like a rape victim by a money-minded conglomerate. After her feminine insight gets the better of everyone, she helps spearhead a mission back to the alien planet after the ship loses contact with its colonists. Plot holes abound, but more tragic is the sorry lot of archetypical characters a fierce Ripley has to rub shoulders with; you can tell exactly in what order everyone will die depending on how nondescript, polite, hysterical, or evil the characterization.
Aliens is a “guy movie” through and through, right down to the “get away from her, you bitch” female-on-female violence (Cameron, David Giler, and Walter Hill must have been watching Dynasty while writing their screenplay). The director’s cut of the film hauntingly amplifies Ripley’s disconnect from her dead daughter and her relationship to the young Newt (essentially a substitute for her creepy pet cat). Otherwise, the film’s human interactions are nowhere near as interesting as Cameron’s deft direction of action and use of non-alien space (the “Remote Sentry Weapons” killing spree may be Cameron’s finest moment).
After directing a string of popular music videos, David Fincher was commissioned by Fox to direct Alien³ but left the project before editing commenced because of studio interference. If Alien³ is not his film, neither is the studio’s “extended cut” (Fincher didn’t want anything to do with the project). Unlike the director’s cut of Aliens, this extended edition of Fincher’s first film does more harm than good. Impregnated with an alien queen, Ripley lands on Fury 161, a prison planet occupied by horny religious criminals. The scenario is the same (more doubting Thomases and labyrinthine tunnels) except the returns are less exciting or scary; an amalgam of power shots (some reminiscent of Fincher’s clips for Aerosmith’s “Janie’s Got a Gun” and Madonna’s “Express Yourself”), the film’s overall effect is noticeably suffocating. Charles Dutton’s preacher man, Dillon, conducts an impromptu funeral service and the extended cut intercuts his prayer with scenes from Fincher’s intended alien-birthing sequence (from canine to bovine). This creepy interplay brings to mind the final moments of Apocalypse Now but doesn’t really spill over into the rest of the film. Not only is Ripley personality-free (is the character jaded or is Weaver simply bored?), so is the alien. If the material appears to strain to offer the new alien attacks a ridiculous religious context, that’s because the filmmakers never really evoke a sense of godlessness on the planet community to begin with.
The much-maligned last part in the Alien quadrilogy should be approached as the comic-book actioneer that it is (only Slate‘s David Edelstein seemed to recognize the film’s ridiculous allure at the time of its release). Jean-Pierre Jeunet was brought on board by the suits at Fox to give Alien: Resurrection the look and feel of his overrated The City of Lost Children. That he did, but with a lot more laughs. Two-hundred years after Fincher’s Alien³, some company has resuscitated Ripley as a human/alien hybrid that combines the best and worst attributes of the old model. The new and not-so-improved Ripley has the same touching mother instinct and sex drive of her predecessor, but she’s also considerably more jaded. Weaver gets to deliver one humdinger after another, evoking Tallulah Bankhead in a sci-fi version of Lifeboat when she wails, “Who do I have to fuck to get off this boat?” Not much has been written about the similarities between the film and Romero’s Day of the Dead, but they’re impossible to ignore: the nature/nurture debate (Ripley versus the docile zombie Bud) and the ego of a military operation under attack. Of course, Alien: Resurrection is nowhere near as sophisticated and profound as Romero’s classic, but it’s still every bit as fun. As General Perez, Dan Hedaya spearheads a human retreat from the film’s military compound that’s remarkably orchestrated and ends with his goofy demise. If the film doesn’t bullshit around, the same can’t be said about Winona Ryder. As a closeted robot sent to destroy Ripley, the perpetually constipated actress declares at one point: “I can’t make critical mass.” How touching.
Some edginess here, some edge enhancement there, but most of the flaws and compression artifacts are noticeable only during scenes restored for the films' extended or director's cuts. Blacks are so deep they're sinister and Alien now doesn't look any older than the second film. As for the 5.1 DTS tracks, they could just as easily have been recorded yesterday.
I started to write about all the features included on these nine discs but I realized a few days in that I would never leave the house at the pace I was going. You get to see two versions of each film: the original theatrical version and an extended cut (in the case of Alien and Aliens, the extended edition counts as a "director's cut"). I recommend that you watch the extended versions with the Deleted Footage Marker feature employed. Each film gets two discs: the first contains the two versions of the film with a respective commentary track by key production people (Fincher is the only director not to contribute to the project) and the second disc is jam-packed with countless featurettes, galleries, deleted scenes, and other goodies (there's not a boring minute on the entire set!). Every feature is divided into three easy-to-use sections (pre-production, production and post-production), but a "play all" feature can be employed for anyone who doesn't like to fumble with remotes. The ninth disc on the set includes the new "Alien Evolution" documentary, an exclusive Ridley Scott Q&A, laserdisc archives, trailers, teasers and TV spots.
Unless David Fincher ever decides to talk about Alien³, this 9-disc set is pretty definitive. Alien fans should buy it immediately.