Shiny Shelf

Alien Quadrilogy DVD

By Mark Clapham on 20 December 2003

Some tasks can break a simple DVD reviewer. Having nearly been crushed by the weight of extra material on ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’, how can a man then react to the ‘Alien Quadrilogy’, with its staggering nine discs. That’s two cuts of each film, a dedicated extras disc for each film, and a final disc with some series-spanning documentaries along with a bundle of trailers and ephemera. Oh, and one cut of each film has a commentary track, too. It’s enough to make a grown man cry, or take a month off work to wade through it.

Well, I don’t have the soul to shed tears, or the spare leave to take the other option, so by necessity this isn’t a comprehensive review. Instead, I’ve skipped and jumped through the contents of the collection, examining a mere sample of the delights involved. Dedicated ‘Alien’ fans will want to watch all the features in order, although I’d recommend they wrap up warm and load up on food and drink first. A thorough exploration of these discs could take days, and a man could easily get lost.

General observations first. This is a truly beautifully put together box set, with a distinctively green plastic box enclosed in a tasteful (ish) slipcase. The menus have a similar uniformity of imagery, using a futuristic HUD and x-ray type images of the various aliens. The transfers for the films are as good as they get (and lets face it, in a box like this nothing less would be acceptable). The extras discs are each divided into pre-production, production and post-production, so there’s a clear through-line to the making of each film, with credits at the end rather than on each chunk of featurette. Navigation is simple, and the background music on each menu is thankfully fairly unobtrusive. Even moving through photo-galleries is fairly painless.

From much of the extra material here, you’d think ‘Alien’ was a perfect movie. Clearly director Ridley Scott thought otherwise, as he’s prepared a new ‘Director’s Cut’ of the film. Interestingly, this is a rare example of a director making his version of the movie shorter, with Scott cutting out some of the more langurous moments from the film, tightening it up. All the major players, including Scott and Sigourney Weaver, appear on the extras disc, which comprehensively covers the production. As with all the featurettes, the participants have been allowed to raise controversy and disagree with each other, and the likes of Dan O’Bannon and David Giler certainly don’t hold back. O’Bannon in particular seems to have a detailed memory for all kinds of slights, real and imagined, inflicted him during pre-production. The most accord sets in with the coverage of the movie’s opening, a universally great experience.

On to the second film. ‘Aliens’ is arguably the best of James Cameron’s movies, with the only other candidate being the original ‘Terminator’. Perhaps living up to Scott’s original film inspired Cameron to do great work – certainly none of his later movies have come close to what he achieved. While Scott’s movie is pure claustrophobia, Cameron produces a tense war movie, where the military hardware is as important as the characters or monsters. The perfect sequel? In its original cut, certainly. The early nineties Special Edition extends the film with mixed results – the deepening of the Ripley/Hicks relationship is all good, but the prelude scenes on the colony rob later revelations of their strength, and a sequence with some androids is just pointless. In this re-edit you can see Cameron becoming the self-indulgent director who created bloated monstrosities like ‘T2′ and ‘True Lies’. The – ahem – great man is slapped all over the features for the film, including the commentary and a special introduction.

While the first two films are almost universally praised and well documented, the other half of the ‘Alien’ saga are… less loved, shall we say? With David Fincher a big Hollywood figure after the superb ‘Seven’ and ‘Fight Club’, it’s hard to imagine him making a film as flawed and pointless as the original theatrical cut of ‘Alien3′. To redress the balance somewhat, a ‘Special Edition’ of the film with an extra half-hour of material has been created, moving it closer to Fincher’s ‘assembly cut’. Note that this isn’t a ‘Director’s Cut’ – to make such a thing would involve going back in time and giving the director control from the beginning, with the chance to prepare a suitable script rather than being thrown in at the deep end on the verge of production. Fincher is notable by his absence from the discs, although virtually everyone has nothing but praise for the mistreated director, who seems to have been put in an impossible position. The sheer miserable chaos of the production makes for an entertaining insight into the film-making process. The new cut is a lot, lot better. It isn’t a great movie, but it is at least a good one, with the added scenes making sense of what was previously nonsensical. The characters are better defined and the strong ensemble of British actors get more to do, although it’s easy to see why Paul McGann’s Gollic – a sort of screeching Welsh Renfield – was cut out of the movie.

The new edit can’t really save the film from the confusion resulting from a revolving door approach to directors, screenwriters and storylines, covered extensively in the extras. The featurette and production art relating to Vincent Ward’s unmade version of the film are particularly galling, as Ward’s vision, while fairly eccentric, looked delicious, and unlike the finished film Ward’s movie had a clear idea of what it was. Avatar are publishing a comic book version of Frank Miller’s original ‘Robocop 2′ script – is it too much to ask for someone to give a similar treatment to Ward’s ‘Alien’ script?

If ‘Alien 3′ is an example of genius crushed by a punishing Hollywood machine, ‘Alien Resurrection’ demonstrates a kind of soulless professionalism. Scripted by Joss Whedon before ‘Buffy’, directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet before ‘Amelie’, ‘Resurrection’ somehow fails to gel. It’s visually great, the script is clever with some smart jokes, but ultimately it lacks real scares or thrills. Intellectual, dry and ironic, this is a film crippled by its own cleverness. Full of great moments, it never gets close to pushing the audience to the edge of their seats. The production features concentrate on the cross-cultural exchange of a French team working on a big Hollywood movie, with a few snipes from the sidelines by the producers of the first three films (who weren’t involved in this one, which was entirely a studio project to revive a valuable franchise). Not even the production team of the film seem particularly passionate about their work, which perhaps says it all.

At the close of the featurette relating to the release and response to the fourth film, options for the future are discussed. Throughout all the interviews relating to the scripting of the sequels, it’s repeatedly mentioned that enticing options (Aliens on Earth and going to the Alien homeworld being the main ones) had to be dismissed for budgetary reasons. Post-CGI, this won’t be a problem, as the effects guys in particular are keen to point out. There’s certainly mileage for a big finale to the series, seeing off Ripley and her enemies once and for all. This epic finish isn’t likely to be provided by next year’s ‘Aliens vs Predator’, currently filming under the shaky directorial hand of uber hack Paul Anderson. In an interview from the time of ‘Resurrection’, Weaver casually dismisses the ‘AvP’ concept as sounding ‘awful’, and its hard to disagree with her assessment.

Certainly, it’s hard to see Anderson producing anything worth including on a revised version of this comprehensive, exhaustive and frankly exhausting set. The four films as they stand are all interesting, with different merits and flaws. Each director had his own particular vision, and the stories behind each production are well worth hearing. While dedicated fans of the series won’t need much persuading to pick this up, those who have a more casual interest in the ‘Alien’ films should certainly consider laying down the cash. Everything you could want is here, well produced and with no real filler. Although expensive, ‘Alien Quadrilogy’ gives real value for money.

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By Mark Clapham

Mark Clapham is a Devon-based writer and editor. You can find out more about him at the egotistically named

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