As a semi-early adopter of the Blu-ray Disc format, I have noticed two distinct patterns in terms of which releases I will line up to buy next. On the one hand, I will buy a lot of discs where I have heard good things about the film therein (or seen it as a rental) and am willing to take a punt. Examples of that include Crank: High Voltage or Machete. On the other hand, there are films I saw repeatedly as a boy and, since coming to fully grok the benefits of progressive video and lossless audio, have been dying of curiosity to learn how they scrubbed up on the new format. Aliens and the series it is part of (to one extent or another) is an example of that.
In its initial release, the Alien saga boxed set was relatively expensive ($109 AUD) and had a fancy 3D outer box depicting the facehugger. Nowadays, one can get it a lot cheaper, with a fairly standard-looking box. Each film in the Alien series comes on a disc of its own, each with two distinct versions of the film, some text-and-graphics-based notes that add to the viewer’s knowledge of the in-film universe, some audio commentaries, and in some cases even isolated scores. Also present on each disc is a video featurette in which someone (usually the director) explains why a second version of their film has been made available and what they think of this. By a long road the most interesting are those by James Cameron (Aliens) and Ridley Scott (Alien). Cameron‘s position is that the theatrical version of Aliens was released the way it was because at the time of release (1986), “conventional wisdom” had it that films had to be a certain length at most in order to keep the attention of the audience. Of course, “conventional wisdom” had nothing to say on the subject of films so bereft of interesting material that, like Child’s Play 2, they could seem padded with a mere eighty-four minute running time. I will address the Cameron side of this argument in greater detail later. But suffice to say for now that Scott‘s explanation of how the “special edition” of Alien came about and what he thinks of it proves that he is a polar opposite to Cameron in terms of creativity. Scott is very blunt about the commercialism behind the “special edition”. So far as he is concerned, the director’s cut of Alien is the same one we (or rather, you, people who were old enough to see it in 1979) saw in theatres in 1979. But people at Fox wanted an alternate cut that they could market to the public as a special edition, and managed to convince Ridley Scott to actively participate in making one rather than let someone with an editing suite do the job for him.
Both versions of Alien follow the same basic narrative structure. A group of astronauts are awakened by the computer controlling their ship as it passes by a rather desolate planetoid. The astronauts are a little confused at first. They believe that they were meant to be woken from what several sources relating to the film refer to as “hypersleep” when they came within a certain distance of Earth. But the computer, referred to by the astronauts as Mother (voiced by Helen Horton), has received what the astronauts interpret as a distress signal. Now, in response to horror films that have come since, punters have devoted much time and energy into negating films of this sort by going on about how stupid the cast must be to not make this one decision (in this case, to simply ignore the distress call and continue going home) that would have solved every problem before said problem arose. Parker (Yaphet Kotto), one of the blue collar workers on the ship, brings up a feeling shared by himself and his fellow blue collar astronaut, Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) that the pay, specifically the bonus the astronauts get at the end of the run, is inequitable. Parker states that if he and Brett were to get more pay, they would be happy to go down to the planet. It is never completely clear if the white collar astronauts are sympathetic, but science officer Ash (Ian Holm), after captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt) manages to shut Parker up, explains something about just how at the mercy of the corporation they work for everyone on the ship, even the white collars, really are. You see, all seven of the astronauts on the ship have contracts that, presumably, follow a standard form with some variations thrown in on a case by case basis.
There is a clause in this contract, Ash explains, that states a signal of unknown origin that suggests whatever entity sent it is intelligent must be investigated. The penalty for non-compliance being a complete forfeiture of all shares. No money for the astronauts, in other words. I doubt that it surprises anyone that Parker’s mood becomes a lot more compliant in mood after this revelation. And from that point to the point at which three of this oddball crew go out in protective suits to find the point that the signal appears to be coming from, that explanation more than suffices to make the audience go along with it.
Now, there are several reasons why it always seems to take longer than the unwashed out there think is necessary for a film to be released on Blu-ray Disc. One moron Queenslander whom I will not glorify by naming asked me, sincerely, as in completely unaware that I would otherwise think she was taking the piss, how much work it can be to upgrade the transfer from the DVD. No kidding, she really asked or said something along that line. So for those who still do not understand why this person should not be allowed anywhere where intelligence is a requirement, allow me to explain something very important. When you go to a cinema and look at the big pretty screen, what you are seeing on that screen is not a VHS tape or even a DVD-Video. Both of those look absolutely gash on a fifty-inch television set, so with some cinema complexes still having screens as large as twenty to fifty feet, you can imagine how awful such source material would look. Although the resolution of Blu-ray Disc is still substantially less than that which 35mm film can deliver, even when the former is having its best day, the golden rule of video and still frame conversion is you can go down to your heart’s content, but you can never go up. People at Fox had to work overtime to find a viable source print of all four films, and in two distinct cuts at that, clean them up sufficiently to be presentable, and carefully encode them so that two different versions of each film could be presented on the one disc. Put simply, making good transfers takes effort. You know, that thing people made before the “everything must be online” culture?
Now, worth noting about Alien is that when it was originally made, there was no established canon concerning any aspect of the creatures shown in it. The writers, and to a certain extent director Ridley Scott, were just inventing it as they saw fit to serve the needs of the story. As I have said, Scott has stated before that he considers the theatrical version of the film to be the way he wanted the film to be. But one scene that was completed puts a whole different twist on the Alien’s reproductive cycle, and makes one see the whole story in a very different light. Around the time of Ripley’s (Sigourney Weaver) desperate attempt to return to one room and turn the cooling units back on, she stumbles into a side room of the Nostromo where the Alien has taken Dallas and Brett. Both have been cocooned into the wall. Dallas still looks identifiable as Dallas, but Brett has mutated (for want of a better word) into a vague egg-shape. In the visuals, it looks as if an egg has grown out of the wall-slime that the Alien has decorated the ship with and partially eaten Brett. But the end result is that what the writers had in mind as the repeat in the Alien’s life-cycle and what ended up in the series are clearly two different things.
Now, as I said, Ridley Scott apparently considers the version of Alien that was released in theatres to be his cut of the film. Hence, this different idea of how the Alien goes from egg to facehugger to adult back to egg is pretty much non-canon as far as the series goes. Whether or not it will be used in the apparent Alien prequel that is about to be released, Prometheus, is an interesting question. Given that Prometheus is being presented in theatres with non-optional 3D, the likelihood of me seeing it before it is released on Blu-ray Disc is not looking all that great.
Now, normally, when a film is considered profitable enough to warrant a sequel, the sequel generally emerges within a few years. In horror films, mere one-year gaps are not uncommon. In science fiction, a much more expensive and difficult genre to get working convincingly, two to three years is the average. In some very rare cases, a sequel can take multiple decades to get to the big screen. But at the time Aliens was released, seven years was a rather uncommon gap.
Also uncommon where sequels are concerned is the manner in which a lot of critics reacted to it, both when it was initially released and when it hit the home video circuit. No less a critic than Roger Ebert gave it his next to highest rating, only deducting half a star from his rating because he felt that it was too intense. Or at least that is how I interpreted the wording of his review. In his review, he reports the film left him feeling “wrung out and unhappy” when it was all over. Far be it for me to tell Mr. Ebert how to do his job, but when a film is advertised to me as being about a hero(ine) being pushed to the very edge of their capabilities and then some, I consider feeling “wrung out” when the credits begin to roll a positive experience. One day, someone is going to moan about feeling not-happy at the end of a film that is about intense experiences, and I am going to put my foot so far up their bottom they are going to know what the polish I use on my boot tastes like.
But I digress. The reason for the overwhelming positive reaction that Aliens has enjoyed both upon initial release and the twenty-six years since is because it does what very few other sequels both then and since dare to do. Whilst it retains some common elements from Alien, most notably its heroine, change rather than repetition is the order of the day in Aliens.
Now, shaking things up a bit can work well if you have good screenwriters, and a bunch of people who know what the hell they are doing. We have previously talked about examples of attempts to shake things up were these elements were not in place, specifically A Nightmare On Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge. But Aliens mixes things up in just the right way to make the whole thing memorable. For one thing, whereas the writers on Alien openly admit to having cribbed every horror and science fiction source they had at hand at that time, the production team on Aliens followed a rather different influence, copies of which were given to the actors portraying Marines for homework: Robert Heinlein‘s StarShip Troopers.
Also worth noting is that whilst Sigourney Weaver is still the primary focus for significant parts of the film, Aliens also remains aware of the need to develop the characters she interacts with beyond the level of living prop. Something that the next two films would have benefitted from no end. Whilst there are characters who are barely given more than a name or a function in the group, there is also a core group of characters whose interactions with Ripley make them seem like Human beings, actual and whole. I have already written much about Lance Henriksen and his portrayal of a variety of characters who resemble autistic adults. But the rest of the cast deserve a special mention here, too. Yes, I am going to drag out some comparisons here. Quickly, try to name a singular character from Alien 3 or Alien: Resurrection that you were sorry to see bite the bullet. Just one. Can you remember the names of the characters or the names of the actors who portrayed them? But I digress. Let us get to that in a moment.
One absent feature from the Aliens BD that I find curious is the isolated score. A good isolated score in a lossless format, with a feature to skip from cue to cue, is something many Blu-ray Discs could do with. James Horner‘s score for Aliens is one of its biggest standout features. But one inclusion on the BD that I am sure every fan of the film appreciates is both official releases of the film. From the menu, one can specify whether they wish to see the theatrical version that was released in 1986, or the special edition that was released in 1992. The difference between the two is about seventeen minutes.
Look, I am not going to be kind or easy about this. Beginning with Terminator 2, James Cameron‘s filmmaking has gotten increasingly childish and infantile in the reasoning of its storylines. Whilst John Connor’s directive that the Terminator not kill “anybody” can be interpreted as a tactical decision to avoid attracting a lot of unwanted attention, the absurd lengths to which Cameron goes in order to paint a black-white, baby-level picture of the world just get more stunning with every viewing. Mr. Cameron, by the time Avatar was coming to an end, I was cheering for the Marines! And whether you like it or not, you are responsible for that. When someone says “you are like a big baby” in that manner to me, I shove an M41A and my arm as far as I can make it fit up their arse, and then I pull the trigger. Are you hearing me, Mr. Cameron? Erm… excuse me. In case you have not worked it out from that little outburst, my main problem with all but one of the scenes that were added to Aliens is that James Cameron The Baby-fier added them, as opposed to James Cameron The Filmmaker Who Got His Break Making Films For Grown-Ups Who Want To Be Little Boys Again For A While. The scenes where we see the Hadley’s Hope colony before it becomes infested were interesting as an adjunct, but they undercut the dramatic tension of the investigation sequences noticeably. The extended dialogues are exactly what the representatives at 20th Century Fox said: showing too much nothing.
The one extension to Aliens that does enhance the film, and ranks as something I missed from the theatrical version, is when we learn what happened to Ripley’s daughter. In the theatrical version, we are simply told that Ripley has been in hypersleep for fifty-seven years. Notwithstanding the severe physiological complications this would entail, the idea and its consequences are given little in the way of a second thought after this point. In the extended version, we learn that Ripley had a motive other than her own survival for her actions in Alien. This strongly suggests that James Cameron should not be allowed to write his own films, because it is as if he left the typewriter for a moment and an actual grown-up took over during this brief scene.
All kidding aside, no matter what you make of either version of Aliens, we can all agree that few films had as much anticipation or pre-release hype to live up to as Alien 3. And as the end credits rolled on the theatrical version, the general consensus was that few films failed as spectacularly at living up to the anticipation or pre-release hype as Alien 3.
Part of the problem is that even after a six year gap between Aliens and Alien 3, for reasons best known to the studio brass, principal photography was begun without a finished script. The production company that owned the franchise, Brandywine Productions, was approached by Fox to make two more sequels. The first proposed idea was a two-parter in which the Weyland-Yutani corporation that had so far only been vaguely referenced in the first film fighting against an aggressive culture of Humans whose “rigid socialist ideology” caused them to separate from Earth’s society. Sigh. You see, by this time, the “corporations good, everyone else baaaaad” ideology that has defined nearly every film of our recent era was getting into full swing. I think someone in the decision-making department at Fox realised that socialism in the true sense of the word had never been tried on the national level anywhere in the world at the time, and nixed this whole idea for fear of being the first Alien series producer to look like a completely irrelevant idiot.
Irrespective of all of the script concepts that were being tossed around like confetti, David Fincher began filming in January of 1991 without a finished script. By this time, seven million dollars had already been spent on the pre-production process. Adding to this problem was that Fox and Brandywine had by this point set a release date in stone. Come hell or high water, Fox’s publicity department had promised, Alien 3 would be released in May of 1992. And amidst all of the chaos, Sigourney Weaver made one ultimatum to Fox. She wanted her character killed off, because after her experiences with the last two films (apparently, she really liked the scene in which her character learns she has outlived her daughter, and I do not blame her), she was reluctant to do any more Alien films.
The theatrical version of the film can be best summed up by a TV guide review I read in the mid-1990s: there are frequent flat spots. It feels more like a rough cut of the film, rather than what a director and producer would turn out after going over the film with a fine-toothed comb and really examining it for pacing and narrative. When I saw the film in theatres, I remember a distinct feeling of wanting the makers to just get on with it already.
Which is what makes the workprint version of Alien 3 that was included with this disc in the set much more interesting. Clearly, David Fincher had years of subsequent experience and a lot more time than was the case in Alien 3‘s preproduction stage to recut the film. Of course, one cannot make a beautiful sculpture out of a mountain of dog shit, but Fincher‘s recut of the film at least gives a better idea of what he tried to do with the script he was handed at varying stages of principal photography. For one thing, the stop-start pacing of the theatrical cut has been smoothed out surprisingly well. It is still not as good as is the case in the previous two films’ theatrical cuts, but it at least has the virtue of working at all. Alternate shots, such as those of the birth of the new Alien, and the Company’s response to the prisoners’ plea for help (as displayed on a computer terminal), are miles above what they replaced. But the biggest problem by far… let me start over. I wrote that the author of one review asserting that Alien 3 is a better film than Aliens is a moron. Unlike the previous person described as a moron in this writing (with good reason… upgrade a DVD to make a BD? are you fukking kidding?), this was uncalled for. I do not know that person well enough to call them anything, least of all based on one assertion that Alien 3 is a better film than Aliens. However, my counter-assertion that the script for Alien 3 just does not seem to give that much of a shit about the characters remains for all credible purposes unchallenged. Not only are Hicks and Newt simply axed without even so much as a chance to pop their heads up, but the characters this duo are replaced by are one-note plot-movers at the best of times. Simply put, the Dead-series-like use of the Alien as a final whistle in a character’s failure to smarten themselves up has been replaced with a lining of the characters up in front of the Alien like dominoes. As hard as the workprint edit of the film tries to overcome this serious problem, it cannot.
Noteworthy, is that the Alien 3 BD, although it does feature an audio commentary, is the only disc in the set where the director is nowhere to be heard on said commentary. In a quote from his IMDB profile, he has even said that that “to this day” (not sure when that is), nobody hates Alien 3 more than he does. I doubt we will ever even get a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 style of commentary from David Fincher for this film.
Alien Resurrection attempted to bring the franchise back for one last hurrah. When Alien 3 flopped, Brandywine basically ended up being bought by Fox, who became the sole arbiters of what went into an Alien film. In Alien Resurrection, the results were an improvement in storytelling terms over Alien 3 (not like that is difficult), but that does not automatically mean it is a good film.
One thing we have to note before we continue is that I simply cannot stand Joss Whedon, the writer and sometime director, in any way, shape, or form. In featurettes and comment about his hilarious flop of a film Serenity, he states that he depicted the last two nations left in the world being China and America because he wanted an ideal picture of the world being more “unified” in culture. Jesus Christ, seriously? Look, Joss, if there is one thing I do happen to like about the world today, it is that it offers a large variety of cultures, languages, and ideas that all stew together and result in progress. Places where there are large numbers of individuals of different cultures and races simply have more progress. It is that simple. Now, having said all of that, I do believe there is some merit to his statement that the makers of Alien Resurrection did include all of his ideas in the film, but executed them badly.
As with the other Alien films, the studio was so set on the idea of having Sigourney Weaver as its star that in this case they did not give a flying fukk about logic, storytelling, or making sense. Instead, they simply dictated that Ripley be brought back from the dead. Maybe it was just to spite Weaver, who had expressed a desire to stop playing the character, and felt that the idea of an Alien–Predator crossover “sounded awful”. And to her credit, calling the two Alien-Predator crossover films we did get awful is an insult to everything that we have called awful in the past. Producers David Giler and Walter Hill, who were basically opposed to the production of Alien Resurrection because they felt it would ruin the franchise, suggested the idea of cloning.
Look, the Hollywood trend of portraying cloning and genetic-based medicine as “teh ebil” angers me for a number of different reasons, one of which I see every time I look at my own face, but we will leave this aside for the time being. What is important here is the Joss Whedon quote that they included all of the material from his concept of the film, but executed everything wrongly. As I have made clear, I consider the man himself a putz of the highest order. Which should tell you something when I state that he is absolutely correct about this.
As I have said when dissing people who make the preposterous claim that Alien 3 is somehow a better film than Aliens, one thing that the first two films in the series benefited from no end whilst the second two did not is character development. It is important to understand here that just like in George Romero‘s Dead series, what the protagonist characters do to one another is where the real story is. Just like the zombies, the Aliens are just an expression of the consequences. But when your cast has too many people in it, or not enough of the characters are sufficiently developed for the audience to give a shit what happens, it all comes crashing down. Alien Resurrection suffers from this problem noticeably less than was the case with Alien 3. Characters played by Sigourney Weaver, Brad Dourif, Kim Flowers, Ron Perlman, and Dominique Pinon are sufficiently developed (or sufficiently well-acted) for the audience to care about. Not well, but enough. Michael Wincott gets a good start, but the manner in which his character is eliminated from the story just screams that the writers had no clue how to give the scene any impact. If I could only edit two scenes together in HD to show you what I mean. Captain Frank Elgyn, the mercenary played by Wincott, is simply eliminated by his own stupidity for no good reason in a scene that brings the pace of the film down to a crawl. Vasquez, a soldier played by Jenette Goldstein, fights her guts out until she is injured in the heat of the moment, an attempt to rescue her goes wrong, and she commits a form of hara-kiri with her attempted rescuer. One of these scenes makes me think of the bravery and sad plight of the participants. The other left me thinking “you fukking dickhead” at its conclusion. I am sure you can guess which is which.
But by far the biggest problem with the film is the casting. Whilst most of the actors are fighting against a very ordinary script in order to sell their characters as the roles they are playing, Dan Hedaya, Gary Dourdan, and Winona Ryder are basically trying to swim through Shit Ocean with concrete blocks strapped to their feet.
Casting is always a challenge, and it basically all boils down to asking yourself who you have available, and how well they suit the role. Ron Perlman, for example, was well-chosen because he is capable, both on a physical and emotive level, of convincing the audience that if his character and Sigourney Weaver‘s came to blows, the outcome might be in doubt. Winona Ryder, on the other hard, makes it utterly impossible to believe that her character could be on a crew with the men being depicted without being subjected to constant rape and mistreatment, assuming she even survived her first day. It is one thing to cast a woman who appears to be barely bigger than the wheelchair-bound midget portrayed by Dominique Pinon. But one of the girlfriends I have spoken of in my letter to Hugh Hefner is, if anything, noticeably smaller than Ryder (the IMDB has it that Ryder is 5′ 3½”; the woman I describe here is 5′ 1″). The basic problem with Ryder‘s acting in this film is not that she is tiny. The problem is that she projects like a tiny woman. Weaver, by contrast, projects like the woman I am comparing Ryder to does: like someone who, by fair means or foul, will knock a man like Ron Perlman on his arse if he gives her too much shit. The same applies to Goldstein. Goldstein looks like she is five foot nothing (the IMDB claims 5′ 3″), but her performances in Aliens and Near Dark project a woman who will make men twice her weight very sorry if they get too disrespectful. As I am expending too many words on already, Ryder is either incapable of projecting in this manner, or simply does not try. Either way, the character, and the whole film, suffers terribly for that.
As with Alien and Ridley Scott, director Jean-Pierre Jeunet explicitly states that he feels the version of Alien Resurrection that was released to theatres is the optimum one. The problem is that regardless of which version you watch, comedic satirist reviewer Mr. Cranky said it best about Alien Resurrection. If they were going to be so pathetic in flushing the entire Alien franchise down the toilet, they could have at least done it right and used Muppets.
As with all boxed sets and such pieces released on the home video market these days, Fox saw fit to include no less than two discs of additional featurettes detailing the makings of each film and the anthology itself. To the credit of the disc’s makers, some of this content is genuinely interesting. The stories detailing what an absolute clusterfukk the production of Alien 3 was are both enlightening and an example of how incredibly stupid those stories proclaiming private enterprise as “responsible” and “efficient” really are a lot of the time. And the surviving trailers that were originally used to advertise the films can be very useful in terms of educating an audience as to how differently we publicise films in today’s market. But then there’s a slight problem with how the content is presented. It is all in standard definition. Look, I do not mind good content in standard definition once in a while. I would like to be able to have a backup television set to banish such content to when I encounter it, but that is neither here nor there. There are some making-ofs, such as the Dangerous Days documentary for Blade Runner, that are enlightening and enriching. But very few making-ofs, regardless of their stripes, are satisfactory to warrant multiple viewings, even when they are in High Definition.
Do I recommend the Alien Anthology (as it is apparently officially titled in English-speaking lands)? Well, if you only want to see the better received-films in the series, Alien or Aliens, then no. Since Fox have relented once again from their mandatory bundling strategy and enabled the audience to buy the four films separately as they please, I see no reason to buy the whole shebang. If, for some reason, you cannot live without Alien 3 and Alien Resurrection (ie you are a fan of those films or a major completionist), then knock yourself out. The moulded-cover box set does cause a slight headache in terms of fitting into storage space, but it is a nice presentation, all the same.
So in closing, I have two things to impart. One is to lesser writers who have written about the films. It is not a double-mouth monster, lesser writers. That is its tongue. The designers of the creature wanted us to enjoy the horror of a creature so dedicated to violence that even its tongue is dangerous.
The second is the blurb on the back of the boxed set. It proclaims that “On Blu-ray, everyone will hear you scream”. Thanks to the magic of lossless audio compression, this is an understatement.