Alien (1979)
By: Trist Jones August 18, 2006  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
Fox (Australia). Region 2 & 4 PAL. 2.35:1 (16:9 enhanced). English DD 5.1, English DTS 5.1. English (FHI), Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Icelandic, Norwegian, Swedish, Subtitles. 111 minutes
The Movie
Director: Ridley Scott
Starring: Tom Skerritt, Sigourney Weaver, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto
Screenplay: Dan O'Bannon, Ronald Shusett
Country: USA
There are few films that are as influential and completely timeless as Alien. Coming at the end of an era when cinematic journeys into space leant more towards flights of fantasy and heroic battles of good and evil, Alien dropped us with the very hard hitting and in some ways sad reality that ultimately, humankind's traverses into the great beyond would be more akin to a voyage out to sea on an oil tanker. There would be no laser swords, no epic dogfights or warp speeds; it would be cold, dirty and relatively mundane. However, that didn't mean that creatures of extraterrestrial origins couldn't exist…

Though the argument continues to rage as to whether or not Alien falls into the science fiction or horror genre, I will state this now: Alien is my favourite horror film of all time. While very clearly set in a science fiction universe, Alien contains so many horror elements that to call it otherwise would be folly. Ridley Scott's minimalist masterpiece presented moviegoers with what is still to this day one of the most intense voyages into the final frontier.

The seven man crew of the commercial mining vessel The Nostromo are awoken from hypersleep (a form of suspended animation used during long spaceflights) when the ship's systems intercept an unrecognisable distress signal from a small, but known planet on their return to Earth. Obligated by Weyland-Utani (a large Japanese/American corporation figuring largely in the Alien saga) company policy, the crew set down on the uninhabitable planet Acheron to investigate. After discovering the source of the signal – a massive and very alien derelict craft – the subsequent investigation of the craft results in the discovery of a chamber filled with large leathery eggs, and when one of the eggs opens, it's occupant attaches itself to the face of one of the crew members, laying the seed (literally) that will grow into one of the most terrifying space ordeals one can imagine.

Unlike the majority of the classic horror films of the Seventies (the decade many consider the Golden Era of modern horror), Alien has stood the test of time as being a continually effective experience in horror. The Exorcist, while still a very chilling watch, is one that seems to have more of an affect on those who were around nearer to it's release, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre's impact on today's audiences seems to have been weakened substantially by the more recent release of it's much more 'audience friendly' - though still very good nonetheless – remake. The original Dawn of the Dead, while being the benchmark for zombie films and a favourite among genre connoisseurs, is often maligned by the more casual audiences as being boring, dated, hokey looking and not in the least bit harrowing; the same is often said about The Wicker Man. Twenty-seven years on however Alien remains an untouched and arguably untainted masterpiece that still manages to instill fear into anyone who watches it.

Unfortunately, the only detractor from Alien is that it spawned one of cinema history's best sequels, which makes audiences unfairly compare the two, however both films are completely different in terms of style and story, and let's face it, you wouldn't have Aliens without Alien. Alien is not a balls to the wall "men with guns versus big scary monster" film; it is far more subtle (for the first part at least) and completely devoid of contrivance. Every single character is completely developed, allowing us to fully relate to each of them without a thought of who will live and who will die, and making particular character revelations (those who know the film know exactly what I'm talking about) all the more impacting. It is admittedly a slow film, but it is deliberately so, which makes the eventual appearance of the titular creature so much more memorable to those who see it. Everything rolls on at a very natural and believable pace, and then the creature appears and the film - while maintaining complete believability – shifts into high gear and pounds away relentlessly, taking turns one would normally never expect from a film such as this.

Alien manages to maintain an antagonistic atmosphere rivalled only in my mind by the Japanese Ringu and PlayStation 2's Silent Hill 2. It's a sense that there's an oppressive nature to everything visually (and thematically) without being overt. The idea of a mere seven people having to spend months on end drifting through space in this gigantic trawler conjures up an agoraphobic feeling that juxtaposes brilliantly with the claustrophobic interiors of the ship itself, and when you throw in a creature that is nearly invisible in the film's environment, the atmospheric tension heightens.

The creature itself has become so iconic that those who haven't seen the films likely already know the creature without even realising. Visually, the alien is perfection. Designed by renowned Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger, the alien is so completely inhuman and unlike anything before it (yet imitated countless times following) that it sears itself into your memory. I haven't spoken to a single person, even those who mock films like this, who can deny how truly effective the creature is. In addition to having such a bizarre and horrific design, Scott went to great lengths to ensure the creature was shot in such a way that it would elevate the inhuman nature of the alien, and even in shots that Scott himself feels the creature could have been better, it still looks fantastic. There's a reality based grounding to everything in this film, and the creatures – in spite of being truly alien – also stay true to this. You believe in these things one hundred percent. The outlandish facehugger creature is so bizarre in its aesthetics but also so grounded physically in reality, that it is totally believable and therefore more disturbing.

This heavy sense of believability is heightened largely by the performances given by the cast. They're just people, and there's nothing glamorous about what they do and thankfully there's nothing glamorous about their characters. In fact, hardly any back story goes into any of the characters outside of rank and social hierarchy, which is good in that it never makes the characters into clichés; they just are who they are and a huge part of that comes from what the actors bring to them. Ellen Ripley was Sigourney Weaver's breakout performance, and though not as dramatic as that given in the subsequent films, I feel that this is easily one of her best ever. Yaphet Koto and Harry Dean Stanton are both great too, the former making his character of Parker far more dimensional than one would expect. The whole production manages to play completely against standard convention (and in effect, probably laid out the groundwork for film standards to follow), especially when it comes to the characters. It's no real secret that Ripley is the only survivor, but for those who haven't seen Alien yet, make a list of the characters and an order as to how or when you expect them to die; I guarantee you'll be wrong. Ian Holm is also worth mentioning, but I'm not going to get into his character for those who haven't seen it…

The score, composed by Jerry Goldsmith, is another truly timeless aspect of the film. It works so perfectly with everything you see on screen. There's a subtle and unobtrusive quality to it that allows it to weave it's way unnoticeably through the film and become an extension of the experience. So many other films employing similar scare tactics to Alien use the score as a tool to either pre-empt a moment, telling you to get ready for a 'boo' (which in my opinion kills said moment), or tries to scare you with a sudden and loud musical sting because the visual ultimately isn't scary enough on it's own. The beauty of Goldsmith's score (aside from just sounding great on its own) is its integration with the visuals and knowing when to hold back. Some of the most effective scares in the film come from moments without scoring.

Alien is ultimately a one of a kind film. Each of it's sequels, while carrying across the notable trademarks, characteristics and characters of the original, stand as completely different types of films in their own right (Aliens being more of Vietnam/War film, Alien 3 being a bleaker prison fare and Alien Resurrection leaning towards a black comedy art piece). Thankfully, this masterpiece film is backed up with probably one of the best DVD packages I've ever had the pleasure of watching.
The print on the previous release of Alien (that found in the Legacy boxed set) was pretty damn good, but even this is a noticeable improvement over that. The print is completely free of damage and any sort of grain and probably among the best transfers you'll find on DVD. What really stands out though, in terms of the restoration effort put into this release, is the improvement in the quality of the sequences reinserted for the Director's Cut version. In the Legacy set, these were simply deleted scene extras, and though the footage had been remastered, it was nowhere near as clean as this. The new scenes are of exactly the same quality as the rest of the film.

The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and presented in anamorphic widescreen.
Again, the mastering is fantastic. Alien has one of the best sound scapes and scores you can find in a film and I could go on about it for a long fucking time, but I'll narrow it to this: the clarity is on par with the Star Wars re-releases. Presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 surround, it'll make full use of any surround sound set up, so turn out the lights and crank up the volume.
Extra Features
This is what more DVD's should be like. Following the release of the Quadrilogy, all the Alien films were released individually with the best sets of extras one could ask for. I have a feeling that whoever worked on putting together the extra features for the Alien films was also responsible for the outstanding features present on The Fly Special Edition released earlier this year.

On the first Alien disc, you get the Theatrical Cut, complete with a fairly extensive commentary. It's a little odd because it's apparent that while Ridley Scott, Dan O' Bannon (Writer), Ronald Shussett (Executive Producer), Terry Rawlings (Editor), Sigourney Weaver, John Hurt, Tom Skerrit, Harry Dean Stanton and Veronica Cartwright are all present in the commentary, only the last three were recorded at the same time. Everyone else has obviously been recorded at separate times and edited into the commentary track. Sigourney Weaver's contribution sounds as though it's come from an external interview or conversation between her and Scott and placed at relevant moments, as there is a noticeable noise floor present when they speak. It's still a great commentary, and probably not noticeable to those who aren't too picky about these things, but I felt it was worth mentioning. Unfortunately, our region 4 versions lack the commentary by Ridley Scott that accompanies the Director's Cut in the U.S.

The second disc is what every DVD collector craves; a disc absolutely crammed with features that go into every possible detail regarding the making of the film. The featurettes are broken up into three separate subsections: Pre-production, Production and Post Production. Each has a number of smaller interviews and galleries pertaining to whichever category you chose to explore. You can also choose to view all of the extras in the subsections as one huge, three hour long documentary (or view all the photo or art galleries in a similar fashion). There really is an extreme amount of insightful information presented in these documentaries, going into just about every single facet of the film from just about every single point of view one could ask for. Literally everything one could want to know about is explored across topics such as casting, the development from first to final draft, the studios at the time, the designs of the creatures, ships, costumes and the planet itself, the visual effects, the music and editing and the general reaction to the film from both audience viewers and those involved in the production. There are some real gems that can be selected individually, such as a multi-angled study of the infamous chestburster sequence.

Even the galleries aren't the usual "promo" crap that usually gets dished out. Sure, they're there, but you also get Ridley Scott's entire storyboarding and notes, some of Giger's artwork for the film (wait until you see the original designs for the chestburster!). The international poster art is also well worth looking at as there are some very interesting interpretations of the material.

There's also a slew of deleted scenes that were intended to be reinserted into the Director's Cut, but because other material was no longer available, the scenes could not be full realised. They're interesting to look at in retrospect, but wouldn't really have added much to the film except length.

If you happen to get the Quadrilogy set, you're also in for some added goodies. A bonus ninth disc – exclusive to the set – is included with some more extras. While a bit of what's included is covered in the already existing extras, there are some little moments scattered throughout that make these extras well worth watching. There's one particular moment where Dan O'Bannon, who wrote most of the drafts of Alien, talks about David Giler's final draft, and vice versa. I have never laid eyes on anyone more unimpressed than Dan O'Bannon in that interview. It's also neat to hear them talk for a little while about how much of an influence The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was on many of those involved in the creation process – especially Ridley Scott.

Also included is a Question and Answer segment with Ridley Scott, filmed at the premiere of the Director's Cut, which again doesn't really tell us much new, but Scott does tell the stories a little differently, giving a new insight into what we already knew from the other features, along with some little new bits here and there.

There are some other cool little bits and pieces such as a split screen segment that highlights the continuing impact the chestburster sequence holds, the trailers and TV spots from it's initial release and all the text and image based features that were present on the laserdisc release.
The Verdict
Own this DVD. It is DVD perfection. A masterpiece film with a masterfully compiled DVD. The individual release is exactly the same as the one found in the Quadrilogy (who thought of calling it that anyway? It's not even a real word!) boxed set, with the exception of the features found on the bonus disc in that set. Ultimately it comes down to how much you love the films. The Quadrilogy only costs around forty-five to fifty bucks at most retailers, but if you just want Alien you can get the two disc Special Edition from anywhere between fifteen to twenty. It's another one of those "your-collection-is-not-complete-without-this' DVD's. Own it!
Movie Score
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