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DVD Review: Alien Quadrilogy

By Glenn Abel

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photo Ripley's believe it or not: Nine discs, eight full-length movies, 45 hours of bonus material, 530 minutes of commentary, a box folding out 5-1/2 feet -- based on bulk alone, Fox's "Alien Quadrilogy" already is the stuff of home video legend.

For those with lives, "Alien Quadrilogy" is too massive to be experienced in full -- it's a black hole from which no free time can escape. The behemoth stands at the intersection of video obsession and science fiction geekdom, a space nearly as creepy as any visited in the films.

Not scared off? Climb aboard -- here's one long, strange trip worth taking.

DVD producer Charles de Lauzirika ("Tomorrow Never Dies") has pulled together a quarter century's worth of "Alien" matter -- outtakes, production clips, art elements, promo materials, etc. -- somehow emerging with a coherent package. Some elements return from the series' fairly ambitious video past, but much of the content is new or unseen.

The set's backbone is what amounts to a 12-hour documentary, carved up into digestible segments of about three hours (and then again into featurettes, if the viewer chooses that navigation option).

De Lauzirika weaves a tale populated by a Shakespearean cast of heroes, villains and martyrs, most of whom have their say in new interviews. Even the DVD docu itself is not without drama -- de Lauzirika pulled his name from the piece on "the tragedy of Alien 3" after the studio removed some of the more volatile material about the shoot.

In addition to great-looking versions of the four original theatricals, "Quadrilogy" streams in alternate versions of the films, basically director's cuts, three of them new to home video. The directors briefly introduce the rearranged movies and join key cast and crew members in new commentaries. Only director David Fincher of "Alien 3" is missing in action -- a shame because his film went through the most radical renovation.

The "Alien Quadrilogy" layout gives viewers a fighting chance, with a logical and uniform approach to content. Menus look good (and creepy), with little guesswork required. (Unfortunately, there's no main onscreen index.) Each title takes up two discs: one for the film(s) and another for bonus materials. A ninth DVD does cleanup with trailers and such. The films' release dates crack open a few Easter eggs.

Here's a look at some of the set's highlights.

"Alien" the movie (Disc 1): The new version of Ridley Scott's classic received a theatrical release this fall, marketed by Fox as a director's cut. Scott says it's nothing of the kind -- he prefers the original -- but "when you look at a film for 25 years," some things need fixing. Scott quickened the pace and wove in outtakes that'll be familiar to fans. The new version of "Alien" has more momentum and edge than the original -- at least until it gets to the notorious (and cartoonish) cocoon scene. "Alien" looks amazing, almost like a new film, its hard black-and-blue color scheme ratcheted up by its extensive restoration at Modern VideoFilm and by Sony's HD transfer. The new sound mix wails, with obsessive attention to ambient detail. Significant alien activity comes from all corners of the living room. Audio is in DTS and Dolby Digital, both excellent options, with the slight edge to DTS. ("Alien Resurrection" also has DTS.)

"Alien" the miniseries: Fox Home Entertainment is releasing the individual "Alien" titles in the first week of January, with almost all of the commerce destined for "Alien" and "Aliens." But patient "Quadrilogy" owners have the option of a new and significantly different experience: watching the expanded versions of all four films sequentially, TV miniseries style. The linear, more leisurely presentation takes some of the heat off the weaker third and fourth films and emphasizes the series' real strength: the continuing story of Ellen Ripley, sole survivor of the Nostromo.

Sexy beast (Disc 2): No one thinks of "Alien" without flashing on the alien newborn bursting through John Hurt's chest. Via multiangled clips and production audio, viewers become a fly on the wall at the filming of this horrific scene, in which most of the actors didn't know what was coming. The half-hour docu segment, "The Eighth Passenger: Creature Design," covers development of the alien and its breeding technique, which writer Dan O'Bannon calls "alien interspecies rape." Swedish surrealist H.R. Giger smiles and tells the camera, "I am afraid of my visions."

The look (Disc 2): "I had a vision," Ridley Scott says. Here are the director's original thumbnails and detailed notes -- "Ridleygrams" -- that inspired Fox to double the budget on its B movie. Storyboards follow.

Becoming Ripley (Disc 2): Sigourney Weaver "was born to be Ripley," director Scott says. The studio wasn't so sure. Included are four minutes of the off-off-Broadway actress' screen tests, shot on the "Alien" sets as they were being finished. The docu segment, "Truckers in Space: Casting," shows how Scott built "the best ensemble I've ever had."

O'Bannon's complaint (Disc 2): Original "Alien" writer O'Bannon pops up repeatedly in the set, complaining about the rewrite Walter Hill and his partners ("inferior minds") did on his script. Judge for yourself: O'Bannon's original is included, along with a witty new intro. Also of note: James Cameron's classy treatment for "Aliens" on Disc 4.

At war on "Aliens" (Discs 3 and 4): "Any Jim Cameron movie is a tough atmosphere," the director's friend and collaborator Stan Winston says. "Superior Firepower: The Making of Aliens" is Exhibit A, documenting tensions between the young director and his British craftsmen during the shooting of "Aliens" at Pinewood Studios. "It was like they were having a party and Jim was at war to finish this movie," actor Lance Henriksen notes. A less contentious view of the shoot emerges from Cameron's excellent, to-the-point commentary, the best in the set.

"Alien 3" revisited (Disc 5): A half-hour has been added to "Alien 3," the widely reviled sequel in which Ripley lands on a prison planet inhabited by panicky bald guys. Director David Fincher ("Seven") didn't care to revisit the nightmare that was his first film, so the DVD team "finished" the movie without him. A new beginning and end help the film at least get a fair trial on DVD.

Getting medieval (Disc 6): Fox hired Vincent Ward as the third "Alien" helmsman but ultimately rejected his work. On the docu segment "Tales of the Wooden Planet," Ward lays out his vision of an artificial planet, covered in wood, populated by technology-shunning monks. Ripley crash lands, bringing the brothers hell in the form of an alien. At one point, the beast harvests monks in a tall field of wheat. A look at some of the early events that led to what Ward calls "the tragedy of 'Alien 3.' " And a fascinating bit of counterfactual series history.

Splat! (Disc 8): French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet ("Amelie") wanted to begin "Alien Resurrection" with a campy CG title sequence in which a bug's teeth are mistaken for the alien's. The bug is squashed, and the camera pulls back seemingly forever, until a gigantic space station is revealed. "Is there room for humor in 'Alien'?" Jeunet wondered. He says he was relived when the producers pulled the plug on the costly bit -- "too funny." The opening was completed for the DVD, however, and opens the revised film, with commentary.

The deep (Disc 8): Jeunet's long underwater sequence in "Alien Resurrection" left his actors wondering if they were dealing with a madman instead of an amiable Frenchman. The docu segment "Death From Below" shows how the cast spent three weeks in a flooded set that Winona Ryder calls "a horrible dark kitchen with dead pigs floating around." The claustrophobic Sigourney Weaver was "completely freaked." Anyone considering underwater filming should check out this nightmarish production footage.

Digital memory lane (Disc 9): Longtime video enthusiasts will get a rush of nostalgia from exact re-creations of the supplemental materials from laserdiscs for "Alien" and "Aliens." Keep that forward-arrow button handy.

The fan (Disc 9): "Aliens in the Basement" tells the curious story of Bob Burns, an amateur Southern California prop collector who became caretaker of the "Alien" legacy when Fox backed up its trucks to his garage. "I am the luckiest man on Earth," says Burns, affectionately patting the head of Alien one.

Glenn Abel is Executive Editor, Electronic, at The Hollywood Reporter

Reprinted, with permission, from The Hollywood Reporter

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