When "Alien" hit theaters in 1979, science fiction movies had mostly been seen as flying saucer films with goofy looking aliens who abduct good-looking models to their ships to do whatever. At the other end of the spectrum there were space operas that predominantly focussed on space battles or weird outer space experiences. However no one was really prepared for the kind of experience "Alien" would provide, and I vividly remember seeing the film for the first time. Immediately the movie fascinated audiences with its horrifying ambiance and the gory events taking place on board the claustrophobically dark Nostromo. Ridely Scott’s film presented us with a science fiction story for the first time that was neither glorious nor romanticized. It was a story about death lurking in the unknown depths of space. His merciless approach in depicting these events catapulted "Alien" to cult status literally the day it was released 20 years ago. To celebrate the film’s anniversary, 20th Century Fox Home Video has now prepared all parts of the series for release on DVD as individual discs, and as a complete box set called "The Alien Legacy". We have taken a look at the film that started it all, the original "Alien".
On its way home to Earth, the deep space towing vessel Nostromo intercepts an radio signal. The ship’s computer awakens the crew who has been in hypersleep for the lengthy travel to investigate what seems to be an emergency signal. After tracking the source of the signal to a nearby planet, the crew sets out to explore the origins of this unfamiliar signal. Just when they discover an alien hive, the ship’s computer deciphers the original message, which turns out to be a warning rather than a call for help. But it is too late already. One of the crew members has become the target of a strange face-hugging creature when he was examining one of the eggs. The remaining members of the team rush him back to the ship for help, but with every attempt to free their partner from the clutches of the creature he seems to come closer to death. Soon the entire crew learns the hard way that they should have never brought the creature on board. Seemingly indestructible, the alien starts a reign of horror within the boundaries of the space vessel.
Apart from the actual creature, much of "Alien’s" appeal results from the characters. Very well portrayed, they create a bunch of workers who have trouble coping with their situation and have only one real wish - to get home alive. Unlike in some of the other installments of the series however, these guys are not moronic, half-brained pseudo-Rambos who talk tough for supposed coolness. The characters presented in "Alien" truly represent a believable group of roughneck working class people, who happen to live in the future and work in space. The film became Sigourney Weaver’s most important career step as the story’s character Ellen Ripley, and made her came back to reprise her role in all three sequels as well. But in this particular film the entire cast is responsible for the movie’s down-to-earth delivery of wide-eyed fear.
Despite the characters and the creature, one other aspect of "Alien" elevated this film above the rest when it got released first in 1979. There had not been a film that intense in a while and the way Ridley Scott made use of his sets and his props was material for nightmares. He was using the enclosed sets to their fullest, always leaving himself plenty of shadows so that the viewer’s imagination could fill in what we don’t really see. You are constantly on the look-out to see if anything moved there in the darkness. This usage of light and darkness gave "Alien" a menacing tone that almost superceded the real danger emanating from the creature. This is an art that has almost been lost in a time where cinema has become more and more graphical as technical capabilities expanded. It is the art that creates a movie experience that far exceeds passive watching and gets the viewer’s mind involved on an almost unconscious level. The result is an addictive movie that hardly gives you time to breath. Once it is over, you almost feel as if you woke up from a dream.
The "Alien" films have certainly been some of the most anticipated releases of recent months and 20th Century Fox pays tribute to that by giving DVD owners the best treatment you could imagine. In a word, "Alien" looks spectacular and can easily be nominated for one of the best looking DVDs to date. The discs anamorphic widescreen transfer is simply breathtaking and is better than any version of the film I have ever seen! The entire transfer has been painstakingly cleaned up and the result is a movie experience that is absolutely clean, sharp and immaculately detailed. "Alien" is not a film that is easy to take into the digital domain. With is brooding, murky interior shots, it poses quite a challenge to the medium. Marking Fox’s best-looking release so far, "Alien" takes all the hurdles with a stride. There are shadows as black as the eternal void of space, there are highlights as glistening as pure silver, and there are details visible you might never have seen before in the film. Especially the level of detail in this transfer is literally out of this world, although it tends to create some aliasing distortion through the reproduction of all these intricacies on standard TV sets. The overall color balance of the presentation is superb and has been specially corrected for this release on DVD. The compression of the disc is flawless without even a hint of pixelation or other digital artifacting. Considering the film is 20 years old, this is a major achievement by 20th Century Fox.
The same attention has been paid to the sonic representation of the film on this DVD. Coming with an engrossing 5.1 channel Dolby Digital soundtrack, this disc contains a lively and active soundtrack, that is just as claustrophobic at times, as the film itself. If panic gets a grip on you during the film’s climax, don’t worry. You are probably just experiencing what the characters in the movie go through at the time. With the ostinate howling of the ship’s sirens surrounding you and the chilling danger of the alien omnipresent, this finale offers one of the most captivating surround experiences in film. Check it out. You will love it! The disc also contains Jerry Goldsmith’s eerie soundtrack in its entirety, completely isolated in a 5.1 channel Dolby Digital mix. The score Goldsmith used to embellish and heighten the feverish frenzy in "Alien" is oftentimes nothing but slowly building clusters that increase in eerieness as each note gets added. This particular score has long become a show-off example in orchestration lessons to show upcoming composers how clustering can be used to create an intense sense of insurmountable threat.
To celebrate the film’s 20th anniversary, Fox has delivered a THX certified special edition with this release that will satisfy even the most demanding, die hard fan of the film. Anything you can possibly think of can be found on this dual-layer disc. The disc seems like a bottomless treasure chest of bonus materials that keep pounding you over the head. The quality is extremely good and every time you thought there could hardly be any new surprises, you will find yet another feature that blows your socks off. The disc also contains a very good commentary track with director Ridley Scott that has been prepared for this DVD by Sharpline Arts. Sharpline Arts were also responsible for the isolated audio tracks on the disc, the newly remixed and reedited outtakes, and the photo gallery with production notes. On top of that they also created a brand new 68-minute documentary that was intended for release on this disc. For some reason it never made it on there however and is now only available to buyers of the "Alien Legacy" box set through a mail-in coupon. Since this documentary of part of the VHS "Alien Legacy" release, it is safe to assume that Fox ran out of space on the discs of the box set and because they had already printed all the packaging materials were unable to create a fifth disc for the release. Since this documentary is of extremely high quality I urge every owner of the box set to send in the coupon and claim their additional disc.
It has been quite a while since a DVD has been released that was truly stunning in its overall presentation and quality. "Alien" is such a disc. The content is dazzling and the overall quality of the film’s presentation simply staggering from the moment you insert the disc and see the atmospheric menus come to life. It is the power of the film, the flawless presentation and the plethora of extras of this release that makes "Alien" a disc that has to go into every DVD owner’s collection. This is the ultimate "Alien" release. Period!