on May 6, 2006
The Alien series never broke out the way that Star Trek and Star Wars did--you don't see the presence of an Alien-worshipping subculture, the way you do with Roddenberry's and Lucas's franchises. However, the series has been far more inventive and varied than those two franchises. Explore the Alien movies (minus the abomination known as Alien vs. Predator) on this 9-disc set. Even though they are very different films which have little commonality, aside from the presence of those vicious monsters and the lovely Sigourney Weaver, they complement each other well, and collectors would be wise to pick up this boxed set instead of buying the movies piecemeal. Far from being simple horror films, the Alien movies are attempts to put into film the anxieties of the modern age, from the biological to the corporate, and the series is at its best when it exploits these anxieties.
This is what the first entry in the series, Alien, does best. Directed by Ridley Scott, whose other work includes Blade Runner and Gladiator, this 1979 film pits a group of commercial astronauts against a foe which cannot be killed and will not be placated. With a cast that includes Weaver, Tom Skeritt, Yaphet Kotto, John Hurt, Harry Dean Stanton and Ian Holm, this is probably the most impressively-acted of the bunch, and Scott has style to spare. Unlike most terror films, this movie derives its thrills not from continual pop-ups at the screen, but from building a sustained mood of dread--the alien could pop up at any moment. When it does come, it doesn't stay around for long. Perhaps the movie's greatest attribute is its allegorical simplicity--one is bound to reflect on what the alien represents? Perhaps it's a Rorshach Ink Blot to some extent, however, this movie is the perfect counterpoint to such movies as Independence Day--instead of taking off and kicking ass, in Alien, nothing we can do can protect us from the Alien. In our post-Iraq, post-9/11 nation, perhaps this film will have gained some resonance in its treatment of the subject matter.
Aliens might be decried by some as a pure action film, but it is a bit more than that. James Cameron logically extends the concepts in the first film, and while it lacks the atmosphere and creepy suspense of the first movie, it is an extremely exciting and emotionally satisfying film. In this film, Ellen Ripley returns to the beast's planet with a squad of marines, which includes such personalities as the humane Cpl. Hicks (Michael Biehn), the freaked-out Pvt. Hudson (Bill Paxton) and the macho Pvt. Vasquez (Janette Goldstein). Also in the mix are Paul Reiser as the personification of corporate malfeasance, and Lance Henriksen as a sinister-seeming android. Trivia note: Henriksen would be the only actor (aside from Weaver) to appear in more than one Alien film. Ultimately, this is a movie where the thrills come from stuff popping out at you, but if you are willing to suspend disbelief a little and come along for the ride, it is actually quite good for a genre picture, and became the benchmark against which the later pictures were compared.
Alien3 is a film which never got a fair chance. Consider: a script which underwent more than a few major revisions, several changes in directors which actually produced the perfect man for the job (future Fight Club auteur David Fincher), a meddling studio and fan expectations which could not possibly have been sated. It was, in retrospect, a recipe for disaster, so one should not complain about how flawed it is, but rather realize just how good it is. Fincher manages to create a wholly convincing atmosphere of dread in a prison planet populated by monk-like inmates. It takes up the allegorical mantle again, but rather than the open-ended allegory of the first, this installment has overt religious parallels that anyone even remotely familiar with Western Civilization should be able to pick up on (even though some of the imagery is subtle). This set notably includes the Assembly Cut, billed euphamistically here as a "Special Edition", which is far closer to the movie Fincher intended to make. While there are any number of legitimate complaints against the film--the most sympathetic character dies halfway through, many of the inmates never really stick out, the final action sequence is too disorienting, high on gore but low on scares, etc.--it is actually a rather compelling film in its unedited form. Not perfect, but in terms of the plotting, main characters, and its insight into the mindset of the religious isolationist mindset, it is more than adequate. In terms of visuals and mood, no installment of the Alien series has been better. In my book, it's a good film with flaws rather than a flawed film with some good parts. The beginning and ending are contentious--watch the film and you will see why--but both serve the story, and the ending in Fincher's version is a surprisingly powerful one, as opposed to the theatrical version, which might have some Biblical undertones (the story of Jacob, specifically) but it feels more hollow. Overall, with this restored version, hopefully the movie will see an end to the backlash that has been pervasive since its release in 1992.
Alien Resurrection is the final film in this group, and while it is less polarizing than Alien3 among fans, it is also less memorable. If the original film was about a post-Vietnam set of anxieties, then this film is about a post-Berlin Wall set of ironies, and it cannot be displaced from the culture from whence it came--a culture which prided itself on being so "over" everything. Yet another director, this time Jean-Pierre Jeaunet of Amelie, brings a different twist to the franchise. Armed with a screenplay by TV wunderkind Joss Whedon, and game performances from Weaver, Winona Ryder, Ron Perlman, et al. The fundamental problem is that the viewer never really connects with the characters, and thus isn't invested in their fates. This being the case, the movie then becomes a series of action setpieces which don't quite add up to anything. The visual style is surprisingly lacking here as well: I once heard Amelie described as a David Fincher take on a Meg Ryan film, so I expected memorable visuals. I instead discovered that Roger Ebert was right when he said there was not a single shot to inspire the imagination. While the production values are high, the grotesque violence, fast-paced editing, camerawork and lighting all come together to make one feel as though in a video game, and while that might work for fourteen year-old boys, it's a far cry from the film's heritage. On the other hand, the satirical aspects of the film are enjoyable, and it somehow was much more beloved in Europe--maybe I'm missing something. Ultimately, the film is either a standard-issue thriller or a savvy satirical deconstruction of a standard-issue thriller--I'm not entirely certain.
The bonus features are interesting--commentaries on all the four films, featuring directors, cast members, and production staff. I guess that, given the amount of commentary tracks punctuated by uncomfortable silences, the folks over at Fox decided to cut to different conversations at different points during the films. There is a constant stream of information, some interesting and enlightening, other parts are funny (Bill Paxton's contributions especially), but the only one that is tough to sit through is Alien3's, which is unbalanced in favor of the technical side of the production and only has about 15 minutes of Henriksen and another actor. The documentaries go into great detail about all the films, essentially from the germination of the story all the way through to critical reception. Overall, it's a good collection of special features.
Overall, as far as franchises go, the Alien films are one of the better bets out there. As a receptacle for millenial anxieties, a proving ground for new and talented directors, and just plain scares, this is a series which should appeal to most and I highly recommend this set.