Alien appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, dual –layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. It seemed hard to believe that this film came out more than 20 years ago, for despite a few minor flaws, it looked like it was filmed yesterday.
Sharpness appeared consistently positive. At almost all times, the picture remained crisp and well defined. Despite many very wide shots, I saw only a couple of minor signs of softness or fuzziness; for the most part, the image remained distinct and concise from start to finish. Moiré effects and jagged edges presented no concerns, and I detected no issues related to edge enhancement. Print flaws seemed startlingly absent. A couple of medical lab shots showed a smidgen of grain, but that was it. Otherwise the movie stayed remarkably crisp and clean at all times.
Alien offered a suitably restricted palette, and the DVD reproduced this well. The colors looked clear and accurate at all times. Very few bright tones appeared; Parker’s bandana was pretty much the only consistent example of anything somewhat bold and vibrant. Nonetheless, the tones seemed clean and distinct at all times, and they lacked any form of bleeding, noise, or distortion. Black levels appeared nicely deep and rich, and shadow detail seemed appropriately heavy but not excessively dim. Despite the minor flaws that occurred, this remained a strong image almost all of the time, so I thought it merited an “A” rating.
How did the 2003 DVD compare to the original 1999 release? The pair seemed very similar. The 2003 version cleaned up a few minor specks and apparently slightly altered the color timing, but I didn’t think any significant changes occurred. The old disc looked excellent and this one followed suit.
This 2003 version of Alien included both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 soundtracks. I was unable to find any significant differences between the two. Both showed the same pattern of strengths and weaknesses, and neither stood out from the other.
Overall, the audio of Alien seemed positive but showed its age at times. The soundfield demonstrated reasonably good breadth. The forward spectrum dominated the presentation. From the front, music showed reasonable stereo imaging, but the effects were the strongest aspect of the project. The front environment showed nice spread and atmosphere, as it created a creepy and eerie environment.
Surround usage seemed more limited. For the most part, the rears offered general reinforcement of music and effects. They became more active during some of the louder scenes. For example, those that involved the landing of the ship showed broad and enveloping audio. Still, the forward domain dominated the package, where it offered reasonably vivid atmospherics.
Audio quality also appeared fairly good for its era. Dialogue varied, especially due to a lot of obvious looping. Much of the speech seemed natural and distinct, but some lines came across as flat and a little muddy, and some edginess occasionally affected those segments. Additional distortion cropped up with a few effects, and those elements often sounded somewhat thin and shrill. Bass response for the effects seemed limited for the most part, but those landing sequences offered some loud use of the low-end; the bass seemed powerful but somewhat boomy. Music also showed somewhat tinny tones, as the score occasionally sounded a little harsh. For the most part, I thought the track worked well given its age, but it did demonstrate a mix of concerns.
Overall, the audio on the 1999 DVD and the mixes here seemed identical, but I did notice at least one missing bit of dialogue. Around the 22-minute mark of the theatrical cut, Ripley visits with Parker and Brett. When they complain about the bonus situation, she replies, ““Don’t worry, Parker – yeah, you’ll get whatever’s coming to you.” On the 2003 DVD, both tracks omit the “yeah”. The word was always awkwardly looped, but now that we see Weaver’s mouth move and no sound emit, it seems even stranger. Why the word went missing, I don’t know.
Whereas the 1999 version of Alien presented a surfeit of extras, the 2003 edition offers an even stronger package. One main change: we can now watch either the theatrical rendition or the 2003 director’s cut. I already discussed this in the body of the review, but I figured I should mention it as a supplement too. The DVD uses seamless branching to cut between them. In a nice touch, if you watch the alternate version, you’ll find a deleted footage marker that notes all the originally excised material.
If you select the “director’s cut”, the movie opens with a Ridley Scott introduction. In this 55-second clip, the director gives us quick notes about why he created the new version of the film. It’s inconsequential but it helps set the stage for the flick.
Next we find a new audio commentary with director Ridley Scott, writer Dan O’Bannon, executive producer Ronald Shusett, editor Terry Rawlings, and actors Sigourney Weaver, John Hurt, Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright and Harry Dean Stanton. A complex compilation of sources, Hurt, O’Bannon, Shusett and Rawlings all clearly sit alone for their discussions. Weaver chats with Scott, but many of the director’s remarks come from separate solo sessions. Skerritt, Cartwright and Stanton all are together for their remarks.
Unsurprisingly, the ever-chatty Scott dominates the piece, but he doesn’t exist in a vacuum. He goes over a mix of elements connected to story, casting, visuals, music, and quite a lot else. The others play less significant roles, and Weaver comes across as the track’s biggest disappointment; she reveals very little about her work and mostly defers to the director.
O’Bannon and Cartwright prove to be the most engaging of the other speakers. The writer provides some contrasts with his original script, and we get intriguing notes about his disdain for the Ash subplot. Cartwright offers fine comments about her work and gives us a revealing look at the process and her character. Stanton doesn’t tell us much, but he adds a fun sense of comic relief at times, and it’s entertaining to hear him interact with his co-stars after all these years. In the end, the commentary seems generally positive, though not quite the slam-dunk I expected.
If you select the theatrical edition of Alien, you’ll get access to deleted scenes. Note that these simply show the alternate sequences from the director’s cut; nothing different than what we find in that version appears in this section.
DVD One features the THX Optimizer. Also found on many other DVDs, this purports to help you set up your system for the best reproduction of both picture and sound, ala stand-alone programs such as Video Essentials. I’ve never tried the Optimizer since I’m happy with my settings, but if you don’t own something such as Essentials, the Optimizer may help you improve picture and audio quality.
After this we head to DVD Two, where we encounter a slew of extras. These divide into three areas, and we begin with Pre-Production. First up, we find a featurette called Star Beast: Developing the Story. This runs 18 minutes and 12 seconds as it combines archival materials and interviews with writer Dan O’Bannon, story writer/executive producer Ron Shusett, conceptual artist Ron Cobb, associate producer Ivor Powell, producers Gordon Carroll and David Giler, former 20th Century Fox president Alan Ladd Jr., “Beast” focuses on the evolution of the flick. We learn a little about how O’Bannon and Shusett got into film and came around to the creation of the Alien story. The program then follows the slow path of the tale to the screen and concentrates on all the difficulties along the way, including many unsuccessful rewrites. The featurette seems frank and informative as it lets us know the various concerns.
Next we move to another featurette entitled The Visualists: Direction and Design. The 16-minute and 54-second piece includes remarks from O’Bannon, Shusett, Ladd, Giler, Powell, Cobb, director Ridley Scott, alien designer HR Giger, They go through finding a director, Scott’s arrival on the flick and his take on the tale, concerns about the look of the Alien, and development of the Alien creatures and other visual elements. A nice introduction to the film’s look, we get some good information here.
The actors come in during Truckers in Space: Casting. In this 14-minute and 56-second piece, we get comments from Shusett, Carroll, Scott, Powell, Giler, Ladd, casting director (UK) Mary Selway, and actors Sigourney Weaver, Veronica Cartwright, Tom Skerritt, John Hurt, and Harry Dean Stanton. They cover the decision to make Ripley a woman, how all the leads ended up with their parts, and some information about their takes on the parts. We also see some intriguing clips of the original actor cast as Kane. The absence of Ian Holm and Yaphet Kotto here and elsewhere seems unfortunate, but otherwise “Truckers” goes through its topic well and includes positive notes about the actors.
Also in “Pre-Production” we discover a Sigourney Weaver Screen Test. This lasts five minutes, 45 seconds and comes with optional commentary from Ridley Scott. We see Weaver as she runs through a few scenes. One cool element comes from the fact they shot the tests on actual Alien sets; that makes it easier to compare her audition to elements from the final film, even though the scenes themselves don’t always present exact corollaries in the end product. The commentary from Scott discusses elements of it and gives us some good perspective. Some of the notes appeared elsewhere, but the remarks remain useful and appropriate here.
The last “Pre-Production” domain offers “Still Photo Galleries”. These open with the first draft original screenplay by Dan O’Bannon. It starts with a long and excellent essay by O’Bannon about the project. It repeats some elements heard elsewhere but tosses in much new material like an attempt by another dude to sue O’Bannon for plagiarism. The script itself is a cool read, as it differs considerably from the final product.
The next gallery offers Ridleygrams: Original Thumbnails and Notes. Over 74 screens, we see images of Scott’s rough sketches to diagram his plans. These offer a cool look at his early concepts, especially since they feature some elements that didn’t make the movie.
More art appears in the Storyboard Archives and the Art of Alien. The former covers five scenes: “Awakening” (58 screens), “Landing” (59), “Expedition” (79), “Breach” (130) and “Narcissus” (45). Of these, “Narcissus” is the most interesting, as it depicts a variation on the existing ending. “Art” provides a “Conceptual Art Portfolio” split among four artists: Ron Cobb (55 screens), Chris Foss (48), HR Giger (43), and Jean “Moebius” Giraud (10). These present a good look at the designs created for the flick.
Finally, “Pre-Production” ends with a Cast Portrait Gallery. 26 screens of material appear here. None of the shots seem terribly interesting.
After this we shift to Production and a featurette called Fear of the Unknown: Shepperton Studios, 1978. It runs 24 minutes and six seconds as it includes the standard roster of archival materials and interviews. We hear from Ron Cobb, Ridley Scott, Dan O’Bannon, David Giler, Alan Ladd Jr., Ivor Powell, art director Roger Christian, Veronica Cartwright, Tom Skerritt, Sigourney Weaver, John Hurt, Harry Dean Stanton, Ron Shusett, production designer Michael Seymour, and cinematographer Derek Vanlint.
Probably the best of the featurettes so far, “Unknown” covers studio pressures, tensions and issues on the set, the design of the set, character development and Scott’s work with the actors and other elements of their performances, and reactions to the burgeoning work. The actors highlight this one with their stories from the set plus some great outtakes. Informative and entertaining, “Unknown” gives us a nice snapshot of the shoot.
Next we go to The Darkest Reaches: Nostromo and Alien Planet, a 17-minute and 29-second featurette. This uses the normal format and includes comments from Powell, Seymour, O’Bannon, Cobb, Scott, Giger, Cartwright, Shusett, Carroll and Christian. As the title indicates, this program covers the visual design and creation of the two main sets. We learn lots of neat intricacies of the locations and find out some fun notes about them and their integration into the film.
Our next featurette is called The Eighth Passenger: Alien Design. It runs 31 minutes and 36 seconds and presents remarks from Cobb, Giger, Stanton, Shusett, Seymour, Scott, Cartwright, Weaver, Skerritt, Powell, Christian, O’Bannon, Hurt, Vanlint, Giler, alien head effect designer Carlo Rambaldi, and visual effects supervisor Brian Johnson. We get a few notes about people’s perception of Giger and then launch into many details about the various stages of the alien itself. We hear Giger’s thoughts about his designs and find out how the filmmakers brought those concepts to life. The program strongly details the shoot of the chestburster scene and provides the definitive account of the flick’s most famous sequence. Lots of great behind the scenes footage appears here – like outtakes with the chestburster - and the program gives us a terrific examination of these elements.
The Chestburster: Creature Design gives us “Multi-Angle Scene Studies with Optional Ridley Scott Commentary”. This provides three viewing options: camera 1, camera 2, and a composite of the pair. As for audio, we can switch between the production sound and Scott’s remarks. We go through various different takes of the scene and get a great look at the raw material. Scott discusses his intentions, concerns, and solutions in his informative track.
”Production” ends with more “Still Photo Galleries”. The Production Gallery gives us nine sections of photos by Bob Penn: “The Nostromo” (30 shots), “Egg Chamber” (18), “Kane’s Fate” (37), “Brett’s Death and Mu-Th-Ur” (25), “Ash” (9), “Parker and Lambert’s Deaths” (19), “Cocooned” (10), “The Narcissus” (38) and “Filming In Progress” (16). All together, these create a pretty good look at the work on the set.
Speaking of which, next we go to The Sets of Alien. It includes 151 shots of the Nostromo, the alien planet, and the derelict ship. The elements on the Nostromo are especially good, as we get a thorough tour of the place.
In the Continuity Polaroids, we locate 98 of these photos used to prevent various flubs. These seem more interesting than most in the genre. Usually these present stiffly posed shots to note wardrobe, but the pictures here feel more like candid images from the shoot.
Next we go to HR Giger’s Workshop. This presents 21 shots of the building of the alien. It’s a simple area that mostly duplicates pictures we see elsewhere, but it stands as a decent collection.
The final section covers Post-Production. Called Future Tense: Music and Editing, the opening featurette runs 16 minutes and 24 seconds. It includes information from editor Terry Rawlings, composer Jerry Goldsmith, Scott, Shusett, Powell, Skerritt, Giler, and O’Bannon. As one might expect from the title, it concentrates on issues connected to the cutting and scoring of Alien. Actually, we only hear a little about the former topic, and those notes don’t tell us much. Instead, the music dominates the program, probably because this presents a juicier subject. Goldsmith’s music didn’t always go over well with the others, and some friction ensued. We hear about that in this fairly intriguing program.
After this we find Outward Bound: Visual Effects, a 19-minute and 13-second featurette. It gives us notes from Brian Johnson, supervising modelmaker Martin Bower, Ivor Powell, Derek Vanlint, Ridley Scott, and David Giler. They discuss the various visual elements like the ships and how they made them look believable. The show seems somewhat dry but it conveys the information in a reasonably concise manner, and it tosses in some interesting bits.
The DVD’s final featurette, A Nightmare Fulfilled: Reaction to the Film fills 23 minutes and 24 seconds. We hear from Scott, Rawlings, Ladd, Hurt, Giler, Christian, Powell, Cartwright, O’Bannon, Shusett, Vanlint, Skerritt, Cobb, Weaver, Selway, and Carroll. They discuss the film’s public reception as well as their own reactions to the flick. They then offer some valedictory statements about its lasting impression. The program gets a little puffy and laudatory at times, but the tales of personal feelings offer some good notes; Skerritt’s tale of a meeting with a clean bathroom obsessed theater owner alone makes the show worth a look.
This area includes a set of seven Deleted and Extended Scenes. Each of these lasts between 74 seconds and three minutes, 30 seconds for a total of 15 minutes, 26 seconds of footage. In a cool touch, three of the clips were redone with full 5.1 audio and displayed with 16X9 enhancement since they were considered for inclusion in the director’s cut. Not that any of them should have appeared in a released version of the film. These clips are interesting to see for fans, but none of them come across as anything other than fairly redundant and they would have slowed the pace.
Alien concludes with one more collection of “Still Photo Galleries”. These include shots from a Visual Effects Gallery (23 shots), Poster Exploration (23), Special Promotional Shoot (42) and Premiere (26). The posters seem especially interesting, as they include some rather lame and unappealing concepts.
In a nice touch, the DVD allows you to watch all the featurettes as one long program. All together, these fill a whopping three hours, two minutes, and 14 seconds. It also collects all the artwork and photos into their own respective domains, though those options seem less useful. I enjoyed being able to check out all the featurettes as one long show, but with so many stillframe options, trying to work through them as a gigantic conglomeration seemed awkward and unpleasant.
Note that this new 2-DVD release of Alien omits some features from the original 1999 release. Most significantly, we lose the Ridley Scott audio commentary from that disc. The new one also sacrifices the old set’s isolated score and a cool alternate audio track with unused music cues and various effects. I have no idea why these didn’t appear on the 2003 disc, but they definitely go missed. Frankly, the absence of those pieces caused me to give the extras an “A” grade instead of an “A+”; I didn’t feel I could grant Alien the highest marks when it failed to include such useful pre-existing materials.
Despite those omissions, the 2003 DVD of Alien is a killer. The movie earned its status as an innovative classic, and despite some slow spots, it holds up well after all these years. The DVD presents startlingly excellent picture with dated but generally positive audio plus an excellent and deep set of supplements. For Alien fans, this set is a genuine treat.
Footnote: as I write this, the 2003 version of Alien appears only in the Alien Quadrilogy boxed set. However, the 2-DVD version will come out on its own in early 2004.
To rate this film, visit the original review of ALIEN