page added: 10/22/10
Blu-ray Disc review by Bill Hunt, Editor of The Digital Bits
1979-2003 (2010) - 20th Century Fox
Released on Blu-ray on October 26th, 2010
Original Alien Quadrilogy previously available on DVD.
Alien Anthology Blu-ray also available from Amazon.ca.
Film Ratings (I/II/III/IV): A+/A-/B-/C-
Video (I/II/III/IV): 19/18/17/17
Audio (I/II/III/IV): 18/18/18/18
Okay... this is going to be a down-and-dirty review. I'm going to get right to the point - right down to the guts of this bad boy - and tell you exactly what you want to know. If you want extensive, blow-by-blow details on most of the contents of this set, and thoughtful analysis of the films themselves, you can refer to my epic 2003 Alien Quadrilogy DVD review, which includes all that and more.
|Right off the bat, I should admit to you all that Charles de Lauzirika, the special edition producer for this release, is an old friend of mine. And I first met him way back in 1998, as a result of his involvement with Fox's initial Alien: 20th Anniversary Edition DVD release. I say that by way of acknowledging that yes, it could be claimed that I'm not the most impartial critic here. But the reality is, we've come to know MOST of the special edition producers working in this business here at The Bits over the years. And while I've certainly praised Charlie's work often over the years, it's not because of our friendship, but rather because - in my honest opinion - his work is routinely top notch. And from my vantage point, this new Alien Anthology Blu-ray ranks alongside his 2007 Blade Runner: The Final Cut BD set as his best work to date.
All right, so you might be wondering: How do you craft a truly ULTIMATE multi-film, special edition box set on Blu-ray? Apparently, the best approach is to start with one that was ALREADY considered pretty damned ultimate on DVD... then upgrade the films to HD and add a LOT more. First of all, EVERYTHING from the previous - and near-legendary - Alien Quadrilogy DVD box set has carried over to this new BD release. And I mean everything, right down to the deleted scene markers and Easter eggs. In addition, NEARLY everything from the previous Alien Legacy box set - the original DVD special editions - is here as well. That includes the original audio commentaries as well as the new ones recorded for the 2003 Quadrilogy release, AND the original Easter eggs. (There are 4 Easter eggs in all on Disc Six of the Anthology: 2 from the original Alien DVD - the crew dossiers and xenomorph life cycle - and the 2 from the Quad set.) There IS one thing missing from the original Legacy DVDs, which is the Alternate Music & Production Sound audio track on the original Alien special edition. It was intended to be included on the Blu-rays, but had to be dropped due to disc space concerns. However, keep in mind that not only do the original isolated score tracks for the original Alien and Aliens DVDs carry over, you also get NEW isolated scores for all four films. You'll also be happy to learn that yes, Sharpline Arts' excellent Alien Legacy documentary is finally included here, as is the 2001 Alien Saga documentary. And all of the older laserdisc archive material is here too. One additional note, however: If you have Image Entertainment's original Alien Saga DVD, you may wish to keep it. It includes a couple things not available on the Anthology or anywhere else, including 4 short Aliens production featurettes (Grunts in Space, Behind the Scenes and profile pieces on James Cameron and Sigourney Weaver) as well as a bit of uncut Sigourney Weaver screen test footage. Most of the same screen test footage is here on the Anthology, but it's been censored. So that's the breakdown of what's carried over here from previous DVD releases.
As you all know, there is MUCH new content here as well, created or upgraded specifically for Blu-ray. First of all, there are the new isolated score tracks for each film. Next, in the Quadrilogy set, about 100 of director Ridley Scott's original Ridleygram sketches were inaccessible due to an authoring error. They're ALL now available here. And in fact, the Ridleygrams - and indeed ALL of the artwork, photographs, sketches and other material from the Quad - are upgraded here to full high-def, so you're going to get a better look at them than ever before. As many of you know, the original Alien³ documentary from the Quad set, Wreckage and Rage, was censored by Fox back in 2003, with some 21 minutes cut prior to release - footage detailing director David Fincher's struggles and frustrations on the set. You'll be pleased to know that ALL of that lost footage been restored, making this the most complete version of the documentary to date. On top of that, each of the four feature-length, "making of" documentaries from the Quad set have been enhanced with scores of additional Enhancement Pod featurettes - nearly 4 hours' worth of material over the whole set. This includes great interview stories and anecdotes by cast and crew members, unused outtake footage and more. There's a piece on the influence of Jodorowsky's aborted Dune project on the Alien films, a piece in which Giger describes his philosophy, a piece in which actor Jon Finch talks about how he was originally cast as Kane but couldn't play the part - just great stuff. Essentially, it's all kinds of wonderful little gems that just didn't fit well into the previous documentaries, and so had to be left on the cutting room floor, but now you finally get to enjoy them all. (You can play them all together, or select them individually from a list in the menus.) Aliens fans will delight in the fact that the long-desired "Burke Cocooned" scene is finally on this set in all its glory. (Though to be honest, I can see why it was deleted, as it's a surprisingly quick moment and disrupts the tension of the sequence in which it would have appeared.) In addition, there's a new BD-Java interactive MU-TH-UR Mode that you can access while watching the films. This does a couple things: First, you can see what's being discussed on the audio commentaries at that moment, in case you want to listen to it. You can also access a text track, called the Weyland-Yutani Datastream, which offers lots of little bits of information and trivia. Finally, it also lets you select different topics for which there may be relevant videos, photos and artwork on Disc Five and Six of the set. When you select them, the player remembers your selections, so that when you get to Discs Five and Six, you can go directly to those items if you wish. Finally, the Blu-rays feature a very much appreciated option called Disc Unbound. What this does is, once you've watched one disc in the set - with its usual start-up copyright disclaimers and warning screens - when you take that disc out and switch to another disc in the set, you'll see a Weyland-Yutani logo on the screen as you make the swap. Then, when the new disc starts up, it skips past all the warning screens and goes right into the main menu. Now, THAT'S a cool touch.
A couple of notes on the extras: Many of you may recall that actress Sigourney Weaver gave an interview to the L.A. Times in which she indicated that she was going to be recording new audio commentary tracks for all four films in this set. This is something she planned to do, and Lauzirika and Fox worked hard to facilitate it. Unfortunately, the intense demands upon her schedule of promoting the theatrical release of Avatar didn't allow this to happen. That's certainly a shame, but it's the nature of the beast and she IS still represented on the previous DVD commentaries. In addition, the Dailies: James Remar as Hicks Enhancement Pod was deleted from the set's extras at the request of Lightstorm. I just thought it was important to note here, because many of you have asked about both things in recent weeks.
Of course, it goes without saying that all four films in this set have been upgraded to high-definition video. Alien and Aliens have received brand new 4K transfers, and as you'd expect they look spectacular. Alien, in fact, is about as close to perfect as I can imagine it looking. Contrast is excellent, with deep blacks and well detailed shadows. Colors are rich and accurate, while image detail is extraordinary in everything from the grimy walls and piping of the Nostromo's sub-levels, to the texture of skin and even the mottled surface of the alien egg. And if you look very closely you can see the film's exceptionally subtle grain structure too. Aliens, while not quite as refined as the original film given its different photographic process, looks better here than ever before - likely even its original theatrical release. Contrast is very good, though blacks occasionally look a little gray, but color and detail are terrific. Best of all, the coarse image grain seen in past versions has been carefully reduced but NOT completely removed. The result is an excellent and refined presentation - one that retains the best of its original cinematic qualities while improving the overall viewing experience. Meanwhile, Alien³ and Alien Resurrection are also upgraded but with recent - though not brand new - HD transfers. (Fox felt the existing transfers, which were newer than those available for the first two films, were good enough.) Both look very good on the whole - certainly much better than the previous DVDs - with excellent color and contrast and markedly improved detail. They are, however, a little bit softer and less refined looking than the new Alien and Aliens presentations. So they're good, but they won't blow you away like the first two films will.
On the audio front, you get 5.1 lossless mixes in the expected DTS-HD Master Audio format, and all four films sound terrific. Dialogue is clear, staging is natural and immersive, and there's substantial bass as required. You'll be particularly pleased to hear that the sound mix for the 2003 Alien³: Special Edition version has been dramatically improved. In its original Quad DVD incarnation, the audio was quite rough in spots, as the deleted footage often only had production audio elements available, and there wasn't the time or funds to properly finish the mix. Specifically for this new Blu-ray presentation, ADR dialogue was re-recorded with actors Charles Dance, Lance Henriksen and Sigourney Weaver, and all of the Special Edition scenes were re-mixed, sweetened and properly finished so as to match the rest of the film seamlessly. The difference is notable and should be much appreciated by fans.
This sets' interactive menus are among the best I've ever seen on Blu-ray. Every page is animated and features sound effects right out of the movie. The overall look and scheme is that of the Weyland-Yutani Network computer interface. Each film disc opens a series of graphic data files that loop in the background - first a star map, then various technical files on vehicles, equipment and creatures from the film. They're just gorgeous, all in HD - you'll want to spend a few minutes just watching the menus before you even make a selection. There's a LOT of cool little details included in these animations. Naturally, you can select which version of each film you wish to watch, along with your preferred audio and subtitle options. (Yes, the original color timing of Brett's "Here Jonesy..." scene is now present in the theatrical cut of Alien.) And ALL of the special features on Discs Five and Six include subtitles for those who need them - another nice touch.
Finally, the set's packaging is elegant and nicely functional. The discs are housed in a hardback book package with film images and text - the discs themselves slide securely into slots in the pages. In the back is a small pamphlet with a MU-TH-UR Mode Viewer's Guide, a list of all the extras on each disc and a note from Ridley Scott. There's also a paper slip that explains Disc Unbound. All of this in turn comes housed in a gorgeous, metallic-accented slipcase.
As far as my own playback experience, the ONE minor problem I've had with these Blu-rays (on my Oppo BDP-83) is that the first time I play each of the movie discs, the film itself starts dramatically zoomed into the upper-left portion of the frame. It's some kind of scaling issue, probably specific to certain models of BD player. However, quickly popping back out to the main menu and playing the film again resets the scaling and the film plays perfectly and properly from then on. All of the set's other content and features worked perfectly for me. I've had a couple of readers (who've obtained this set early from retailers that broke street) say that when they view the documentary material on Discs Five and Six, some of it appears incorrectly squished horizontally - another scaling issue. However, I've sampled every documentary and featurette on those discs, and I'm not having any problems with this. (See an additional note on the documentary framing below.) Nor have I had ANY problems whatsoever playing the discs via my PC's BD-ROM drive. So I'm guessing that there may simply be some player models out there that will need minor firmware updates to run everything perfectly. If you have any problems with the set, contact your manufacturer's customer support service and I'm sure they'll get such issues resolved quickly.
A note about the documentary framing: The original 2003 "making of" documentaries were all finalized in a 4x3 aspect ratio for the Quad DVD release. For this new Anthology set, they've essentially been "rebuilt" in 16x9. The video footage (interviews, vintage on-set footage, etc) have been slightly cropped (top and bottom) to fill the 16x9 frame. Meanwhile, all of the title graphics have been redesigned and newly-rendered in 16x9. The decision to do this was made by Lauzirika himself. (There were fans who complained in 2003 that the docs were 4x3 and not 16x9, so now you have a choice.) I've directly compared both versions and can say with confidence that you're losing VERY little from cropping - the footage still looks quite good for SD material. For the new enhancement pods, the vintage 4x3 footage is left as is, with graphic pillars filling the 16x9 frame, and native 16x9 title graphics. All of the pre-2003 featurettes and documentaries - the vintage 4x3 material - is left as is. Just be aware of it. I actually don't mind the change at all, but a few of you may prefer the original 4x3 presentation. If so, keep your Quad set accordingly.
When all is said and done, I think it would be extraordinarily hard to craft a more epic, elaborate, thorough and thoughtful special edition collection of ANY film saga that this new Alien Anthology Blu-ray set. This is the kind of exhaustive, encyclopedic experience - conceived BY someone who knows these films as well as anyone, FOR equally diehard lovers of these films - that fanboys everywhere dream of. Anyone who's ever sunk their teeth into the previous Alien Quadrilogy DVD box set knows that it was already an out-of-the-park home run as it was. Yet this new Anthology set is even better, carrying over everything from the Quad and adding hours of new and surprising material. If you're a serious cinephile - as are we here at The Bits - special editions just don't get better than this. And if you're a Blu-ray enthusiast, this set represents the format at its finest. It's arguably one of the best - if not THE best - all-around BD releases to date. Hats off to 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, to Lauzirika and his creative team, and to EVERYONE involved in its making. This is a rare double-dip that's well worth the dipping.
What more can I say? You think I'm exaggerating with the whole A++ extras grade? Well, how did you expect me to grade it?! The Quadrilogy already deserved an A+ for extras! Just buy the damn set.
You'll see... ;)