11/19/2010

Blu-ray Review: Alien Anthology -- Alien (1979); Aliens (1986); Alien 3 (1992); Alien Resurrection (1997)




Now Available to Own



 

In retrospect, it's safe to say that Ridley Scott's Alien was pitched as “Jaws in space,” and greenlit with hyperspeed by Star Wars parent studio Twentieth Century Fox largely to cash in on the success of George Lucas' box office blockbuster with galaxy gaga ticket buyers in mind.

However, the 1979 finished product was a cinematic event unlike any other Space Odyssey or Close Encounter that viewers had experienced before, regardless of the fact that it employed some B-movie techniques, character “reveals” and plot twists that screenwriter Dan O'Bannon freely acknowledges he'd derived from countless sources in the past.

For ultimately, the approach employed by the filmmakers to push genre boundaries in presenting us with an incredibly intense, genuinely surprising and intellectually challenging hybrid of science fiction, action and horror sets this opus apart. And more than thirty years after its release, Alien remains one of the most influential contemporary adrenaline-fueled thrillers in motion picture history.


Unwilling to hold our hand from the start nor spell everything out for us, we're thrown right into the mix as Scott brilliantly builds suspense in long, drawn out Kubrickian sequences before we even get to the heart of our story.

Rivaling Hitchcock's Psycho in terms of presenting us with a few faux subplots before the fight for survival will inevitably trump everything else, Scott waits an impossibly long time – especially by today's standards – to ramp up the showdown between humans vs. a horrific alien that comes aboard a commercial towing spaceship.

And even when it evolves into a visceral battle wherein the crew gets picked off one by one in their fight against an impossible to predict alien, Scott refuses to give into the temptation to go into lazily mindless monster movie autopilot, handling it instead as though he were helming a futuristic adaptation of Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians as Scott had promised the genre weary actor Harry Dean Stanton.

Likewise, although it's nearly as famous for its memorable, downright terrifying creature encounters as it is for offering audiences a refreshing gender switch by casting actress Sigourney Weaver in the role of Ellen Ripley to play a hero rather than a damsel in distress as most horror movies demand, Scott's original Alien earns bonus points for handling everything in a completely matter-of-fact manner.

And sure enough, this reviewer in particular relished the opportunity to live vicariously through a female gutsy hero on equal terms with the men in her crew, understanding that because Scott and additionally Weaver underplayed the sex, it helped break down barriers in subconsciously ensuring a future of female heroes for whom men could root as well.

Relishing neither in the gore as some of its sequels would do nor in patting itself on the back for its women's liberation era political correctness, Alien managed to work effectively on a number of levels by first and foremost entertaining the hell out of you to inspiring feminist readings into the sexual imagery of the alien, along with of course spawning one of history's most successful film franchises.

Deemed a National Treasure when selected for inclusion in the Library of Congress' Film Registry, Alien is a thrilling effort that fires on all cylinders from start to finish, drawing you in the entire way with an impressive marriage of cinematic technique and pitch-perfect storytelling enhanced to a higher level of clarity in Fox's new Blu-ray Anthology collection.

With a new man calling the shots in the driver’s seat in the form of Terminator visionary and Rambo: First Blood Part II co-writer James Cameron, the crowd-pleasing 1986 sequel Aliens emphasized testosterone turbo charged action adventure in stark contrast to Ridley Scott’s subtle escalation of spine-tingling horror.

Yet even though I still prefer the brilliant simplicity of the original work, ultimately by avoiding the urge to recycle the first film completely in order to just make a quick and easy buck, Cameron raised the bar for franchise sequels with a dose of healthy competition.

Releasing another contemporary science fiction classic that has proved to be as influential as its predecessor particularly with action oriented space sagas, Cameron inspired those who would inherit blockbuster commodities in the future, urging them not to be afraid to try and reinvent the wheel to ensure that viewers wouldn’t feel like they were just being strapped in for a subtle variation of the original ride.


And Cameron’s tactics were humorously evaluated by lead actress Sigourney Weaver who summed up her Oscar nominated role in the second installment as “Rambolina,” before noting that by comparison, Scott’s original movie seemed like “a cucumber sandwich,” when viewed side-by-side with this guns-blazing, rip-roaring follow-up.

Aliens, which James Cameron had begun working on before moving forward with Terminator, offered the filmmaker the opportunity to follow up on his recurring themes of strong female heroes who were the equal of men whom they fought alongside introduced in Terminator and Rambo II as well as Cameron’s love/hate, fear/worship of technology.

Furthermore, given Rambo’s post-traumatic stress as a ‘Nam vet, Cameron may have subconsciously allowed his work on Rambo to influence the strategy he used in Aliens, by turning the sequel into a war film and allegorically referencing the soldiers’ experience in Vietnam.

Just like John Rambo has the opportunity to return to Vietnam to fight the war again in First Blood Part II, in this space sequel, Ellen Ripley accompanies a team of marines to the planet where she first encountered the alien to face her fears and share her expertise as they attempt to rescue colonists who were living and working there before they lost communication with the rest of the galaxy.

Of course, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist or even a spaceship pilot like Ripley to realize that once they’ve arrived back on the former battlefield, it’s only a matter of time before once again Ripley and company find themselves back in an impossible and at times downright gruesome war of man (as well as woman!) vs. the face-hugging, chest-bursting, egg-hatching parasitic alien creatures.

Yet although it does go a bit overboard in the violence department, which relegates some of the soldier supporting players to one-dimensional roles all the while making Ripley into a far more ferocious warrior babe as evidenced on the poster, Cameron nonetheless proves masterful at using action to dictate character.

For, even though those who appreciated Avatar and Titanic as blockbuster spectacles understood that at times, he can be pretty limited when it comes to believable dialogue that's free of clunky clich├ęs, it’s a true marvel to watch the ways that he allows Ripley the chance to emotionally grow within the context of overwhelming obstacles that get in her way.

Discovering her maternal instinct with regard to protecting an adorable, orphaned child colonist named Newt (Carrie Henn), in Cameron’s world, Ripley ironically begins to reveal more about her true nature through gunfire busts of actions that speak much louder than words, which is a true credit to both actor and director alike.

However, as David Fincher's much maligned third installment begins, we discover that the progress that Ripley made in reaching out to another human being beyond simply the surface level need to keep the child safe in the face of horror to eventually bonding on an emotional level with the girl is heartbreakingly short lived.

The result of multiple screenwriters, propositioned directors and ultimately too many cooks in the kitchen as Fox pulled rank and took the film out of Fincher's hands to re-cut to their liking, while at times Alien 3 feels like it's pulling in numerous directions at once, overall, it's an efficient, quickly paced work.

Once again and similar to Cameron's ambitious effort to apply fresh eyes to the franchise with a different style and emphasis, Fincher switches up the sub-genre as well. In doing so, he delivers Alien not through the lens of an Agatha Christie style monster movie a la Scott nor Cameron's 'Nam influenced adventure but through the paranoid framework of an apocalyptic prison picture as Ripley's escape pod crash lands on a planet that serves as an all-male penal colony.

But beforehand, the work immediately upsets the Alien paradigm of the initial calm before the storm, to which we'd grown accustomed as evidenced in the movie's predecessors.


In doing so, 1992's Alien 3 puts us on the defensive with a deeply unsettling offensive series of actions that occurs within the controversial opening sequence, which James Cameron likened to a cinematic “slap in the face” that contradicted everything he'd worked to achieve in Aliens.

And admittedly, since I was watching the films in quick succession for review in this Alien Anthology Blu-ray box set, I too felt that the startling kick-off lessened the overall impact of the wrenching finale of Cameron's exquisitely dynamic Aliens finale.

However, in the end and as painful as it is to witness, the introduction to Alien 3 not only foreshadows the doom filled tone of Fincher's directorial debut but it also reminds viewers that nothing in the Alien mythology is predictable. Essentially, any character can be killed off at any time and that they're dealing with a villain that is fighting to survive first and foremost, with no regard for any other emotion.

Thus, it taps in perfectly to the themes of isolation and survival at any coast that Ridley Scott had infused in the original along with the sexual subtext of an alien “taking” an individual by force against their will.

Fincher employs a stripped-down, darker, borderline nihilistic and obviously dystopian approach that confronts the idea of man's fear of female sexuality embodied in both the penetrating alien and the no-nonsense, straightforward and boldly insistent Ripley.

Working with a bleak, desaturated color palette and pared down, shelled-out looking purposely unwelcoming production design, the setting and overall set-up of Fincher's movie seems the one least likely to morph into an Alien battle.

Although it isn't as technologically impressive as Cameron's effort and at times seems to place more emphasis on gruesome alien gore rather than tracking the beast, the scaled down approach is a nice surprise in making this one more compelling on a straightforward level rather than overwhelming us with computer wizardry.

Working with the motley crew of outsiders on a mission method utilized in the war movie reminiscent second film as well as the terrifying fear that the hunter will become the hunted we witnessed in the original, Ripley gradually earns the trust of violent misogynistic yet “born again” prisoners as they accept their pessimistic Dirty Dozen style fate to “go out” with a bang.

And while Amelie director Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Alien Resurrection benefits amiably from the sharp wit of a Joss Whedon screenplay as well as an interesting, anti-Alien set-up of introducing us to a hybrid Ripley who is being used to produce the creatures she fought three times over to save, unfortunately there's little to recommend the polished but pointless fourth film.


Notable for bringing Ripley’s interactions with androids full circle, she finds herself brought into yet another fight by a rebellious crew member who seems overly familiar with her plight.

Although it’s bogged down with a cheesy “we must save Earth,” denouement that threatens to turn the series into a B-movie, it’s undeniably eerie when you see what’s become of Ripley. And the quickly paced work screeches to a genuinely chilly halt when Weaver embraces a creature in such a way that stands among the most shocking scenes in the entire franchise.

Nonetheless, the rest of the film seems like an uninspired retread of everything that’s come before it, as you’re able to see surprises coming a mile away, whether you’re a super fan of the other installments or you’ve been watching them in an extended Alien Anthology marathon for the first time much like this reviewer in Fox’s high definition release of the collection.

Despite this, Resurrection boasts top-notch supporting work from Winona Ryder that lives up to the contributions made by the series’ most memorable players who’d come before her in the franchise including Tom Skerritt and Yaphet Kotto of the original, Michael Biehn and Lance Henriksen from Aliens and, Alien 3’s Charles S. Dutton and Charles Dance.

Additionally, the film is augmented by another uniformly excellent turn by Weaver who never fails to rally viewers as the iconic Ripley regardless of just how disappointing audiences would find Jeunet’s overly slick, by-the-numbers Resurrection. Yet thankfully, it doesn’t serve as the last word in this Anthology as Fox includes two bonus discs to offer enthusiasts a definitive behind-the-scenes look at the evolution of one of contemporary cinema’s most influential and groundbreaking series.


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FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.