Friday, January 28, 2011

The Life And Death Of Ellen Ripley In A (Mostly) Amazing DVD Set! The Alien Quadrilogy

The Good: Three great films, Amazing DVD bonuses, Character, Acting, Mood
The Bad: Plots get repetitive, Final film is absolutely terrible
The Basics: Even exceptional DVD extras cannot save this boxed set from the stink of one of the films, though it is arguably an incredible example of what DVD can be!

For the past few years, I've been arguing that the best older television shows ought to create boxed sets featuring the entire series of a show for true fans and collectors, then break the series up into season boxed sets. This rewards the big fans who shell out the big money first by giving them everything and a little bit more and making those who are more inclined to pick and choose wait. Seriously, who cares what happened in the final season of Family Ties? Who was still watching? The producers of those DVDs where the series ran forever can successfully beat the low-sales virtually guaranteed to come with the later seasons by selling the entire series first. For shows with six season (for example) where the last season may not have lived up to the expectations of the fans, this is more likely to get the material out there and sold as opposed to breaking it down. Given the choice between buying a weak season for completion and getting something else (which given the variety and choices out there is virtually guaranteed each week!), I think most people will opt for getting something new that thrills them rather than completing a collection.

Nothing proves this idea better than the Alien Quadrilogy. This lush, beautiful, big boxed set features three tremendous films and one truly abysmal one. Sales of the Alien Quadrilogy, which preceded the DVD release of the individual films Alien, Aliens, Alien 3 and Alien Resurrection, were phenomenal and the nine disc set features a disc not available to those who picked and choosed. And because it came out before the individual releases, this was not a clear attempt to milk fans for more money by providing something extra in the unified boxed set after one had already purchased the component parts. That is classy. It ought to be the model for DVD producers everywhere.

The Alien Quadrilogy (a term coined for this boxed set, meaning "series of four" the way "trilogy" means "series of three") is a beautiful set of nine DVDs that is obsessed with providing the viewers with everything possible that there is to know about the series that began with Alien. Discs 1,3,5, and 7 feature the films of the Alien Quadrilogy, each with a branching option to allow the viewer to watch the original theatrical cut or a new Special Edition or Director's cut remastered for the set (or before). This means that viewers may choose at the opening menu between watching the 1979 theatrical version of Alien and the 2003 director's cut (with essentially one added scene and bits cut out, resulting in a film that is a minute shorter), the 1986 theatrical version of Aliens or the 1991 Special Edition which restores almost twenty minutes to the film, the 1992 theatrical cut of Alien 3 or the thirty minute longer special edition remade for the DVD release based on notes and an assembly print (the director had nothing to do with this special edition), and the theatrical version of the 1997 release Alien Resurrection and its 2003 special edition made for the DVD which offers an alternate beginning more familiar to fans of The City Of Lost Children with about seven more minutes of footage. The beauty here is that the originals are preserved while the alternate cuts are made available, both with full commentary from production and cast members.

For those unfamiliar with the Alien story, over the course of four films, Ellen Ripley is plagued by a nightmarish alien life form that terrorizes her and those she is with. In Alien, her mining ship is diverted to a remote planet where one of the crew becomes infected with a parasite. The parasite lays an egg which soon erupts from the crewmember and the resulting life form grows fast into a creature that systematically kills the crew. Ripley manages to escape, but awakens years later to find that a colony has been established on that same remote planet and now there are scores of the creatures, which a crew of Marines are brought in to thwart. Barely surviving that encounter, Ripley is thrown into dire straits again with one on a prison planet. Finally, Ripley awakens to find that she is a part of an experiment orchestrated by a corrupt government to use the alien life forms as a weapon.

The common element throughout the films, of course, is the character of Ellen Ripley. Ripley is an iconic heroic character whose journey takes her from worker to mother to leader to . . . well, that's why Alien Resurrection sucks; the character arc is pretty much complete when the fourth film begins and viewers are asked to buy the premises. The truth is, were it not for the overwhelming quality of the bonus features in this boxed set - had it been only the four films included - the rating would have been much closer to average as the final film sucks the series down that far.

Ripley is played by Sigourney Weaver and this is a role that defines Weaver as a badass actress capable of playing the action heroine. Throughout the films, she plays Ripley as terrified and terrorized, strong and in control, and self-reliant and animalistic. She is tough when she has to be, emotive and realistic when it is appropriate. She is a truly great actress and this is one of the highlights of her career.

Weaver is joined in various installments of the series by other notables such as Tom Skerrit, John Hurt, Bill Paxton, Michael Beihn, Lance Henriksen, Charles S. Dutton, Charles Dance, Winona Ryder, and Ron Perlman. This is a series that has attracted some true greats and here they live up to their reputations and deliver performances that involve maintaining a mood, progressing movement and/or delivering some of the most memorable one-liners in cinematic history.

What the Alien Quadrilogy excels at is establishing a mood. Alien pioneered the science fiction-horror, Aliens arguably created the summer blockbuster action-adventure, Alien 3 is a taut character-driven chase film, and Alien Resurrection, for all its problems, is a pretty tight action film with characters fleeing from the new wave of creatures. Even in Alien Resurrection, there's a pretty wonderful sense of movement, even if that's all it has going for it.

The Alien Quadrilogy comes with a ninth disc which looks at the franchise as a whole and has material not otherwise available. Following on the heels of extensive documentary and featurette supplements on discs 2,4,6, and 8, the ninth disc adds to the treasure trove by providing an even larger sense of the Alien universe. This includes a gallery of Dark Horse comic book covers, a look at the props from the films, trailers and more. It's impressive.

All in all, the Alien Quadrilogy is a great value, but its packaging does not inform the buyer of all they ought to know. In short, the universe of the Alien films is a dark, stark, adult universe. These are films intended for adults (all four are rated "R") and the bonus content is honest and frank about the production elements and complications that arose on the sets (especially with Alien 3). This is a wonderful set for the adult science fiction fan.

And yes, the sheer amount of bonus features on these discs blew fans away when it was originally released and it does truly set a standard for DVD quality. Indeed, the only boxed set to give this set a run for its money would have to be Freaks And Geeks, a short-lived television show whose DVD presentation is packed with deleted scenes, outtakes, and featurettes and two commentary tracks per episode! It might be a completely different niche, but when we're comparing DVDs, these two sets stack up as two of the best for the simple volume of materials (the bonus discs in the Alien Quadrilogy are PACKED!).

This set is a must for anyone who loves science fiction, horror or wants to see the true potential of the DVD medium!

For more information on the individual films in the Alien Quadrilogy, please check out my reviews of the films at:
Alien 3
Alien Resurrection


For other film reviews, please visit my indexs page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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