Parasites For Sore Eyes

All four movies from the interstellar belly-bursting-baddie franchise in extended form, plus five discs of extras

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Already well-served by the five-disc Alien Legacy collection, 20th Century Fox’s unstoppable sci-fi franchise now bursts onto retail shelves in this exhaustive nine-disc set.

The very existence of these 44 hours’ worth of material owes itself to the twisted, iconic power of Ridley Scott’s indelible 1979 original?one of those instantly influential pop culture triumphs that come along once or twice every decade. A generation down the line, Scott’s movie still packs a punch?it’s a perfectly paced mix of nihilistic deep-space corporate politics (screenwriter Dan O’Bannon had previously scripted the bleakly sardonic Dark Star) and don’t-look-behind-you suspense, leavened with a healthy dose of extreme slasher violence and bucketloads of Freudian metaphor. Never is this more apparent than in the signature chest-burster sequence, generally the point at which even the most shock-resistant first-time audience sits up and vomits.

Having introduced one of the all-time great movie monsters and inadvertently given us a kick-ass uber-heroine along the way (Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley almost didn’t survive Scott’s final cut), it was inevitable that Fox would demand a sequel. Welcome, then, to Aliens (1986), written and directed by Mr Terminator himself, James Cameron.

Cameron’s triumph was in understanding that no one could make HR Giger’s alien-killing machine scarier than Scott did. So he didn’t even bother. Instead, he threw Ripley into all-out war with hordes of the bastards, backed up by a posse of rock-hard do-or-die space commandos. Despite being awash with pumped-up ’80s action movie excess, it worked like gangbusters, courtesy of ferocious direction, a deadly earnest cast and a well-thought-out attempt to expand the Alien mythology.

Aliens’ success paved the way for David Fincher’s Alien 3 (1992), the Magnificent Ambersons of the Alien saga. Beset with financial problems and on-set fighting between studio and Fincher (this is the only movie in the Quadrilogy not to have its extended version assembled by the original director), this is a laudable attempt to spin the series off in yet another direction. Alien 3 abandons the high-tech vistas of the preceding parts as Ripley crashes on a remote, primitive penal colony, face-hugging stowaway in tow. Fincher’s great trick is to recast the alien as a classic devil in the woods, straight out of some medieval epic. But Fincher’s approach doesn’t quite come off?the moody, low-tech atmosphere is undermined by shoddy effects work and the version finally released (cut in the director’s absence) only shows flashes of the brilliance he’d bring to the similarly murky Seven three years later.

But Fox weren’t yet ready to consign the franchise to oblivion, and signed French fantasist Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Delicatessen, City Of The Lost Children) to put yet another spin on their acid-spitting space lizard. Like its predecessor, Alien Resurrection (1997) is undoubtedly a failure?but it’s a spectacular one. Jeunet’s tale, scripted in part by original Alien screenwriter O’Bannon, takes place 200 years after part three. Ripley is now a superpowered human/alien clone who’s been used to breed an alien queen, with predictable results. Script-wise, this film is a logic-free mess that riffs on the previous entries in the series, but Jeunet’s visuals are undeniably outstanding?he brings plenty of wild quirkiness to what could have been a bunch of straightforward round-the-block-again action sequences.

Watching these nine discs in quick succession is both fascinating and draining. As a DVD package, only Peter Jackson’s extended The Lord Of The Rings discs come anywhere close in terms of comprehensive fan-friendly detail?if you love Alien, this is an absolute must-buy. As an ongoing four-movie narrative it’s far less satisfying. Fox are to be admired for keeping their franchise alive with interesting directorial talent (Cameron, Fincher, Jeunet) but it’s hard not to view the later sequels as pale, unscary shadows of Scott’s original. All the same, Cameron’s hyperkinetic, occasionally dated war-in-space opus is tremendously entertaining, and the audacious brilliance of Scott’s white-knuckle original has to be seen to be believed. Twenty-four years after its debut, it remains a work of dark genius.


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