Alien Anthology Disc 03 - Alien 3 Review

DVD Times put together a comprehensive feature on the Alien Quadrilogy DVD Box Set back in 2003, including excellent individual write ups on every film in the series. To hasten our coverage of the Alien Anthology Blu-ray Set I have decided to reproduce portions of those individual reviews and focus solely on the disc contents.

For Alien 3 I will be using Mike Sutton's full film review. You can read his Quadrilogy review in its entirety here.



One of the things that makes the Alien series so interesting is the way different directors have approached the material. Ridley Scott made a good old fashioned monster movie with new-fangled visual SF trappings; James Cameron made a "guys on a mission" movie with the difference that one of the guys was a woman; Jean-Pierre Jeunet made a hugely idiosyncratic black comedy; and David Fincher, in his feature debut, made Alien 3, a Science Fiction movie in which the concepts are stronger than the execution.

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It's not surprising that Alien 3 received such a slating from fans and critics, since it is so different in tone and content to the two films that preceded it that it might as well be no relation to them. Rarely has the term "interesting failure" been so appropriate - this film is borderline terrible in places, but it's also totally fascinating.

THE FOLLOWING REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR ALIEN 3

During the opening credits, we see the Sulaco crash land on the planet Fiorina "Fury" 161. Ellen Ripley (Weaver) survives, but both Hicks and Newt have been killed. We have seen the presence of a face-hugger on the vessel, and there are signs of alien life amongst the wreckage. Immediately, this beginning alienates all those in the audience who liked the touchy-feely aspects of Aliens, as it denies the happy family ending of the second film. If Ripley found another daughter in Cameron's film, she loses her at the start of this one. The mood is downbeat from the first scenes, and becomes increasingly grim as the narrative unwinds. However, am I the only viewer who was delighted to see the back of the irritatingly bland Hicks and the sickmakingly cute Newt ? Even better, the horribly sentimental mother/daughter relationship is shattered right at the start. That put me in a good mood with the film right from the word go.

Fiorina 161 is a prison planet, in which criminals were sent to work in the huge mineral ore refinery. It is, in fact, owned by Weyland-Yutani, the universal conglomerate which sent the Nostromo up into space in the first place. Times being hard, the planet now has only 25 inhabitants, including prisoners and a skeleton staff. The inmates were offered the chance to move elsewhere, but a small number decided to remain on "Fury" in a sort of monastic isolation, which has been an escape from their pasts as violent rapists and murderers.

All of this is quite fascinating - a great SF setting which is convincing and unusual. Ripley is the only woman in the place, and naturally causes something of a stir amongst the inmates, none of whom have seen a woman for a long time. In order to stave off a lice infestation, and to make her less feminine, she shaves her head. What she lacks, along with the superintendent Andrews (Glover) and his hopeless deputy (Ralph Brown), is a barcode identifying her status. This is the only idea left from the treatment written by noted postmodernist author William Gibson. Most of the cast are recognisable Brit actors - Paul McGann, Pete Postlethwaite, Danny Webb - none of whom make much of an impact. Charles Dance is, however, exceptionally good as the prison doctor, Clemens, who becomes very friendly indeed with Ripley. Brian Glover is, however, typically enjoyable as the appallingly pompous warden who meets a most gratifying end.

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There are some potent scenes in the first half of the film. Ripley weeping over Newt's death and saying "Forgive me" to her corpse; the autopsy in which Newt's lungs oddly resemble a gestating alien; the awesomely impressive cremation in the huge furnace. This last scene is intercut with the emergence of the alien, which has infected a cow. Rather than the overgrown cuttlefish of the first film, this alien is oddly vulnerable - shivering, bewildered and almost pitiable - and it seems right that we get, for the first time in the series, an alien POV shot straight afterwards.

Come to think of it, there are more scenes from the alien's point of view in this film than in the other three films in the series, suggesting an entirely different approach to the alien than the monstrous killing machine of the other films. This approach is, sadly, like so much of the film, not really explored as well as it should have been.

Indeed, the film remains strong for about an hour and ten minutes. Ripley and Clemens form a touching relationship, based on mutual need, and Dance's confession of his past misdeeds is a very touching moment. Ripley also finds some support from Dillon (Dutton) - an intimidating black prisoner who seems to be the leader of the trappist cult. Dillon is a great character; tough, prickly and unsentimental, and Charles S. Dutton makes the part work by refusing to go for easy sympathy. It's interesting to see a Hollywood film in which all but four main characters are social outcasts who only begin to respond to Ripley when she becomes an outcast herself.

The problem in the first two thirds of the film is that the character and mood scenes are much better than the rather half-hearted alien attacks. The first death scene - a man stumbles into a fan after being attacked - is gory but perfunctory stuff, and the second big set-piece, an attack in the abandoned mining tunnels, is tense but paced too slowly to be exciting. There's only one scene in which an alien attack has any emotional resonance, and that is the highpoint of the film. After Clemens confesses his morphine addiction which led to his exile to Fury, the alien kills him in a nicely edited moment signalled by the hysteria of Golic, a mentally unbalanced inmate, played by Paul McGann. Then, the alien moves close to a terrified Ripley, moves its head close to her face and stays there for a few seconds, as if trying to communicate something. It's a nightmarish scene, executed with real brilliance by Fincher, and nothing else in the film begins to match it for effectiveness.

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The last third of the film is mostly cat and mouse between the alien and the inmates. This is sometimes confusing and always derivative. The silly chasing about is rather tiresome, but the climax of the film is redeemed somewhat by Weaver's performance as Ripley. Her own infection by the alien is both poignant and touching, signalled by the nosebleed which begins as the alien is born. The scene where she goes into the neuroscanner and sees the alien foetus in her chest is unforgettable, and when she sees her "baby" the film suddenly opens all sorts of possibilities, none of which are really explored. Perhaps Ripley and the Alien are now two sides of the same coin, each needing the other to define them; at one point, she says "You've been in my life so long I can hardly remember anything else", and her fatalism is what makes the last part of the film work when it should, by rights, be falling apart.

The "big finish" of the film, Ripley character apart, is grossly inadequate, suggesting that Fincher's grasp of structure is not as strong as his grasp of character - Seven had problems when considered as a serial killer move, but it worked because it was basically a philosophical mood piece disguised as a conventional thriller. Locked in a traditional SF narrative, Fincher can't seem to find the enthusiasm to bring life to the clichés. However, what he does achieve is a level of emotional intensity that you don't expect in an "Alien" film, tossing out provocative ideas with abandon. That he doesn't do much with most of these issues is a shame, but at least there's some ambition there in the first place.

The film constantly looks marvellous. Alex Thomson's moody lighting is exactly what is required and the production design by Norman Reynolds is totally convincing. Elliot Goldenthal's music is also a definite strength, adding an epic quality which lifts the film when it threatens to get bogged down in endless dialogue exchanges and confusing chase scenes. As for the special effects, they range from excellent to disappointing. There isn't much pyrotechnic mayhem, unlike the second film, because a major plot point is that there are no heavy weapons on Fiorina 161 (rendering the film a dead duck for Cameron fans eager for more firepower). The physical effects are fine, and the alien looks pretty good when it is done by traditional methods. However, the moment CGI takes over, it looks exactly like a computer generated special effect - the same goes for the attempts to render the windblown, debris-strewn surface of the planet.
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It has been said that Alien 3 doesn't belong in the Alien series. This strikes me as a woefully small-minded point of view. I'm happy to admit that the film is deeply flawed but to say it doesn't belong is idiotic. Any series of films has to evolve and the evolution doesn't necessarily have to be in a straight line. Aliens, with its large-scale action scenes and sentimental subplot, has very little in common in style or contact with Ridley Scott's original film but that might be why it's been so successful. Most sequels are content to repeat but none of the Alien films settle for this. Alien 3 is a different film in every respect from its predecessors but it takes the story of Ripley and the Alien in a fascinating new direction which few people could have predicted. In terms of the relationship between woman and monster, it's considerably more thoughtful and intelligent that it's been given credit for being, and I am personally very pleased that this approach was taken rather than a repeat of Cameron's pyrotechnics.

It's probably impossible to rehabilitate Alien 3, and it's hard not to admit that there's more ambition than success. But the characterisation of the film is much stronger than it's been given credit for being, the ideas - especially those involving Ripley's relationship with the Alien - are interesting, and the film is certainly not the disaster we have been led to believe. I suspect I am one of very few people in the world to prefer it to Aliens, but then I find that film loud, silly and overbearing in the extreme. However, having said that, it's certainly not a match for Ridley Scott's extraordinary Alien.

The Special Edition

Those of us who have always carried the torch for Alien 3 had hoped that the restoration of the extensive deleted material might turn it into the classic we suspected it could have been. Sadly, this hope is not entirely fulfilled in this re-edited version of the film. However, the added material strengthens the characterisation, adds much to the emotional impact of the film and makes some of the concepts clearer. Some fine moments are included, notably a lovely moment when Clemens asks Ripley if Newt was her daughter. The end result is that the film becomes stronger in terms of being a ‘hard’ science fiction film but not much better as a scary movie or an action extravaganza.

There is approximately 30 minutes of material added. It has been re-edited by the DVD producers after Fincher refused to have anything to do with it. I actually think that this version makes it all the clearer that this is the work of the same man who made Seven - visually it’s a good match with that movie – and demonstrates that he’s not a director who is willing to endlessly replay the same old genre clichés.

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The key additions to the first half are as follows:

- Dillon begins the meeting with a prayer.
- Clemens asks Ripley if Newt was her daughter.
- Two abattoir workers discuss Ripley and the dead cow – the confusing dog scenes have vanished.
- Ripley replies to Clemens’ assertion that she is very direct with “I’ve been out here for a long time”
- Dillon asks other prisoners to light a candle for Murphy, the first victim.
- A much longer scene between Clemens and Andrews
- A scene explaining how Golic gets to the infirmary
- Golic explains the madness of the world
- Golic expresses approval of the alien’s killing of Clemens as “Magnificent”

However, most of the additional footage comes in the second half, once the plan to trap the alien in the tunnels is underway. It would take too much space – and spoil some of the excellent material – to give this away but it’s enough to make a few general points. Ripley’s relationship with the prisoners is given a lot more depth and the duplicity of Weyland-Yutani is once again made clear. Golic’s role as the alien’s would-be protector is much more obvious and there is some good stuff of him going off the deep-end. There’s some excellent material which makes Ripley’s connection to Dillon more complex and Ralph Brown’s nicely understated portrayal of 85 is made more prominent towards the end. Most of all, Ripley’s increasingly suicidal frame of mind is made very explicit and her interrelationship with the alien is made very clear. The scenes between Ripley and Bishop’s creator are particularly improved. Generally speaking, the finale is paced slightly more slowly and is more emotionally satisfying. The final moments are also significantly different and the chestburster scene has vanished, which I think is a shame.

This extended version is a much more satisfying and complex film, and a significant part of the Alien series. It’s a well acted, fiercely intelligent film which passes the basic SF test in that it creates a convincing world and then plays out a story which thinks big and tries ambitious concepts that don’t always work but always exercise the mind. It also looks sensational. The main problem with the film remains that it doesn’t even begin to work as a horror film and the attempts to scare the audience are woefully obvious and repetitious. But anyone who liked the theatrical cut of the film is bound to like this version even more and those who dismissed it really should give it another look. In fact, the more I watch it, the more I think that – regardless of its debatable merits as an Alien film – this is one of the most interesting Science Fiction films of the past twenty years.

Presentation

As far as I'm aware (and I'm sure someone will correct me in the comments section if I'm wrong), only the first two Alien films have had brand new masters struck for this Alien Anthology release, so now we are in the territory of the 2003 Quadrilogy masters - at least it certainly looks that way! That's not to say there's a monumental dip in quality for the third film in the series, it just looks less impressive and less consistent compared to the stellar work on Alien and Aliens.

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For instance image detail goes on a bit of a rollercoaster ride throughout both cuts of the film, one second you'll get a close up that looks reasonably detailed and then there will be a long or mid-shot that looks rather soft, this could very well be down to how Alien 3 was shot, with its variations in exposure and focus, but after viewing the earlier films in the set you will be wondering if more detail could've been eeked out of the negatives. Grain can also vary greatly, going from a fairly light layer for the most part to a quite thick layer for various shots that again I would put down to the exposure, as a lot of shots in this film feel like Fincher had to crank the exposure up, leading to thick fuzzy grain in the shadows. But even when accounting for that fuzziness the grain in this film generally lacks definition. I don't suspect any zealous DNR in play because there's still the odd fleck of debris on the print, more so than for Alien and Aliens but nothing remotely heavy.

On a stronger note contrast and brightness seem pretty solid to me. Given the nature of the film I think it could have been very easy for Fox to clip the image to give the transfer a little more pop, because shadows and highlights do tend to be affected by the use of fluorescent lighting and harsh sources like flairs and lamps placed in unconventional positions in the frame. As a result black levels may seem quite weak, with shadows occasionally appearing a touch brown, or grey, or even orange, but I feel this is how Alien 3 should look and shadow detail is decent.

Colours are nicely saturated given Alien 3 generally has a more muted scheme that its predecessors, with the more earthen tones and that faint orange hue in many sequences all looking appealingly naturalistic. Skintones are a little more flush this time around without stepping over the line and appearing too pink/red.

In the previous reviews for this set I've talked about how Fox are using the seamless branching capabilities of Blu-ray to fit the two edits of each Alien film onto a single BD50 disc to maintain a healthy bitrate, but naturally this only works out in practice if the differences between the two edits is a few added scenes here and there. This isn't the case for Alien 3 because the 2003 Special Edition replaces quite a lot of scenes in the Theatrical Edition with new variations (ie: the Ox birthing scene as opposed to the dog), so that means there's more actual film footage on this disc than the Aliens disc, despite both cuts of Aliens being longer films. This has affected the bitrate accordingly, with the AVC 1080p transfer only managing an average rate of 19Mbps for both cuts, and that does lead to faint compression noise and banding appearing throughout the film. I didn't find it much of an issue in motion but sensitive viewers or those with larger screens may be more susceptible to noticing this noise.

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Considering how efficient the encoding has been for the previous titles in this set, it makes an excellent argument for the ideal presentation of both cuts of Alien 3 needing separate discs - although I can certainly understand why Fox were reluctant to do this given the whole interactive "choose-your-version" theme of the set.

Although Alien 3 was originally recorded in Dolby Stereo SR and blown up like Aliens to 70mm 6 Track Dolby Stereo SR you will find no English Dolby Digital 4.1 or 2.0 tracks on this disc, only the usual lossless English 5.1 DTS-HD MA. How faithful it is to the original stereo surround presentation I cannot say, but this track has a remarkably active (for a subdued dialogue-driven film) and enveloping sound field in places, with the audio dynamics coaxing each element of the sound into your ears very nicely. Bass is generally deep and resonant although not always as tight as it perhaps could be. Overall the sound is impressive but lacking the sparkle of the work on Alien and Aliens, dialogue could probably do with a tiny bit of touching up in places to balance it out in the mix a little, but I didn't find this track lacking at all.

Apparently Fox have done a bit of work on the audio for the 2003 Special Edition to bring it up to spec, including bringing the likes of Lance Henriksen and Sigourney Weaver in to re-record some dialogue. Having only seen the 2003 Edition once I couldn't tell you what the changes are, but it's done the trick as the Special Edition footage now fits into the Theatrical footage almost seamlessly, with just one or two scenes exhibiting muffled dialogue and a tiny bit of tearing. Also present on both versions of the film are four foreign language dubs: Portuguese 5.1 Dolby Digital, French 5.1 DTS, German 5.1 DTS and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital.

This is a European release so you've got a healthy choice of optional subtitles for the main feature: English (For the Deaf and Hard of Hearing), Portuguese, Danish, Finnish, French, German, Spanish, Dutch, Norwegian, and finally Swedish.

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Menus and MU-TH-UR Mode

As a general rule I view the lavish interactive menus that the big studios insist on using for their big title releases a chore rather than a bonus, partly because my BD player is no spring chicken and takes five years to load up most menu screens, but also because half the time the more features a menu system has the more irritating the implementation (I've grown weary of U-Control and Maximum Movie Mode). For the Alien Anthology 20th Century Fox have configured a menu system that finally gets it right, offering all the functionality and attractive design that the BD format allows for.

The menu designs themselves are similar to the Quadrilogy DVD in offering an animated futuristic Weyland-Yutani interface that displays images, stats, and info on the various things that appear in the film. At the bottom is a simple row of choices for each section of the BD. One final great touch is that each disc loads a Weyland-Yutani logo screen into your player's memory which is displayed when you eject them, and if you put another disc from the set in your player then this screen will segue straight into the new disc's main menu, thus skipping the usual copyright screens.

MU-TH-UR Mode

Fox has been hyping the new interactive menu system developed for this release, called the "MU-TH-UR Mode" (In case you're wondering MU-TH-UR is apparently the correct way to write the name of The Nostromo's central computer, which the characters refer to as "mother" in the film, so I assume that's how it should be pronounced), and you can see why as the whole system is very thoughtfully designed. There's an individual booklet and video tutorial on each disc explaining what the MU-TH-UR Mode is and how to use it, but it's fairly straightforward: Activating it brings up an interface comprising of four boxes: three down the left hand side categorised as AUDITORY, VISUAL, DATASTREAM, and one small box in the top right corner called DATA TAGS. Here's a rundown:

AUDITORY
This box allows you to flit between the audio commentaries and isolated scores present on the disc. The cool thing about the interface for this is that it displays real-time written info on what's currently occurring in each track. So you'll know if there's no score playing at that specific time in the film or what topic is being discussed in the commentary tracks.

VISUAL
This can be a little confusing at first if you've not read the booklet or skipped the tutorial as contrary to its name it doesn't feature any actual pop-up video footage from the film disc. Its function is basically to prompt you to select bookmarks of video footage or image scans relevant to the specific scene playing at the time. So for instance while the opening titles play you will see an option like this in the VISUAL box:

VID: David Giler on Not Wanting to Make Alien 3

If you choose this option then it will be added to the DATA TAGS box on the right as a bookmark that will take you immediately to the relevant video clip when you insert the relevant Bonus Disc. This is obviously a feature aimed at casual viewers who don't intend to sit through all the content on the Bonus Discs and just want specific information on specific scenes from the film. VISUAL allows them to compile a bookmarks checklist that will cut right to the chase.

DATASTREAM
Or the Weyland-Yutani Datastream to be precise. This box offers concise notes on the history and production of Alien 3, including brief biographies for key players, anecdotes, and all manner of informative snippets.

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Alien 3 and the Sony S350 BD Player

Sadly, while every other film disc in this set plays fine on my aging Sony S350 BD player, Alien 3 developed a fault after a couple of plays where the disc freezes as it is loading up the main menu, leaving just a blank screen. It's possible that after several minutes the disc menus would eventually load, but 15 minutes of nothing was as far as I was willing to check. In order to get the disc working I had to load any other disc in the Alien Anthology Set and eject it to get the Weyland-Yutani logo screen, then from there the Alien 3 menus would load as normal.

Extras

There are slightly less extras on the actual film disc of Alien 3 compared to the first two films, but there's some good stuff here nonetheless:

2003 Audio Commentary by Cast and Crew
Thanks to the bad blood between Fincher and Fox there was no director-involvement with the 2003 Alien Quadrilogy DVD Box Set, so the commentary for Alien 3 doesn't have one "anchor" commentary edited around other cast & crew commentaries. Instead you hear from Editor Terry Rawlings, Cinematographer Alex Thomson, Creature Design guys Alec Gillis & Tom Woodruff Jr, Visual FX Producer Richard Edlund, and actors Paul McGann & Lance Henriksen. That's less voices than in the commentaries for Alien and Aliens so naturally this track is a little less active and engaging, but informative nonetheless. Rawlings in particular worked closely with Fincher and has much to say about the resistance they faced from Fox executives.

Final Theatrical Isolated Score - 5.1 Dolby Digital (1992 Theatrical Version Only)
No Original Composer's Isolated Score this time around, just Elliot Goldenthal's finished Theatrical Score, which you can choose to activate whilst watching the film or pull up the track index by selecting the Isolated Score from the menu then scrolling left or right when you see the ON/OFF options, until COMPLETE MUSIC INDEX shows. Choose this option to see the full track listing for the score, where you can choose to play each track either individually, all-at-once, or randomly shuffled. The track is presented in lossy DD5.1 but sounds very high quality.

Deleted Scenes Index (1992 Theatrical Version Only)
In Theatrical Version mode you can pull up a list that will allow you to watch, either individually or all-together, the Deleted Scenes that were used to create the longer 2003 Special Edition.

Deleted Scene Footage Marker (2003 Special Edition Only)
Activates an on-screen prompt letting you know when you're watching a scene that was newly added to create the 2003 edit.

Overall

The third entry in the Alien Anthology might have its share of detractors, but it also has a lot of ardent fans who may feel a little disappointed that it hasn't received quite the same level of spit & polish on Blu-ray as its more famous predecessors. They shouldn't feel too dejected though, because it still looks and sounds pretty damn good and comes with the 2003 Cast and Crew Commentary and the final Theatrical Isolated Score.

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Film
8 out of 10
Video
7 out of 10
Audio
8 out of 10
Extras
10 out of 10
Overall

8

out of 10

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