When each new and improved home entertainment format is announced, there are a handful of films consumers wait for in anticipation, with ‘Star Wars’, ‘The Lord of the Rings’, ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ and ‘Alien’ usually at the top. Last year we saw Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece beautifully released on 4K UHD, and now we have Ridley Scott’s equally influential sci-fi horror classic ‘Alien’, released in time for the film’s 40th anniversary.
I’ll delve deeper into ‘Alien’ later in the year for our own 40th anniversary celebration of the film, but this is almost mythical in its stature, a film whose influence has rippled through cinematic language in the four decades since its release. It’s remarkable that, for such a monolithic film, the essence of it is surprisingly simple - a merchant space vessel is infiltrated by a merciless alien life form, which proceeds to mow down the small crew on board.
On the surface, ‘Alien’ is nothing more than a haunted house story set on a space ship, but what makes the film remarkable is the clarity of its execution. Its B-movie concept is elevated by Scott’s classical hand, approaching the film like gothic horror in the vein of Shelley or James, a symphony of shadow and light pulsing with rhythmic and unforgiving tension. Its place in science fiction is foundational, both in how grounded its reality feels and in its visual language, the mechanical and the natural colliding with horrific fury, culminating in the greatest creature design in the history of cinema. What makes ‘Alien’ so deeply frightening is how tactile it feels and how complete an experience it is. This is a film made by the seat of its pants, and you survive it as an audience in much the same way. To put it bluntly, ‘Alien’ is a masterpiece on every level, a film that somehow manages to be a work of art and an unrelenting thrill ride all at once.
It has also often been at the forefront home entertainment, right back to VHS and LaserDisc. In 2003, all four films in the franchise were released together on DVD as the absurdly named ‘Alien’ Quadrilogy, but this box set became one of the finest releases in the format’s history, presenting each restored film with a corresponding director’s/extended cut and a gargantuan collection of bonus material, including 3+ hour documentaries on each film. When DVD evolved into Blu-ray, the now-retitled ‘Alien’ Anthology set was upgraded and expanded further, offering the films in high definition picture and sound and with even more bonus material. That set (annoyingly hard to get in Australia but very much available in region-free releases from the U.S. and UK) is still maybe the best Blu-ray release of any kind and the finest of the ‘Alien’ franchise to date. And now ‘Alien’ makes the transition to 4K UHD.
So, how is it?
PICTURE & SOUND
Both the theatrical version and the director’s cut of ‘Alien’ are included on this 4K UHD disc. The 2160p 2.39:1 transfer of the theatrical version is sourced from the native 4K restoration completed in 2018 under the supervision of Scott and Pam Dery, Senior Vice President of Feature and Television Mastering at Fox, working from the original 35mm negative. There were always going to be limitations considering the age of the film, but overall this is easily the best ‘Alien’ has ever looked. The level of detail is staggering, most noticeable in the exterior shots of the Nostromo or the intense close-ups of the crew’s sweaty, terrified faces. The clarity of the images is often such a surprise that it’s as if you’re seeing it for the first time again. The higher resolution also benefits from (and demonstrates) the fact that the film rests moreso on models and practical effects rather than optical effects which inevitably cause drops in quality, of which there are surprisingly few moments. Natural grain from the 35mm negative is also present. The transfer is further enhanced with HDR10/HDR10+ which subtly improves on the natural skin tones and the cold metal of the ship to give the colours a more organic texture. A lot of care and attention has gone into this transfer, offering ‘Alien’ a level of visual stability it has never had before, even with its excellent DVD and Blu-ray releases. This theatrical version of ‘Alien’ is further proof of just how beneficial the format can be for revitalising classic films, and stands up there with releases like ‘2001’, ‘Blade Runner’ and ‘Superman: The Movie’.
‘Alien’ is a masterpiece on every level, a film that somehow manages to be a work of art and an unrelenting thrill ride all at once.
For the director’s cut, the disc uses seamless branching to insert the new footage (around 6 minutes of material) and remove the smaller moments Scott cut for this release. This new footage however does have the same level of clarity as that of the theatrical cut, and is likely upscaled from restoration completed in 2003. You do notice the drop in resolution and depth of field in the image, but these is so little of this new material that it doesn’t end up being too distracting.
In terms of audio, Scott has chosen not to build a new Dolby Atmos track for the film and instead stick to the excellent DTS-HD MA 5.1 track completed for the Blu-ray release. While the extra punch would have been nice, this is still a smooth, rich audio experience, carefully mixed to maintain both the aural ferocity and careful silences of the original sound design. For the theatrical version only, there’s also a DTS-HD MA 4.1 track that recreates the original theatrical mix from 1979, as well a DTS-HD MA 2.0 tracks for both versions.
While there is no Blu-ray disc included in this Australian release (as is the standard from Fox now with releases of classic films), a surprising number of special features are included on the 4K UHD disc. They include:
- Audio commentary from Ridley Scott and cast members Harry Dean Stanton, Veronica Cartwright and Tom Skerritt, recorded for the 2003 ‘Alien’ Quadrilogy DVD release
- Audio commentary from Ridley Scott, recorded for the 1999 ‘Alien’ Legacy DVD release (Theatrical Version only)
- Final Theatrical Isolated Score, presenting Jerry Goldsmith’s final score as heard in the theatrical version, presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 (Theatrical Version only)
- Composer’s Original Isolated Score, a reconstruction of Goldsmith’s original score for the film, presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 (Theatrical Version only)
The new footage from the Director’s Cut is also available to view separately when the Theatrical Version is chosen from the menu, amounting to just under 7 minutes of material, while the Director’s Cut offers a marker feature that denotes added material.
As far as on-disc special features for a 4K UHD, that’s a lot more than we’re used to, and for those who already own the ‘Alien’ Anthology Blu-ray set, all welcome additions to the release. It is a pity that Fox didn’t go the extra step to make this a definitive release of ‘Alien’. Missing on the 4K UHD from the 1080p Blu-ray release is the Interactive MU-TH-UR Mode, which gave you the option of viewing extra video, text and images as you watched the film, or Scott’s introduction to the Director’s Cut. We also don’t get any of the hours of bonus material from the Anthology set, especially the incredible documentary ‘The Beast Within: Making Alien’ that runs longer than the film itself. That said though, considering their releases of classics in the past (such as ‘Die Hard’ and ‘Predator’), this is a lot more comprehensive a 4K UHD release from Fox than expected, and all of the special features included are very welcome.