Updated: Dec 7, 2021
4K ULTRA HD REVIEW / HDR FRAME SHOTS
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“ALIEN: 40th ANNIVERSARY EDITION”
4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, Digital copy; 1979; R for sci-fi violence/gore and language; streaming via Amazon/Video Prime, FandangoNOW, Google Play, iTunes (4K), Movies Anywhere (4K), Vudu, YouTube
Best extra: “The Beast Within” (exclusively on iTunes & Movies Anywhere)
AFTER 40 YEARS, Ridley Scott’s “Alien” is still considered his cinematic masterpiece – even topping “Blade Runner” (1982).
It remains a landmark cinema experience, combing science-fiction and horror. “Alien’s” claustrophobic terror and methodical pacing are perfect, a standout among the American Film Institute’s Top 10 of the 100 Most Thrilling Movies right after Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” Spielberg’s “Jaws” and William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist.”
Originally, up-and-coming American director Walter Hill, with “Hard Times” and “The Driver” under-his-belt, was scheduled to direct. Then 20th Century Fox decided to shelve “Alien,” unsure of its success since the yet-to-be-released “Star Wars” was draining the studio’s bankroll. Then George Lucas’ “Star Wars” and Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” became huge box office hits in 1977 launching generations of sci-fi storytelling in Hollywood.
In the meantime, Hill decided to back away from directing and became one of its producers, opening the door for a young British director then known for his art design skills. Ridley Scott began making films after directing some of England’s most successful TV commercials during the late 1960s and ‘70s. His first theatrical film, “The Duelists” (1977), made its debut, winning Scott the Best First Film at the Cannes Film Festival. Movie-goers liked it, too.
“Alien” was originally a student film comedy, “Dark Star,” a spoof of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” USC film student Dan O’Bannon wrote the script while John Carpenter (“Halloween”) became its master-thesis director. The student production became so expensive it was released in theaters to pay off its cost. Unsatisfied with the comic aspect, O’Bannon rewrote the story as a serious horror thriller with former UCLA theater major Ronald Shusett.
“I had this creepy opening in which astronauts awaken to find that their voyage home has been interrupted and they’re receiving a signal from this mysterious planetoid in an alien language.” – Screenwriter Dan O’Bannon
But O’Bannon and Shusett still struggled with the plot. Several months passed. Then, in the middle of the night, Shusett woke up housemate O’Bannon. “I have an idea. The monster screws one of the people. He jumps in his face, plants a tube down his throat, inserts his seed and it bursts out of his stomach,” Shusett recalls during the three-hour making-of documentary. O’Bannon was stunned: “‘My God, It’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever heard.’”
Three weeks later, they had 85 percent of the plot structure finished and started knocking on Hollywood doors to sell the script. They nearly signed a deal with the King of B-Movies, director/producer Roger Corman, aka “The Pope of Pop Cinema,” to make what would have been a cheesy, low-budget version of “Alien.”
Eventually, they sold the script to a recent startup, the Brandywine Company, which included producers David Gile and Gordon Carroll, and director Walter Hill. They took their own stab at the script, making several rewrites, which included changing the names of the characters. O’Bannon thought it was ridiculous, but he and Shusett agreed with Brandywine's idea that one of the characters would be a robot.
By the spring of 1978, Scott was onboard and drawing his own storyboards, working day and night for three weeks. Fox was so impressed they doubled the budget to $11 million. “It shows the power of well-thought-through storyboards. They suddenly saw a way to do the film, which wasn’t a bunch of sets that looked like painted cardboard boxes, with a dodgy man in a rubber suit running around as the beast,” Scott says.
For 100 days, Scott and his crew filmed on the huge Shepperton Studio soundstages just outside of London. Seven actors were hired to play the crew of the USCSS Nostromo, hauling 20 million tons of mineral ore back to Earth. During hypersleep, they’re awakened by a mysterious distress signal from a nearby moon or planet. Captain Dallas, played by Tom Skerritt, was originally cast as Ripley. Fox studio head Alan Ladd Jr. suggested the change to a woman. Executive Officer Kane was played by John Hurt; Navigator Lambert by Veronica Cartwright; Ian Holm as Science Officer Ash; with Harry Dean Stanton and Yaphet Kotto as the ship’s engineers. The relatively unknown Sigourney Weaver, from New York and standing nearly six-feet tall, was cast in the pivotal and groundbreaking role of Warrant Officer Ripley.
“Alien” premiered Memorial Day Weekend and became the summer of ‘79 biggest hit, producing long lines and high praise from critics. It received two Oscar nominations for Best Art Direction and won for Best Effects. Its worldwide box office topped a respectable $103 million, but launched a $1.5 billion franchise of seven additional films including James Cameron’s follow-up, “Aliens” (1986).
(Top) 4K Ultra HD - 40th Anniversary Edition with HDR toning and wide Color Gamut. (Bottom) Alien Anthology Edition Blu-ray (2010).
Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment used the original camera negative for this 40th Anniversary presentation, rescanning each frame (2.40:1 aspect ratio) at 4K, even though it received a 4K scan in 2009.
This time Scott and Fox Technical Services VP Pam Derby supervised the remastering and HDR toning, which is evident by the improved color palette’s cool, bluish tone. Who knows what the original looked like? I didn’t see it in the theaters in 1979, but Scott is known for readjusting his color palette. “Gladiator” and “Black Hawk Down,” coming out on 4K in a couple of weeks, are both on the warm side. For the recent “All the Money in the World” (2017), Scott dialed it toward the cool side.
The results from Scott and Derby are dramatic and powerful. The overall HDR contrast toning is darker, with deeper blacks in scenes filmed with stark lighting. Ultra 4K sharpness marks a major leap in clarity, revealing the natural film grain throughout. The cinematic look dominates throughout.
Sorry – there’s no Dolby Atmos upgrade, but the six-channel DTS-HD soundtrack is still extremely potent, delivering a deep bass response and potent sci-fi sound effects bouncing around the room from front to back. It’s surprising those effects weren’t nominated for an Oscar. The same for Jerry Goldsmith’s creepy score, one of his best, with skittering strings and esoteric electronic elements. Without the Goldsmith score and the effects, this sci-fi classic might not have become the masterwork it is.
The 4K Ultra HD (disc & streaming) includes two versions – the theatrical cut and Scott’s tweaked 2003 Director’s Edit, which runs 50 seconds shorter and includes a scene not in the original. Both versions have commentaries in which Scott details how they used fresh clams and oysters for the baby aliens' insides, wearing rubber gloves to replicate an alien inside a pod, and using his children, wearing spacesuits, to make the alien craft model look huge. Another track isolates Goldsmith’s musical score.
Make sure to use the digital code to get the complete collection of bonus features. Streaming versions include hours of extras beyond the commentaries. There are six short films, all under 13 minutes, inspired by “Alien’s” 40th anniversary. The first, “Alien Specimen,” has a botanist receive a strange lab sample, which happens to be you-know-what. “Alien: Containment” follows four survivors after their ship’s destruction; “Alien: Alone” is the story of Hope, the last crew member on the commercial frigate Otranto; “Alien: Ore” shows how a mysterious threat affects a woman and her crew of miners; “Alien: Night Shift” explores danger on the High Lonesome Mining Colony District LV-422, and “Alien: Harvest” shows how four crew members on the November are terrorized by a prowling creature, while their ship is on a collision course with Comet X/3019.
The highlight is the 10-part “The Beast Within: Making Alien” documentary running three hours. It’s carried over from the 2003 DVD special edition, which chronicles the development of the story, direction and design, casting, filming at Shepperton Studios, designing the Nostromo and the alien planet, designing the eighth passenger (the Alien), editing and music, visual effects, and the public and critical reaction to “Alien.”
Another lengthy documentary highlights the alien enhancement pods – from the alien lifecycle, influences by French filmmaker Jodorowsky’s “Dune,” the team of O’Bannon and Shusett, Scott’s epiphany, finding the right Ripley, actors as props, Ron Cobb’s art direction, outtakes, deleted scenes, futuristic design and the alien’s screening test.
The only shortcoming of this physical presentation is the loss of extras only found in the digital domain. It’s another attempt by studios to force viewers into total-streaming mode, saving the expense of disc manufacturing. For many folks now, that’s not a problem, but those who aren’t plugged into the streaming world should keep their “Alien Anthology Collection” beside this amazing 4K presentation.
― Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch producer
One by one the alien attacks the crew.
SPECIAL MESSAGE FROM RIDLEY SCOTT