MindFood: The ‘Alien’ Anthology, A Love Letter to the Fans

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Alien AnthologyOf all the major studios in Hollywood, 20th Century Fox often catches the most flak for being the least fan-friendly. Its television division cancels tons of great sci-fi shows well before their natural expiration date (John Doe, Drive, Firefly, The Inside and Virtuality, just to name a few), but it’s how meddlesome the film division can be that pisses people off the most. X-Men 3, both Fantastic Fours, Die Hard 4, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Wolverine, Dragonball: Evolution, Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun Li — all films whose fan interests were sidelined in favor of the lowest common denominator.

But there is one franchise for which Fox has set the bar in terms of fan service: Alien. (Yes, I’m aware that it was responsible for both lackluster Alien Vs. Predator films, but those don’t count as real Alien entries in my book, just as Freddy Vs. Jason is neither an Elm Street nor Friday the 13th entry.)

When it comes to honoring a sci-fi franchise, there simply isn’t any other out there that has received the same devotion that Fox has shown Alien. In the three decades since Ridley Scott first made Alien, the studio not only rereleased his film in theaters but allowed all four of the franchise’s directors to give their approval to new, longer cuts of their films. Back in 2003, Fox assembled every cut in the Alien Quadrilogy box set. It was a must-own nine-disc behemoth that featured well over a day’s worth of content for fans to enjoy.

And now Fox has topped it with its six-disc Blu-ray set, the Alien Anthology.

Truth is, Fox has not just topped it; it has blown the Alien Quadrilogy out of the water. This new set not only has every single feature the Quadrilogy had as well as an entirely new disc filled with brand-new behind-the-scenes material, but it features an image quality so damned pristine that I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that someone at Fox has been sacrificing goats to the high-definition gods on a nightly basis for the last two years.

That’s how long Fox has been working on this absolutely stunning Blu-ray set, and it shows in a big, big way. That’s not really what amazes me so much about it, though. I’m not blown away that it took two years to make. I’m blown away that Fox realizes when it comes to the Alien franchise, it has something that is truly special and that the studio would be burned at the stake if it cut corners when it came to preserving and presenting said franchise.

Let’s face it: Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection are not the masterpieces that Alien and Aliens are. I’m not saying they’re bad films. I’m a big fan of the rogue, rag-tag and comic nature that Joss Whedon’s script brings to Resurrection, and I even love David Fincher’s contribution to the franchise (particularly the “Assembly Cut” of it). That said, they’re just not the irrefutable triumphs that are Ridley Scott and James Cameron’s films. But, all the same, Fox still gives those films the same royal treatment it gives the universally beloved pair. Why? Because this is one of those rare instances in which Fox acknowledges what the fans want.

Now, a cynic can surely say that the only reason Fox keeps putting out these sets is because fans keep paying for them, but that’s not an argument I buy. Yes, any franchise will have its devoted fans who are perfectly willing to do the double-dip for as little incentive as new packaging, but Alien isn’t any normal franchise. It’s a series where every single film was produced with an emphasis on artistic talent over all else. Even when things got a little sillier with Resurrection, they still brought on an auteur, the great Jean-Pierre Jeunet, to put his own artistic stamp on things and not some gun-for-hire director.

Alien AnthologyYes, David Fincher has disowned the theatrical cut of Alien 3 (a fact that is even mentioned in the special features!). It was a film that was pulled in dozens of different creative directions before Fincher even came on board, and he unfortunately felt the final film still reflected some of those problems. (I highly recommend reading David Hughes’ entry on the troubled Alien 3 production in his book The Greatest Sci-Fi Films Never Made for the full story on what could have been.) But regardless of whether or not Fincher likes the theatrical cut, it’s still a fascinating and important film. It changes up the setting and dynamic expertly, it provides even more iconic imagery of Ripley as cinema’s greatest ass-kicking heroine, and it takes some risks that don’t entirely pay off: Sadly, the CGI in Alien 3 looks even more depressing given that the rest of the film looks so gorgeous in HD.

I’m sure someone with a more robotic recall of trivia than I will correct me, but the Alien Anthology may just be the only film franchise in which each entry was directed by a different filmmaker whose careers would eventually find them each nominated for an Academy Award. Now, I don’t think of the Oscars as the only kind of validation for which a filmmaker should strive, but I do think that’s a testament to how anomalous of a franchise this has always been. It’s never been about skating by; it’s always been about going above and beyond the call of name recognition. This is one of the few franchises Fox (or any studio, for that matter) has been involved with where the motivations have clearly been to let the filmmakers decide what’s best for the series — and thus the fans — and not some focus group. That shows not only in the quality of the films but in the quality of the means by which the studio keeps delivering them to fans.

However, having now praised the Alien franchise and Fox up and down, I really, really, really hope I’m not going to have to write a retraction to all of this when Ridley Scott’s new series of Alien prequel films comes out. I’m perfectly happy to eat crow when the situation calls for it … I just sadden at the thought of a day when there is an Alien boxset that contains films I’d rather not own.