Alien Anthology Blu-ray boxset review

The bitch is back... and this time she's setting new standards for Blu-ray boxsets

The Alien Anthology boxset is quite simply a must-have for any self-respecting home cinema buff. Not only do you get two bona fide Five Star classics – Ridley Scott’s original Alien and James Cameron’s Aliens – but it also includes David Fincher’s horribly underrated Alien3 and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s half-baked Alien Resurrection. Okay, so the latter can’t compare to the first three films in this legendary sci-fi/horror series, but taken as a whole the Alien saga remains one of the most exciting, fascinating and enduring genre franchises around and it simply has to form a part of every self-respecting home cinema fan’s collection.

Picture: Despite a couple of minor caveats, I feel confident in saying that fans of the films are going to be absolutely delighted with the four AVC 1080p encodes served up by this Blu-ray boxsets.

Alien gets the ball rolling with a frankly stunning 2.40:1 presentation that is packed full of fine detailing and deep blacks that give the corridors of the Nostromo a truly three-dimensional sense of depth. From the stark white of the hyper-sleep chamber in Chapter 3 to the interior of the derelict housing the calcified ‘space jockey’ in Chapter 11, every frame of the film looks immaculate and retains a wholly filmic look thanks to the decision to let the inherent grain remains and not resort to noise reduction to smooth it out. It’s enough to have even the most hardcore AV tech-head forgetting all about their treasured D-Theatre copies of the film.

But even with all of that in mind, the biggest surprise the set has to offer is Aliens’ remastered 1.85:1 encode. Cameron has gone on record several times about his unhappiness surrounding the new high-speed negative used during filming, which resulted in an excessively grainy look to the picture that always looked ropy on VHS and DVD. And more recently he gave an interview about having ‘de-noised, de-grained’ the film for Blu-ray, leading some to worry about another appalling Predator-style DNR job.

Well, worry not. The remastered Aliens encode is a thing of incredible beauty, where some kind of noise reduction tech has been used to clean the image, but not at the expense of fine textures and shadow detail, while still leaving an extremely filmic patina of grain throughout the film. It’s a remarkable piece of restoration that wholly deserves the plaudits that it will undoubtedly pick up around the world. Now if only Cameron and his team could let the rest of the industry know how he did it, then waxy, over-scrubbed encodes might be a thing of the past.

If Alien3 and Alien Resurrection (both presented at 2.40:1) don’t quite sparkle in the same way, it’s probably down to the fact that both have been taken from older HD masters prepared a few years ago, rather than completely redone for this Blu-ray release. That said, the Blu-ray of Alien3 is a complete revelation, coping so much better with the grungy brown and ochre palette of the film and its dank and smoky corridors than any previous DVD came close to (just take the shot of the oxen pulling the EEV up the beach in Chapter 3 for example, on Blu-ray it’s pin-sharp and exquisitely detailed, while on DVD it’s just a blocky mess full of smearing).

As for the last film in the series, this too is a huge improvement on previous versions, with the thick grainy texture director Jean-Pierre Jeunet favours evident throughout. However, like all previous home versions, it doesn’t accurately reflect the CCE silver retention process used for the theatrical prints. Instead, we’re left with an image full of heavy blacks and sickly greens, without the highlights the original process leant to the visuals.
Picture rating: 5/5

Audio: All four films in the set have been graced with lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mixes, with the theatrical cuts of Alien and Aliens also featuring lossy Dolby Surround 4.1 tracks that reflect how the sound mixes for those particular films would have sounded originally. To be honest though, the lossless 5.1 mixes for both of them are so sympathetic to the source material, that there’s really little point in bothering with the lossy tracks.

While some might have expected Cameron’s film at least to offer some audio bombast, the truth is that like Ridley Scott’s original, it reflects the source material and remains heavily anchored to the front of the soundstage. Even sequences you’d expect to explode into life like the attack in the Alien hive in Chapter 22 exhibits excellent L/C/R steering, but rarely strays beyond that for anything other that subtle atmospheric effects and extending the stage for James Horner’s militaristic score. The first two films do pack some pretty mighty bass though; with the low rumbles accompanying the Nostromo’s decent to Acheron in Chapter 7 of the original happily rattling your bones.

Where the new lossless mixes for these films excel is in the clarity, detailing and precision they bring to the dialogue, Foley and scores. I’ve seen these films countless times in the past, but was still blown away by how fresh they manage to sound in their Blu-ray incarnation.

The audio then steps up a number of gears with Alien3. This is a much more expansive soundtrack that makes great use of the surrounds – particularly during big chase through the prison tunnels that runs from Chapter 37 to 40. The entire soundstage is also used to great effect by Elliot Goldenthal’s experimental score, a beguilingly odd mix of orchestra, hymns and atonal sounds that often works as much as a sound effect as it does a musical accompaniment to the story. And if all of that wasn’t enough, the production team actually got some of the cast back in to re-record some of their dialogue for the extended scenes ensuring that they’re now completely audible (unlike the Quadrilogy DVD version) and are a tonal match for the rest of the mix.

It all comes to an end with Alien Resurrection, which (naturally) feels the most like a modern blockbuster. Positional audio and big bass abounds in the mix, with even something as simple as having FATHER’s voice echoing around the rears during the evacuation scenes being extremely convincing and drawing you into the heart of the action.
Audio rating: 4/5

Extras: This six disc set serves up more than 60 hours of supplementary material, certainly far more than I could ever hope to list – let alone do justice to in the space I’ve been given. Suffice to say that pretty much everything from the Alien Quadrilogy boxset is here, from the alternate versions of the four films to the audio commentaries and documentaries. But the Alien Anthology Blu-rays have plenty of new treats to entice fans with as well.

All four films now feature Dolby Digital 5.1 isolated scores for the theatrical cuts (the first two films also get a DD5.1 ‘Composer’s Original Isolated Score’ as well), and you also get an interactive feature called MU-TH-UR Mode that works similarly to the some of the interactive material found on the Gladiator Blu-ray. While watching the film you can check-out trivia pop-ups or find specific topics in the commentary, but beyond this you can also tag interesting items from a list of screen-specific supplementary material. This data is then stored and when you move onto the two bonus discs, instead of wading through everything, you can instead choose to simply play the material that you expressed an interest in while watching the films. Nifty.

Speaking of bonus discs, the fifth disc in the set houses the four epic documentaries about the making of the movies produced for the Alien Quadrilogy DVD boxset. But even here things have been improved significantly. Not only does the Blu-ray feature the full-length version of Wreckage and Rage: The Making of Alien3 (Fox insisted on just over 21mins of cuts to the DVD releasing, fearing it put the studio in a bad light) that’s packed with previously unseen behind-the-scenes footage of Fincher on-set, but it also adds 25+ Enhancement Pods to each of the documentaries. These are essentially extra interview pieces that presumably didn’t fit the final cuts of the docs, but which are now available to view by activating the disc’s MU-TH-UR Mode or from a separate menu.

All of that would have been enough to guarantee the set Five Stars for extras, but there’s also a sixth disc included as well. Sadly, for whatever reason Fox refused to make this final disc available for review, but it promises plenty more fascinating goodies including art galleries, screen tests, additional deleted scenes, multi-angle scene deconstructions, screenplay drafts, archival promo featurettes, trailers, TV spots and much, much more.
Extras rating: 5/5

We say: If you own a Blu-ray player, you simply must buy this boxset. If you don’t, then there’s never been a better reason to make the upgrade.

20th Century Fox, All-region BD, £50 approx, On sale October 25