The alien seems almost meaningless in this 1979 sci-fi classic, first presented to viewers sneaking up behind Brett (Harry Dean Stanton), before being edited out and we move to the next scene. Quick glimpses are all viewers are given, some close-ups of the drooling mouth the exception rather than the rule.
That’s what makes Alien work. It’s not the Jaws effect per se, coined for not showing the shark until the finale and when audiences were not expecting it. The alien, its rather disgusting yet elegant design, is never portrayed extravagantly. Nothing is in the film. The extraordinarily designed confined hallways are lavish in terms of Hollywood, but subdued in terms of this narrative. They exist as somewhere else for the alien to sneak around sight unseen, and generate that quiet tension the film would forever be associated with.
Alien is a modern retelling of It! The Terror from Beyond Space, that 1958 film similar in terms of environments and plotting, a crew stuck in outer space as their ship is assaulted by a stone-faced critter out for blood.
Much of Alien is certainly reminiscent, but It! explains too much, as nearly all of those ’50s efforts do. The designs of H.R. Giger, tight direction of Ridley Scott, and naturally written characters of Dan O’Bannon give it new life, all because of what’s not explained. The alien here simply exists, apparently to do nothing more than kill. The scientists are baffled, and their science is more concerned with how to survive than learning about origins.
Masterful miniatures, some of the most convincing you’ll likely lay eyes on, create this futuristic affair and its immensely scaled sights. It’s important too, the nature of space travel, distant planets, and corporations owning the universe establishing the “anything goes” nature of an alien-run-amok picture. So real is this presentation that the audience can accept anything, the fear is generated before the creature has completed its growth cycle, stuck to the face of Kane (John Hurt), using his body as a host while it implants its egg.
Alien has a goal, and it’s not to showcase overdone gore, graphic kills, or attempt to make the creature the icon it would become. It’s a film about fear, the unsettling opening credits, doing nothing to actually scare an audience, yet they set a mood. The slowly revealed title, the flawless special effects of a passing planet, and that downtrodden Jerry Goldsmith score are a combination of techniques that serve their purpose. That alien with the elongated head is just the not-so-delicious, acid-filled desert.
Fox’s certainly modern transfer for Alien is on par with the film itself, practically perfection. There are quite a few things to note about the cinematography here, from the casual, brightly lit opening as characters are introduced to the maddening strobes of the finale. The AVC encode handles it all, flaws few and far between. The source master is pristine, all evidence of scratches and flaws removed from the frame.
Important as they are to the film, the black levels thankfully hold. The limited lighting of those corridors as the camera pans silently through is preserved, the richness of the blacks superlative. The same goes for those scenes lit only by flashlight, or hardly any primary light source at all. Rarely do they give in, and never do they take over the image unless the light source is almost absent. Contrast is hi-def perfection too, keeping the visuals pure and clean.
There is a fine layer of grain resolved without fault here, at times barely even seen. Compression keeps firm, even with the assault of thick smoke and steam pouring from the damaged ship. The hostile planetside environment is much the same, a windstorm in constant effect, the combination of debris scattering about, kicked-up dust, and natural film grain a struggle for lesser encodes. This one almost seems to be enjoying the challenge.
Colors typically appear tinted yet still natural, few hues ever producing any eye-popping effects. Brett wears a brightly-colored Hawaiian shirt through most of the film, quite apparent during the scene where he says, “Right,” repeatedly, the closest this one comes to producing any extravagant color. The ship’s interior is mostly pale until the alien appears, the closed off ventilation system taking on either a chilly blue or array of warmer tones as Dallas squeezes through the ducts with a flamethrower. It’s normal, certainly not outlandishly altered from its original state for this release. There is definitely some tweaking on display, the Nostormo now a blue-ish hue as opposed to flat gray. Once inside, that effect seems lost, flesh tones a victim of their environment when and where the lighting dictates.
The most important aspect of this effort is clarity, and the amount of it. Never has Alien carried this much texture, from the coarse metals as Kane explores the alien nest area, the organic nature of the egg sacs themselves, and the exteriors of the Nostromo panning through space. While the opening shot may be a bit problematic and worrisome, the grates on the floor flicker rather distractingly, it’s the only issue of any real concern.
The majority of the time, every line and every pore on the actors are fully resolved. The amount of jaw-droppingly clean close-ups are too high in number to count, the highlights much the same. Brett’s close-ups prior to his attack around 1:04:20 is the first in a series of shots littered with high-fidelity detail, better than many modern films can achieve. Sharpness rarely falters, losing a bit of its power inside the main control room of Mother, any character who steps into the confined space appearing slightly muddy. In close, the resolution again becomes staggeringly visible, from the razor-sharp text displays to those striking skin textures.
You can certainly begin this DTS-HD mix a bit worried about the audio, the Fox Fanfare so flat and distorted it’s probably as terrifying to an audiophile as the film is to the typical moviegoer. Those fidelity issues are quick to pass, the score over the opening credits clean and free of those problems. It’s a generally quiet score by design, as is the film as a whole. The minimal instrumentation is presented cleanly though, free of any technical faults.
When it does peak, most notably around 40-minutes in when it has most of the track to itself, it never sounds like it reaches its full potential. Subdued is the best adjective to describe it, not particularly forceful or full considering the weight of the moment itself. The music doesn’t sound bad, just lacking some punch and some aggressiveness. Whether by design, by style, or by age, the effect is limiting.
This is a front-heavy mix, a few effects squeezing out into the rears when called for. The rest is firm in its insistence to stay in front of the viewer, and that’s fine. The split of the stereo channels is spectacular, used effectively and naturally. The landing sequence carries a full array of interior ship dialogue and radio chatter spread about the front soundfield. Outside, the engines pulsate on the low-end, one of the few moments of bass on the track. It’s not particularly tight or deep, but it’s enough to generate a rumble.
Dialogue, aside from the occasional split, is planted in the center channel with precise balance. Fidelity is fine, the clarity of it all surprising. It carries well, almost distinctly modern at times. Light echos in tight corridors (much of the later half) are preserved flawlessly.
Two commentaries are included on the disc, a 2003 version for the Director’s Cut, and a 1999 one with Ridley Scott that is only available over the Theatrical edition. There are two isolated scores, both of them compressed in Dolby Digital 5.1. Seven deleted scenes run six and a half minutes, while generic Fox BD-Live support is included too.
The MU-TH-UR mode is, at its core, a means to set up a playlist of special features while watching the film, those extras typically included on discs 5 and 6 of this set. The whole thing seems rather pointless, the swapping of commentaries already handled by your remote, and the other features accessed easier by simply swapping discs. The only benefit is a trivia track. Besides, with this on, you’re stuck with some rather garish graphics plastered all over the screen, and the benefit is about nill.