Alien: 40th Anniversary (4K UHD Review)

  • Reviewed by: Bill Hunt
  • Review Date: Apr 19, 2019
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Alien: 40th Anniversary (4K UHD Review)

Director

Ridley Scott

Release Date(s)

1979/2003 (April 23, 2019)

Studio(s)

Brandywine Productions/20th Century Fox (Fox Home Entertainment)
  • Film/Program Grade: A+
  • Video Grade: A-
  • Audio Grade: A-
  • Extras Grade: C+

Alien: 40th Anniversary (4K Ultra HD)

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Review

“In space, no one can hear you scream...”

In the distant future, mankind has explored a large region of space and corporations have found that there’s great profit to be made in the endeavor. Among the industries that have developed is the mining of rare minerals on other planets. These minerals are loaded into large space refineries, which are towed back to Earth and process the ore during the return trip. The crew of the tug Nostromo are in the middle of just such a year-long trip home, when they’re suddenly awakened from their hypersleep freezers. It turns out that the ship’s computer, MU-TH-UR, has detected a distress call coming from a nearby planet. Company rules are clear in the matter – distress calls must be investigated. So leaving their cargo parked in orbit, the crew of the Nostromo lands on the wasteland world. But what they discover, they’re completely unprepared for – a derelict alien spacecraft, and a new lifeform so perfectly evolved and deadly, there may be no way to stop it.

Alien is one of those rare cinematic gems – a movie that influences virtually every film of similar genre that follows it. Directed by Ridley Scott (previously an accomplished commercial director, who made the infamous million-dollar 1984 Apple spot, as well as the acclaimed Blade Runner not long after), this film brought a gritty new realism to science fiction and made the word “alien” as frightening to movie audiences as Jaws did the word “shark.”

Few films have ever unsettled me as deeply as this one. I snuck in to see it in the theater when I was eleven and ended up having nightmares for months. Context is everything, of course; there have certainly been scarier films since, plenty with alien threats. But at the time, there had been nothing like this. Aliens on film were previously limited to the Gumby-like grays of Close Encounters and men in rubber suits (Howard Hawks’ The Thing, etc). There is just something about this creature, designed by surrealist H.R. Giger, which is fundamentally terrifying in its simplicity. This is an entity with no remorse, and no concept of morality. It’s an efficient killing machine with one purpose – to reproduce itself, destroying other living creatures to do so. In many ways, Alien touches the same nerve that Jaws did within the human psyche. What could be more terrifying than a creature so utterly alien that you can’t reason with it and you aren’t equipped to defend yourself from it? How about encountering that creature in a dark, dingy spaceship, where you can’t even risk trying to kill it, and from which you simply can’t escape, all the while watching your crewmates be hunted down one by one?

Alien is also one of those rare films where all of the elements that go into making a movie come together perfectly. The script, originally written by Dan O’Bannon of Dark Star fame, and rewritten (uncredited) by producers David Giler and Walter Hill, is dark and gritty. The production design (by Ron Cobb, Chris Foss, Jean Giraud, and Giger) is impressive to this day, depicting both an utterly alien environment and a functional, lived-in spacecraft. The Jerry Goldsmith score is minimal and unsettling, while Scott’s direction is dark and claustrophobic. And this is one of the most impressive casts ever to appear in a science fiction film, including Sigourney Weaver, Ian Holm, Tom Skerritt, John Hurt, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, and Yaphet Kotto – serious talents all. The acting style is very 1970s naturalistic, with lots of unscripted, “in the moment” exchanges. Scott also plays the actors against each other, creating interesting dynamics between the characters. There’s a great deal of underlying tension and animosity between the crew of the Nostromo, tension that is never fully explained, but which makes them seem more real as people in a desperate situation. It also helps keep the audience just slightly on edge, making the film that much more powerful and effective.

Alien was shot photochemically in 1978 on 35mm film using Panavision cameras and anamorphic lenses. It was finished on film in the 2.39:1 aspect ratio. For this 4K presentation, the Theatrical Version was scanned in native 4K from the original camera negative (at EFilm in 2018), was restored by Fox (at Company 3/Deluxe Entertainment Services Group, supervised by Ridley Scott and Pam Dery), finished as a 4K Digital Intermediate, and graded for high dynamic range in HDR10 and HDR10+ (for the rare displays that support it, but if you have one this should make a big difference for you). The 4K disc includes both the Theatrical Version and the 2003 Director’s Cut via seamless branching. The Director’s Cut material appears to be upsampled from the 2003 scan of that footage (likely done in 2K).

Let’s talk about the HDR first; this is a very restrained grade, which remains quite faithful to the original look of the film. The greatest impact is to deepen the shadows and make the brights almost eye-reactive, while allowing each to retain the maximum amount of detail. It also allows metal and wet surfaces to have a more natural gleam. The wider color gamut adds greater nuance and subtlety to the film’s color palate. But the best news here is that the new color grade appears to be incredibly faithful to the original theatrical look. That includes the Director’s Cut material, which had an oversaturated appearance in the 2003 Blu-ray presentation that many fans found objectionable. The landing gear bay (where Brett searches for Jones), for example, now has a slightly brassy but natural metallic appearance instead of the overly golden tones of the Blu-ray. The Dallas cocoon scene still has a golden/orange look, but it’s not quite so gaudy here.

In terms of image resolution, there’s no question that this film benefits from the native 4K scan. Texturing of surfaces, faces, and clothing is much more refined now, with both greater and tighter detailing. This true to the point that you can almost read the hand-written sticky notes around the characters’ Bridge stations, not to mention the Weyland-Yutani Aspen Beer can labels in the Mess Room. Because it’s upsampled, the Director’s Cut material exhibits less detail obviously, but the blend with the native 4K content still works because even some of the 4K shots have an optically soft look. (Also, it’s only about 6 minutes of content.) Something I never noticed before because of the added detail: Jones’ kitty bowl in the first meal scene actually has his name on it. It’s funny what your eye is drawn to in 4K. The film’s photochemical grain structure remains moderate to strong, but it’s generally even and it’s always been a welcome and intended part of the look of Alien. The one discrepancy in this regard is the Medbay scene, where Dallas and Ash are examining Kane – the grain structure here looks odd in some shots. You can still tell that the grain is alive and changing from frame to frame, but unevenly so – in some parts of the image it’s moving slower while in others it’s moving quickly. It’s almost like the encoding is struggling with it. In any case, it’s not that distracting and it’s really only noticeable in select shots of that one scene. On the whole, the benefits of this 4K remaster far outweigh any flaws. I’ve personally never seen this film looking better than it does here, even theatrically. This is a superior image compared to the previous Blu-ray editions and a significant upgrade.

Primary sound is included in English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, the same mix that was created for the 2010 Alien Anthology Blu-ray release (reviewed here). It’s a bit of a shame that there’s not a new DTS-X or Dolby Atmos mix, but Scott was apparently given the chance to create one and chose not to – which is not uncommon these days. Many filmmakers are choosing to create new object-based mixes for their 4K film releases only if they feel the existing mix is inadequate. In any case, the mix you do get is moody and atmospheric, with subtle but immersive staging and directional effects (think pulsing-rumbling machinery noise, hissing steam, clinking chains, and the like), and clear dialogue. This is not the kind of mix that dazzles with sonic whiz-bang; instead it sneaks up on you and is quite effective at it. Likewise, bass isn’t showy but it has nice heft when needed. Jerry Goldsmith’s lonely, evocative score flitters in here and there with great fidelity, tonally setting the stage for the terrors to come.

In addition to this main audio option, you also get an English 4.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix, which represents the original 1979 Theatrical audio experience (this obviously on the Theatrical Version only). This is also a carry over from the 2010 Blu-ray release. It has a slightly harsher sound – it’s just a bit more raw, if you will – while the 5.1 mix is a bit more nuanced. There may be the odd sound-effect difference as well. Additional audio options include English 2.0 Surround in DTS-HD MA, Spanish, Czech, and Thai 5.1 Dolby Digital, and French, Castilian Spanish, German, and Italian 5.1 DTS. Optional subtitles are available in English for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, Spanish, French, Castilian Spanish, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, German, Italian, Norwegian, Swedish, two different forms of Chinese, Czech, Korean, Polish, and Thai.

The actual 4K UHD disc offers a few extras, all carried over from previous Blu-ray and DVD editions. They include:

  • 2003 Audio Commentary by Ridley Scott and the Cast and Crew
  • 1999 Audio Commentary by Ridley Scott (Theatrical Version only)
  • Final Theatrical Isolated Score (Dolby Digital 5.1 – Theatrical Version only)
  • Composer’s Original Isolated Score (Dolby Digital 5.1 – Theatrical Version only)
  • Deleted Scenes Index (7 scenes – 6:39 in all – available when viewing Theatrical Version)
  • Deleted Scenes Footage Marker (available when viewing the Director’s Cut)

Both commentaries are terrific, but I prefer the 2003 track for its variety of perspectives and also for sentimental reasons – I was present when Ridley and cast members Harry Dean Stanton, Veronica Cartwright, and Tom Skerritt were recorded for it. (It was done for the original Alien Quadrilogy DVD release.) Both commentaries have subtitles available in a variety of languages. Given the director’s recent prequels to this film (think Prometheus and Alien: Covenant – click the titles for those 4K reviews), some of the ideas he discusses here are even more interesting now, as you can see how his thinking has evolved with time. Note that the two isolated score tracks are carried over from the Blu-ray and the Ridley-only commentary is carried over from the 1999 Alien Legacy DVD release (the DVD had two different isolated score offerings, including a music and effects only track). Also, when you watch the Theatrical Version, the deleted scenes are available for separate viewing via the disc menus. When you watch the Director’s Cut, you can choose to active a footage marker that identifies the new scenes and shots.

Now, some of you may be wondering if the recent Alien: 40th Anniversary short films (Containment, Specimen, Night Shift, Ore, Harvest, and Alone) are included on this release. The answer is no; they’re not on the 4K or the included Blu-ray. It’s possible that they’ll be available as Digital-only content, but there’s been no indication. For now, you can view them at AlienUniverse.com (and on various social media channels).

As for the included Blu-ray, what you need to know is that this is the exact same movie disc found in the 2010 Alien Anthology Blu-ray – essentially Disc One of that set. It includes both the Theatrical Version and the Director’s Cut, but neither is sourced from the new remaster. The extras are identical to the 4K disc, save for the more elaborate MU-TH-UR-themed menus, the Interactive MU-TH-UR Mode (which gives you access to additional photos, audio and video clips, and text notes while watching the film), and a brief Ridley Scott introduction to the Director’s Cut. Note that none of the Alien Anthology set’s special features Blu-rays are included here. That includes all of the stunning and incredibly comprehensive content produced by our old friend (and longtime Ridley Scott documentary producer) Charles de Lauzirika. So don’t part with that set if you wish to keep its content. More on this in a minute. Finally, the package also includes a Movies Anywhere Digital copy of the film (via a code on a paper insert) and you get a cardboard slipcover with a metallic foil finish.

Note that the C+ grade for extras (above) reflects not the quality of the content that’s here – which is excellent – but rather the content that didn’t carry over.

So here’s the summary quick-take:

Fox’s Alien: 40th Anniversary 4K Ultra HD release is an absolutely terrific upgrade of the film itself, offering a significant image improvement over the previous Blu-ray release. But the audio options are the same as before, the Blu-ray itself is not remastered, and – features-wise – much content from those previous Blu-ray and DVD editions has been omitted.

This also needs to be said: If you’re waiting to buy this disc in favor of some future 4K upgrade of the entire Alien Anthology set, don’t hold your breath. It’s just not happening anytime soon. For one thing, it’s not been Fox’s style with regard to 4K. For another, the Disney purchase has likely thrown a wrench in whatever catalog 4K plans the studio may have had. Then there’s James Cameron. Any future 4K remaster of Aliens is going to need his approval and involvement, and we’ve already seen ample evidence that he’s too busy with his deep-sea diving and Avatar sequel development to be bothered with such things. He’s missed two anniversaries each now for True Lies and The Abyss (though there is finally hope that The Abyss at least may arrive in 4K soon), and his lack of focus led to a disastrous Studio Canal 4K release of Terminator 2: Judgment Day. So don’t expect that to change for Aliens. That film’s next anniversary is two years away and we’re not likely to see any 4K version before then (and we’ll be lucky to see it then). And who knows if Alien³ and Alien Resurrection will ever see the light of day in 4K. Certainly not me.

So my recommendation for fans of this film is simple: If you want Alien in 4K, this is your chance. Get it on sale if you must (and right now it’s just $14.96 on Amazon), but don’t wait. It’s gorgeous.

- Bill Hunt

(You can follow Bill on social media at these links: Twitter and Facebook)

[Editor’s Note: In addition to the terrific Alien Anthology Blu-ray set, which you should have if you don’t already (find it here on Amazon), there’s a new coffee table book, The Making of Alien, coming in July from J.W. Rinzler (you can find that here). Don’t miss it.]

 

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