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Brent Zacky
John Hurt
Writing Credits:
Brent Zacky

This award-winning feature-length documentary serves as the definitive story of how a dark, nightmarish screenplay became one of the most successful - and celebrated - film franchises in Hollywood history. The Alien Saga also examines the sexual and mythic origins of its subject with compelling interviews, never-before-seen outtakes and extensive highlights from all four big-screen incarnations.

Rated NR

Fullscreen 1.33:1
English Dolby 2.0
Not Closed-captioned

Runtime: 110 min.
Price: $19.99
Release Date: 10/14/2003

• Camera and Screen Tests for Ripley and Alien
Alien Featurette
Aliens Featurette
• “Grunts In Space” Featurette
• James Cameron Profile Featurette
• Sigourney Weaver Profile Featurette
• Theatrical Trailers

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Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.


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The Alien Saga (2001)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 29, 2003)

For the folks who want hours and hours of notes about the movie series, the massive Alien Quadrilogy package will be the way to go. However, for those who want a little more information in one simple package, The Alien Saga might be the way to go.

Produced in 2001 for the AMC cable channel and narrated by actor John Hurt – “Kane” from 1979’s Alien - this 110-minute documentary covers all four flicks: Alien, 1986’s Aliens, 1992’s Alien3, and 1997’s Alien Resurrection. However, don’t expect equal time for the quartet, as Alien remains the king of the hill.

After a quick introduction, Saga launches into its discussion of Alien. Like most documentaries, Saga uses a standard format that alternates movie clips, archival materials and interviews. For the 50-minute Alien segment, we hear from writers Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, producer David Giler, studio executive Alan Ladd Jr., director Ridley Scott (shot in 1991), artists HR Giger and Ron Cobb, model maker supervisor Martin Bower, toy collector Harry Harris, and actors Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, and Veronica Cartwright. (Oddly, Hurt presents no comments about the movie and even speaks of himself in the third person as part of his narration!) These portions of the documentary go through the origins of the flick, its development and production route, casting, filming, visual and creature design, editing, special effects, and studio and public reactions.

As we move to Aliens, we get 23 minutes of material. The interviews feature producer David Giler, director James Cameron (from 1997), artist Ron Cobb, creature effects creator Alec Gillis, and actors Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, Lance Henriksen, and Carrie Henn. These cover the sequel’s path to the screen, getting Weaver back into the fray, problems with the British crew, visual design, stunts and shooting, the design and creation of the alien queen, creating the climactic sequence, editing and deletions, and the flick’s fan and critical reception.

Next we examine Alien3 in a 15-minute segment. We find notes from creature effects creators Tom Woodruff Jr. and Alec Gillis, producer David Giler, artist HR Giger, and actors Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, and Lance Henriksen. They go through ideas for the third flick, difficulties getting Weaver back, various production and script woes, story evolution, problems with Giger’s designs, creature creation and execution, character decisions, marketing choices, and the reception to the film.

The look at Alien Resurrection takes 14 minutes. It offers remarks from writer Joss Whedon (in 1997), creature effects creators Tom Woodruff Jr. and Alec Gillis, and actors Sigourney Weaver and Brad Dourif. They chat about bringing back Ripley, working with a non-English speaking director, the use of storyboards instead of a script, Weaver’s acting approach to clone Ripley, shooting basketball sequence, creature design, shooting the underwater scenes, visual effects, the lil’ alien baby, and the flick’s reception.

Lastly, “The Future” rounds out the program. This includes statements from James Cameron (in 1997), producer David Giler, actor Sigourney Weaver, and creature effects creators Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr. They speculate about Alien 5 and other future projects, but this area acts mostly as a valedictory section.

On its own, Saga offers a very good documentary, especially in regard to the first film. It covers the evolution and creation of Alien in a fairly concise and compelling manner. Inevitably, it leaves out some details, but it hits the highlights well and provides a nice “Cliff’s Notes” look at the production.

Matters become choppier for the three sequels, though some of this feeling comes from hindsight. After all the information from the Quadrilogy, I know tons about the making of these films, so omissions will seem prominent.

Does Saga suffer for those omissions? Sometimes. Aliens functions the best on its own of the three sequels. Saga goes through it too quickly, but we still get a decent synopsis of the production and other elements. The elements for Alien3 and Resurrection simply fly by too quickly for them to offer a lot of value, unfortunately. We get a very general feel for those productions but not much more.

Alien3 suffers from the biggest omissions, as we learn absolutely nothing over the film’s key controversy: all the problems encountered by director David Fincher. We learn nothing about these, and Saga never even hints at them. I didn’t expect Fincher to participate in the documentary, but someone else could mention these concerns.

Still, I find it nearly impossible to say how well these sequences would work for someone with no foreknowledge of the Alien productions, so some of these complaints clearly come from my viewpoint. On a positive note, we hear more from Weaver in the Saga than we do in the Quadrilogy, and she presents a good perspective largely absent from the latter.

Most of the information not heard in the Quadrilogy comes from Weaver, though Saga includes a few other bits that don’t appear in that massive boxed set. We see some Giger drawings for an abandoned version of Dune, and we also learn of other actors considered to play Ripley. Some of the outtakes and auditions also don’t appear in the Quadrilogy.

Objectively, The Alien Saga does present an enjoyable and informative documentary, so I’d definitely recommend it to those who want a taste of the various productions but who don’t want to sit through the hours and hours of the Quadrilogy.

However, those who already have the Quadrilogy probably won’t find a lot they need here. The amount of previously unaired material seems thin. I can’t say I learned anything new about any of the sequels, for example, and only a few revelations about Alien appear. We do find some nice behind the scenes elements, though, and they add to the package. As an Alien obsessive, I’m glad to have this disc; it includes enough useful and unique material to stay in my collection. Those Quadrilogy owners without similar levels of fascination will likely find it to be superfluous, though.

The DVD Grades: Picture B-/ Audio B-/ Bonus C-

The Alien Saga appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Actually, the movie clips appeared in their original dimensions of 2.35:1 or 1.85:1; the latter was used solely for the Aliens segments. Some of the outtakes and screen-tests also featured letterboxed dimension. Given the variety of sources, Saga presented an erratic set of visuals, but it mostly seemed fairly satisfying in that regard.

Sharpness usually looked good. Some movie clips appeared slightly soft, especially in wide shots. However, the majority of the pieces were acceptably concise and distinctive. Largely because of the lack of anamorphic enhancement, some jagged edges and shimmering occurred, though these didn’t seem major. Light edge enhancement also popped up at times. Source flaws occurred, mostly due to the older archival materials, though a few movie clips showed them as well. Some specks and marks appeared, but these never became too intrusive.

Colors varied dependent on the sources and generally looked decent, though they tended towards some heaviness. The tones were a bit thicker than I’d like and came across as a little dense, though usually reasonably accurate. Blacks also varied and went from fairly deep to somewhat flat and inky, but they were usually decent, and low-light shots followed suit. Those were acceptably visible but not tremendously concise. Overall, the image of The Alien Saga did little to come across as stellar, but it represented the material pretty well.

Similar thoughts greeted the Dolby Surround 2.0 audio of The Alien Saga. The talky program mostly concentrated on the forward speakers. Speech dominated the program and stayed in the center. A lot of music adapted from the films also appeared throughout the show, and those elements demonstrated pretty positive stereo imaging. Effects duplicated the original material reasonably well, though without quite the same breadth as the source movies, as these stayed somewhat in the background most of the time. The surrounds simply echoed the forward channels for the most part, and they didn’t present anything more than general support.

Audio quality appeared fine for this material. Speech seemed concise and distinctive, with only a smidgen of edginess at times. Music didn’t display full range because those elements usually stayed in the background, but the bits of score sounded reasonably full and dynamic. Effects also mostly kept a little to the rear, but they were acceptably detailed and lively. Those various pieces never worked as well as they would in the movie DVDs themselves, but they seemed satisfying for a documentary. Bass response was fair to good, though not better than that. Ultimately, the audio was fine for this sort of piece but not anything better than that.

A few extras appear here. Of key interest are the camera and screen tests for Ripley and the alien. The latter show actor Bolaji Badejo as he demonstrates potential ways for the alien to move; clad in his skivvies and a cheap alien mask, he slowly creeps across the Nostromo set in this silent three-minute and 20-second segment. Weaver’s test follows and fills 16 minutes and 15 seconds. For much of the time, she runs through the halls in a take on the movie’s climactic sequences. We also gets tests of Weaver with another actor as Dallas in a sex-related scene that didn’t make the final movie plus a version of the movie’s last shot. In addition, we get some effects tests in the middle of the Weaver bits. These clips can be somewhat dull and repetitive at times – how much of Weaver running through sets can we watch? – but they’re cool to have for archival value, and the clip with her and “Dallas” is quite interesting. (For the record, we see a little of these shots in the main program, but only a smidgen.)

Next we get a 1979 promotional featurette entitled Experience in Terror. Also found on the Quadrilogy bonus disc, this short seven-minute and eight-second piece includes some movie snippets, some behind the scenes shots, and sound bites from Ridley Scott about the project. Mostly he just reiterates the plot, though he also discusses his aims for the film some elements of its creation, and audience reactions. As far as promotional featurettes go, “Terror” seems decent, but it’s no better than that and it merits inclusion only as a historical curiosity.

For the first sequel, we get two programs. An Aliens behind the scenes featurette runs seven minutes, 58 seconds and includes movie clips plus a few behind the scenes shots and soundbites from Sigourney Weaver, James Cameron, special alien effects creator Stan Winston, and producer Gale Anne Hurd. Some of their comments provide minor depth, but this piece exists mainly to tell us the film’s plot, introduce its characters and get our butts in the seats.

A second Aliens featurette called Grunts In Space also appears. It concentrates on the actors who play the film’s Marines and lasts three minutes, 52 seconds. We hear from Cameron, actors Jenette Goldstein, Michael Biehn, Al Matthews, Bill Paxton, and an unnamed dude involved with the performers’ training. While short, “Grunts” provides some decent notes about Cameron’s perspective on the movie’s soldiers and their own attitudes toward the characters. It’s not terribly revealing, but it provides decent bang for the buck.

After this we find two video “profiles”. We get one for James Cameron (three minutes, 25 seconds) and one for Sigourney Weaver (3:12). Both were created along with the aforementioned featurettes and come as part of the promotion for Aliens. They present some behind the scenes material and interviews with their prime subjects; Hurd also appears in the Cameron piece. Cameron talks about his filmmaking attitudes, the challenges of Aliens, the characters, and his attitude toward emotional content in the flick. Weaver discusses her take on Ripley, her attitude toward guns, and working with young Carrie Henn. Neither offers much real information, so both seem eminently skippable.

Finally, The Alien Saga finishes with some trailers. We get one ad apiece for each of the four movies. The Alien3 clip provides the very misleading teaser that implies the movie will take place on Earth.

As a die-hard fan of the movie series, I enjoyed The Alien Saga. To varying degrees, the program skimped on information about the various sequels, but it nonetheless offered a good synopsis of the series. The DVD presented somewhat erratic but generally positive picture and audio plus a smattering of decent supplements highlighted by some intriguing test footage. Most fans with The Alien Quadrilogy in their collection probably won’t find much of use from The Alien Saga, but obsessives like me or those who don’t own the big box should find some solid material here.

Viewer Film Ratings: 3.8 Stars Number of Votes: 5
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