Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Alienation: Monster of a DVD box set is revealing Add to ...

10 a.m. It is with some trepidation that I unfurl the elaborate packaging of the new nine-disc set (nine!) of Alien DVDs -- what Twentieth Century-Fox is calling the Alien Quadrilogy -- that was unleashed upon an apparently clamouring public on Tuesday. Ripe with 45 hours of filmed material, including the theatrical releases of the four movies, Alien, Aliens, Alien 3 and Alien Resurrection; a re-cut version of each with additional footage; dozens of behind-the-scenes mini-movies; plus screen tests, scripts, stills, sketches, storyboards and even continuity Polaroids (taken on-set to make sure scenes match when they're shot out of sequence) that add another 15 hours of reading and looking, the set arrives in a block as thick as two bricks and unfolds out from the centre. With its articulated black plastic panels and shiny, dull green discs, it looks like the alien itself. Fully extended, it's the length of my queen-sized bed -- a description and location that would please H. R. Giger (pronounced Gee-ger, with two hard g's), the artist who nightmared up the monster's original, scary-sexualized, hey-Freud-check-this-out design.

I myself have a long and embarrassingly Freudian relationship with Alien. It was the movie my date and I saw on the night I first went all the way. Go ahead, laugh. I get the joke; I did even back then. "What honey, you want to see a film about a slick, scary creature with every part extendable who lives to get inside people and make them scream? Oohkay."

I'm sure there are porn-film versions aplenty of Alien, but I can't see why anyone would need them, since the whole series is chock-a-block with hermaphrodite creatures that start out resembling vulvas and then grow into erections 10 feet tall. Right from the first, according to her commentary that runs over all the films, star Sigourney Weaver wanted her character, Ripley, to have sex with the monster. "I wanted it to peer through the glass at me, see this soft, pink thing, and become aroused," she says of the final scene of the first film. In the third instalment, she becomes "pregnant" with its spawn; in the fourth, she is part monster herself, and lolls seductively in a nest of them.

Now that I'm a mother, however, I have different associations with Alien films.

Now, I'm convinced they're about giving birth and raising insatiable beings who mutate every time you think you've got a handle on them. Plus, for the last month, all four people in my household -- our own little alien quadrilogy -- have been sick with one thing or another, quarantined in our mother ship, adrift in enough spewing, puking, expelling and horking to do any f/x department proud.

11 a.m. I can't see all 45 hours between now and my deadline, so I decide to give it 12. I'll watch the first film and some of its supplementary stuff; I'll skim the next two films and their gee-gaws and I'll skip the fourth, for now. I also decide to pass on the four re-cut versions, because I am constitutionally opposed to so-called director's cuts and alternative endings. Life is misshapen enough; art should decide. And directors need editors, just as writers do, to kill all their little darlings.

Noon. The first alien egg pod has just exploded all over John Hurt's face. I am unaccountably starving. I go down to my kitchen and fry two . . . eggs. Honest. In the next two hours I will also down a bag of all-dressed potato chips, half a sack of Oreos and three Diet Cokes. At the end of Aliens I look down and shriek, "Aah! What is that hideous thing sticking out of my stomach?" Oh. It's my stomach.

4 p.m. Fun facts I have learned: Every film was plagued by someone getting ill. The whiniest characters in each movie -- Veronica Cartwright, Bill Paxton -- were meant to be "the voice of the audience." That guck inside the first face-hugger was actually oysters. (Mmm, oysters.) Some extra features on the DVDs are fun (screen tests, analyses of the coolest effects), some are so mega-geek you can't imagine who'd care. But my main revelation is that a lot of the most memorable effects were made with pasta, smoke, strategically placed darkness and simple lights, silence and miniatures and models -- the kind of work that is obsolete today, thanks to CGI, pounding scores and quick cuts. But the first two sequels stayed remarkably true to Alien's spare vision, and are the better for it.

7 p.m. Dinner.

2 a.m. A few things have become clear. One, writers are egomaniacs. Alien screenwriter Dan O'Bannon whinges about how his vision of a purely scary movie was polluted. So I read his original script, and as usual, it's a heck of a lot different -- and clunkier, hokier and more cliché-ridden -- from what director Ridley Scott made of it. O'Bannon can't acknowledge the stuff that was improved for all his fretting about what was changed.

Two, directors are egomaniacs. Though Fox hired a different helmer for each film in the franchise -- Scott, Cameron, David Fincher and Jean-Pierre Jeunet -- the studio managed to choose the three shoutingest, foot-stompingest, most hot-headed genius visionaries out there, then proceeded to fight them tooth and nail on every single thing. (I don't know if Jeunet fits in, since I didn't watch his discs.) Each director articulates his macho manifesto -- Scott: "Nobody respects you later for being a nice guy. You can be unpopular on the route, but if you're right, all is forgiven." Cameron: "I could be insensitive to people's needs if they got in the way of making the movie I wanted to make." Fincher: "Nobody likes what I'm doing. I'm doing it anyway" -- and turns his film into a war on somebody. The tension was either a deliberate, diabolical plan cooked up by Fox to stimulate the creative process, or:

Three, studio executives are egomaniacs. Alien cost $8.6-million, Aliens $19-million, the third slightly more. Cheap for state-of-the-art (at the time) science fiction; and for the devotion of each film's team, priceless. All four pictures were well-reviewed and astronomically profitable. Yet each one's back-story is about how the studio nickel-and-dimed it, hassled its director, monkeyed with scripts, and generally did its best to sabotage what's great about each. Then, they release this DVD set with their hubris on full view, and their attitude? Hey, that's our job. It's beautiful. No wonder the series became about corporate evildoings.

Amazingly, the actors are the least egomaniacal of the bunch. They're shown working 12-hour days, crouching under tables with their heads pushed through slits, covered in blood and goo, hauling children and equipment on their backs, breathing toxic fumes and making jokes about it all. Cameron sums it up: He filled his sets with titanium titroxide smoke, which made the lighting look spooky but choked his cast. "I don't remember what we did about that," he says happily. "I think we just kept shooting. That smoke is illegal to use now, by the way." Lessons in filmmaking don't come much clearer than that. Now I'm off to bed.

Follow on Twitter: @JoSchneller

 

In the know

Most popular videos »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular