Forty years. That’s how old the seminal sci-fi, suspense, horror film Alien turns this year. And to celebrate the milestone, 20th Century Fox has given the film a complete 4K HDR restoration, supervised by director Ridley Scott, with the transfer taken from a 4K Digital Intermediate.
At this point, what can be said about Alien that hasn’t been said in hundreds of other reviews, columns, blogs, and forums? Released in 1979, the movie has a different look, feel, and style than anything else that had come before it. And like throwing a boulder into a pond, it caused a ripple-effect through the filmmaking world that influenced the style and storytelling of virtually every sci-fi film that followed—principally Scott’s own Blade Runner, which came two years later. Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley—looking incredibly young and fresh-faced here—launched the idea of the female action hero, and Scott’s gritty, decaying Nostromo showed that the future didn’t need to be shiny and new.
I remember the first time I saw Alien. It was on a free Showtime weekend right after we had just moved to a new home in Bakersfield, California. I was in fifth grade, had the flu, and was couch-ridden and under-supervised. This was way pre-
onscreen guide days, so you basically just flipped around at the top of the hour hoping you would catch something good.
When I saw that Alien was coming on—and that my parents were busy elsewhere—I settled in. All I really knew about the movie was the tagline, “In space, no one can hear you scream.” The original trailer had an incredibly
slow build, almost a full-minute of a slow pan down to an egg, followed by a lot of dark scenes with people running and panicking. And not a single spoken word. Not. One.
Of course, as an 11-year-old, the infamous chest-burster scene was shocking, but not actually the nightmare fuel one might think. No, what lingered in my brain was nightmares of running through a darkened ship, klaxons blaring, strobes flashing, being chased by a monster, as a countdown timer steadily wound down towards destruction. Fun times.
Unfortunately, Alien has never really lived up to its potential on the home screen. DVD and LaserDisc versions were overly grainy and noisy, and the previous remastered Blu-ray version couldn’t do the shadow and black-level detail the justice it deserved. Rest assured, all of that is made right with this new 4K HDR version, which looks fantastic. Fortunately, the restoration is not overly heavy-handed, getting rid of the bad bits of noise and deterioration while keeping Scott’s look and stylistic feel solidly intact.
The film begins with the unrestored 20th Century Fox logo showing you just how grainy and noisy the source material was, but once we jump into the movie, the image is clean, clear, and beautifully solid. The blackness of space is deep, inky, and clean, with the stars as bright pinpoints of light. They definitely took a mild touch with HDR here, not overdriving the film but enhancing key scenes, punching up the appropriate highlights like the ship’s drive engines, spotlights, flames, and strobes. Much—and I mean much—of the film takes place in the dark, with many things hidden in shadows, and it is here where the cleaned-up transfer and HDR have the greatest impact.
Occasionally, there are scenes where the boosted brightness of a spotlight will highlight a bit of extra noise in the image, but these scenes are few and unobjectionable. There is a brutal video torture test at 24:30 into the film, where the crew is exploring LV-426, the moon that is the source of the spurious radio signal. Here we have myriad shades of grey illuminated by various lighting sources and swirling smoke that could be an absolute banding nightmare, but the image holds up wonderfully.
While Alien will never be accused of being a colorful film, 4K’s wider color gamut is used modestly to enhance the bright reds and oranges of the many indicator lights located around the Nostromo.
Alien isn’t your typical sci-fi, horror, space-exploration film, rather being an amalgam. It’s been years since I’ve watched the film, and I couldn’t entirely recall the storyline, so it was nice to go into it semi-fresh. What I really appreciated was the total lack of exposition. You’re thrown into the Nostromo with the crew as they’re awakened out of hyper-sleep, and you have to figure out things along with them. Several minutes pass in the film before a word is spoken. During that time, we’re treated to a slow, wandering journey through the empty Nostromo, and the depth of image is almost 3D. HDR is used nicely here, allowing us to see more shadow detail than ever before, letting you appreciate the lengths taken with the practical sets. The same can be said for The Derelict, the spacecraft the crew discovers on LV-426. Here you can marvel at H.R. Giger’s design style and really appreciate the look of the Space Jockey and leathery texture of the eggs in the egg farm.
The film’s first act really plays more like a documentary of the life of space miners, hearing the crew grouse about bonuses, and wanting to get home. The film is equally slow about revealing Ripley as the hero, keeping you guessing as to who will and won’t die. And whether by design or technical limitation, the glimpses of the Xenomorph are kept few, and are often just snatches or in shadows. This reminded me of Jaws, where Spielberg keeps the huge great white a visual mystery for much of the film, proving that the dangers we can’t see are often the most terrifying.
For a film that’s celebrating 40 years, I was amazed how well the story and effects held up. The only things that really date the film’s look are the ancient displays and computer tech located around the Nostromo. Some of the graphics on these screens look a bit of a mess, while others—namely the text on Mother’s (MU-TH-UR 6000) screen—are razor-sharp. The alien looks just as terrifying as ever, with the inner-workings of its glistening, goo-filled inner jaws clearly visible.
Part of the danger of making a 40-year-old film look so good and visible are that some things best left unseen are revealed. There were a couple of moments where it was too obvious that the alien’s movements were a tad too human-in-a-costume or that we were looking at models instead of full-sized crafts. Fortunately, these were minor, and certainly didn’t detract from enjoying the film. (One thing my wife and I both commented on was the bizarre choice for Ripley to be wearing underwear during the finale that appears to be about five sizes too small for her. Perhaps that was the style of the day—or will be the trend in 2122 . . .)
One thing not changed from the previous Blu-ray release was the audio, with the 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master Audio being retained here. Would I have loved a new Dolby Atmos or DTS:X mix? Absolutely. There are many scenes where an immersive track could have been used to great effect, but this mix plays well in a luxury cinema, and my processor’s upmixer did a great job of putting blaring alarm klaxons up into the overheads.
Both the 4K disc and the Kaleidescape download include the original theatrical cut and the director’s cut (which actually plays a minute shorter) along with two commentary tracks and two isolated soundtrack scores.
Alien is a must-have for any movie fan, and I dare say it will never look better than what we have here.
Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at
@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.