In celebration of Alien‘s 40th anniversary, Fox has released a 4K UHD Blu-ray of the film. The new 4K master was transferred directly from the original camera negative, supervised by Ridley Scott and Pam Dery in 2018, and the HDR (High Dynamic Range) pass was supervised by Stephen Nakamura. Note: your 4K TV must have HDR capability in order to view the film with HDR. All screencaps from the 4K release included with this review are for illustrative purposes only, and have been downconverted from HDR to SDR (standard dynamic range), as well as resized to 1080 to match the Blu-ray and D-Theater caps. For a more accurate, direct comparison between releases, please see here.
Alien has received two high definition transfers prior to this new 40th Anniversary remaster. The first was for the so-called “Director’s Cut”, released in 2004 on a dead format called D-Theater. D-Theater was a cassette-based video format meant to be a successor to VHS, capable of delivering high definition video, as opposed to the (sub)standard definition of regular VHS tapes. The second, remastered high-definition transfer, this time of both the proper theatrical cut and the Director’s Cut, was done for the 2010 Alien Anthology Blu-ray set. This second transfer was scanned from the original negative in 4K, but the restoration proper was mastered at only 2K, which was then downgraded further to 1080 for the final Blu-ray transfer.
What is the difference between all these transfers? In addition to the obvious variances in resolution, the chief thing that separates each of them is the color grading. Every time the original negative of Alien has been scanned for a fresh remaster, the color of the final product has had to be re-graded and approved by Ridley Scott—and each time, Scott has favored the film to have a slightly different look.
How a release print in 1979 looked color-wise depended on the analogue, photochemical processes involved in producing it. Color timing in the modern era is typically conducted digitally, allowing much more freedom in terms of the final product—as well as greater latitude for revisionism. With each successive digital master, Scott has favored a brighter, more teal look, in accordance with modern filmmaking trends. This reached its apex with the 2010 Anthology transfer, which had vivid, boosted colors, crushed blacks and a teal-push throughout. It still looked terrific, but it didn’t necessarily look like Alien did on release.
This new 40th Anniversary 4K release corrects that. In addition to presenting Alien at the highest resolution it’s ever been seen in any home video format, and probably the highest resolution it can be viewed at (4K resolution is more or less analogous to the resolution of 35mm film, the format of Alien‘s original negative), this latest remaster also restores the film’s original color scheme—or at least a very close approximation of it. Gone is the teal, boosted colors and crushed blacks; Alien again looks like a film made and released in 1979, albeit one with spectacular clarity and detail. The application of HDR is extremely tasteful and lends a beautiful balance to this film’s use of deep shadows and the startling light and strobe effects in the third act. There is even a bit more image on the edges of the frame compared to the previous 2010 transfer, which was zoomed in slightly. This 4K release also restores the film’s original 4.1 surround mix in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio format; the original mix was previously included on the 2010 Blu-ray, but only as a lossy, lower fidelity Dolby Digital mix. Altogether, this is the best the film has ever looked and sounded, and probably the best it ever will, at least on home video.
With that said—there are flaws in this presentation. As with the 2010 Blu-ray, there has been some sort of unnecessary, digital grain management applied to the new 4K transfer, which occasionally results in some odd, potentially distracting abnormalities in the film’s natural grain field. For the most part this is not very noticeable, and only the most sensitive or hawk-eyed viewers will notice it. The included standard Blu-ray disc is also just a 1:1 repressing of the original 2010 release; the 1080 Blu-ray transfer has not been remastered using the new 4K scan, so the only new content in the 40th Anniversary release is the 4K disc itself.
This release’s biggest problem, however, (aside from the very tacky new cover art) is that the Director’s Cut scenes have NOT been restored in 4K, and are simply upscaled material taken from the 2010 transfer. What this means is that if one chooses to watch the Director’s Cut version of the film, the new scenes stick out like a sore thumb, being of substantially lower quality in terms of resolution and featuring a different overall look. We here at Alien Archives do not care much for the Director’s Cut, though, which is really nothing of the sort; produced as a gimmick to get people into cinemas for the film’s 2003 theatrical rerelease, it has essentially been disowned by Scott as anything other than a piece of marketing, and is, at best, a curiosity. The only proper version of Alien remains its original 1979 theatrical cut, and this new 40th Anniversary 4K release showcases it in spectacular fashion.
But the botched presentation of the Director’s Cut does bode ill for potential 4K releases of Aliens and Alien³, the special edition cuts of which are essential, and are the preferred versions for many fans—especially in the case of Alien³. The 2003 Alien Quadrilogy DVD set and the 2010 Alien Anthology Blu-ray set, which presented these films and their various cuts in a lovingly meticulous fashion, were the work of the great home video producer and filmmaker Charles De Lauzirika, who was unfortunately not involved with this latest 40th Anniversary release. His absence is clearly reflected in the Director’s Cut presentation, and without De Lauzirika’s supervision of the 4K releases of the sequels, it seems unlikely that the alternate/extended versions of those films will be handled with the proper care.
Of course, it seems unlikely we will see the sequels in 4K in any form—at least any time soon. The Alien franchise, along with all Fox film properties, is now owned by Disney, who do not release much in the way of 4K catalogue titles at all; and to compound matters, any new 4K release of Aliens will likely need to be supervised and approved by James Cameron, who as of this writing in 2019 is so busy with Avatar sequels that he has never even got around to releasing The Abyss or True Lies on standard Blu-ray, let alone 4K UHD. The comprehensive Alien Anthology Blu-ray set will likely remain the gold standard home video presentation for the second, third and fourth films for the foreseeable future, but the new 40th Anniversary 4K UHD of Alien is undoubtedly the best way to see the the first film, at least outside of its natural habitat—the cinema.
The 4K UHD release is available internationally in two configurations: a standard release and a steelbook packaging release. In the US, the steelbook is a Best Buy exclusive, while in the UK it is a Zavvi exclusive. The 4K UHD is already available in Spain and Scandinavian countries. US release date is April 23rd, while the UK release is a day earlier on April 22nd, and the German release is on April 18th.