Aliens: Special Edition Review
Burke: ‘Ripley we have to talk…they’ve lost contact with the colony on LV four-twenty six…’
Alien marked a new dawn in science-fiction horror and with its critical and commercial success it was unsurprising that a sequel would be made. Unlike today’s ‘cash-in’ sequels, Aliens wasn’t just a continuation of the story but a continuation of the changes in the genre. Combining the science-fiction craze and popularity for the genre with the box-office gold that was the ‘action’ film, and glazing it all over with connotations of the Vietnam conflict, director and writer James Cameron created the perfect sequel. It retained the leading character from the first film, it continued the story basically from where the predecessor left off, and it investigated ideas and questions arising from the original. It basically provided everything fans of the original wanted but it went a step further by taking on a different direction, having a different feel and tone, and maintained enough originality and its own plot parametres to be a perfectly acceptable standalone film. It did what only a handful of sequels have ever been able to achieve – to arguably better the original films.
‘Just tell me one thing Burke, you’re going out there to destroy them, right? Not to study, not to bring back…but to wipe them out…?’
Aliens takes on the story 57 years after Ripley survived the events that occurred on the Nostromo mining vessel. She has been in hyper-sleep and therefore not aging, when she is found by a deep space salvage team. She is initially blamed for self-detonating the Nostromo to explode with the alien on board as the investigation team find no evidence to believe her story. She is bewildered to find out that the investigation team are so relaxed about the whole matter because they know that since Ripley has been in hyper-sleep, colonists have set up mining operations without any problems on the very planet her crew found the alien in the original film. It is not long though before contact with the colony is lost. Ripley is asked to return to the planet as an advisor, there only to observe and help the team determine what the problem is. She is at first very apprehensive, but constant nightmares of the horrors that occurred on the Nostromo haunt her dreams and ultimately force her to face her demons. She agrees to go, and with a team of marines, they set off to the planet of LV-426 in order to find out why contact has been lost.
‘…my mummy always used to say there were no monsters, no real ones, but there are…’
In my opinion, this film marks the pinnacle of James Cameron’s career who utilised the lessons he had learned from his two earlier films Piranha 2 and The Terminator and combined them to make an almost perfect movie. Here, he writes and directs and because of this, like most directors who work from their own material, he has a personal passion and total creative control to take the film anywhere he deems necessary. He maintains the leading character Ripley’s vulnerability and doesn’t take the easy route of just making her a female action hero. She doesn’t suddenly start blowing things up or becomes impervious to pain or emotional discomfort. She isn’t perfect and she can be harmed. It is interesting to see that the character of Ripley has become stronger because of her experiences in the past. Cameron makes sure that the character maintains the depth that was shown in Alien - the intelligence, the judgment of character, the courage – but builds on that to provide a background to Ripley’s past which strengthens the bond that the audience can associate with her. Cameron also makes absolutely sure that while the premise of the movie may sound like simplistic ‘action’ fare, Ripley doesn’t go back to face her fears for nothing. Likewise, the marines are there to fight but the main ones have rounded characters and do not fit easily into the usual stereotypes. Sub-plots emphasise the depth of the story and provide the film with a much stronger narrative that doesn’t rely on action set pieces to drive the plot.
Together with cinematographer, Adrian Biddle, Cameron creates a hollow and haunting atmosphere from start to finish. Unlike other lesser efforts where space doesn’t appear as a massive void, where the participants could easily escape to safety at any moment if they had half a brain, Cameron takes this dark black endlessness and puts us right in the middle of nowhere. Lost and trapped with those that are lost and trapped in the film. Every shot either uses, the great chasm that is space to choke the viewer, showing a place without end. Or they enclose the viewer in the confines of four walls or behind crates and boxes, or under computers and equipment. Or a combination of the two, where the vast dark skies are offered as a tempter, much like cheese tempts a mouse to a trap. Space maybe shown through a window, but Cameron grabs the viewer’s throat and doesn’t let go, squeezing your breath until you can’t breath no more. While it offers ultimate safety, there’s always an obstacle in the way. The beauty of Biddle’s photography is that he never lets this idea free the frame. Starting out with the frame showing a fairly open space, and ever so slightly decreasing the area in which the actors can move, he enforces the feeling of claustrophobia. Cameron wonderfully keeps subtly decreasing the size of the sets to emphasise the increased danger and claustrophobia, and both reinforce metaphorically and physically, that the walls are moving in.
The film would never have been the masterpiece it has become, if it were made now. Not only has Cameron become over-whelmed with success and largely lost the plot, with today’s special effects, the film wouldn’t have been able to maintain its raw integrity that makes it so frightening. Today’s special effects have helped in some areas but with directors becoming more dependent on them, plot, characterisation and execution have taken a backseat to the computers that do the work. Cameron has been able, with the help of Stan Winston and his wonderful team, to create a monster that is unsurpassed. Obviously, major credit must go to H.R Giger who created the concept for the ‘Alien’ being in this series of movies. Like most of his art, the idea for the alien came to him during a dream. Taking the alien from the first film, Cameron and his designers have been able to elaborate on it, showing a background to the beast. From the component parts – the alien, the alien lair – Cameron creates a danger and an evil that only a few films have ever been able to match or better. The ‘real’ feel of the non-computer graphics adds a great deal to the overall feel of the terror. Cameron doesn’t stop there in grounding the film in as much ‘reality’ as possible. The sets are very simple while retaining a futuristic look. It is such things as the ‘white’ colour of the medical ward that is reminiscent of medical wards on earth. The dirty, cold look of the colonist’s buildings that is reminiscent of perhaps miner’s buildings, unwashed and unclean. Other finer details such as a pet hamster in one of the colonist’s rooms, or a soggy doughnut are so indicative of real life. Additionally, the marines don’t fire lasers or travel to the planet in futuristic flying saucers. They have guns that fire bullets, they have body-armour that stops bullets and they travel to the planet on a vehicle that flies much like a plane, looks like a plane and lands like a plane. It is this simple grounding in reality where the film can play on your emotions most. In all of what is happening, even at its most frightening and horrific, there is always the sense, much like the original film Alien, that this could indeed happen one day.
The performances in the film are across the board brilliant. Sigourney Weaver was unfortunately denied an Oscar after being nominated that year. It didn’t surprise me as the Academy do not seem to rate performances in action-type movies very highly. Just being nominated showed how wonderful her performance was in bringing Ripley back to the screen. As mentioned, Ripley is a very tough character but she never comes across as unbeatable. Her experiences have scarred her, but not only that she has lost 57 years of her life. During this period, everything in her life including her family and most importantly, her daughter, have gone. Weaver incorporates Ripley’s loss into the character’s mentality and through the film this very human aspect comes to the fore. Cameron is able to use Ripley’s position to create real ‘people’ drama in the midst of the fighting going on around. This is most apparent in the bond that quickly sparks up between her and the young girl Newt (Carrie Henn). They find something in each other that they both desperately need to survive. Furthermore, Ripley’s continual distaste of authority provides an interesting dynamic between her and Burke (Paul Reiser), while her earlier troubles with the robot in Alien lead her to have an ongoing suspicion of Bishop (Lance Henrikson), the artificial person’s, motives. There is also a romantic angle between her and Hicks (Michael Biehn), one of the marines, which is interesting because their relationship is based on the idea of military power. Does she feel drawn to him because she feels the need to be protected, or is she drawn to him because she requires someone with as much courage, and as tough as her? Weaver plays Ripley, not as a female superhero, but as a woman toughened by circumstance and time. Her work on this movie is her best by far and so it isn’t surprising that she continues to come back for more in the sequels.
Carrie Henn, playing the little girl Newt, has had a surprising career in the film business as she hasn’t had one. This is the only film she’s starred in, and while other young actors have had their day and disappeared by the time they reached puberty, Henn clearly showed she had talent. Dirty and tired, Henn plays the little girl without ever over-doing the bittersweet innocence and proving there’s more to her character. In a way she comes across as a young Ripley, as again she has gone through a similar event before they first meet. She comes out on top, but has been unable to escape the ultimate evil. The courage and the strength are mirrored between Ripley and Newt, which underpins the major message that comes from the movie.
Cameron regulars Lance Henrikson, Janette Goldstein, Bill Paxton and Michael Biehn are all excellent. As mentioned, they are well written and well rounded off the page, but all perform to the best of their abilities. Lance Henrikson is wonderfully cast as the ‘artificial person’ Bishop. Henrikson was the original first choice to play the ‘Terminator’ in the film of the same name, so it comes as no surprise that he provides solid robotic tendencies here. His suspecting look is always deducing his next best options, and you are left with a certain amount of ambiguity in that you wonder whether there’s something more sinister brimming behind his eyes. Janette Goldstein plays the hard-as-nails marine Vasquez, who has obviously become immune to the taunts of her male compatriots. She is in essence, an extension of Ripley; a woman with a body as strong as most male marines, she is cool, she is first into battle, she is the brawn and raw anger part of Ripley’s character.
Bill Paxton is superb as the loud, brash Hudson. He plays him as if he desperately wants to be the cool, first into battle marine, but there’s a side of him that wants to let everyone else go in first. He becomes the audience’s second real ally behind Ripley, as he says the things the audience are thinking, and he asks the questions the audience want answered. We become attached to him because we rely on him for information, and when he is scared we know there is danger. Paxton gives Hudson a jittery, frightened look when the chips are down, but always preserves a manner of toughness that goes with his trained marine past. Michael Biehn is the quiet Hicks, the one that gets his job done without causing much of a fuss. Biehn superbly balances quiet assurance with mental and physical strength, and doesn’t look over his head when he has to take control of matters that are spiraling out of control. Another notable inclusion in the cast is Paul Reiser playing Carter J. Burke. He is an interesting character because he goes along with the investigation party as a relative outsider. He’s the ‘normal’ person, the ‘everyman’, who in being so again helps route the film in a sense of reality. Rieser is excellent in mixing corporate ‘slimeball’ with a sweaty, nervousness. We feel that through his protestations that things aren’t as bad as they seem, and his relaxed nature in the face of danger, that he is still as frightened if not more so, than everyone else. William Hope and Al Matthews round up the major players in the film, and both are perfectly fine in their respective roles. It is both an achievement of the actors, the casting director and Cameron that the personnel involved all play their parts superbly, and are perfect in those roles.
James Horner’s wonderful score is one of the best I’ve heard. From the outset – the 20th Century Fox logo fades away and the screen is filled with black. A drumbeat that sounds like battle music before warriors go to war begins to play over the darkness. This reminds you that the film is as much a war movie in space, as it is science-fiction drama. Horner also uses much more romantic in tone music, striking a balance between the action and the character driven drama. The two Oscar’s the film received were for ‘Best Visual Effects’ and ‘Best Sound Effects’. While the visual effects award isn’t surprising, as for what they are, they have never been surpassed, the sound effects are so notable because to me, they become another character. Horner’s music haunts the screen, while the sound effects terrorise it. Take for instance the marines motion trackers, which track any movement in close proximity. When they pick something up they begin to beep but the beep isn’t a throwaway sound, it is a long, pronounced indication that not all is well. The sound becomes a prominent icon of danger and is brilliantly used throughout the film.
‘….forty metres and closing…!’
So what is ‘special’ about Aliens: Special Edition? - I will discuss some minor plot details.
The ‘special edition’ version of the film is present on this dvd. It has become a custom for Cameron to revisit his films and add scenes back into the main feature. This has worked superbly for The Abyss where the movie improves no-end, but it worked less well when he added scenes into Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Aliens’ additional scenes provide a mixture of both good and bad points. In my opinion, the ‘special edition’ is the superior movie of the two, but others argue differently. One of the main arguments against the added scenes is that we are taken to the colonist’s habitat before Ripley and the investigation crew go there when contact is lost. This serves to give an insight into what their world is like, as well as providing additional story information of the colonist’s finding the spaceship with the alien eggs on, that we first see in the original film. Some believe this is totally extraneous and is not needed, whereas others, like myself believe it is important for us to meet Newt before we meet her later, as well as seeing her parents. Other plot points are also evident here, which are important to the overall film. Other scenes that were added revealed a back-story for the character of Ripley which I believe are exceptionally important to a sub-plot that runs later on in the movie. There are also some additional action sequences that were totally edited from the original theatrical cut. These, while not being totally important to the plot of the film, are worth seeing because they are executed so well. Cameron builds the tension of these particular scenes to grand heights by showing glimpses of a flashing, bad quality video screen with the power of your imagination creating more horror than what is blurring across the screen. He combines this with a simple close-up of an ammo counter briskly ticking down. This is one of my favourite scenes mainly because it is so simple, but it is filled with tension and is as exhilarating as an all out action sequence. Other additional scenes added include an extended version of the marines scouting a desolate colony building when they first arrive on the colonist’s planet. This enforces the idea of a military presence much like soldiers scouting the jungles of Vietnam, and this is obviously pushed further with the idea of high-tech military versus low-tech enemy, which the movie plays with throughout. The character driven drama is given more authority in the special edition, with additional dialogue and an added sequence that pushes the romantic angle up a level.
A problem that has been cited with the special edition, or even with the original theatrical cut, is that the film is either twenty or forty minutes too long. This has never been a problem for me, and I believe that fans of the series will appreciate the long running time. With the film being primarily seen as an action film, its detractors see the emphasis on story information as a major flaw in slowing the pace of the movie. However, in my opinion the film perfectly balances a strong narrative with good action. This film wouldn’t be seen as one of the best sequels ever made if it had neglected the world that the original film created. It takes time to take the story intelligently forward and even when the film breathes between its various battles it retains such an interesting character driven dimension, the pace never feels like it is slowing.
‘….game over man, game over…!’
I remember a long time ago, me, and a few friends played a game we have come to call ‘Aliens’. We all had our toy guns that are parents had given us the Christmas before, (well, actually I made my gun out of two sticks, a torch and a lot of sticky tape) we turned all the lights out and we took on roles from the film. What bearing this has on reviewing the film I don’t know, but it reminds me that the film has been a favourite of mine for so long. I can still watch it whenever time allows, and it never fails to take me on an emotional rollercoaster. We all have our favourite films and I hope, when I look back on this review in a few years time, I’ll still have mine.
The film might be called a ‘special edition’ but this DVD certainly isn’t when compared to some of the outstanding disc sets we’ve seen over the last year. While the disc isn’t loaded with documentaries about Michael Biehn’s hairdresser or what James Cameron ate for breakfast, we do get a wonderful 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer and a very good Dolby Digital 5.1 track. Additionally there are a few extra features and a couple of easter eggs to half fulfill our need for information.
The main menu is exceptionally good and sets a standard that the DVD’s extra features can’t quite live up to. In my opinion this main menu’s design is as good as some of the best of them including the likes of Ghostbusters and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. It is well laid out and very simple to navigate.
What we get is a menu designed like a video monitor displaying an image that is supposed to represent what is being received from the marines individual cameras mounted on their helmets. There is also some dialogue and sound effects directly sourced from the film, which work in tandem with the navigation of the menu.
The picture is presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and has anamorphic enhancement.
The picture, for all intents and purposes, is superb. I have never seen the film look better even if my main comparable is an old VHS copy. The picture is sharp and clear throughout, displaying dark scenes with excellent clarity and depth. Lightly lit scenes have a sharpness and life I haven’t seen in them before. Colour shades are true and skin tones natural. One particular scene in the film that was always unclear and messy on the VHS involved very low lighting, with the set bathed in a glowing red colour. Here the particular scene provides an excellent example of how good the picture quality is by displaying the scene as perfectly as a DVD could. Some critics have taken marks off picture quality for some grain being evident, but the grain is very minimalist and what is noticeable is an entirely purposeful part of the photography. The print used is in immaculate condition to say the film was originally released in 1986, and as such I saw no scars or marks on the picture.
The sound is presented as Dolby Digital 5.1 – not DD 5.0 as is written on the outer packaging. I was quickly aware that there was a .1 channel as the sub-woofer does get a terrific workout from the disc. It is used especially well throughout the action scenes as well as providing a deep, brooding tone to Horner’s wonderful score. Dialogue was clear for the most part with just a faint distortion now and again attributed to the age of the film. The surround channels are used well, especially and unsurprisingly, during the action sequences where the sound envelops you. The film’s score uses the surround channels nicely as well, but in some dialogue driven moments the emphasis falls greatly on mono.
Added Features: Interview With James Cameron - This is an interview with director James Cameron conducted in 1986. This is the best feature on the disc with the director talking about the conception of the film through to production.
Added Features: Aliens Behind The Scenes - Sounds good, looks at first glance that it is going to be good and extensive, but unfortunately isn’t. This extra feature is informative to a point but some more effort on the disc’s producer’s side would have helped. The feature is split up into various items relating to the film from the miniatures used, the creation of the aliens and testing the ‘aliens’. Some have sound but most are just silent video takes.
Added Features: Photo Gallery - This is better than the ‘behind the scenes’ feature as it has many excellent photo’s of the film’s production, cast and crew, and promotion.
Added Features: Theatrical Trailer - I do love this theatrical trailer. It isn’t presented very well – 4:3 (low quality) pan and scan, but I just think when I watch it – if I had been a cinema-goer back in 1986 and I saw this trailer I’d be thinking, ‘now this is going to be my future favourite film’. This is one of the best trailers, (even though there are other good ‘Aliens’ ones lying around on other DVD’s) and a great, worthwhile viewing.
I just plain and simply adore this movie. James Cameron isn’t one of my favourite director’s even though I think The Terminator and The Abyss are brilliant films, but what he’s done here is give me a roll of two and half hour long celluloid that I can keep watching endlessly, without losing enjoyment or satisfaction. A perfect film presented on a technically superb disc and with some worthwhile extras. A DVD that should sit in everyone’s collection.