Alien Quadrilogy: Aliens Review
Arguably the best action film ever made, and a top three contender for finest sequel ever, Aliens, the sequel to a classic and a classic in itself, is simply a fantastic film that has frightened, terrified and thrilled audiences since its release in 1986.
The film is a ‘nightmare’ envisioned on the screen – call it Ripley’s nightmare, indeed she’s asleep when we first meet her at the beginning and she’s asleep when we leave her at the end. It’s one of those dreams where you’re being chased and you just can’t seem to wake yourself up, as the thing that wants your blood gets ever closer. What James Cameron was able to do was recreate the adrenaline, the anxiety, the impending terror of ‘those’ dreams, and sit you on a roller coaster as your head spins with images of something unimaginably awful, getting ever closer.
The director doesn’t stop there – maintaining a level of tension and suspense that easily matches the original film, but where Ridley Scott had a languid, operatic pace that forced you to hold your breath, Cameron hits you with fast images, claustrophobic set-pieces and a blurred sense of reality – decipher what is attacking at your own peril. It isn’t as if Cameron neglects Scott’s way of building suspense, he actually embraces it, but it’s the way the two director’s handle the pay-off that differs. Scott is happy to give you a quick shock to the system then let you stew on what you’ve seen, the heart beating ever quicker as the ‘horror’ begins to settle into your system. Cameron on the other hand will hit you with a quick shock then throw you into the coliseum during the battle of the ‘barbarian horde’, and hide the exit. Aliens has an intensity not matched before or after by any action film, especially the film’s finale, which almost never ends. It doesn’t feel never-ending because it isn’t any good, but quite the opposite, in that it works so well at pushing the heart rate past acceptable levels that you’re begging for, at the very least, a little breather so you can actually get a little oxygen to your brain.
Cameron begins the film showing the wide expanse of the galaxy, with the Nostromo’s shuttle slowly moving through space. We begin where Alien left off with Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in hypersleep, only now it’s 57 years later. Her ‘pod’ is found by a deep-space salvage team and she is revived, but an investigation team doesn’t believe her story why she denoted the Nostromo to self-destruct. Time passes and Ripley is haunted by memories of her experiences with the ‘alien’, but an opportunity arises to return to the planet as an advisor – she’ll regain the ‘Officer’ status that was taken away from her when the investigation team couldn’t prove her story, and she’ll have a chance to face her demons and conquer them. It is explained to her that since she was in hypersleep, colonists had been sent to LV-426 (the planet where they find the alien in the first film), but due to unexplainable circumstances, they had lost contact with them and were sending a team, along with a protective marine unit, to find out what had gone wrong.
The film is riddled with excellent set-pieces but this is hardly surprising given the premise – in Alien we had one unstoppable beast and very little weapons, now we’ve got lots of aliens and lots of guns and Cameron just throws them together and says, ‘go at it!’ It’s the anticipation of seeing how the enemy copes when human’s throw everything they’ve got at them in order to survive: imagine if Halloween’s first sequel was Mike Myers versus the U.S Army, or the film that actually made it to the screen: Godzilla. Seeing a horde of alien creatures drop from the ceiling and ambush the marines with guns firing this way and that, makes for fabulously claustrophobic action cinema. The consequent escape through the ventilation shafts is even more exciting. Cameron wants the audience to be scared, to be shocked, to be overwhelmed, but first and foremost, he wants the audience to have fun. Everything that happens in Aliens is created to keep you on the edge of your seat, from moments of great tension to moments of sheer excitement. It’s in the anticipation of what might happen where Cameron is able to almost play with the audience – the film has been rightly likened to a roller-coaster ride, because you know what is coming (the big drop, the loop), but it’s in the anticipation that creates the tension and ultimately, the excitement and fun.
The Vietnam connotations are there for all to see: low-tech enemy against high-tech liberator. Cameron is perfectly happy to make a ‘war’ movie in space, but he is less concerned with making any political statements. If anything, he merely accepts that the full-on, ‘blow the crap out of everything’ attitude hardly ever works, and that military power is not always the answer to every problem. It is interesting however, to see how Aliens dips into many genres from the ‘war’ film to the gothic horror movie. Alien is perhaps primarily a science-fiction film, but it has roots firmly in horror, and Aliens again bases itself within the sci-fi world but branches out, sipping whatever fruits other genres can bring to the table. It only gives substance to the idea that Cameron wants the audience to have fun, and if that means widening the film’s generic range, then so be it. I think you’d be hard pushed to find another film that contains the conventions from so many genres (certainly within contemporary American cinema), and yet uses them so well.
Aliens’ detractors will happily brandish the film as mindless explosions and eye-candy, made by a very average, overrated director. I think most people would find it difficult to honestly refute such claims, as Cameron has proved he can’t consistently produce the goods, and the film is full of things blowing up and all things ‘eye candy’. However, there was a time in very early cinema when a train coming into the station ‘wowed’ audiences to the point they thought it was going to keep going and enter the theatre. There was a time when watching workers leave the factory at the end of the day was unbelievably wonderful – just look at this window to the past! Aliens harks back to ‘why’ cinema was used in the first place – the wonderment of the medium, the escapism from our daily lives. It might ask you to leave you brain at the door but that isn’t a bad thing, because totally immersing yourself in its world creates that ‘wonderment’ of it, and you can take a time out from ‘real life’ for a couple of hours. In this area, the film excels.
Like Alien, the film’s sound design and score are a masterstroke, adding an infinite dynamic, the film wouldn’t be half as good without. James Horner, brought in to create the score for the film produces his greatest work (indeed, the finale orchestral music is used on many trailers since), as he brings an almost romantic tone to proceedings, balancing an unnerving battle cry, with moments of true passion and personal emotion. The fabulous sound effects such as the motion tracker ‘beep’, become a haunting icon signaling danger is not far away, and the seemingly constant sound of wind and rain running as an undercurrent keeps the mood somber and unsettling. Additionally, Adrian Biddle’s beautiful photography seems the perfect companion to Horner’s musical awareness – the beating drums coupled with Biddle’s cluttered, ‘busy’ frame attack the senses. Biddle’s photography suggests metaphorically and physically the walls are moving in, not allowing the feeling of ‘dread’ and the claustrophobic atmosphere to leave the frame, and many scenes have a colour tone that reminds of those very nightmares I discussed earlier. The escape through the ventilation shafts is drenched in an ominous, overpowering red, and Ripley attempting to save Newt is engulfed in mist with harsh shadows being created by beams of bright white light, coupled with flashes of orange and red. It really is the stuff of vivid, undecipherable dreams.
The performances are all excellent with Sigourney Weaver being nominated for an Academy Award. Paul Reiser is superb as the slimy corporate figure, while Lance Henrikson is super-cool as android Bishop. The performances help to ground the futuristic world in a believable reality, but it’s also Cameron’s continuation of Ridley Scott’s revolution in sci-fi, keeping the world raw, dirty and industrial much like our present day. The Capitalist nature of this future is not unlike our own present, the verisimilitude assisting the ‘unbelievable’ feel that bit more real. Cameron gives all his character’s very rounded bases and a marine shouting, ‘they’re coming through the goddamn walls!’ or the little girl Newt whispering, ‘my mummy always used to say there were no monsters, no real ones, but there are…’ provides the film with an authenticity that most strictly action-fare movies simply don’t have.
When Ripley strides out in the ‘power loader’ and utters those timeless words: ‘Get away from her you bitch!’ the butterflies will again be fluttering away in the stomach. For the moment has become a small collectors item in the series, and in science-fiction cinema in general. Shortly thereafter the credits are rolling and the ride is over, but I don’t know about you, I’m off for another go.
To read more of my thoughts on James Cameron's Aliens (including 'Special Edition' and 'Theatrical Edition' comparisons), click HERE
First things first – the supplemental material for Aliens is fantastic and will satisfy die-hard fans, and casual viewers alike. What is quite extraordinary is the amount of footage uncovered from the original production, and we’re not talking low-quality videotape, but a very clear and detailed image tracing the film’s production from inception to release. There’s so much interesting information, there’s bound to be some stuff included that you never knew, and seeing first-hand James Cameron about to lose his rag with one of the special-effects staff when they couldn’t get the facehugger to jump off the table and hit the camera straight-on, is highly amusing.
All the major production staff and actors have recorded new interviews including James Cameron (director), Gale Anne Hurd (producer), Sigourney Weaver (Ripley), Micheal Biehn (actor: Hicks), Lance Henrikson (actor: Bishop), Bill Paxton (actor: Hudson), Janette Goldstein (actor: Vasquez), Mark Rolston (actor: Drake), and Carrie Henn who played the little girl Newt. One point to note is the unfortunate fact that no new interviews have been recorded with Paul Reiser who played the slimy character Burke. Some footage of an interview recorded in 1986 is included, but it is a pity that nothing new has been done. However, what does make this little exclusion more digestible is the inclusion of three production photo’s showing the infamous deleted scene where Ripley hands Burke a grenade after she finds him cocooned in the alien’s lair.
Some good things to look out for is footage recorded in 1986 with Al Matthews who played Apone – coming from a military background, his on-set persona was that of a army commander, much like his character, and this comes across as being a little intimidating. Certainly when he says, if someone points their weapon at me [on-set] ‘...my instinct is to jam it down their throat!’ Janette Goldstein also lays to rest the rumours that a part of the script was added as an in-joke to mock her for turning up for the audtion in a dress as opposed to army uniform. According to her, the part in question where Hudson says, ‘Somebody said ‘alien’, she thought they said ‘illegal alien’ and signed up!’ was already written and was not added at her expense. Other treats include a dummy of Bishop being thrown in front of the camera for the shot after the alien queen rips him apart. This turns out to be hilarious as their many attempts just keep landing the upper-torso Bishop in many strange positions. There’s some good photo’s of Lance Henrikson wearing contact lenses with two pupils as he tried to bring something additional to the character but Cameron told him to lose them. And it’s amusing to see the American crew bitching about English working conditions – less hours, longer lunch and ‘TEA BREAKS!’ One great anecdote was when the English crew had little lottery draws where they would put money into a pot and draw a winner – suffice to say Cameron was not at all pleased about these little draws taking place during work hours, and by the sounds of things, the director wasn’t at all happy about the entire crew running off for the sandwich tray at break.
It is great to see many of the people involved with the production being so enthusiastic about the film, knowing they achieved something very special. Gale Anne Hurd seems especially happy with the film and draws on the many problems that faced her and Cameron during the making of it, and Michael Biehn and Bill Paxton happily reminisce about their experiences – drawing on the fact that both may not have been in the film at all. Indeed, Biehn wears costume throughout the entire film initially created for another actor.
Picture and Sound
If any improvements to the picture and sound have been made since the last release I can’t tell. Interestingly James Cameron speaks of the film stock used (on the commentary) and that the grain evident on the print was an unavoidable consequence of Kodak’s product. I think the grain can work to the film’s advantage in certain areas, but when it becomes noticeable in some scenes, it is quite annoying. One notable part is in the ‘special edition’ when Burke tells Ripley about her daughter – the grain is awfully evident. Cameron also discusses that shooting in 2.35:1 may have helped the film, but at the time, he didn’t believe it was technically viable with the ‘vision’ he wanted to produce.
At times, the image looks wonderful (10/10 without a doubt) but for some reason this isn’t consistent. I compared the image with the region 4 (PAL) edition, looking at the scene where Vasquez and Hudson leave the others to check the area with their tracker’s, after the power is cut. The scene is fairly dark, shrouded in the red light of the emergency lighting. Both versions lacked clarity, with detail limited, however when the action moves on to the Alien attack, it is superb. Dark scenes with harsh lighting look fantastic, but darker scenes with more muted, enveloping light lack clarity.
The image is presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1, and anamorphic enhanced. Overall, like its previous release, Aliens hasn’t looked any better since it was theatrically released back in 1986, though it is the weakest image presentation in the Quadrilogy box set. Largely down to the limitations of the film stock used, it will never be perfect but this is hardly a poor presentation. The action scenes look fantastic, and at times Biddle’s photography is wonderfully reproduced. Colours are excellent throughout, and detail in mid-shots and close-up’s is almost perfect.
In terms of sound – we don’t get a DTS track, which would have been great to hear, because the Dolby Digital 5.1 track present on the disc does sound like the same one used previously. Not that this is a bad thing – the action scenes have the sub-woofer working overtime, and there’s some great directional sound across the front spectrum, but my problem with the track has always been a lack of rear production during the action sequences. This problem hasn’t been rectified, and as such is a little disappointing. When the aliens attack from the ceiling, there is a great deal of directional sound centrally, and right and left, but in the rear speakers there doesn’t seem to be much going on apart from some background sound-effects and noise. The rear speakers don’t seem to be adding much to the surround ‘feel’. Nevertheless, it isn’t as if the track sounds like it’s Dolby Pro-Logic – the rear channels do prove themselves elsewhere, but I just feel they could have been used a lot better during the major action sequences. Overall, the sound is vibrant and loud (get ready sub-woofer overdrive), with some lovely ambience, especially the rain.
Mini-introduction with James Cameron - A small introduction to the ‘Special Edition’ version of the film is featured with James Cameron.
Audio Commentary with director James Cameron, Producer Gale Anne Hurd, Special-Effects creator Stan Winston, Visual-Effects supervisors Robert Skotak and Dennis Skotak, and Miniature Effects supervisor Pat McClung. Also actors Michael Biehn, Bill Paxton, Janette Goldstein, Lance Henrikson, Carrie and Christopher Henn - This is a sensational commentary combining the anecdotal stories of the actors, with some brilliant incites from James Cameron, and Gale Anne Hurd also has some interesting things to say. Cameron leads the track, and he appears to have been recorded alone. It is great to hear him discussing his best film, and he has plenty to say. Michael Biehn, Bill Paxton, Janette Goldstein and Lance Henrikson have been recorded together and their incites are my favourite of the track. When Lance Henrikson introduces himself he sounds like he really doesn’t want to be there, but he eventually gets into it. Paxton and Biehn just seem glad to be reunited and have the opportunity to reminisce, and they make for some funny moments. Some crossover with the additional video supplements is to be expected, and Sigourney Weaver’s absence is a little disappointing, but overall this is definitely worth listening to. (This track is ONLY accessible through the ‘Special Edition’ version of the film, and cannot be listened to when watching the ‘Theatrical Cut’.)
The DVD supplemental material on DISC 2 (Quadrilogy box set DISC 4) is split into three sections, and can be navigated in various ways, using the navigating screen accessible via the main menu.
This is the first section on the disc and looks at various parts of the pre-production process, utilising video segments, photo galleries and text-based supplements.
The video segments are divided into three parts – ’57 Years Later’ (11:04mins), ‘Building Better Worlds – From Concept to Construction’ (13:31mins) and ‘Preparing For Battle – Casting and Characterisation’ (17:05mins). As soon as the opening montage begins with Sigourney Weaver talking over images of the marines entering the alien’s lair, butterflies begin to flutter in the stomach. This is what Aliens fans have been hoping for, and finally we get the opportunity to go behind-the-scenes of a film that is a favourite of so many.
What we discover is how James Cameron went from being given the opportunity to write the script, to being given the opportunity to direct. The job relying on how The Terminator was received. We also learn how the film was designed – the conceptual artwork for the ‘Sulaco’ and ‘drop-ship’, the designs for the LV-426 colony base, and other pieces of the film’s design. This is interesting because it shows just how much detail, time and money is put into creating some of the smallest details.
The casting is interesting because the producers had to look at hundred’s of actors who were living and working in England before they could look at actors from America. It is surprising how many major roles came from this process.
Other items in this first section of the disc include what has been titled ‘Treatment’, but what is actually by the looks of things, a first draft screenplay for the film. This is very interesting because it shows a slightly different film, and it makes you wonder what the film had been like had this script been made. Admittedly, it isn’t that different from what we see on the screen in the finished film, but there are some interesting scenes to be read. Notably, in the special edition version of the film where we see Newt’s family find the alien ship, what is never revealed is how the rest of the colony, is killed by the aliens. We can imagine that the queen alien created eggs under the cooling towers, and one by one, various colony workers are impregnated (wouldn’t it make a great film to see what actually happened to them, and to see the final stand when they barricade themselves in using the barricades we see in the finished film). Anyway, one interesting scene in the original draft had colony workers sent out to find Newt’s family and they find the father with the facehugger attached to his face. He is still in the belly of the alien spacecraft however, and eggs begin to open and facehuggers attack the team.
Rounding-up this first section of the DVD, we get conceptual artwork for ‘Gateway Station and the Colony’, ‘Vehicles and Weapons’, and the ‘Aliens’ themselves. We also get ‘Visualisations’ which is a small featurette with optional commentary by miniature effects supervisor Pat McClung, and this shows video test recordings of how Cameron wanted the final film to look. The video tests are presented alongside the finished film to show how the initial ideas looked when filmed in all the glory of 35mm and with the special-effects added. This is a multi-angle featurette, allowing you to look at the video test recordings solely, or besides the finished print. Finally, this section is rounded-off with a photo gallery.
The ‘production’ section of the DVD, or part 2 of the production process features the most video material, unsurprisingly. We get to see ‘This Time It’s War – Pinewood Studios, 1985’ (19:43mins), ‘The Risk Always Lives – Weapons and Action’ (15:16mins), ‘Bug Hunt – Creature Design’ (16:28mins), ‘Beauty and the Bitch – Power Loader versus Queen Alien’ (22:30mins), and ‘Two Orphans – Sigourney Weaver and Carrie Henn’ (13:51mins).
One of the first interesting things we learn here is that Adrian Biddle was not the first choice director of photography. Originally, Dick Bush (interesting name!) was acquired for the role of DP on the film, but he and Cameron had those dreaded ‘creative differences’ that so hampered Alien 3. Again, it is great to see actual footage shot by Bush before Biddle took over his job. One scene that is featured is the marine’s searching the alien’s lair for survivors – it is notably brighter and the scene has a harsh, jagged feel to it. Cameron wanted the scene to be lit primarily from the marine’s helmet lamps, but Bush was having none of it. Bush was fired largely due to the fact he wasn’t interested in Cameron’s ‘vision’ but also because he told the director there was no way he was going to do the film within the schedule.
There’s a very small deleted scene that isn’t in the theatrical cut or special edition, and it is featured in the ‘This Time It’s War’ featurette. It contains Ripley, Newt and Hicks – Newt tries to get away from Ripley but Hicks stops her and says, ‘I hope she hasn’t got rabies’. He lifts his hand away from Newt quite quickly when he stops her from running away, certainly referring to early in both the theatrical and special edition cuts of the film, where she bites his hand when trying to escape into the ventilation shaft.
This first featurette in the ‘production’ section of the DVD also examines the ‘culture clash’ between the American crew and the British crew. Lance Henrikson and Sigourney Weaver claim that the British crew lacked respect for Cameron and Hurd, largely due to the fact they didn’t think Cameron could live up to Ridley Scott.
‘The Risk Always Lives’ is superb, and has lots of behind-the-scenes stuff – including experimentation with various ‘real’ guns to find which ones create the best ‘flash’. The creation of the Pulse rifles is fairly interesting. We also see Cameron directing the actors in various scenes, and we get Sigourney Weaver talking about how much she doesn’t like guns, yet when she was ‘kicking butt’ and firing off round after round, she actually started to like it. This featurette also has the actors and production staff discussing some of the accidents that occurred on the film.
There’s lots more to learn from the rest of the video segments in this section of the disc – ‘Bug Hunt’ is largely technical and looks at the creation of the creatures, and how they used the original ideas from the first film and expanded on them. Cameron also discusses how he wanted his film to have less blood than Scott’s film, even though the original film was hardly bloody in the first place. However, Cameron makes note of trying to scare the audience with ‘terror’, and believes gore only ‘disgusts’ the audience rather than frightens them. ‘Beauty and the Bitch’ is again largely technical, while ‘Two Orphans’ is an excellent addition featuring a lot of great behind-the-scenes footage of Weaver and Henn messing-around off-set, and working together on it. It features new interviews with both Weaver and Carrie Henn discussing their relationship while making the film.
The non-video materials in this section include production photos that feature the deleted scene with Burke and Ripley, where Ripley hands him a grenade. There’s some continuity polaroids, a ‘weapons and vehicles’ photo archive, and a ‘Stan Winston workshop’ photo gallery.
The third and final section of the disc includes the video segments: ‘The Final Countdown – Music, Editing and Sound’ (15:34mins), ‘The Power Of Real Tech – Visual Effects (27:53mins), and ‘Aliens Unleashed – Reaction to the Film’ (11:41mins).
The first of these featurette’s is very interesting with a reasonably extensive interview with the film’s composer James Horner who created the wonderful score. He discusses the limitations of working at Abbey Road studios, saying that they were thirty years behind. We are treated to listening to the film’s climax without the score and then with it, showing just how fantastic the score actually is. Interestingly, the film’s climatic score and music cues have been used in many other action film trailers since.
‘The Power Of Real Tech’ is a technically based featurette that looks at how the special-effects were done. One thing I did notice in some of the footage shown, was another deleted scene (albeit very small and inconsequential), where colony workers fight the wind and rain to enter the ‘Bar’ that we see for a few seconds in both the theatrical cut and special edition versions of the film. We also learn who created the sticker that is on the dropship, which has an Eagle holding a gun and wearing army issue boots, with the slogan: ‘We Endanger Species’.
‘Aliens Unleashed’ concludes the video-based material on the disc, and again is a superb addition. It begins with interviews being inter-cut with one of the very first teaser trailers to be shown. The trailer is fantastic – showing tiny little bits of information: army uniform, a gun, the marine’s mobilising, Ripley in the power loader, all brought together with haunting sound-effects that work so effectively. This was also the first time anyone saw the tagline: ‘This Time It’s War’. It's undoubtedly enticing, when the voice-over says that very line, you just want to put the film back on and watch it all over again. As before, it’s great to see how enthusiastic those that were involved with the film are, and Michael Biehn telling us what Bill Paxton said to him after they saw the film for the first time: ‘Goddamn, man, that’s a goddamn roller-coaster ride, motherfucker! It’s Huge!’, pretty much sums that up.
The disc is finished off with a visual effects gallery of photos, and a post-production and release photo gallery. Some nice photos of the entire cast at the premiere, and some ‘special shoots’ material with members of the cast posing for promotional photos.
*Audio commentary and all additional features are subtitled in English
There isn’t a great deal left to say – this is an amazing, definitive release of Aliens. The wealth of the additional material is informative and extremely enjoyable viewing, while the film presentation is more than adequate. Thank you Fox!