Alien Anthology Disc 02 - Aliens Review
Daniel Stephens wrote a very thorough analysis of Aliens and its Special Edition for his review of the 2002 Australian R2/R4 Aliens Special Edition DVD. I have reproduced that film review here so I can focus on the coverage of Disc 02 from the Alien Anthology BD Set.
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 2010 Special EditionOK, so there isn't a new super edition of Aliens in this Alien Anthology BD Set, but it seems that James Cameron has done a tiny bit of digital tinkering to fix a one or maybe two visual effects gaffes that have presumably bugged him for years. The most notable example being:
Warning: Spoilers Below
At the end when Ripley has opened the airlock and a recently-ripped-in-half Bishop is holding onto Newt you could see Lance Henriksen's body protruding from a hole in the ground. This has now been digitally removed.
I can't think of any other changes right now so if you've spotted any more please feel free to post in the comments section after this review!
PresentationI was blown away by Lowry Digital's work on the Alien transfer for this Anthology Set and their work on Aliens (with help from James Cameron) is if anything even more impressive! Simply put they've offered up a brand new 4K presentation that redefines how good a notoriously harsh looking film can look. We all know that James Cameron likes his blue light and he has gone on record about how he supervised a new entirely colour-corrected master for this release, but what's surprising is that this presentation seems more cyan than what we've seen before, so that strong blue hue in previous home video releases is now more a turquoise. I have to say it looks very nice indeed, but then colour saturation is bold enough that pretty much any hue would look great; the fiery orange shades of the film's third act are less intense here but it looks naturalistic all the same. Skin tones also look pretty naturalistic, they're noticeably paler this time round but this seems to suit the film's gritty style.
Contrast and brightness levels are extremely well balanced, the lighting in this film is mostly fluorescent which can lead to hot whites in areas of certain scenes (mostly in the first act on Gateway Station), and the light sources tend to envelop the action leading to diffuse light that affects shadows and highlights accordingly, but I was impressed with the shadow detail and the black levels. There are moments when blacks dip a little and the lighting may not be to blame, but I got the impression this was just the nature of the beast rather than a failing on Lowry's part, so to speak.
Cameron hasn't just tinkered with the colours for this release, his boast pre-release that he "de-noised, de-grained it, up-rezzed it, colour corrected it end-to-end, every frame" got internet fans the world over panicking about receiving a completely sterile, grain-free presentation of Aliens that would look DNR'd into a marshmallow. In actuality what they've got is a transfer that looks absolutely pristine and still very grainy - Does that grain represent the original grain structure from the grainy high-speed negatives that always disappointed Cameron? I'm not the person to answer that, Lowry have probably re-grained the image but I think it looks great and suitably "80s" in this regard nevertheless, and the detail is absolutely fantastic! Close ups, long shots, even opticals exhibit a level of detail that I doubt has been seen outside of the original negatives. Aliens may be 24 years old, but it now looks like it was shot 24 months ago.
As with the other films in this set Aliens is encoded using AVC at 1080p with both versions of the film crammed onto one disc via seamless branching, which has enabled Fox to maintain a still rather conservative 26Mbps average bitrate for each edit. This seems to be more than enough for them as I didn't really pick up on any compression in a regular viewing - I didn't even spot any banding, and that really impressed me. Ultimately this is a grainy, dark, frenzied action film, so I bet you will spot some noise if you go looking for it in the normal "problem spots". I'm not going to.
If this is the best Aliens has looked in 24 years then the English 5.1 DTS-HD MA audio presentation could very well be the best it has sounded on home video. The audio was never lacking in the Quadriogy set back in 2003, but now Aliens sounds as clear and vivacious as ever - albeit with some signs of the film's age at times in the form of a little distortion on the extreme ends and some slightly frayed dialogue here and there. They're just tiny niggles though, for the most part you will forget this is a 1986 Dolby Stereo recording (it was also blown up to 70mm Six Track Dolby Stereo), and by that I mean just in the clarity and not because the 5.1 surrounds are now overtly active: Aliens still feels like a stereo film, and a pulse-pounding one at that, with rich dynamics, deep, punchy bass and excellent stereo separation ensuring that when the acid-blood hits the fan you know about it. Compared to a modern day production dialogue can feel fractionally hollow but it sounds natural and audible throughout.
Lossy audio options are English 4.1 Dolby Surround and presumably the original English 2.0 Dolby Surround. The 4.1 track has a slightly more restrained mix compared to the new lossless track (most noticeably in the lower end) and lacks some of its fidelity, but it also sounds great. I'm not familiar enough with Aliens to tell you for sure that the 2.0 track offers a completely faithful rendition of the film's original audio, but it sounds pretty good to me. Rounding up the audio tracks are foreign dubs in Portuguese 5.1 Dolby Digital, French 5.1 DTS, German 5.1 DTS, and finally Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital.
Optional subtitles are available for all cuts of the film in either: English (For the Deaf and Hard of Hearing), Portuguese, Danish, Finnish, French, German, Spanish, Dutch, Norwegian, or Swedish.
Menus and MU-TH-UR ModeAs a general rule I view the lavish interactive menus that the big studios insist on using for their big title releases a chore rather than a bonus, partly because my BD player is no spring chicken and takes five years to load up most menu screens, but also because half the time the more features a menu system has the more irritating the implementation (I've grown weary of U-Control and Maximum Movie Mode). For the Alien Anthology 20th Century Fox have configured a menu system that finally gets it right, offering all the functionality and attractive design that the BD format allows for.
The menu designs themselves are similar to the Quadrilogy DVD in offering an animated futuristic Weyland-Yutani interface that displays images, stats, and info on the various things that appear in the film. At the bottom is a simple row of choices for each section of the BD. One final great touch is that each disc loads a Weyland-Yutani logo screen into your player's memory which is displayed when you eject them, and if you put another disc from the set in your player then this screen will segue straight into the new disc's main menu, thus skipping the usual copyright screens.
Fox has been hyping the new interactive menu system developed for this release, called the "MU-TH-UR Mode" (In case you're wondering MU-TH-UR is apparently the correct way to write the name of The Nostromo's central computer, which the characters refer to as "mother" in the film, so I assume that's how it should be pronounced), and you can see why as the whole system is very thoughtfully designed. There's an individual booklet and video tutorial on each disc explaining what the MU-TH-UR Mode is and how to use it, but it's fairly straightforward: Activating it brings up an interface comprising of four boxes: three down the left hand side categorised as AUDITORY, VISUAL, DATASTREAM, and one small box in the top right corner called DATA TAGS. Here's a rundown:
This box allows you to flit between the audio commentaries and isolated scores present on the disc. The cool thing about the interface for this is that it displays real-time written info on what's currently occurring in each track. So you'll know if there's no score playing at that specific time in the film or what topic Cameron and the cast are discussing on the commentary track.
This can be a little confusing at first if you've not read the booklet or skipped the tutorial as contrary to its name it doesn't feature any actual pop-up video footage from the film disc. Its function is basically to prompt you to select bookmarks of video footage or image scans relevant to the specific scene playing at the time. So for instance while the opening titles play you will see an option like this in the VISUAL box:
VID: James Cameron on the first Alien Film.
If you choose this option then it will be added to the DATA TAGS box on the right as a bookmark that will take you immediately to the relevant video clip when you insert the relevant Bonus Disc. This is obviously a feature aimed at casual viewers who don't intend to sit through all the content on the Bonus Discs and just want specific information on specific scenes from the film. VISUAL allows them to compile a bookmarks checklist that will cut right to the chase.
Or the Weyland-Yutani Datastream to be precise. This box offers concise notes on the history and production of Aliens, including brief biographies for key players, anecdotes, and all manner of informative snippets.
ExtrasThe extra features are kept light on the individual film discs to give the main presentation a healthier amount of space, but the theme is the same across all four feature discs: Audio commentaries, isolated score, deleted scenes, and MU-TH-UR. Here they are for Aliens:
2003 Audio Commentary by James Cameron and the Cast and Crew
New commentaries were recorded for each "Alien" film back in 2003 for the Alien Quadrilogy DVD Boxset by editing together separate recordings of most of each film's primary cast and crew into one super commentary that was crammed full of information on said film's production. With the likes of James Cameron and Stan Winston on the commentary for Aliens, you know a lot of really interesting technical information is going to be imparted, but there's the added bonus of Bill Paxton, Michael Biehn, Lance Henriksen, and Jenette Goldstein having recorded their segments together in good spirits, so their interjections add some welcome levity to the track.
Final Theatrical Isolated Score - 5.1 Dolby Digital (1986 Theatrical Version Only)
Every disc in the Alien Anthology will be offering isolated tracks of the post-production film scores, this time round it is James Horner's work for Aliens. Lossy 5.1, but presented to the standard of the main feature's English 4.1 Dolby Surround track.
Composer's Original Isolated Score - 5.1 Dolby Digital (1986 Theatrical Version Only)
Unfortunately not every disc features a pre-production film score as originally composed and recorded by the composer. Aliens is the last film in the set to do so. Again the format of the track is lossy 5.1, but presented to the standard of the main feature's English 4.1 Dolby Surround track.
EDIT: One of our readers in the comments section for my review of Alien has pointed out that you can actually pull up a sub-menu listing the entire playlist for each Isolated Score, including bonus tracks that play with a themed background graphic on-screen. I completely missed this feature because there's no instructions in the manual on how to activate it, nor do the disc menus make much of a sign about it. Basically when you choose each Isolated Score in the menu a pop-up gives you the option of turning said score ON or OFF. Choose neither and instead scroll left or right until a third option appears: COMPLETE MUSIC INDEX, which will bring up the playlist. From this sub-menu you can then choose to play each cue individually, all-at-once, or randomly shuffled.
Deleted Scenes Index (1986 Theatrical Version Only)
In the Extras section of the 1986 Theatrical Version you can choose this option to pop up a list of the deleted/extended scenes that were later added by Cameron in 1991 to create the Special Edition. From here you can view those scenes separately.
Deleted Scene Footage Marker (1991 Special Edition Only)
This replaces the Deleted Scenes Index in the menus for the 1991 Special Edition, and if you activate this feature it will create an onscreen prompt that informs you as to when you are watching each scene added to create that edit of the film.
Access (if online) to Fox Home Entertainment's online features hub where you can stream or download an Alien Anthology BD Trailer and a clip of Sigourney Weaver's Screen Test from Alien (also featured elsewhere in this set).