In space, they may not be able to hear you scream, but they can sure hear the bullets fly.
If you were one of the Alien-series fans who balked at the hefty Benjamin-related price tag of the Alien Quadrilogy box set, or one of the neglected who failed to con a loved one into giving it to you for the holidays, fear not—Fox has been kind enough to release each movie separately, with supplementary material intact.
Maybe you were one of those purists who just didn't like the idea of shelling out money for the third and fourth film. It's okay.
Rest assured, not only does Aliens look better than previous DVD versions, but also it comes with enough supplementary material and extra content to choke a xenomorph. In terms of quality DVDs, this is as close to a no-brainer purchase that you can find.
Facts of the Case
A lone ship flies through the empty expanses of space. A salvage crew finds only a solitary survivor, and they bring her back to Earth. The woman awakens in a hospital bed, confused and disoriented, suffering nightmares of alien creatures bursting from chests.
Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), the only survivor of the Nostromo, is back on Earth, but 57 years have passed since Ripley took to an escape pod, suspended in cryogenic sleep, floating in deep space. Understandably, The Company has serious questions for her, but she is unwilling to cooperate. All of her friends are dead, her crew is long-abandoned, and her family has grown old and died without her. She has nothing left.
A Company man named Burke (Paul Reiser) approaches Ripley with a problem. Horrified, Ripley learns that the planet where her crew discovered the alien wreckage has long since been charted and explored—and worse, humans have set up a colony there. Even more suspiciously, they have lost all contact with the colony, and are preparing to send a squad of Space Marines to investigate.
When Burke tries to persuade Ripley to accompany the team as an "advisor," she vehemently refuses. But the nightmares persist for Ripley. When she realizes she will find no peace on Earth, she joins up with the rough-and-tumble team of hardy military men to return to a planet she has not seen in 57 years.
When the team arrives on the planet, they find no sign of life, no survivors. The colonists are all missing. The fate of the colonists is a mystery…to everyone but Ripley.
Aliens, as Cameron would keep insisting, was not going to be a re-make. It was going to be a new film entirely, moving in a totally new direction. Cameron single-handedly changed the entire direction of the Alien mythos from brooding, atmospheric, claustrophobic thriller, and converted it into possibly the finest glorious, bloodthirsty, chaotic combat movie ever made. It is a magnificent film, and these two discs represent the finest treatment the film has ever seen.
Two separate versions of the film are presented here in all their glory: the first is the original theatrical cut of the film, and the second is the extended director's cut version that appeared on the previous Aliens special edition DVD, approved by Cameron himself as the definitive version. In fact, this is a slight misnomer—there is a single version of the film (the original theatrical cut); the extended edition, additional footage, and deleted scenes are merely integrated through seamless branching into the appropriate place. It is a clever way indeed to offer two unique cinematic experiences while saving disc space.
Visually, the film is almost identical to its previous DVD release (Cameron apparently was satisfied with the previous transfer), and therefore remains largely untouched, save for a few touch-ups to remove blemishes and scratches. Suffice it to say, the film looks fantastic. There is not a spot, or a scratch, or a visual defect to be seen.
Like all previous versions of the film, Aliens really has a tough time with graininess and murkiness, which is a result of the film stock and low-level lighting conditions used while shooting. This DVD, however, is as close to perfection as one could reasonably hope to achieve, and I have never seen the film looking sharper. The anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen transfer looks fantastic, and captures every shadow, every flickering neon light, and every scuttery movement with fantastic detail.
Almost too much detail, even! Having grown up watching this film over and over on dark, dim, ugly VHS tapes, when I finally saw the remastered DVD transfer, I was surprised to notice things I never noticed before—tiny set details, different shadows cast, and so on. In my opinion, Aliens is a film that benefits from having a well-adjusted television with strong black levels. The film is ridiculously grainy at times (no fault of the DVD, of course), and in terms of viewing enjoyment, any black level enhancements made go an incredibly long way in smoothing things over.
In terms of sound, the English Dolby Surround 5.1 is a fascinating jumble of water drips, shell casings, creaking metal, absolute silence, heavy breathing, and monstrous high-pitched alien screams. The mix is similar from its previous DVD incarnation, and it sounds fantastic. While some feel the mix could use more distribution across the channels, I think it sounds incredible the way it is. Every gun is where it should be, every scream and thud blares out of the speakers, and the bass levels are delightfully atmospheric and punchy.
The animated menus simulate the medical computers used to analyze the "facehugger" aliens in the Med Lab, and are rather pleasant to navigate, balancing the enjoyment of a slick animated menu wit the inconvenience of having to wait for the animated menu to stop being slick, and play the darn movie.
By far the star of the disc is the commentary track, which is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the best commentary track I have ever heard on any DVD ever. Featuring a staggering amount of participants, the track includes commentary from writer/director James (nee Jim) Cameron; cast members Michael Biehn, Jenette Goldstein, Carrie Henn, Bill Paxton, Terry Henn, and Lance Henriksen; producer (and Cameron's ex-wife) Gale Anne Hurd; miniature technical supervisor Pat McClung; alien effects leader Stan Winston; and visual effects supervisors Dennis and Robert Skotak. Whew! The commentary track is a crash course on all things Aliens—from the pre-production excitement of negotiating Cameron to direct after his Terminator success, to the technical details of lenses and cameras used from shot to shot, from inside jokes and gags shared by cast and crew, to the intricate details of monster creation and special effects, this commentary track has it all. It is funny, fascinating, casual, and technical at the same time. And the cleverest part of all is, the track is carefully edited to be present on both version of the film—if you choose to watch the original theatrical cut, the track simply omits the audio from the scenes that are not included. Ingenious!
Even if you were just to watch the featurettes, the supplementary material included for Aliens would still clock over three hours in length. Of course, you would have to skip the hundreds of photographs, production pictures, press photos, and behind the scene glimpses of the cast and crew, not to mention the entire Cameron-scribed film treatment present on the disc.
All the featurettes feature a hybrid of newly-recorded material and interviews (with just about every noteworthy person associated with the project) combined with older interviews from the production of the film, as well as behind-the-scene takes and numerous other goodies too many to name. These represent the most comprehensive and diverse supplementary materials ever associated with Aliens.
Before we begin, a small note: one has the option of viewing all the photographs, and watching all the featurettes at once, which is a time saver, but if you plan on doing any backtracking, be warned. You can skip forward through the commentary tracks, but for some reason, you cannot backtrack—you have to go back to the menu, and manually select the featurette you wish to see again (or start the entire "play all" process over again). This is a strange little glitch, but hardly problematic.
The content is separated into three main categories, which I shall outline:
Three featurettes are included in this segment; the first, entitled 57 Years Later: Continuing the Story, starts the ball rolling, describing the coming-to-be of the Aliens project. Cameron, an inexperienced, Canadian born, Roger Corman-trained director, had written the script for Aliens in 1983, and had pitched the idea to Fox, who were wary of letting him behind the camera for such an expensive project. However, they were interested in another project he had going, and decided to hinge the decision-making process solely upon the success or failure of a little film called The Terminator…Next, Building Better Worlds: From Concept to Construction outlines the involvement of designers Ron Cobb and Syd Mead and the arduous task of taking the old H.R. Geiger designs and converting them into something auspiciously new. Some of the behind-the-scene glimpses into old storyboards, designs, and vehicle concepts are downright fascinating. The Preparing for Battle: Casting and Characterization featurette outlines the casting problems encountered during Aliens, such as the last-minute replacement of James Remar with Michael Biehn, as well as the exhausting rigors of casting the film overseas, in London, where the principal photography was shot, and some intriguing cast and crew confessions, recorded in full costume from the set back in 1985.
The original treatment (entitled Aliens II) is included, and is a rare treat for die-hard fans, and can be read through in its entirety. As well, a multi-angle pre-visualization segment is included, which offers a three-minute breakdown of a space sequence, complete with audio commentary by miniature effects supervisor Pat McClung. Last, both cast portrait and artwork galleries are included, which offer some incredible glimpses into the early stages of planning for the film.
This Time It's War: Pinewood Studios, 1985 is a glorious look inside the early days of shooting, from behind-the-scene glimpses and alternate takes, the back story behind the departure (okay, firing) of the original director of photography and the ultimate replacement with Adrian Biddle, the brutal tension causes between Cameron and the British crew, and how they almost mutinied, narrowly avoiding full-scale walkouts by his British crew, as well as numerous other fascinating insights into Pinewood Studios, the London set, where the film was cobbled together in blazing speed. Next, The Risk Always Lives: Weapons and Action featurette offers astonishing vintage footage into the actual weapons tests conducted to determine which guns would be suitable to produce the best-looking "flame" effects on-screen, which would cast the most amount of ambient light, et cetera, as well as the rigorous weapons training necessary to prep the cast in operating such firepower. Numerous technical details are divulged from the fascinating to the amusing, and sometimes, both at the same time; for example, the chest-mounted machine guns (AKA smart guns) were actually old German machine guns mounted on a Steadicam harness with Kawasaki motorcycle handlebars fixed at the side. The Bug Hunt: Creature Design featurette is pretty self-explanatory, but it offers some exceptional glimpses into the process of creating some creepy-looking aliens, by technicians Stan Wilson, Alec Gillis, and others. "Less on horror, more on terror" was Cameron's credo for the film, and the designs of the aliens changed subtly from Alien, allowing the suits to be more mobile, more maneuverable, and more flexible. There is a shot-by-shot breakdown of a reverse-photography trick that is fascinating to watch. Similarly, the Beauty and the Bitch: Power Loader vs. Queen Alien featurette does the same thing in regards to the extraordinarily complicated task of animating a giant queen alien, as well as a power loader suit that took over three months to complete. The original test footage of the queen alien is included here, as well as an explanation into the cutting-edge combination of animatronics, cables, hydraulics, cranes, puppeteers, and sheer manpower utilized to bring the monster to life. The last featurette in this section, entitled Two Orphans: Sigourney Weaver and Carrie Henn, focuses on the blooming relationship that developed between (you guessed it) the two main female actors. It is the most whimsical content on the disc, and sweet, if you need a break from all the alien carnage.
The section also contains a production photo gallery, as well as a weapons and vehicle gallery, giving some amazing glimpses into the sets and weapons utilized to bring the film to life. Perhaps the most interesting are the Stan Winston's Workshop gallery, which provide some amazing visual images, and the continuity Polaroid gallery, an esoteric treat that allows the hardcore fan to see how the continuity of the film was protected during the intense shooting.
The Final Countdown: Music, Editing and Sound is one of the most interesting featurettes, delving into the world of sound in Aliens. Composer James Horner flew to London, ready to craft a score in his allotted six-week period, only to find that Cameron was still shooting photography and editing. The signature score from Aliens, one of the most recycled and well-known pieces of dramatic music, was composed literally overnight, as the frantic composer tried his best to keep up with Cameron and his constant perfectionist re-tooling and re-editing. The Power of Real Tech: Visual Effects focuses primarily on the nitpicking details of miniature models, set recycling, and the like. Very detailed information for those interested in such things. The final featurettes, Aliens Unleashed: Reaction to the Film, relays the ecstatic joy experienced by all cast members and crew when, yes, they were going to get the film done on time (and on budget!). Each crewmember reflects on their initial impressions of seeing the film for the first time, and the hoopla surrounding Sigourney Weaver's surprise Oscar nod is documented in this section. Finally, two photo galleries close up the disc, a visual effects and a "finish and release" gallery highlights the North American premiere of the film as well as during numerous technical settings, such as editing, special effects, composing the final score, press shoots, et cetera.
Now I need a glass of water.
The cumulative effect of these supplementary materials, ultimately, leaves the viewer staggering under the all-encompassing realization of the massive effort involved to get Aliens to the big screen. From the start, it seemed like a project doomed to self-destruct at any moment. From the foreign location to the near-mutiny of the crew, the ridiculously tight budget (a miniscule $18 million dollars), to the brutal time constraints, the last-second desperate score by James Horner, and the poison gas and the collapsing ceilings, the film's often-overlooked major cinematic achievement is its very existence.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As a matter of personal preference, I prefer the theatrical version of Aliens to its special edition counterpart. I have listened to James Cameron going into lush detail on all the reasons why he thinks he knows more about this movie than I do (as if!), but I remain unconvinced. Sure, the additional footage cut back into Aliens makes for a lush backdrop of character development and tone, but combat movies need not such things.
The only stand-out footage that always got me the most jazzed up is the sentry gun sequence, which I remember seeing on television broadcasts of Aliens and numerous incarnations of the film in the past. A shame it never made the theatrical cut.
Perhaps I would have even settled for losing the entire sequence about Newt's family and the fate of the colonists, the one scene that has consistently annoyed me. The rest of the additions make for interesting filmmaking, but this scene has always felt pedantic and completely useless to me. Though admittedly, listening to Cameron's explanations about the homage intentions of the sequence helped me to appreciate the scene in a slightly less critical light.
You know how soldiers get issued the same material when they go off to war? They get the canteen, the firearm, the helmet, and such? Well, every person who opts for whatever reason not to get the Alien Quadrilogy box set, but owns a DVD player, should immediately be issued this DVD.
And if we catch you without it, well, buddy, you're going to spend a long night in the brig, doing naked push-ups on your bac…
Wait; scratch that last part.
Guilty? Are you kidding? Quick—get this plaintiff out of the courtroom before he sues us for wrongful prosecution!
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Scales of Justice
• 1991 Special Edition of Aliens with Introduction by James Cameron
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