Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 10, 2003)
When I was a teenager, I used to periodically engage my father in pointless discussions about our favorite movies. (Actually, no matter the topic, pretty much all discussions with the Old Man tend to be pointless, but I digress.) I liked to mention my absolute favorite films, whereas he refused to do so; he would only say what movies he thought were the best of a particular genre. He argued that comparisons across genres entered apples and oranges territory, that although they shared the same medium, the entire spectrum of films was too broad to narrow down that tightly.
I agree that it's easier to choose favorites when reduced into genres, but I still think that one can pick absolute favorites. After all, I've been attracted to a lot of women, and they've all had their strong points within their own "genres" (hair color, body shape, personality type), but I can still choose my favorites.
That's why I'll be ready when I die, because I know that when I float up to heaven, Saint Somebody-or-other will block the way through the pearly gates unless I can readily answer one question: what's your favorite movie? My Dad'll have to hem and haw and argue that whole "genre" deal, but for me, the answer'll quickly come back:
I won't be so silly to attempt to argue that Aliens is the perfect movie, for such a thing does not exist. However, it's the closest thing to perfect I've ever seen.
James Cameron's maintained a pretty spectacular career to date, and as unpopular as he may be in some circles after the enormous success of Titanic - "king of the world" indeed! - I still think he's probably my favorite filmmaker; when a director's weakest major film is as good as True Lies that's a pretty good track record. (Without question, Cameron’s crummiest film is Piranha 2, but since that was a very cheap “stepping stone”, I won’t hold it against him.)
I must have watched Aliens at least 20 times over the last 17 years, and I can't say that I'm anywhere near being tired of it. It's amazing to realize that the creatures themselves don't actually appear until the film is almost half over, a (deliberate?) recreation of the pacing of the first film. However, while I find the first half of Alien to be somewhat slow going - the whole thing is largely expository and loses some interest when you know what will happen - the same does not happen for me when I watch the sequel. Yes, no true action occurs during the first 70 or so minutes of the movie, but the personalities of the participants keep me interested nonetheless.
With the sole exception of Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), every character in Aliens is a cartoon, a fairly broad stereotype. Despite that handicap, the actors who play these roles do so with such zest and life that any generic qualities they may have possessed in the written form become completely eliminated. I doubt any film has demonstrated as perfect a cast as Aliens.
To me, it's the fantastic work of these actors that largely makes Aliens as great as it is. Virtually every member of the supporting cast shines. Michael Biehn offers a surprisingly charming and understated turn as the laconic Hicks, and Lance Henriksen turns Bishop into one of the most believable "artificial persons" ever captured on film; he's not showy about it at all, but he seems convincingly different from the rest. Bill Paxton's whiny and cowardly Hudson and Jenette Goldstein's mega-butch Vasquez could and probably should have been nothing more than gross stereotypes, but the actors play the roles with such care and charisma that they're made into real people despite the script. Even the inane and miserable Paul Reiser performs admirably as the weaselly and unethical Burke; many times over the years have I wanted to declare my absolute hatred for the man, but then I think, "He was so good in Aliens" and I just can't do it!
Of the main cast - that is, the characters who make it through most of the film - the weakest links are probably William Hope's inexperienced and overwhelmed Gorman and Carrie Henn's resourceful little girl Newt. Hope is fine, actually, but he just doesn't seem to display the verve apparent in the others. That's not because he lacks a showy role like Hudson or Burke; Bishop and Hicks are even more low-key than Gorman, and yet those characters stand out nicely. Ultimately, the problem is that Hope provides good work while the rest did great jobs, so his performance becomes somewhat diminished.
Something of the same effect happens to Henn's work as Newt. She really did a solid job and holds her own surprisingly well among a cast of very talented adults. The problem stems from her age; she was a good child actress, but it would be difficult for even the best young performer to keep up with a group like this. She keeps up with them, something that can't be said for every child actor (Jake Lloyd, anyone?) and she probably does as well as any little girl could do in the role, but I couldn't help but feel a little underwhelmed by her presence.
The same cannot be said for the movie's only non-supporting actor: Sigourney Weaver. Weaver deserves some sort of honorary Oscar for her work throughout the Alien series; she imbued her work as Ripley with an honesty and a range almost unheard of in the genre. Well, at least she received a nomination for Aliens. It may be a cliché, but in this case, the nomination may have been enough of an honor. You know how many times a lead actress - or a lead actor, for that matter - has received an Academy Award nomination for a film such as this (science fiction/action)? Once - and this was it. She should have won it, too, but Marlee Matlin got it for playing herself in Children of a Lesser God.
Weaver is clearly the glue that holds the entire Alien saga together, and her strengths were never so apparent as in Aliens. This film demanded the most of her; whereas all of them asked her to react to events and to become a leader, Aliens was the only one that required such a strong emotional commitment from Weaver, since she forms such a tight bond with surrogate daughter Newt.
Weaver's performance in Aliens is so strong that I continue to delight in the small touches she adds to the role. She says so much with tiny gestures, whether it's her momentary annoyance but then empathy when Newt talks back to her in one scene, or the look of disrespect she gives the Queen Alien when the latter starts to violate their standoff. This is her film to win or lose, and she emerges immensely victorious.
All this focus on acting as a key role in the success of Aliens should not diminish the fantastic work done by Cameron as director. He clearly can film action scenes with the best of them, but he's never done quite as well as he did here. Aliens really only includes four significant action sequences, but each one is so brilliantly executed that the movie seems to have many more bits of that kind. I think much of the dissatisfaction from the general public about the two films that followed Aliens results from the fact that in regard to action, they had nowhere to go to down; Cameron gave the audience almost literally everything they ever could want in this film.
Note that this DVD presents only the extended version of Aliens. Which edition offers the superior rendition? In my opinion, it's a toss-up. Cameron has supervised three extended versions of his films: Aliens was first in December 1991, followed by The Abyss in March 1993, and Terminator 2 in November 1993. Only The Abyss absolutely benefited from its new cut; the extra 30 minutes completed altered the entire end of the film. T2 and Aliens receive more subtle changes. Ironically, in the case of The Abyss, Cameron removed action from the final cut and kept character development; for Aliens, he essentially did the reverse.
I like the majority of the additions to Aliens. We learn bits and pieces that add nuance to the characters, and Ripley becomes an ever more well developed persona. The only parts I think should have stayed out of the movie were some early scenes in the colony on LV-426. Whereas in the original version, we go straight from hearing that there is a colony there to the early part of a mission to check out why communication from that group has ceased, the extended cut adds significant scenes that detail what happened to the colonists. These bits are essentially redundant - they don't tell us anything we won't learn soon enough - and they substantially reduce the suspense and mystery of the story.
These scenes are so unnecessary - and damaging, in my opinion - that I'm not sure why Cameron even filmed them, much less reinserted them into the movie. Perhaps he thought that we would feel more empathy toward the colonists and toward Newt if we saw how they lived prior to the alien attack. He was wrong. This cut didn't alter my feelings about the colonists one iota, mainly because the movie isn't about them; their fate is nothing more than a plot device to get Ripley and the Marines onto the planet. I like having the scenes for historical value, but to be truthful, I usually skip past that chapter when I watch the movie.
Ultimately, both versions work well, but I prefer the theatrical version. Largely that’s because I don’t like the shots on the colony, but the other sequences slow down the movie somewhat as well. The theatrical cut seems tighter and better paced. Some of the additional footage helps flesh out the story a little better, but the theatrical cut packs the strongest punch.
The DVD Grades: Picture B+/ Audio A-/ Bonus B
Aliens appears in an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. The picture looked better than ever, as it provided a reasonably attractive presentation.
Sharpness largely appeared positive. Some wide shots came across as slightly soft at times, but those examples occurred infrequently. Most of the movie showed a slight dullness typical of film stocks of the era, but the image remained acceptably distinct and accurate most of the time. Jagged edges and moiré effects provided no concerns, and I saw no signs of edge enhancement.
This extended version of Aliens originally appeared only on a 1991 laserdisc boxed set release. That image became infamous for its copious amounts of grain. Happily, that issue has become much less significant on the DVD, but it still exists to a degree. The movie seemed somewhat grainy at times, but other than the occasional speckle or bit of grit, the picture looked clean as a whole. I could live without the periodically intrusive graininess, but I didn’t think it offered any real problems.
Due to the film stock and the production design, colors seemed pretty bland during Aliens. However, that’s not really a complaint, as I don’t expect vivid hues from this – or any of the series, for that matter. Tones seemed somewhat flat, but they generally came across as reasonably clear and distinct given the nature of the film. Red lighting looked strong, as those elements were clear and not overly runny or heavy. Black levels were also a little inky, but they usually appeared fairly deep and rich, and shadow seemed appropriately opaque but not excessively thick. Despite a few minor issues, Aliens presented a generally fine image that has held up well over the years.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Aliens barely showed its age, as it sounded very good for its era. The soundfield maintained a pretty strong forward bias. Within the front, the movie boasted reasonably vivid imagery. Music showed clear stereo separation and imaging, while effects seemed appropriately placed, and they blended together neatly. The surrounds kicked in with general reinforcement much of the time, but they added good pop to many of the action scenes; they played an acceptably active role in the proceedings.
Audio quality was relatively good. Dialogue varied from natural and distinct to somewhat thick and muddy, but most of the speech seemed positive, and I detected very few problems due to edginess or intelligibility. Effects also came across as pretty crisp and vivid, and they showed reasonable bass response that was fairly tight and bold. The score came across as clean and vivid for the most part, and those elements also demonstrated nice dynamics. I noticed very little distortion in this firm package. Ultimately, I really liked this mix and thought it held up well over the years.
When the Aliens box set came out in late 1991, I had been collecting laserdiscs for about half a year. As such, it probably isn't any big deal for me to say that I was more excited about that release than any prior to that date; however, it is significant to note that I don't think I've ever been quite so worked up about any LD or DVD since that time. Geez, I spent an entire class (I was in grad school at the time) simply reading and rereading the press release! I couldn't get over all of the goodies that would accompany that sucker. Many LDs and DVDs since have surpassed the box set's selection of supplements, but it still stands as a very nice batch.
As such, it seemed unrealistic to expect the DVD to include all of the pages of text and photos encoded onto the LD. But you know what? They came pretty damned close. The Aliens DVD features quite extensive still frame archives. A variety of subjects are discussed, from the cast and crew to the technical aspects of making the film. It's not quite as exhaustive as the LD set, but it comes much closer than I would expect.
In some ways, the DVD seems like a sampler version of the LD. It has most of the same components, but it lacks the depth. Still, those folks who will only get the DVD version shouldn't feel disappointed; it's a fairly negligible difference considering the $70 lower MSRP! However, if you have a laserdisc player and can find the box set cheaply, I'd advise you to go for it. Not only does the LD offer more information, but also I find the screens of a CAV LD to be much easier to navigate than the DVD equivalent; at least on my Panasonic 110, screen-to-screen response time is slow, and it's much more laborious to move through materials. Plus, while I haven't done direct A-B comparison, I think the materials on the LD set looked better; the photos depicted here seem fuzzy and soft.
In addition to the many pages of still frame photos and text, the DVD includes some video footage copied from the LD. We get some fun behind the scenes footage of the various effects - I've always loved the shots of the test Queen - and a 12-minute interview with Cameron from 1986. The latter is pretty good, but I must admit that I hoped for a new discussion of the film from Cameron.
That relates to the only real fault I have with the DVD's supplements: they're almost all recycled. As it stands, the only materials on the DVD that did not appear on the LD set are the cast and crew bios - which have been updated to account for the years since 1991 - and the trailer. Actually, we get four trailers; one for each Alien film. For some obscure reason - a rights question, I think - they were not able to include the trailers for Aliens on that box set; they did, however, appear in the special edition of The Abyss. If I recall correctly, that set included two Aliens trailers, whereas here we get one.
Maybe this is all sour grapes; maybe I just feel let down because I have no reason to peruse this stuff since I've already watched it many times over the last seven and a half years. Would I be as disappointed by the age of the supplements if I didn't own the LD box set? Probably not, but I still think I would have appreciated some new materials. The most glaring omission, in my eyes, is the lack of an audio commentary. Cameron loves to talk about himself - couldn't they have gotten him to sit down for a couple hours?
(Probably too expensive these days!)
Nonetheless, my personal disappointment aside, Fox have done a very good job of bringing Aliens to DVD. While it lacks a few of the supplements from the LD set, it includes a very substantial percentage of them and it blows away that production in terms of both image and audio. Both show some problems but seem the best we’ve seen and heard to date, and the mix of nice extras fill out the set fairly well. My all-time favorite film, Aliens definitely earns my recommendation.
Footnote: this review covered the original 1999 DVD release of Aliens. This edition went out of print and has been replaced by a 2003 version. The latter includes both the theatrical cut of the film and its 2003 director’s cut. It also presents a slew of new supplements, though many of those found here don’t make the set. Unless you don’t care about extras and can find the 1999 disc for cheap, the 2003 set is the one to own.
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