James Cameron remains one of the most talented and ambitious directors in Hollywood. His many big-budget features offer a mix of action, adventure and wonder, while remaining meticulously and beautifully crafted. Popular for his "Terminator" films, "True Lies", "Aliens" and "Titanic", even Cameron's most little-known feature, 1989's "The Abyss" is a production of massive scope that was utterly groundbreaking at the time - both for its impressive (and troubled) underwater production and for being one of the first major films with modern CGI. "Aliens" is still considered one of the best sequels ever made - certainly saying something, given that Ridley Scott's 1979 original is one of the most beloved sci-fi pictures of all time. Cameron's film manages to bring forth a remarkable - damn near exhausting - level of tension and excitement, while also offering us his own style/approach and both memorable characters and story.
Ellen Ripley (Sigorney Weaver) awakens from slumber at the opening of the film, after finding herself in hibernation for 57 years after the end of the first picture. Burke (Paul Reiser) is a government employee who quickly tries to convince Ripley to return to the planet where she found the alien, as a colony has been set up on the same planet, and - of course - contact has been lost. Ripley finally comes around to joining the group as an advisor, and they head off to investigate.
Its not long before the crew finds that there's little that remains of the settlement; the creatures have long since wiped out everyone by a small child. Although the film does eventually become a series of chase sequences with characters dropping one-after-another, Cameron pulled these scenes together brilliantly. Although some of the dialogue may be a bit cliched (if so, at least its not the series of one-liners that populate most recent action fare), Cameron and the actors manage to create vivid, memorable characters that the audience becomes involved in.
Although the film's 1986 birth was long before the era of digital sound, the film's audio uses silence magnificently. James Horner does provide score, but there's plenty of scenes where the only score is water dripping in the background and the shuffling of nervous footsteps. The film's visual effects, while practical (many of which were done by Stan Winston studios), are still very, very impressive for the time period. Action scenes are creatively escalated throughout, as one scene during the search forces the soldiers to go without ammo. Another sends chills without even showing the creatures, as we see stationary guns deplete, with the creatures still heard advancing.
The last hour of "Aliens" continues to stand as one of the most intense thrill-rides in years. Faced with slim chance of escape, the soldiers must stand their ground and fight a war against the creatures, which not only come from every possible direction, but display intelligence. Paul Reiser, scary enough on his own, makes for an effective villian with his own intentions behind the trip.
Overall, "Aliens" still stands as not only an amazing follow-up to the original, but a film with great replay value and one that still stands up to - and eclipses - the majority of sci-fi/horror films since.
The DVD edition of the film offers both the film's "theatrical cut" and "director's cut", which extends the film by approximately 17 minutes. Although the series of minor/mild additions (including more about the colony) to "Aliens" aren't too involving, they are interesting to see and nice to have. Still, I find the pacing of the theatrical cut to make for a more enjoyable version.
VIDEO: "Aliens" is presented by Fox in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen by Fox. Adrian Biddle's cinematography is dark, grainy and foreboding, with little in the way of color. While not traditionally beautiful, the picture's look is wonderfully successful in trying to capture the gritty, eerie atmosphere. This new THX-Certified presentation is not terribly different in appearance from the prior release, but it does offer some minor improvements. Sharpness and detail seem mildly better; the picture has a slightly soft look intentionally, but definition seems more consistent here.
The print looked superb, as only a couple of little specks appeared throughout the course of the movie. Grain looked less heavy this time around, as well; although it's still present, it wasn't as apparent. Edge enhancement was not a factor, but I did notice one or two minimal instances of compression artifacts.
Again, the film's color palette is almost completely subdued. Occasional red lights made a brief, vivid impression and looked fine, with no smearing or other issues. Overall, this new transfer keeps the "look" of "Aliens" while smoothing out some of the rough edges that have appeared on prior versions.
SOUND: "Aliens" is presented here with a Dolby Digital 5.1 remix. Once again, "Aliens" boasts terrific use of sound, especially considering its age. Silence and low-level ambience are used well throughout the picture, and James Horner's enjoyable score comes in at the appropriate moments. Audio quality is very good, as score and sound effects are full and crisp-sounding, while dialogue generally sounded natural and rather clean.
EXTRAS: (there are "Play All" options included under the "navigation options" menu on disc 2)
Commentary: This commentary is from writer/director James Cameron, producer Gale Anne Hurd, Alien effects creator Stan Winston, effects supervisors Robert and Dennis Skotak, miniature effects supervisor Pat McClung and actors Bill Paxton, Michael Biehn, Lance Henriksten, Jennette Goldstein, Carrie Benn and Cristopher Benn. This is an absolutely outstanding commentary, with Cameron doing most of the talking, but everyone providing a great deal of insight and information. Cameron talks about a wealth of different topics, starting off with an interesting tale about how he became involved with the project, ending up adapting one of his own in-progress screenplays to the character and series. The actors talk about their experiences on-set, developing their characters and their careers - the actors who have been paired together seem to be having an especially good time reunited together. Paxton jokes about not trying to work out to match the buffness of the other actors: "That would have cut into my drinking time."
Effects supervisors Winston (paired with producer Hurd), McClung and Robert/Dennis Skotak provide a great deal of discussion about the film's complicated effects, while Hurd follows up on and fills in some of Cameron's discussions about obstacles that faced the production.
57 Years Later: Continuing The Story: This documentary starts off the second disc, in the "pre-production" section. The documentary is a good introduction into the production, offering thoughts from executive producer David Giler, director James Cameron, producer Gale Anne Hurd and actress Sigorney Weaver. We hear more about how Cameron became involved in the picture, first taking on the writing assignment and then having Fox fall hard for the script - enough to wait for Cameron to finish "Terminator" before he started with "Aliens".
Building Better Worlds: This piece offers a look at conceptualizing the look of the environments, sets, vehicles and more of "Aliens". We hear mostly from Syd Mead, who had worked previously on "Blade Runner" and "Tron". Additionally, we hear from Gale Anne Hurd, production designer Peter Lamont and others. This is an enjoyable program, as we learn a great deal about how incredible designs were actually made reality.
Preparing For Battle: This very informative piece is an entertaining and enjoyable look at the massive casting process (Hurd states that the production looked at more than 3,000 people) that was involved with the film. We hear more from the actors, as well - some of which really had their career started by the picture. Later in the featurette, the actors also go into the training that they had to not only look like soldiers, but to try and work together as a team.
Also in "Pre-Production": Video storyboards/vs. final film multi-angle comparisons with commentary from miniature effects supervisor Pat McClung, cast portrait gallery, original screenplay treatment by James Cameron and conceptual art gallery.
This Time It's War: This piece provides comments from producer Gale Anne Hurd, special effects supervisor John Richardson, producer David Giler, Stan Winston, cast members and others. It is a general overview of the production. The first part of the documentary focuses on problems that occured between Cameron and the film's original director of photography, Dick Bush (who was replaced by Adrian Biddle). While Biddle worked to achieve the visual style that Cameron had for the picture, Bush wanted to follow his own vision for the film's lighting. We see both new and old interview footage, along with some pictures and behind-the-scenes clips at Pinewood studios. Although its nothing along the lines of "Under Pressure", the documentary that covered Cameron's troubles with "The Abyss", there's tension to be found here, as well, since the working relationship between Cameron and the crew was tense ( we see an irritable converation between Cameron and a prop worker and hear stories of other clashes, including problems with "tea cart" breaks by the crew).
The Risk Always Lives: This piece talks more about the design and operations of the weapons seen in the film.
Power Loader Vs. The Queen: This documentary provides an in-depth exploration of the Queen puppet, the Bishop puppet for the late scene w/the Queen, and the Power Loader. Interviews with creature designer Stan Winston and many others are offered: we get both new and archive interview footage, as well as a great deal of behind-the-scenes clips. There's a lot of interesting tidbits, such as how despite the fact that the Queen puppet was held up by rods and other equipment, Cameron was able to frame the scenes in the way that no "removal" was needed. The behind-the-scenes footage is really the star of the show here, though: some terrific clips of on-set tests can be found throughout, as well as outtakes and other rare footage.
Bug Hunt: This piece discusses the alterations that Cameron wanted for the aliens for the second films, as well as how some of the aliens were created.
Also in Production: "Two Orphans", a piece about the bond between actresses Sigorney Weaver and Carrie Benn; Stan Winston's workshop photo gallery, production photo gallery, continuity polaroids and weapons/vehicles photo gallery.
The Final Countdown: Music, Editing and Sound: After a short chat with Gale Anne Hurd and some behind-the-scenes footage, this documentary offers a surprising and very candid interview with composer James Horner, who recalls coming into the production to find it in disarray, rushing to try and finish the picture. Horner found himself in trouble: the composer thought he was going to have six weeks to score the picture, but arrived to find there was not a film to score, that time was rapidly passing by, and that the picture's release could not be moved up to accomidate the music production, leaving Horner to try to write and record the music (including writing a main piece overnight) in an inhuman amount of time. There are discussions about dubbing, effects and editing here, but Horner's piece is terrific. This is one of the best pieces on this second disc.
Visual Effects: Real-Tech: This documentary focuses on the work of effects supervisors Robert and Dennis Skotak, as well as the other members of the film's effects crew. We learn more about the different forms of practical effects used and see behind-the-scenes footage of the cast trying to work on the construction and conceptualization of how the effects were going to integrate into scenes.
Aliens: Unleashed: This short featurette provides interviews with members of the cast and crew, who look back upon the production and comment on the final film.
Also in Post-Production: Visual FX photo gallery and film finish/release photo gallery.
Final Thoughts: "Aliens" still remains a tremendously entertaining thriller that consistently builds up towards a ridiculously intense and enjoyable second half. It's still a classic that holds up just as well today. Fox's DVD - part of the 9-DVD "Quadrilogy" set - is a superb effort that offers improved video, very good audio and hours of supplemental features. The box set - a truly amazing 9-disc affair - is certainly a must-see.