I know I'm in a minority when I confess that I had little use for the original Alien from 1979. The acting was terrific, as was the setup, but everything that happens after the critters get loose in the Nostromo was for me an illogical bore. Great suspense does not occur when we have no idea what kind of room a victim is in, while the camera holds him in a tight close-up, as enough time passes for a herd of elephants to sneak up behind him. The average haunted house movie makes more sense when the crew people of the cargo ship immediately split up to go wait for the monster in dark corners of the ship. The world in the movie has robots that are indistinguishable from live people, but nobody suspects that people they know might be counterfeit. I should think that 'are you for real' would be the first question everybody asks every stranger. Yes, the audience I saw Alien with loved it. I think that was when I first realized that audiences could be stupid, or, more accurately, that movies were no longer being made for me, but for younger people. Last jab -- when the spacemen need to search a surgery where they know an incredibly poisonous, lethal critter is hiding, they enter the room and don't even bother to turn on the lights. I threw my hands up in the air then, and still do now. These objections are not like a kid whining, 'A real General wouldn't say that.'
I can't think of a franchise that ever got a better boost on its second installment. James Cameron's Aliens tells a story we want to see, about much more interesting characters. It expands the future 'world' of Alien in intelligent, convincing directions. It finds a way to revisit nostalgic '50s monster rally madness, without being pointless or silly. And the special effects, which Cameron has consistently used with great effectiveness, are dazzling: miniatures and mattes and rough & ready artistry of all kinds. It was made not long before the advent of CGI, in which Cameron was a pioneer as well. I cannot but believe that Fox was staggered to find out how much futuristic production value they got for their sequel dollar, or just how much suspense and excitement could be packed into one 'lowly' space movie about giant bugs. Had Cameron been around for the earlier Planet of the Apes sequels we might have seen something really incredible.
Aliens has been around in fine disc editions ever since the advent of laserdiscs. This new release appears to be a repackaging of an existing transfer. More about that below.
After the success of Star Wars, producer Roger Corman went against his general principles and invested in filmmaking infrastructure, utilizing an old lumber yard in Venice to serve as a special effects shop for a number of space-oriented movies. James Cameron, a technically minded miniature maker hired to help with effects for Battle Beyond the Stars, moved quickly up to production designer for subsequent films, stepping in to finish Piranha II: The Spawning when the original director left. Cameron's breakout picture The Terminator was relatively inexpensive yet outclassed major studio films with much bigger resources. He proceeded to fashion a sequel for Ridley Scott's 1979 Alien, that phenomenally successful haunted house movie set among the stars, where "no one can hear you scream."
H.R. Giger's insectoid monster has been much imitated but not improved upon -- to find a man-in-suit threat as effective one must look back at least twenty years. Instead of one implacable space monster, the hapless humans must fight against hundreds. Benefiting from a larger budget, James Cameron crammed his lavish action sequel with elaborate future hardware and weaponry. Many expensive Sci-fi pictures lay on the contextual overkill and detail so thickly that we grow exhausted. The world of Aliens is elaborate, but presented with taste and discretion. We believe what we see.
The story takes place a couple of centuries from now, and never sets down on Earth. Fifty-seven years after the events of the first movie, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is found drifting in her space "lifeboat," safe and secure in hibernation. Her welcome home is spoiled when the corporate owners accuse her of scuttling the spaceship Nostromo, expensive company property, with a nuclear bomb. Company rep Carter Burke (Paul Reiser) asks Ellen to accompany him back to planet LV-426, where the first alien eggs were found; contact has been lost with the colonists there.
Ellen and Burke depart for LV-426 with a platoon of Colonial Space Marines led by Lt. Gorman (William Hope). The soldiers include the braggart Pvt. Hudson (Bill Paxton), quiet Cpl. Hicks (Michael Biehn), gung-ho Pvt. Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein) and tough sergeant Apone (Al Matthews). Ripley is upset to learn that an additional crewmember Bishop (Lance Henrickson) is an android; she has a hatred of androids owing to her previous experience on the Nostromo.
No sooner do the Marines land than the mission goes awry. The colony has been wiped out save for little Rebecca "Newt" Jorden (Carrie Henn), found hiding in a tiny space. The insect monsters immediately wreck the platoon's landing vehicle and confused orders from Gorman result in a massacre. Retreating to the colony's lab, the soldiers prepare to wage a near-hopeless last stand against the alien horde. That's when Ripley discovers that Burke has been lying all along. As is suggested in the first movie, the corporation wants to retrieve alien specimens to breed as a weapon. Burke tries to use Newt and Ellen as live incubators for monster eggs. Ellen and the surviving Marines confront the alien creatures -- and then the Alien Queen itself -- in an escalating series of battles.
Aliens is the payoff movie for fans dreaming of spacemen battling monsters at the end of the universe. The screenplay by David Giler, Walter Hill and director Cameron jams together action situations and motifs from classic space operas in literature and film, forming a satisfying, if exhausting, monster combat tale. Cocksure Space Marines, their fingers itching at the triggers of their pulse rifles, take on steel fanged, acid-filled insect monsters: "Is this going to be a stand-up fight, sir, or another bug hunt?" Cameron essentially morphs the Alien concept into Robert Heinlein's book Starship Troopers. Not since Them! has insect fear fantasy had such a field day. Also folded into the rich Sci-Fi soup is the idea of colonists on far-flung planets, imagined so vividly in Philip K. Dick stories, including the must-read novel The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. James Cameron advances filmed Sci-fi, which had been decomposing with bad imitations of Star Wars.
After their initial defeat the human fighters must cooperate, compromise and sacrifice to achieve their goal of survival. Unlike nihilistic Sci-fi, it's a gallant effort that enlists our enthusiastic involvement. The sinister-looking android Bishop is revealed to be a loyal comrade, provoking an interesting sentimental reaction that points back to HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Forced to rely on their own resources, the Marines rise to the challenge. Green Lieutenant Gorman and the spitfire Private Vasquez grow as characters, taking personal, fatal responsibility for the success of the mission.
Sigourney Weaver's beleaguered Ripley also grows in stature, from embittered bystander to the provisional unit leader. By the conclusion she's become a symbol of feminine power, protecting little Newt and facing down the horrid Alien Queen. Ripley's key dialogue line: "Get away from her, you bitch!" is now one of the most recognized film quotes of the 1980s. In the movie's context, it's not a joke.
James Cameron masters the spooky scenes and excels at injecting a maximum of excitement into frenetic battle action. Just as importantly, as an effects expert Cameron knows exactly what props and settings must be fabricated for close-up inspection, and what futuristic décor can be rendered as miniatures or faked with scenic backings and even mirrors. Aliens is not a cheap movie, but it looks several times more expensive than it really is. To unify the live action and special effects, Cameron (originally) said that he enforced a slightly grainy look overall, with subdued color. The result, accomplished before the advent of Computer Generated Imagery, is almost completely convincing. Every scene introduces a new mechanical marvel or fanciful vehicle, any one of which would have broken the budget of a 1950s genre production.
From Terminator forward, Cameron's compressed scripting style had a significant impact on all violent action films, not just science fiction thrillers. He works Aliens into a frantic climax at the beginning of the third act, and then extends the movie thirty or forty minutes longer with several more climaxes, each one more intense than the last. Every time we think the havoc will subside, Aliens kicks once more into "sudden-death overtime" mode.
The genre's traditional opposition of scientists, soldiers and politicians no longer counts in Aliens, as economic interests have trumped all other values. There apparently IS no meaningful civil government, and the big companies are in total charge. Even the armed forces are controlled by monopolies that have extended their hegemony to the stars, as in Alexander Kluge's hectoring, outrageously cynical Marxist space pastiche Der große Verhau. James Cameron's cynical corporation ruthlessly sacrifices an entire space colony in the search for a new biological weapon. Their lackey Burke is expected to smuggle research specimens through the corporations' own mandated "alien life form quarantine." Ripley has harsh words for this treachery: "I don't know which species is worse. You don't see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage." Right on, Ripley.
Fox Home Entertainment's 30th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray of Aliens is a nice repackaging (in most aspects) of a 2011 Blu-ray release, for the film's 30th Anniversary. The movie's been a perennial cash cow for Fox, and I remember being overjoyed when MGM friend Gregor Meyer gifted me with the expensive laserdisc box after he made one of his expert trading deals at a West L.A. record store.
I think it's essentially the same as the 2011 release. The disc menus are the same, and both the 137-minute and 154-minute cuts are on board, along with all the previous extras. I never looked back after seeing the long version on laserdisc. I believe Cameron said that he purposely worked a tiny bit of image degradation into the show to even out the effects and suggest a docu-like grit. If that's so, the effect was removed for the Blu-ray editions, and I don't miss it.
On the outside the fancy packaging makes the disc seem a bargain. The package text doesn't call anything new, not even Cameron's introductory welcome. But the outboard extras are new. A card envelope contains a booklet with art cards of imagery from the film, some of it from a popular graphic novel version, that concentrates mostly on the slavering chrome jaws of the Giger creature, a combo of insectoid horror and a sex organ with teeth. The prominently touted "All New Featurette with Director James Cameron" is something of a cheat. It's not on the disc, but is a download available on the web -- for a limited time only. It's not something a collector can necessarily collect. This strikes me as dishonest -- it's like a cereal box touting a free monster toy inside, which turns out to be a coupon for something available through the mail. A code is included for the Cameron featurette, and a separate code for the HD download of the film itself.
I like the deluxe packaging and am also grateful for the reissue, as it gives me a chance to write about a post-classic era Sci-fi milestone that has eluded me before. Aliens plays a LOT better than most modern action-suspense-Sci-Fi epics.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Aliens 30th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray