James Cameron’s action-packed, balls-to-the-wall, Southern Comfort meets The Magnificent Seven follow up to Ridley Scott’s sci-fi horror classic, Alien, was first released around this time in the summer of ’86.
I was about 9-years-old, like Newt, when I first saw Aliens on television, and I must’ve been completely obsessed by the time I was 10, as each month throughout 1992, my mum would order me the Aliens magazine from our local newsagents. The magazine featured gory comic excerpts, movie trivia, a fervent fan letter section (which I felt intimidated by, and regrettably never contributed to), and mail-in order offers for items such as a £100 replica of Ripley’s leather jacket, which I was never wealthy, nor geeky enough to pull the trigger on. I’d read them and reread them obsessively, copying the pictures carefully and colouring them in.
At the time, there were several films I couldn’t watch with my family due to bad language, as I’d be, no doubt, told to switch it off. There are 25 uses of “fuck” in Aliens; 18 of them spewed by Bill Paxton‘s hysterical Hudson. Insane levels of bloody, ’80s violence, as seen in Die Hard, RoboCop, Total Recall, and Predator, and a topless Linda Hamilton in The Terminator, would also secure these films a place on heavy rotation in the Sunday morning club when my dad was at church and my mum was busy making Sunday lunch.
I slummed it for years, watching a butchered for telly, ITV taping (I think) of Aliens, with carefully chopped out adverts and news reports. This copy featured daft, dubbed lines like, “You don’t see them frigging each other over for a goddamn percentage.” This censored theatrical cut was the version that formed all my initial responses, but little did I know, there were always two incarnations of Aliens floating around – the theatrical, and the special edition. I treasured that TV taping as my sole, go-to copy until I finally acquired the special edition VHS, which was fortuitously on UK shelves early, from 1990 onward. When I did finally see Cameron’s director’s cut, with its extra 17 minutes of Xeno-goodies, it felt like Christmas morning.
“It’s 40 miles of bad road.”James Cameron on Aliens: Special Edition
Theatrical vs special edition is a loaded question, as I feel there are indispensable additions, but also some superfluous ones. The theatrical comes in at a hefty 137 minutes already, and Jim’s cut runs at 154. In Aliens: Special Edition, it’s a case of “this time it’s more.” No doubt, fans will bicker over the validity of certain new scenes. For example, take the re-implanted, family-orientated Hadley’s Hope, with the tricycle kid (Kubrick much?) and the terraformers’ expositional discussion regarding Burke and Weyland-Yutani’s intentions. Its purpose is to both illustrate company orders, and emphasise the importance of the family unit, which is cued up with Ripley’s crushing, “families” response to Van Leuwen; a great lead-in line, which works fine on its own, but has ultimate power when preceding a hard cut to Hadley’s Hope.
However, there’s a lot to be said for leaving these scenes out completely, as the implication is already there, and in many ways, it’s more terrifying to hear, “We’ve lost contact with the colony on LV-426.” The comic, Newt’s Tale, does the trick in terms of filling any gaps in the story. In one instance, poor Newt sees her mother impregnated across from her. There was always the potential for this to happen in the film, and to have Newt witness it moments before Ripley enters and breaks apart her cocoon, freeing her. Personally, I think it’d be a tad too busy. Besides, we’ve seen a chestburster already, and an effective impregnation, of sorts, with Newt’s dad and the facehugger. It also creates the problem of what do we do with her mother after that? Ripley killing Newt’s mum is an avenue we absolutely don’t need to go down.
I enjoy the sentry guns sequence as it adds a thicker layer of pressure, pre-ceiling crawling Alien attack, but when it’s seamlessly expunged in the theatrical, I don’t miss it at all. In fact, with the reactor ticking down, and Bishop’s dropship subplot, there’s enough waiting around, and the imminent Alien breach really kicks things into gear for the remainder of the film. So, although it has merits in terms of mounting claustrophobic tension, the overall pacing is improved without it. There’s also some clearly reused footage of exploding Xenomorphs.
My first instinct, when assessing the special edition, was to keep it all. I just wanted to see everything. This brings up an important quandary regarding pacing, and crucial reveals of information. I can understand the initial removal of the early Hadley’s Hope colony scenes, as the producers simply had to get the running time down, and Gale Anne Hurd’s suggestion to remove that entire reel was a wise one.
Critically and commercially speaking, would the special edition have been as successful as the theatrical, or even more so? Who knows, maybe the impact of seeing Aliens for the first time in its special edition presentation would’ve been dulled somehow by its pacing and length. I personally doubt it, but it is debatable. I’m definitely not an objective opinion here, as I’d happily accept another hour or so of Aliens, and to hell with the pacing.
There’s a cut of Aliens inside my mind that is better than anything currently available; a custom edit I’d love to see play out in context. The fact that I’m still craving a cut incorporating the CBS TV broadcast premiere scenes from 1988, depicting the fabled cocooning and death of Burke, speaks volumes. The long-discussed scene of Bishop crawling in the tunnel, and encountering an Alien, would also make an interesting addition, but it appears to be apocryphal and appears only in the novelisation.
I enjoy the nuances, such as the subtle moment between Ripley and Hicks, in which they reveal their first names – Ellen and Dwayne, although I think Cameron could’ve done better than Dwayne. A tiny moment earlier, where Hicks asks if Ripley is ok before entering the colony may have been removed simply due to timing, but perhaps also because Hicks asks Ripley if she’s ok again immediately after the dropship crash and the ensuing wreckage. We get it, he fancies her, and wants to protect her at all costs. This repeated behaviour is all to further Cameron’s adoptive family setup – Hicks (the father), Ripley (the mother), and Newt (the daughter). Certain shots were carefully framed to visually illustrate the trio as a functioning family unit; the most notable being post-facehugger attack, as Ripley states, “Burke. It was Burke.” Due to this important, overarching plot line, I think these little additions are all extremely valid.
“We’re in the pipe, five by five.”Ferro, Aliens
Growing up, without really knowing what a director actually did, James Cameron was certainly in my top four filmmakers, alongside Steven Spielberg, John McTiernan and Joe Dante. There is a caveat: I only really consider his great work to be The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and Aliens. Everything else pales.
When I first heard the tale of Cameron’s fiery endoskeleton fever dream, him immediately painting the T-800 from memory, and then building what would become The Terminator story around that singular image, I was immediately insanely jealous; wishing I could have that experience. Now, with the Harlan Ellison plagiarising factor, I’m a little more skeptical of Jim. It’s a bit like when John Lennon’s Beatles origin myth, where he claimed to have dreamt about a flaming pie and a voice that told him, “You are ‘Beatles’ with an ‘a’.” Much like Jim’s, that story eventually folded under the truth that Lennon simply picked a name with a double meaning that sounded a bit like Buddy Holly’s band, The Crickets; but print the legend by all means, it’s usually more interesting, and often makes the creator seem like a genius.
Titanic fans will no doubt disagree, but where can you really go after Judgment Day? Everything Jim did after T2 was bloated, as if boredom had skewed his interest and integrity. The years that followed saw him obsessively diving for the wreckage of the Titanic, then announcing and apparently making a bunch of Avatar films no one asked for, and we’re yet to see any real evidence of – not that I care. I’m yet to meet one person who is excited about Avatar 2, or felt a sequel, or prequel, was even remotely warranted, let alone five or whatever silly number he’s up to.
I also feel, looking (or more honestly, not looking) at Alita: Battle Angel, that the digital film revolution has ruined many things when it comes to cinema; it also ruined Jim, along with Robert Rodriguez – an early, no-budget filmmaking hero of mine. This digital nonsense has severely affected the quality their output. With the dwindling Terminator sequels ranging from daft to dire, I’m not even remotely interested in Cameron’s take on The Terminator or Alien franchises anymore, or anything else for that matter. It’s not the ’80s or early ’90s anymore; the glory years are over, and I’m over Jim.
Cameron himself may be ostentatious to the point of nausea at times, particularly these days, but he had the goods to back it up at the beginning; a captivating sense of deliberation and control, resulting in some truly magical cinema. We’ll always have his three masterpieces. They’ll last forever, and when you’ve made two of my top ten films of all time (Aliens and T2), my hat’s off to you. Stellar job, Jim.
“Smoking or non-smoking?”Hudson, Aliens
Alien fans are sticklers, and Cameron was a brave man to take on the sequel. For the most part, I love his attitude throughout this era. The boozy British crew were undoubtedly at odds with him. They were Ridley Scott fans, and objected to “Grizzly Adams” waltzing in with his pixie wife and taking over the gaff. It was just another job to them. All the while, Jim was killing himself daily to carve out his vision and get it on camera the way he envisioned it. It was his moment, and he took it; no thanks to them.
Granted, the “sequel master” shows us things we’ve seen before, but he also ups the ante. Take the Alien warriors – their movements are more wide-ranging, and appear to be a massive advancement on the first in terms of their physicality. However, I personally prefer the often stationary, or calm and collected, slower movements of the creature in the first film. Aliens’ Xenomorphs can appear more like mindless drones, as opposed to perfect organisms, but they needed to be fallible, so it’s forgivable. For this particular film, that was what was required of them. Alien has some flawless one-on-ones; Kane and the egg, the ambiguous, yet palpably sexual violation of Lambert, Parker’s tense undoing, that classic Dallas jump scare, and Brett’s chain-dangling, watery face off. They’re all slasher movie 101 set pieces, done artfully and stylistically, and each has its own beauty, with the steady, calculated movements of the Alien, the unfurling of its tail, and the whole haunted house aesthetic. But Aliens needed to be more overt. Clearer. We wanted to see more crawling, running, jumping, and although the rubbery suits and limp arms of the creatures jar a bit in 2020, it’s where that next step needed to go.
Jim knows what to leave out too. I don’t think Cameron believed he could, or needed to top the facehugger scene from Alien, so he didn’t even attempt it. It’s brilliant. We all know it. It transcends the film. It’s firmly in our memories, in pop culture, and it doesn’t require a retread. Cameron wisely ups the stakes in unexplored areas, where the technology of ’86 could outdo Scott’s ’79 vision.
When Bishop, the seemingly kindly “artificial person” says, “Magnificent, isn’t it?” in reference to the facehugger specimens, and holds a lingering, suspect glare with Spunkmeyer, it’s all Cameron; cleverly playing on the series’ sneaky AI expectations by referencing Ash, Ian Holm’s chilling, murderous company android from Alien. This shrewd game leads to a satisfying payoff, with Bishop’s heroic actions aiding Ripley at the denouement, and even physically grabbing Newt to rescue her after being sacrificially torn in two. Yes, Cameron gives us another robot, but he uses our prior knowledge to play us.
I don’t believe Cameron was trying to top Alien, necessarily. Aliens was designed as a sequel, not a remake; a “combat film”, as opposed to a gothic horror. Jim is respectful of the original, and as a fan, clearly adored it, and wanted to walk in Scott’s shoes as a world creator. As Cameron once said, “Alien is a funhouse with things jumping out of the dark. Aliens is a roller coaster. You can see what’s coming, but you can’t stop it.” The word I kept returning to was extension; he extends the universe, the story, and the characters. Cameron didn’t create this world, but he interpreted it logically, and then broadened it. He developed the creatures beyond the walls of the original, expanding upon their life cycles and behaviour. He added to the synthetics, revealing more about their protocols and rules, and built upon Ripley’s character, adding the death of her daughter, and haunted, recurring dreams, to propel her towards the action once again.
“Look into my eye.”Apone, Aliens
For Cameron, the leap from The Terminator to Aliens in just two years is astounding. The Terminator, although a sci-fi horror classic in its own right, has its roots in low-budget filmmaking. Aliens is a powerhouse spectacular, fizzing with all the bells and whistles of a true blockbuster. What is often overlooked, I think, is Jim’s practical, hands on approach, and his use of just about every trick in the book to get his images on screen.
They don’t make ‘em like they used to. For anyone thinking, “alright, grandad”; particularly younger folks, an entirely practical approach offered a tactile element – the puppets were really there, on set, with no one looking up at tennis balls on sticks at something that’ll be figured out later in post. The crew built them, tested them, and I imagine, based on the rubbish bin bag queen test, panicked drastically, then worked incredibly hard to make it work for camera.
The Alien queen could very well be the pinnacle of film puppetry, requiring 14-16 operators to function. Ripley’s escape from the queen, under flickering electric light is a masterclass; hiding and revealing the creature to the exact degree required, to both instill terror and retain mystique. It’s a piecemeal task, but a worthwhile one. There are, I imagine, lots of starts and stops, taking a few frames from here, and a few frames from there. That’s a good looking snarl! That dripping goo looks decent, and that movement feels real for however many frames. This accomplishment is testament to the filmmakers – the excellent editor, Ray Lovejoy (2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining, Batman), in particular, as well as effects magician, Stan Winston (Predator, Terminator 2, Jurassic Park) and his team.
Although I don’t wish to disregard the VFX guys and girls behind their computer screens, there’s something to be said about purely practical work. Teams of puppeteers (it took nine people just to make the facehuggers in the stasis jars move) who, with the aid of smoke and mirrors, can achieve an in-camera effect, which doesn’t require any further embellishment. There’s a purity to it. For me, perhaps alongside the T-Rex from Jurassic Park (aided beautifully by CG in this instance), the Alien queen is the greatest animatronic puppet ever assembled, and sadly the last of its kind. It existed, and was photographed; not added in later, and it shows. When you’ve experienced practical effects like this, how can CGI ever measure up? Aliens will look great forever (unlike Fincher’s Alien 3, which although having my favourite Alien warrior in the dogburster (or oxburster, depending on which cut you prefer), is damned to the annals of early CG nonsense where audiences will giggle and point at it in perpetuity.
Not all directors fall victim to sucky CG. Some superb work goes unnoticed, as it’s so subtly done. Denis Villeneuve has a firm grasp of it. Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, I felt, was particularly restrained, and offered up some striking, believable imagery. I do think most modern CG will age out rapidly due to its continuously evolving nature. Contradictorily, some argue it peaked with Jurassic Park – one of the first examples of its use, so who knows. Maybe we’re going backwards. It could come to pass that early, and some contemporary CG, with the exception of the big guns like Jurassic Park, will soon appear more dated than Aliens. Perhaps we’ll look back on Avatar and laugh, but aside from some hokey rear/front projection plates (I’ll concede that’s one occasion where Prometheus-level CG would’ve come in very handy), and the typical issues of a few dated costume and hair designs, I don’t think Aliens will ever fall victim to the same pitfalls as these CG-laden blockbusters.
“I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.”Ripley, Aliens
James Horner’s majestic, often mimicked or pinched score is a vital component in the success of Aliens. Robert Rodriguez nabbed “Bishop’s Countdown” from the Aliens OST and used it to great effect in the From Dusk Till Dawn trailer. Even Die Hard got in on the action with an unused piece called “Resolution and Hyperspace” being selected by McTiernan for the climactic dispatch of Karl.
Gale and Jim, at that stage of their careers, clearly didn’t understand the time and approach required to effectively score a feature. All their bravado, and threats to sack Horner showed bad form on their part, and quite embarrassingly reflected their green approach to collaborating with a composer. Their inexperience played a destructive part. If you’re after The Terminator’s rudimentary chase scene music, a chimp can knock that off on the black keys of a Casio keyboard in thirty seconds. This is anything but a throwaway score. It’s emotive and layered, moving and sweeping. Fact of the matter is, Horner needed a locked picture cut before he could really dig in and time out the cues. The producers were down to the wire, and it caused rows. Jim picked his battle wisely in retrospect, as the rumour was he focussed his undivided attention on approving the myriad sound effects, rather than the music, which was already being spearheaded by the more than capable Horner. In 2003’s Superior Firepower documentary, Hurd says Horner didn’t finish the music on time. Maybe so, but only because you failed to provide him with a locked picture cut, and sufficient time to score. This clearly ate into Horner’s four-week recording window, and that’s what resulted in delays. Then, when Horner did eventually deliver, the couple moaned because it didn’t have every moment they’d discussed previously, precisely at the times agreed upon. How could Horner possibly achieve that without a picture lock? It’s an impossible request. I still feel he not only delivered one of the strongest scores of all time, but also miraculously managed, against all odds, to keep somewhat of a cool head with the troublesome producers. It’s a true testament to the man.
Back in the days of Drew’s Script-O-Rama (which endearingly hasn’t altered to this day), which we’d visit during our media and film studies courses to learn how to correctly format scripts, I’d often reference the stark, expressive opening lines of Cameron’s Aliens screenplay.
“Space. Silent and endless. The stars shine like the love of God – cold and remote.”James Cameron, Aliens screenplay
I hadn’t seen the original Alien when I first saw Aliens. Alien is often viewed as a liberal-leaning, leftist, feminist masterpiece, and in opposition, Aliens a pro-Republican Nam allegory, in staunch defence of the nuclear family. To an extent, I think the shoes fit, but I detect more intentional feminism in Aliens than in Alien.
I can’t think of a scene more moving and heroic than the selfless return to nightmarish horror Ripley embarks upon in the third act of Aliens. A bereaved mother’s surrogate relationship with an orphaned colonist named Newt leads to one of my favourite moments in cinematic history – the gearing up in the elevator scene, in which Ripley holds her promise, and boldly goes back to rescue the little girl after a traumatising abduction. It’s a quest only a mother’s love could possibly explain, and yet there’s no shared blood between the two. It’s heartrending, adrenalising, and precedes one of the all-time great sci-fi movie battles: Ripley vs the Alien queen.
“Not bad… for a human.”Bishop, Aliens
Although it’s a carbon copy of the original Alien trailer, the sublime, wordless Aliens teaser is still outstanding. Seeing it in a cinema would’ve been monumental. I’d’ve been there on opening night in a heartbeat. It doesn’t fall victim to the usual pitfalls of most modern trailers, and does exactly what it’s supposed to do: tease us.
Notably, castmembers, Lance Henriksen (Bishop), Jenette Goldstein (Vasquez), and Bill Paxton (who very nearly took Bobcat Goldthwait’s Zed role in Police Academy 3: Back in Training, prior to being scouted out to play Hudson), all reunited for future-ex-Mrs Cameron, Kathryn Bigelow’s rock and roll vampire flick, Near Dark, a year later in ’87.
If you have any interest in seeing the invariably clueless old duffer duo, Siskel & Ebert, dismiss this total work of art in six minutes flat, you can find their asinine review of Aliens in the YouTube playlist below. The only borderline interesting insight was Ebert’s chestburster time bomb argument that Newt may have been carrying an Alien embryo inside her when the marines arrived, and that justified her place in the film as a device for tension and drama, and she was not simply a “child in peril” cheap shot, as Siskel put it.
“And you, you little shithead. You’re staying here.”Ripley, Aliens
Aliens remains a dark action piece with a warm human centre, utilising the profound theme of committing to another person when it may mean your life. As the late, great, Bill Paxton once said, in reference to Cameron, he really made it “snap, crackle, and pop.”
I’m firmly team Scorsese on the whole Marvel Universe, Disney behemoth, Star Wars remake machine, and the theory of the infantilisation of cinema – these dummies in shorts and baseball caps, still feuding, and banging on about Star Wars aged 40. However, Aliens happened to be my Marvel Universe. It was my superhero movie. My franchise, or whatever you’d call it, or at least one of them, alongside Indiana Jones and Back to the Future. So, I both identify with, and pity the Star Wars lot, and the Marvel kids, because my favourite film when I was 9 was infinitely better than theirs.
There are no more video boxes as such, all the Blockbusters are dead, and the HMVs are dying; it’s hard enough finding DVDs and Blu-rays in the shops here in Korea – everything is streamed now. That being said, I hope there are still a few kids out there, staring at posters, or Netflix images (or whatever they do these days) of fascinating films; wondering what they could possibly be about, and waiting on tenterhooks to finally see them, never forgetting what drew them to it initially, and then getting immeasurable pleasure and satisfaction from the final film like I did with Aliens.