I've had a love-hate relationship with James Cameron's Aliens for as long as I can remember. But perhaps "love-hate" is the wrong term. My feelings toward the film have certainly been conflicted, but they've rarely co-existed. A little explanation… As a kid, I didn't have cable TV, and my parents refused to let me watch R-rated films. So I discovered most of the more adult-minded ‘80s genre classics long after their initial release, Aliens included. I recall first seeing a few scenes from the film at the home of a friend. And I eventually caught most of it on a small black-and-white TV in my grandparents' apartment, when it ran on censored, commercial television. Needless to say, the experience was pretty damn "Meh..." Years later, in college, I finally saw the theatrical cut of the film on VHS (along with the movie that preceded it, Ridley Scott's Alien), and I finally got it. I fell in love with what I saw as the ultimate in gritty sci-fi action and suspense. Then more years passed. As many of my favorite films do, Aliens took permanent residence in my brain, its scenes and dialogue seared into my neocortex. But I found my feelings for it dwindled. I'd begun watching lots of other movies, in plenty of different genres, and I started reconsidering the movies that thrilled me as a child. Alien (which I'd always considered the slower and less involving of the two) rose in my estimation, and Aliens shrank. Part of my problem was that the beats and cues Cameron took from Scott had begun to stand out.
And there were plenty of them… The early hibernation scene; the introduction of a group of working-class grunts sent into space (in the original film, blue-collar schlubs, here marines); the chest-bursting introduction of the creature; the white-blooded, seemingly emotionless android crew member (in Aliens the benevolent Bishop, in Alien the evil Ash); Ripley's sensibility pitted against the idiocy of those with whom she's forced to work (controlled by the reprehensible "company"); the introduction of the creature's abilities (acid blood, etc.); Ripley's climactic decision to save one small life rather than escape when she has the chance; the countdown to destruction; and, finally, the mano-a-mano confrontation between hero and Alien, resolved once more by airlocking the "bitch."
Eventually, my feelings towards Aliens turned to outright scorn. I saw it as Premiere magazine once described it – as "borrowed, sequeled trash." But, in hindsight, what bothered me the most wasn't that Aliens borrowed so much from Alien, but that it didn't always improve on what it borrowed. The most blatant example is the aforementioned airlock scene. In the original, Ripley straps herself into a spacesuit, in order to resist the infinite vacuum of space when she jettisons the creature. In Aliens, she's become a superwoman, strong enough to resist that vacuum without assistance, as she simply holds on to the rung of a ladder.
The characters in Aliens also bothered me. The characters in Scott's film are mostly unlikable, and colorless, but they're authentic. They act the way most people would under the circumstances; and the performances that imbue them with such natural life are nicely underplayed. In Aliens, the characters are, for the most part, one-dimensional stereotypes. Hicks is the taciturn cowboy; Burke the oily corporate stooge; Hudson the gasbag; Vasquez the fiery Latina… Ripley and Bishop fare better, of course, thanks in part to the fine acting of the always excellent Sigourney Weaver and Lance Henriksen's otherworldly charm.
And then there's Newt.
Possibly the least annoying child in genre film history (with the exception of The Road Warrior's Feral Kid), Newt is strong, brave, smart, capable, loyal, wise, resourceful… She's everything you'd want in a daughter. (Which is why her senseless death in the opening scenes of Alien 3 engendered so much hate for that hapless third film.) So it makes perfect sense that Ripley would take to her, especially in light of the loss of her own daughter, as revealed in the Special Edition of the film (included on Fox's new Blu-ray along with the original theatrical cut). Newt's one of the few borrowed elements in Aliens that is improved. With all due respect to Jones the cat, Newt is... just a little bit more important. Yes, she brings out Ripley's maternal side, but what's more she summons a warrior's will to survive, and to fight for others' survival.
Yeah, in the end, it was probably Newt who turned me around, who made me appreciate Aliens on its own terms. For even if the film is little more than a pulpy, action-packed, somewhat transparent feminist parable (about, as many a college thesis has explained, man's hunger for power and how it leads him to seek control of a woman's body), it's a damn good one at that. When Ripley straps those two guns together and rides that freight elevator, sweat dampening her face as descends into the bowels of hell for Newt… Man, it still gives me goose bumps. Like the film's other set pieces, that scene is masterfully shot by a first-rate director at the height of his powers; and like the rest of Aliens it maintains a sure, perfect pace; while it offers us the single most important American action heroine in western pop culture. The forerunner of Buffy, Xena, and all the others who've emerged since Ellen Ripley first slipped on that power loader.
Fox's Blu-ray release of the film, part of the essential new Alien Anthology box set is, pardon the cliché, everything an Aliens fan could ask for and more. First and foremost it somehow finds a way to improve a film image that many thought could never be improved. For Aliens was shot on notoriously poor 1980s film stock. And its darker scenes (of which there are many) have always appeared grainy as hell. In the new Blu-ray transfer, the image is sharper, tighter, and offers more clarity than ever before, while preserving enough grain so as not to make the characters look like wax dummies (as in recent transfers of ‘80s classics like Predator, which fell victim to an overabundance of DNR – a.k.a. the dread Digital Noise Reduction). Just check out this scene from the film, provided you have a high-speed connection...
The Blu-ray also ports over the ton of extras from the previous Quadrilogy DVD set, as well as more than a few new ones. Were you ever itching to see the cowardly Burke cocooned? That's just one of the deleted scenes presented here for the first time. You also get Cameron's intro to the 1991 special edition of the film – along with commentary from Cameron, producer Gale Anne Hurd, the late effects master Stan Winston, effects supervisors Robert Skotak and Dennis Skotak, miniature effects supervisor Pat McClung, and actors Michael Biehn, Bill Paxton, Lance Henriksen, Jenette Goldstein, Carrie Henn and Christopher Henn. And you get the isolated theatrical score by Horner, the composer's original isolated score, and, as with the rest of the films in the Anthology, the MU-TH-UR Mode Interactive Experience with Weyland-Yutani Datastream. Finally, there's the Anthology Archives bonus disc, which offers a whole other set of goodies for each film in the franchise.
I'll get into all that stuff soon, when I review Alien 3 and (God help me) Alien Resurrection. For a review of the first film, be sure to check out my colleague Scott Weinberg's excellent review here. In the mean time, be happy, folks! A beloved film just got a whole lot lovelier.