The Good: Excellent characters, Acting, Plot, Dialogue, Special effects, DVD extras, Director's cut
The Bad: Actually, none . . .
The Basics: A perfect science fiction action-adventure comes home on a lush DVD worthy of any true cinephile's collection!
Sequels have a notorious reputation for underperforming in relation to their source material and, indeed, the only three sequels that come instantly to mind as on par or better than the first film in a movie series would be The Empire Strikes Back, Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan, and The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers. When it came to making a franchise out of the Alien films, Twentieth Century Fox wisely opted not to simply remake Alien as another science fiction-horror film. In other words, the production company was not making a carbon copy of Alien (reviewed here!). Instead, Fox brought on a new director, new writers and an entirely new direction. And the result is arguably the first of the summer blockbusters, a film that blew away audiences when it was released and continues to entertain viewers now on a beautiful two-disc DVD set: Aliens.
The escape pod from the Nostromo has drifted through colonized space for almost sixty years and before almost being lost forever, it is recovered by a salvage vessel whose crew finds Ellen Ripley aboard in suspended animation. After being called to task for the destruction of the Nostromo and losing her license, Ripley struggles to make ends meet doing work well below her talents. Soon thereafter, Carter Burke, one of the managers from the Company, informs Ripley that the colony that had been thriving on LV-426 - the planet the Nostromo crew found the downed alien ship filled with eggs - has stopped transmitting status reports.
Plagued by nightmares and bribed with reinstatement of her license and benefits, Ripley joins Burke and a crew of Marines on the Sulaco. When the Sulaco reaches the colony at LV-426, the crew finds the inhabitants missing, save a little girl who is shell-shocked. Ripley, Newt - the little girl -, Burke and the Marines soon find out what happened to the colonists and discover the colony has become a hive filled with aliens that are faster, deadlier, and greater in number than the Sulaco crew was prepared for . . .
What makes Aliens work well is that the situation fits the characters and it is their instincts and humanity that move the plot. Well, Ripley, Newt and Corporal Hicks motivate the plot with their instincts for survival and basic humanity. Burke and Gorman antagonize the others, moving the plot in a completely different - and potentially more horrific - direction. The balance is perfect and despite how plot-intensive the film appears to be, most of the major shifts in fortune are a direct result of actions taken by the characters, as opposed to reactions to their situations. Character-driven films are rare enough; they are almost completely absent in action-adventure films.
And to be sure, Aliens is an action-adventure film in a science fiction setting. Stripped away from all pretense of horror, Aliens relies on movement, big explosions and a fast pace to entertain, the same way Alien relied on subtlety and silence to terrify. Aliens arguably pioneered the summer blockbuster (to be sure there were blockbusters before - Star Wars saw to that - but specifically rolling out a film to dominate the summer market, especially the first weekend . . .) and as a result, Director James Cameron had to create a film that moved fast, kept up tension and was an action-adventure film. In short, it had to be nonstop entertainment.
Here on the DVD, viewers are given a real treat, a branching selection that allows the viewer to watch either the original 1986 theatrical version or the Director's Cut pioneered for laserdisc back in 1991. The genius here is that Aliens - The Director's Cut takes a great movie and makes it much, much better. With twenty more minutes in the film, James Cameron is given a chance to flesh out the characters more, add continuity to the series by filling in more of the gaps between the first and second film and, perhaps most importantly, because the film is not relying entirely on the surprise of what happened to the colony, viewers are treated to the very sensible exploration of what happened to the colony from the beginning. The result is far more informative, equally entertaining, and more clearly defines the universe of the Alien franchise. This establishes the film as something more than simple entertainment and because Cameron endorses the director's cut, it is pretty well established as cannon for the franchise now.
The DVD presentation of Aliens is lush with extras, including hours of featurettes taking the viewer through the pre-production, production and post-production process. There is a commentary track that runs through both versions of the film and sets up the featurettes nicely without repeating too much of the same information (which is usually a problem with featurettes as extensive as those on the bonus disc!).
Aliens also arguably established Sigourney Weaver as an action hero and left viewers with the undeniable image of women as strong, smart, and sexy heroines that could rule a franchise. Ripley may have been set up by the Lynda Carter Wonder Woman, but it's difficult to believe that such heroines that followed, like Michelle Pfeiffer's pleather-clad CatWoman from Batman Returns (reviewed here!) would have had as much punch had Weaver not done her thing as Ripley. Weaver portrayed Ripley with a strength that made her a role model to young women, a sex appeal that made her intriguing to men, and a basic humanity that made her one of the most vivid cinematic characters of all time.
The supporting cast is wonderful as well. Paul Reiser is perfectly slimy as Carter Burke subtly dominating almost every scene he is in with a conniving quality few would suspect coming from the standup comic. Similarly, Michael Beihn and Bill Paxton give wonderful supporting performances.
Two actors truly make the film worthwhile and they are Carrie Henn and Lance Henriksen. Henn plays Newt and it's a rare thing to see a child actor who is able to hold her own with big names like Sigourney Weaver, but Henn does. Henn plays Newt with a scared quality that seems to come very easily, but her real magic comes in a series of much quieter scenes when Newt and Ripley begin to bond. In those scenes, Henn plays the quiet girl with a sense of maturity well beyond her years and she makes it work.
Lance Henriksen is magnificent as the android Bishop. Indeed, it was Henriksen's performance in this and the television show Millennium that lured me into watching the terrible Alien Vs. Predator. Henriksen is gifted with a face that is textured and haunting; it is a face that has character. Yet in Aliens, Henriksen does not rely simply on his look, he portrays the character with a sense of comic timing that makes him memorable and distinctly different from any of the other roles he has ever played. As someone who once enjoyed the standup routines of Paul Reiser, it's somewhat worthwhile to note that in Aliens, Henriksen's body language and tone has much more comedic weight than Reiser, without ever detracting from the intensity of the film.
And the thing is, Aliens holds up remarkably well over multiple viewings. When I was younger, I would have film parties and watching the Alien Trilogy (at the time there were only three) was always a pretty kickass night. Now, there is the Alien Quadrilogy (reviewed here!) and it is almost as good. Science fiction films that attempt to be pure action-adventure almost always fail, but the truth is they're living in a pretty deep shadow following Aliens!
For other creature-filled features, please check out my reviews of:
Robert A. Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters
For other film reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!
© 2011, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.