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On Second Thought: Aliens (Director’s Cut)

To celebrate the release of Prometheus in the United States this week, we’ll be taking a look at the other movies in the Alien franchise.

It seems that James Cameron’s Director’s Cut of Aliens is the only alternate cut of an Alien film preferred by any of the directors. Ridley Scott has gone on record stating that he considers Alien: The Director’s Cut to be an “alternative” cut of the film intended for long-time fans. David Fincher has explained that the only way he’d produce a version of Alien³ that he’d be happy with was if he were to shoot it from scratch. Jean-Pierre Jeunet believes that the theatrical cut of Alien: Resurrection is his preferred version of the film. So it seems that Cameron is the only director who has been able to successfully reintegrate material to produce what he feels to be a definitive version of the film.

And, to be honest, I’d agree. Aliens: The Director’s Cut is probably the best example of how to enhance an already superb film through the addition of previously excised material.

On LV-426, everyone can hear you scream…

The Director’s Cut doesn’t radically alter the film. It doesn’t change anything nearly as drastically as Alien³: The Assembly Cut did, but then it doesn’t have to. Aliens is, by itself, one of the best action and science-fiction films ever produced. It’s a brilliant example of both how to construct a film and also how to build a sequel to an established film. It has all its core themes and characters developed to an extent that would make most movies jealous. I think it’s really a textbook example of how to make a hugely enjoyable piece of cinema, even after Cameron had been cajoled into cutting a significant portion of the film.

So the additional seventeen minutes don’t change the film – because there’s no need to do that. Instead, they offer additional depth and development. Cameron has a tendency to turn in truly epic films – movies with expanded and extended run times. However, he’s also a hugely successful director among both film fanatics and more casual movie-goers. A typical Cameron film can run well over two hours, but it doesn’t feellike it. The time flies by because you care about the characters and the world they inhabit. The extended cut of Aliens might run seventeen minutes longer, but it’s unlikely you’ll notice – and that’s a testament to Cameron’s skill. Even the material he trimmed feels essential and feels important to the story.

She’s Queen of the world…

It’s frequent when looking at deleted scenes to find redundant information – to find scenes that were cut from the theatrical release of the movie because other scenes covered the ground in question much more efficiently. What’s remarkable about Cameron’s work here is that there’s none of that. While we could intuit some of the events (what happened at the colony, for example) from later scenes, nothing here feels like it’s padding or taking up space or over-stressing a point. Instead, most of the material plays into the core themes of the movie, which were so skilfully developed by Cameron that they didn’t collapse when he had to remove some of the groundwork.

My own favourite addition to the film is the material surrounding Ripley’s daughter, “aged 66 – and that was at the time of her death.”Ripley’s status as a woman out of time was never really touched on in the original film. It was brought up, and we got the sense that time had passed – for example, Bishop was more advanced than Ash – but it seemed like Ripley was no more or less isolated for the fact. She’d come home to a world she’d never known, but perhaps that was because she’d spent her life shipping freight and without the Nostromo she had nothing.

Up for review…

The presence of Ripley’s daughter adds a sort of resonance to Ripley’s status as a relic. The idea that her biological daughter could have died of old age two years before Ripley was found is a clever and powerful one. The fact Ripley promised to be home for her daughter’s birthday gives us a sense of Ripley as more than just an officer shipping freight – she was a real person before this craziness happened to her. It also adds a considerable depth to her conversations with Newt (“Did you ever have a baby?”), something that was present in the original cut because of Weaver’s wonderful chemistry with young Carrie Henn, but now feels fully developed.

It also adds a bit more resonance to Ripley’s confrontation with the Alien Queen. Of course, the Alien itself is a reproductive horror, and there’s a nice piece of excised dialogue restored between Newt and Ripley. “Isn’t that how babies come?” Newt asks, after discussing the life cycle of the monster. “I mean, people babies? They grow inside you.” Ripley responds, “No, that’s very different.”It serves to reinforce the thematic link between Ripley and the Queen, even before we directly encounter the Queen.

Badass to the Corps…

Ripley is still, of course, fighting for Newt, as she was in the theatrical cut of the film. However, Ripley’s decision to torch the hive after backing away with Newt takes on a slightly different connotation here. Is Ripley seeking revenge against the monster that indirectly took her away from her daughter? Is that something that Ripley blames the monster for, on top of the deaths of the Nostromo crew? Indeed, during the epic final power-loader confrontation, both mothers have now lost offspring to one another – but Ripley is fighting to save Newt and to break the cycle. It just adds a nice additional layer to subtext that was already there.

There are other nice touches that develop the themes that Cameron outlined pretty well in the original cut. Bill Paxton is enough fun that I don’t mind even more hubris from the arrogant colonial marines, setting up the inevitable humbling they receive.  “I am the ultimate badass!” Hudson boasts, in a manner that it’s actually quite hard to dislike. “State-of-the-badass-art. You do not wanna @!$% with me. Check it out. Hey Ripley, don’t worry. Me and my squad of ultimate badasses will protect you. Check it out. Independently targeting particle-beam Phalanx. Wham! Fry half the city with this puppy. We got tactical smart missiles, phased-plasma pulse rifles, RPGs, we got sonic electronic ballbreakers! We got nukes, we got knives, sharp sticks…”You know what they say about pride, right?

And not a single cut…

Similarly, we get a bit of a broader view of this fairly bleak future – including a trip to LV-426 while it was still a functioning colony. I love that small shot of Hadley’s Hope, including the neon “Bar” sign, virtually the only sign visible apart from the one welcoming the traveler to Hadley’s Hope. Of course a bar would be among the first amenities set up, with alcohol providing a bit of an escape from the harsh reality of living on a lifeless rock.

You could make an argument that Cameron’s extended cut actually more firmly connects to Ridley Scott’s original film – not that there’s too large a distance between them anyway. For example, there’s more of an extended tour of the marines’ ship in this cut, harking back to those more atmospheric shots of the Nostromo that opened the original film. (Feeding into the scene that follows, where the crew all have character-establishing moments over a loud and messy meal.)

Get a loader this!

In particular, we see just how much money matters to the blue-collar workers of this work. In the original, Parker and Brett were going on and on about getting equal shares, and here we have Newt’s father concerned about the rights over anything he discovers on his expedition. The base commander is informed that the expeditions have been in contact, “One of them’s on the horn, say’s he’s onto something. Wants to know if his claim will be honoured.” When the family discover the crashed ship, the father isn’t excited scientifically, he’s just interested in the possible financial implications. “Folks, we have scored big this time.”

I think that Cameron’s theatrical cut is one of the great examples of movie structure, the way the director sets up plot points and then pays them off down the line – ideas like the nuclear reactor, for example, or Ripley’s skill with a power-loader. Things that are brought up in a way that make sense, and prove invaluable later on. The extended cut actually adds in some efficient foreshadowing about the nature of the Alien Queen from Hudson, the least likely xenologist in the bunch. “Hey, maybe it’s like an ant hive,” he suggests. “Bees, man,” Vasquez corrects him. “Bees have hives.” Hudson continues, “You know what I mean. There’s, like, one female that runs the whole show.”

Troopin’ around…

Very arguably, the film even explains a very minor plot hole in the original version. It is, after all, highly unlikely the company forgot about the strange signal coming from LV-426, especially after the Nostromo disappeared. So why did they wait until Ripley came back to send a team out to look for it? Particularly when the Nostromo could home in on it easily from orbit? It seems a bit strange in the regular cut, until the extended cut returns to the crash sight. The alien ship appears more damaged – literally torn open. It’s possible that there was some seismic activity that broke the transmitter, thus silencing the signal. The company would then, logically, have financed the colony to scour the world, but didn’t know exactly where to look until Ripley came back.

There are lots of other nice touches too. Even though we knew that the colony had other children, from Newt’s comments about her brother, it’s somehow more affecting to see kids playing around the base, and know what must have happened to them. Cameron manages to keep it tasteful, but it lends a sharper sting to the attack on the colony. And I know it’s a small thing, but I love that small shot of Ridley in front of a fake environment – the perfect illustration of how cold and sterile this future is. It’s little wonder that Ridley Scott would borrow the idea for Vickers’ pod in Prometheus.

I got the power (loader!)…

Typically, adding in seventeen minutes of footage might affect the pacing of the film in question. What’s remarkable is that, by extending the film to over two-and-a-half hours, Cameron actually manages to better pace the movie. Whether it’s the longer shots while the troops are hibernating, or the fake scare with the hamsters, the movie feels more comfortable in its pacing. It’s telling that the bulk of Cameron’s material is added towards the start or the middle of the film, so as not to throw off the pacing of the final hour. It’s all very carefully structured.

Aliens: The Director’s Cut is the definitive way to watch a science-fiction classic, and I honestly can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s Cameron at the very top of his game, and genuine futuristic masterpiece. It really doesn’t get much better than this.

You might be interested in our reviews of the other films in the Alien series:

5 Responses

  1. Great piece on a fantastic film I never tire of, Darren. You cover all the bases extraordinarily well. No criticism intended, but you might want to correct the name of the planet in question. It is LV-426 (not 246). Splendid examination, my friend.

    • Thanks for that spot! Dammit, I had LV-221 on my brain. (The planet from Prometheus, without spoiling anything.)

  2. The funny thing about Cameron’s films is that he often is forced to cut scenes due to time, and when the scenes are re-inserted, the movies feel more complete. It was that way with “Aliens,” “Terminator 2,” and “The Abyss,” and I’m still waiting to see the extended cut of “Titanic.”

    You hit the nail on the head with this review. While the theatrical cut is fine, the director’s cut makes the film so much better.

    • Thanks Jamie! The director’s cut of all those films would (easily) be my preferred version, even though the theatrical cuts are perfectly good as well. It isn’t that Cameron’s director’s cut “salvage” films (like Ridley Scott has been known to do), more that they simply extend, deepen and enhance films that are already well-constructed.

  3. I know I’m one of the rare few, but I’ve always thought that the theatrical cut is better than the Special Edition. There’s just so much unnecessary clutter in the Special Edition, and Fox was (shockingly) right to want a shorter version.

    The daughter scene, while not bad, isn’t necessary. The audience always understood the maternal instinct nature of Ripley’s relationship with Newt. Really, it just leaves an audience asking why a woman with a young daughter is doing deep-space trucking that requires extended periods of cryogenic sleep.

    The two sentry gun scenes are just kinda static in their camera work, and involve a lot of shots of guns firing and people staring at computers. Not exciting in the slightest. Add in the fact that they re-use effects shots from the Atmosphere Processor battle at the beginning of the film (why didn’t they even have alternate angles filmed?), and they’re just… mediocre additions at best. Obviously without them, you can leave out the setup scene too.

    And the most glaring, and worst addition, is the colony scene. While the audience “knows” what happened to the colony (would be hard to have a movie without it), there is too much tension lost by the early revelation. In the Theatrical Cut, the audience “learns” what happened to the colony alongside the Marines and Ripley. We experience the plot alongside the characters, a classic storytelling convention. With the inclusion of the scene of Newt’s family, the slightly extended run time of the colony search scenes almost feel like a waste of time. We know they aren’t going to find anything already.

    I like most of the other additions, but it’s because they’re so innocuous. The extended Sulaco tour is great, for all the reasons you listed, and the slightly longer inquest and Ripley’s apartment scenes are nice. The fixes to a couple editing mistakes are good. The Dwayne/Ellen exchange probably isn’t needed, but it’s a handful of seconds long. And the slightly longer colony search scenes would be good without the colony scene included.

    There’s an old saying about “Kill your darlings.” And it’s clear there were just a few darlings Cameron couldn’t bring himself to kill without the studio forcing him to. I’d say that a 140ish minute version of the film with all the small extensions, but minus those extra scenes, would be the ideal version of the film. But, barring that, the Theatrical Cut is the best version of Aliens, by far.

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