Aliens appears in an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Though the least attractive of the four Alien films, it provided a reasonably solid presentation.
Sharpness largely appeared positive. Some wide shots came across as slightly soft at times, but those examples occurred infrequently. Most of the movie showed a slight dullness typical of film stocks of the era, but the image remained acceptably distinct and accurate most of the time. Jagged edges and moiré effects provided no concerns, and I saw no signs of edge enhancement.
This extended version of Aliens originally appeared only on a 1991 laserdisc boxed set release. That image became infamous for its copious amounts of grain. Happily, that issue has become much less significant on the DVD, but it still exists to a degree. The movie seemed somewhat grainy at times, but other than the occasional speckle or bit of grit, the picture looked clean as a whole. I could live without the periodically intrusive graininess, but I didn’t think it offered any real problems.
Due to the film stock and the production design, colors seemed pretty bland during Aliens. However, that’s not really a complaint, as I don’t expect vivid hues from this – or any of the series, for that matter. Tones seemed somewhat flat, but they generally came across as reasonably clear and distinct given the nature of the film. Red lighting looked strong, as those elements were clear and not overly runny or heavy. Black levels were also a little inky, but they usually appeared fairly deep and rich, and shadow seemed appropriately opaque but not excessively thick. Despite a few minor issues, Aliens presented a generally fine image that has held up well over the years.
How did the 2003 DVD compare to the original 1999 release? To these eyes, the pair seemed virtually identical. Due to the photography and film stock, Aliens will never look great, but the DVDs both replicated it well. They showed the same patterns of strengths and weaknesses, and I saw nothing to differentiate between the pair.
Also identical to the first release, the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Aliens barely showed its age, as it sounded very good for its era. The soundfield maintained a pretty strong forward bias. Within the front, the movie boasted reasonably vivid imagery. Music showed clear stereo separation and imaging, while effects seemed appropriately placed, and they blended together neatly. The surrounds kicked in with general reinforcement much of the time, but they added good pop to many of the action scenes; they played an acceptably active role in the proceedings.
Audio quality was relatively good. Dialogue varied from natural and distinct to somewhat thick and muddy, but most of the speech seemed positive, and I detected very few problems due to edginess or intelligibility. Effects also came across as pretty crisp and vivid, and they showed reasonable bass response that was fairly tight and bold. The score came across as clean and vivid for the most part, and those elements also demonstrated nice dynamics. I noticed very little distortion in this firm package. Ultimately, I really liked this mix and thought it held up well over the years.
While the 1999 DVD of Aliens included a lot of supplements, the 2003 version expanded on these significantly. One main change: we can now watch either the extended “special edition” cut or the theatrical rendition; only the former appeared on the 1999 release. I already reflected on this in the body of the review, but I thought I should mention it as a supplement too. The DVD uses seamless branching to cut between them. In a nice touch, if you watch the alternate version, you’ll find a deleted footage marker that notes all the originally excised material.
If you select the “Special Edition” cut, the movie opens with a James Cameron introduction. In this 32-second message, the director discusses his preference for the longer version and gives us a quick note or two about it. It’s not terribly interesting, but it helps set the stage.
Next we find a new audio commentary with director James Cameron, producer Gale Ann Hurd, alien effects creator Stan Winston, visual effects supervisors Robert and Dennis Skotak, miniature effects supervisor Pat McClung, and actors Michael Biehn, Bill Paxton, Lance Henriksen, Jenette Goldstein, Carrie Henn and Christopher Henn. A complex compilation of sources, only Cameron sits alone for his discussion. Hurd and Winston unite for their chat, while the Henn children are together for their moments. The Skotek brothers join up with McClung, and in a very happy choice, the four remaining actors – Biehn, Paxton, Henriksen, and Goldstein – sit together for their examination of the film.
Although I enjoyed the commentary on the new Alien DVD, it didn’t quite live up to expectations. I’m pleased to report that this Aliens track gives me what I anticipated and more than that. Not surprisingly, Cameron dominates the piece, and he really delivers the goods. The director touches on a variety of fascinating topics. He gets into how he arrived on the project, the development of the script and allusions to real world events, dealing with a visual universe created by someone else, his choice of aspect ratio, character and situation backstory, choosing how to pare down the film for its original theatrical release, and tons more. Cameron fills his time with consistently interesting notes that give us a very informative experience.
As for the others, they certainly occupy their moments well. It’s probably the most fun to hear the four actors who sit together. They exhibit a nice sense of camaraderie and toss out a lot of entertaining anecdotes. They reflect on their experiences and give us a good sense of working on the film. They even take a few good-natured jabs at their control-freak director in this light and loose chat. The Henn siblings only pop up occasionally. Christopher offers only about five words, but given the very small nature of his role, that doesn’t come as a surprise. Carrie gives us a few nice remarks such as the movie line her friends quoted for years – much to her annoyance.
While the Skoteks and McClurg mostly focus on effects, they do so in a clear manner and help us get a good feel for the film’s technical elements. Hurd and Winston also pair nicely as they go over a mix of topics. They cover production concerns as well as the expected notes about Winston’s adaptation of HR Giger’s original alien designs. Of particular interest are Hurd’s notes about all the tensions between her and Cameron and the British crew; apparently the Limeys didn’t give them much respect. In the end, I feel exceedingly pleased with this outstanding commentary, as it fleshes out Aliens in a highly educational and enjoyable manner.
If you select the theatrical edition of Aliens, you’ll get access to deleted scenes. Note that these simply show the alternate sequences from the special edition cut; nothing different than what we find in that version appears in this section.
DVD One features the THX Optimizer. Also found on many other DVDs, this purports to help you set up your system for the best reproduction of both picture and sound, ala stand-alone programs such as Video Essentials. I’ve never tried the Optimizer since I’m happy with my settings, but if you don’t own something such as Essentials, the Optimizer may help you improve picture and audio quality.
After this we head to DVD Two with its plethora of extras. These divide into three areas, and we begin with Pre-Production. We start with a featurette called 57 Years Later: Continuing the Story. In this 11-minute and two-second program, we get a mix of movie clips, archival materials, and interviews. We hear from director James Cameron, executive producer David Giler, producer Gale Ann Hurd, and actor Sigourney Weaver. (Note that throughout the featurettes, most of the interviews are from modern sources, but some clips from the Eighties appear.) They cover the sequel’s path to the screen, how Cameron came on board, and how Weaver returned. It’s a fairly rudimentary program, and Cameron covers some of the topics better in his commentary, but “Later” sets the stage reasonably well.
Next we get a featurette entitled Building Better Worlds: From Concept to Construction. It runs 13 minutes and 28 seconds and offers comments from Hurd, conceptual artists Syd Mead and Ron Cobb, and production designer Peter Lamont. They go into the designs for some of the movie’s visual elements like the Sulaco and the drop ship, and they also discuss the execution of those materials. The show seems a little dry at times, but it covers the topic efficiently and gives us an idea what the designers wanted to do.
The final “Pre-Production” featurette, Preparing for Battle: Casting and Characterization fills 17 minutes and three seconds. It includes statements from Hurd, Lamont, UK casting director Mary Selway, stunt coordinator Paul Weston, and actors Weaver, Jenette Goldstein, Mark Rolston, Carrie and Christopher Henn, Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton, Al Matthews, William Hope, and Paul Reiser. We learn about some elements of casting and hear from the actors how they got their roles and what training they went through before the start of production. The show doesn’t seem scintillating, but it conveys the details in a fairly compelling way.
Also in “Pre-Production” we get a section called Pre-Visualizations: Multi-Angle Videomatics. This provides two viewing options: videomatic and videomatic/final shot comparion. As for audio, we can switch between the final film sound and commentary with miniature effects supervisor Pat McClung. The videomatics offer visual storyboards created to help pace and develop the effects scenes. We see a little of them elsewhere, but this program depicts them in more complete manner. McClung explains them and lets us know about their use in the process.
Some “Still Photo Galleries” round out “Pre-Production”. The original treatment by James Cameron basically offers a first draft script. It’s very interesting to read the text and see the similarities and differences between this version and the final product.
In addition to a collection of 56 Cast Portraits, we find The Art of Aliens Conceptual Art Portfolio. Composed of art by Ron Cobb, Syd Mead and James Cameron, this splits into three areas: “Gateway Station and Colony” (three images), “Vehicles and Weapons” (26), and “Aliens” (three).
After this we head to Production and start with a featurette entitled This Time It’s War: Pinewood Studios, 1985. It runs 19 minutes and 40 seconds and presents remarks from special effects supervisor John Richardson, Hurd, alien effects creator Stan Winston, Giler, actors Michael Biehn, Henriksen, Weaver, Goldstein, Carrie Henn, Paxton, Jay Benedict and Rolston, miniature effects supervisor Pat McClung, senior special effects technician Joss Williams, makeup supervisor Peter Robb-King, and creature effects coordinators Alec Gillis, John Rosengrant, and Shane Mahan.
While the “Pre-Production” featurettes seemed informative, they lacked much oomph. “War” makes up for that with its juicy tale of issues on the set. We hear about all sorts of problems. First Cameron clashes with the original director of photography and then Biehn replaces the actor initially cast as Hicks. (If you want to find out that performer’s identity, you’ll not get it here. However, that information comes out during the “Power of Real Tech” featurette in “Post-Production”.) Many additional pressures occur on the set, and all this leads to many spats and conflicts between the Americans and the British crew. It’s a tight and lively featurette with lots of great stories and some cool footage as well; of particular interest is the bit when Cameron exhibits his irritation at a prop operator. So far, “War” offers easily the strongest featurette.
The next featurette is called The Risk Always Lives: Weapons and Action and lasts 15 minutes and 13 seconds. It includes information from Hurd, Richardson, armorer Simon Atherton, Weston, Weaver, Paxton, Biehn, Goldstein, Matthews, Rolston and Henriksen. We learn a little about the design of the weapons and get a nice feel for the execution of the action sequences, especially in regard to various dangers. The actors prove especially useful here as they offer many interesting stories about the shoot. It’s a good featurette that illuminates the topic nicely.
Bug Hunt: Creature Design provides a 16-minute and 26-second featurette. It features statements from Stan Winston, James Cameron, Alec Gillis, Jenette Goldstein, John Richardson, Michael Biehn and creature effects coordinators Tom Woodruff Jr., Richard Landon, Shane Mahan, and John Rosengrant. As one might expect, “Hunt” concentrates on the creation of the flick’s critters. We get excellent discussions of the new takes on the chestburster, the facehugger, and the warrior alien. The featurette offers a rich and elaborate examination of these elements.
Up next we get a featurette entitled Beauty and the Bitch: Power Loader Vs. Alien Queen. It goes for 22 minutes and 27 seconds and includes information from Rosengrant, Winston, Landon, Woodruff, Hurd, Mahan, Henriksen, McClung, Joss Williams, Weaver and Richardson. It goes over the design and creation of both the alien queen and the power loader as well as the Bishop puppet attacked by the queen. As with “Bug Hunt”, the featurette presents a nicely full and detailed look at these elements. The program benefits from much great archival video that depicts all the work. It’s a solid program.
The last featurette in “Production”, Two Orphans: Sigourney Weaver and Carrie Henn takes 13 minutes and 48 seconds. We hear from Weaver, Carrie Henn, Hurd, Peter Robb-King, Biehn and Weston. We learn a little about the relationship between Henn and Weaver as well as some memories from the then-young actress. Weaver covers some of the challenges she encountered, and again, the excellent behind the scenes footage helps make the program more memorable. It seems a little general at times, but it nonetheless includes many useful notes.
More “Still Photo Galleries” appear here. Production divides into nine subdomains: “Preparation for Filming” (19 shots), “The Narcissus” (7), “Gateway Station” (18), “Colony Life” (8), “The Sulaco” (103), “Arrival on Acheron” (124), “Main Colony Complex” (64), “Ripley Rescues Newt” (76), and “Final Battle and Epilogue” (74).
After we traipse through 251 Continuity Polaroids, we move to the Weapons and Vehicles collection. It presents 61 detailed images of those elements. In a similar vein, Stan Winston’s Workshop offers 57 shots of the various critters on which those folks worked.
The disc heads to the home stretch with the Post-Production domain. Called The Final Countdown: Music, Editing and Sound, the first featurette runs 15 minutes and 31 seconds. It gives us interviews with composer James Horner, Hurd, Cameron and chief dubbing mixer Graham Hartstone. Despite the title, much of the entire program discusses the score. This interacts with the other elements, as the rushed editing affected Horner’s work, but he dominates the piece. It’s a compelling examination of all the pressures on the composer and the interaction of the score with the other bits.
The Power of Real Tech: Visual Effects lasts 26 minutes and 17 seconds. It presents statements from Hurd, visual effects supervisors Robert and Dennis Skotek, Pat McClung, Peter Lamont and John Richardson. This piece gets into the miniatures and other ways used to create the alien planet, the vehicles and various visual elements not discussed elsewhere. It’s an informative program that fleshes out the area nicely.
Finally, Aliens Unleashed: Reactions to the Film takes 12 minutes and 32 seconds. It offers information from Woodruff, Hurd, Henriksen, Paxton, Biehn, Carrie Henn, Rolston, Cameron, Giler, Richardson, Robb-King, Gillis, and Goldstein. They discuss the film’s public reception as well as their own reactions to the flick. They then offer some valedictory statements about its lasting impression. The program gets a little puffy and laudatory at times, but the tales of personal feelings offer some good notes.
A few more “Still Photo Galleries” complete the package. Visual Effects Gallery gives us 226 detailed shots of ships, creatures, and other elements. The set then finishes with pictures from the Music Recordings (8 shots), the Premiere (5), and a Special Promotional Shoot (26).
In a nice touch, the DVD allows you to watch all the featurettes as one long program. All together, these fill a whopping three hours, three minutes, and 27 seconds. It also collects all the artwork and photos into their own respective domains, though those options seem less useful. I enjoyed being able to check out all the featurettes as one long show, but with so many stillframe options, trying to work through them as a gigantic conglomeration seemed awkward and unpleasant.
For some time now, I’ve regarded Aliens as my favorite film. A virtually flawless action flick, it provides a tremendous thrill ride bolstered by unusually strong story-telling and acting. The DVD features generally positive picture and sound plus a simply outstanding roster of supplements.
For those who own no version of Aliens on DVD, I can’t possibly recommend this set more highly. It’s an amazing package that should give you lots of enjoyment. If you already possess the 1999 DVD, though, my recommendation becomes less clear. Basically, you’re fine to stick with the old disc if a) you don’t care about supplements at all, and b) you prefer the special edition cut of the film. Picture and audio seem identical between the two sets, so I can’t advise anyone to get the 2003 disc for improvements in those domains. However, the 2003 package seems so strong in every other way that I really think every Aliens fan should own it.
Footnote: as I write this, the 2003 version of Aliens appears only in the Alien Quadrilogy boxed set. However, the 2-DVD version will come out on its own in early 2004.
To rate this film, visit the original review of ALIENS