1986: dir. James Cameron (1992 Special Edition)
Writer: James Cameron
Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Lance Henriksen, Michael Biehn, Paul Reiser, Bill Paxton and Carrie Hen
The Theatrical Cut
After reading his script for THE TERMINATOR in 1983, James Cameron was given the opportunity to draft a script for a potential ALIEN sequel. Due to his involvement with TERMINATOR, the project was shelved until 1984, and the rest is history.
So, how do you follow up such a massive and unassuming hit like ALIEN? Cameron opted to push things in a new direction instead of exploring the same old territories – but on a bigger, more impressive scale. Instead of a small crew intercepting a distress beacon, a platoon of Marines are sent to rescue a colony gone dark – set up on the same planet and near to the original films Derelict through none other than Weyland Yutani’s calculated oversight and lack of empathy. Scott put the films focus on a dark, depressing future where mankind was still very much a victim to its own greed. Corporate interests had superseded human rights and the almighty dollar reigned supreme. Cameron kept as much of that as he could, but ALIENS was not a story of powerlessness in the face of the oppressor(s); it was the story of overcoming the boot heel of oppression and confronting ones abuser, and taking that power back.
Don’t get me wrong, this is still a deeply dark tale, but there’s a much brighter beacon of light for our characters to navigate towards. Cameron was truly a pioneer of his time, emphasizing female empowerment in a genre dominated by muscles and testosterone.
One of the principle influences of ALIENS was the Vietnam War, and the film is rife with that kind of imagery. The big, bad, armed to the teeth Marine Corps come stomping in to a world they know nothing about and are rudely awakened to their opponent, a force of sheer sovereign will that fights for the basic principles of survival and refuses to stop until everything before them is dead meat. After poor planning dumps the troop of elite soldiers into the hive utterly defenseless, the descending alien horde rips them to shreds and leaves the entire operation in disarray. Gorman, in charge of the drop (inadequate for the position) is left simply bumbling like a idiot when the shit hits the fan, placing Ripley in charge of her instincts. It’s only because of her past experience that any Marines made it out of the hive in the first place, charging the APC into the lion’s den.
Much of the film’s first act is dedicated to Ripley’s PTSD, as we can see the Nostromo event had a very real effect on her subconscious. She constantly wakes, clutching her chest in anxiety that one of those bastards made it into her lungs. There’s no force or power in the universe that could make her go back there, until company representative Carter Burke talks her into it – promising to destroy the monsters forever. As true with ALIEN lore, human interest constantly overrides judgement and Burke reveals himself a rather despicable and heartless lapdog for the company.
It isn’t until the second act where we begin to see Ripley evolve out of her PTSD, pretty much at the moment we meet Newt. The very sight of her triggers Ripley’s maternal instincts and she embraces her as if she were her own daughter – the very same daughter who’s life escaped her because of the monster. That sort of maternal instinct drives much of her character for the second act, but the third gives us our first look at Ripley as a woman at the end of her rope. After losing her friends and family to the alien, she was about to lose her surrogate family, too. Instead of giving up that “it was too late to save her,” Ripley straps an assault rifle to a flamethrower, packs as many grenades as she can carry, and storms the nest all on her own to rescue Newt from incubation. Not even the Queen herself is enough to stop Ripley, and after a daring confrontation, the two barely make it out alive before the terraforming station explodes, sterilizing the colony and the infestation.
Back aboard the Sulaco, Ripley unpacks from the nightmare and can finally breathe – that is, until the Queen reveals herself as a stowaway. Just like 57 years before, Ripley stares down the surviving alien and finally takes the power back that was stolen from her all those years ago – except this time, she isn’t running and hiding. Ripley comes right at it with an armored powerloader suit and wrestles the beast off ship with her bare hands – a dance number not unlike BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, but with exceptionally more terror. It’s only after finally removing the beast that Ripley is able to sleep again, but with a face of content amid Newt and Hicks – her newfound family born from the ashes.
The Special Edition
The principle cut of ALIENS is a strong, competent movie that never misses a step during its runtime. Cameron’s special edition is a much longer cut of the film (17 minutes, at that) which adds in scenes that range between “superfluous” and “necessary.” Some scenes, such as Newt’s family stumbling on to the Derelict, only serve to show us more of what we already know. Other scenes, such as the aliens testing the hallways outside of the tactical room and Burke serving as exposition for Amanda Ripley, Ellen’s daughter, helps to bring us further into the film’s universe.
The scenes with the aliens testing the hallway defenses is a crucial scene, mainly because between the initial hive attack and the ceiling raid, the aliens just kind of disappear. As far as pacing goes, the theatrical cut for ALIENS is pitch perfect, and the human drama is compelling enough that it only becomes apparent to me after viewing the movie at least fifteen times over 15 years. It serves to demonstrate the sudden decision to “cut the power,” much to everyone’s surprise and the obvious work around to climb through the ceilings in order to bypass the welded door frames. The movie works absolutely fine on its own without this added scene, but the inclusion of it is tremendously effective -perhaps too effective – at conveying the already well established sense that the Marines are facing down an enemy they can’t hope to defeat.
There isn’t a whole lot of other changes made, just the few deleted scenes added in. Cameron didn’t opt to include a lot of cosmetic changes and alter existing shots like Scott had in the Director’s Cut for ALIEN, nor does it include additional story that should’ve never been cut in the first place like with ALIEN 3’s Assembly Cut, so you can’t go wrong watching either edition.