I watched the '79 cut of Alien on Monday night and followed it up with Aliens last night. One of the best things about the latter film is that while it has a very distinct visual style... it is unmistakably a James Cameron film, but it dovetails beautifully with Ridley Scott's film in a similar manner to how Robert De Niro doesn't look like a young Marlon Brando, but could play a young Vito Corleone. This is in spite of a radical change in filmic texture as well as aspect ratio; how much of that grain was intentional and how much of it was just the crappy film stock in circulation at the time is anybody's guess, but the original laserdisc of the Special Edition of Aliens was made intentionally grainy, but so much so that it was rather distracting. What grain is left on the prints used for the DVDs looks to be mostly film grain, and I wonder what a high definition transfer of this film would look like (I actually am also pretty eager to see a hi-def edition of Alien as the Quadrillogy transfer looks absolutely stunning).
But on top of that, one of the things that makes Aliens such a satisfying sequel is how, while it picks up right where the previous film left off (at least for the protagonist) and shares quite a few structural similarities to the first film, it takes so many elements of the first film and uses them in a different context. Some of these are subtle, such as the way that the titles and opening sequence play out, others are more obvious, such as the false ending. Others are more obvious (the movement sensors, the primacy of the big corporation, the creatures themselves). As I've mentioned many times, Alien is a horror film, Aliens is a war film, but Aliens, while it specializes in powerhouse action, is still a damn scary movie. It has to be for the central character to resonate.
Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), consumed by her experience, has to face her greatest fears and overcome them, and the film has a nightmarish quality to it because it is her nightmare, and Cameron has a point in his commentary when he says that Ripley's motivations for returning to LV-426 are internal. The driving force of the film is her need for growth, which harmonizes with the film's theme of motherhood as she gets a second chance not only to deal with her demon(s), but also to make up for her failure as a parent. The means that despite all of the terror and pulse-pounding action, the film hangs upon a believable psychological arc. Ripley is not the same person she was in the first movie; like the movie as a whole the same elements are employed to different ends. Her take-charge attitude demonstrated in the first film doesn't put her in any sort of literal command - Hicks (Michael Biehn) is the leader through most of the film, but allows her to fulfill the advisory capacity for which she is brought on the mission in the first place (perhaps Carter Burke's [Paul Reiser] only good decision in the film). Her ability to deal with Hudson's (Bill Paxton) breakdown in a sympathetic but no-nonsense manner is consistent with how she calms down an enraged Parker (Yaphet Kotto) in the first movie. Her afinity for industrial equipment makes sense given what her job might have entailed in Alien as well.
In all versions of the film, the relationship between Ripley and Newt (Carrie Henn) is extremely touching. They both have the same nightmare, and both bear complementary wounds and need each other to heal. The extended version significantly enhances Ripley's relationship with Newt by adding the information about Ripley's daughter; while some have found this a questionable addition, I feel that it gives their relationship a symmetry that it otherwise lacks, especially in context of how the concept of family is explored in the film, both human and xenomorph. Weaver's performance throughout the film is fantastic, but it is the scenes with Henn that nabbed her the Academy Award nomination, which are well written and brilliantly played. One of the most effective moments from the Special Edition is when Newt questions the similarity between the chestbursters and a birth, and Ripley has to tell her it's different,* the bonding between the two of them occuring with the recognition of each other's personal vulnerabilities (Newt deduces quickly the fate of Ripley's daughter).
James Horner's music is a weird mixed bag... it is one of his least original scores, consisting entirely of music that he had originally written for Star Trek II, Brainstorm and Krull; he cribbed the 'Adagio' from Aram Khachaturian's Gayaneh (the same piece that appears in 2001) note-for-note; and what's left is touches of Bruckner, Stravinsky and Shostakovich. He also takes entire concepts from Jerry Goldsmith's score for the first film - including the ticking time motif - which actually doesn't bother me so much because it is a sequel, after all.
However, the score also happens to be one of his most effective, especially in the action sequences, as is evidenced by the appearance of "Ripley's Rescue," "Futile Escape" and "Bishop's Countdown" in countless trailers, and "Resolution" at the climax of Die Hard (I can personally attest to the power of "Bishop's Countdown" as I just recently had an automotive event that seemed to be perfectly in synch with the music). I do have to say that it is very strangely cut up and tracked all over the film, a quality that it has in common with Goldsmith's score for Scott's movie. Having idly cued up the music to the film using the instructions in the "Deluxe Edition" booklet, I can honestly say I'm baffled as to why Cameron made some of the decisions he did. In the commentary track, he admits to being inexperienced in dealing with an orchestral composer, and I understand why he scaled back the score so significantly, but I don't think it makes much sense to exchange pieces of "Ripley's Rescue" and "Futile Escape" the way that occurs so often in the movie, especially considering how similar the cues are. I can understand that "Resolution" needed to be replaced because the scene was recut, but any number of tracks from the album synch up just fine with the film and would have offered a smoother listening experience. When integrated with the sound mix, it works quite well, but I wonder why Cameron felt that it was necessary to play around so much with the score. However, Horner's work and Cameron's use of it is the only real gripe I have about the movie (maybe the sound mix could be a little more enveloping).
Watching Alien (the original '79 cut) and Aliens back-to-back is a very worthwhile experience. The fact that the films are very different keeps them from seeming repetitive, and Ripley's character arc in Aliens is only reinforced by proximity to her experience in Alien. The transition from film to film is quite smooth, making both narrative and emotional sense. Furthermore, the succession from the blue collar ensemble of the first film to the military cadre in the second prevents any of the characterization to come across as stale. Many of Cameron's favored performers appear in the film, including Biehn, Paxton, Lance Henrikson and Jenette Goldstein; and as with the first film, the cast works because they're committed to the reality of the situation they find themselves in. While there are some anachronisms (i.e. "Fly the Friendly Skies" was a ubiquitous ad campaign of the 80s that is all but unknown to latter generations), the fact that the Marines' function and equipment is a logical extrapolation from today's world - not to mention the corporate paranoia featured in the first film as well - and the horrible nature of the aliens themselves make them fully accessible. I must also admit that I have, perhaps unfairly, never been able to accept Paul Reiser's comedic talents because his performance in this film was so convincing.
If the film's action sequences are riveting, it is because the dramatic moments setting them up are so meaty. The audience cares about what happens to these characters, which is what makes the final showdown in the Med Lab so devastating... like The Seven Samurai, you have grown close to these people in the time that you've known them and you're quite aware that they're not all going to survive... and the terrifying fate that awaits any survivors makes death preferable. And yet the forward momentum is so well-wrought that even a noble sacrifice becomes a source of danger for the survivors. The tautness of the structure of the film (which, as I indicated earlier, follows that of the first film rather closely) is interesting to note in context not only of how long the film is, but how well it plays even in its expanded version. It is one of Cameron's most satisfying films, being both exciting and emotionally engaging.
That Aliens works so well as both a sequel and as a stand-alone film makes Alien³ that much more disappointing. I consider Alien³ to be too interesting a film to be completely dismissed (certainly its depiction of a xenomorph that had gestated in a dog, and taken on rather canine stance and movement, is a brilliant extrapolation of the original design and Elliot Goldenthal's liturgical score is stunning in its emotive power), but it is seriously one of the worst sequels in history. While Aliens builds on the events of the previous film, Alien³ effectively negates the events of Aliens within the first five minutes. The ill will that this engenders in the audience (most of whom would have seen and quite enjoyed Aliens) is not helped by the oppressive setting and apocalyptic storyline. The duo of Alien and Aliens is a pair of great films that work well together, but Alien³ is best kept separate. And apart from John Frizzell's nifty score (my estimation of which has risen since its original release) Alien Resurrection is just crap. Two out of four ain't great shakes as a movie series is concerned, but what a two they are...
* Actually, I've known several women who have given birth who maintain that the differences are primarily cosmetic. A parasite comes out of their bodies in a splatter of blood, then grows too quickly and eats everything in sight.