Aliens: Special Edition (1991, James Cameron)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Director James Cameron revised Aliens in 1991 and the resulting ‘Special Edition’ was released on Laserdisc. It came out on VHS the following year, which I when I first saw it – thanks to my mate Dom Wint lending me his copy. An extra 16 minutes of footage has been surgically added to the 1986 film, which does make it a very different watch. I’ve already reviewed the original, so here’s a list of the changes I spotted and think are interesting…

* An entire subplot has been restored. Turns out, Ripley had a young daughter who was left behind on Earth before the events of the original movie. We learn about Amanda in an early scene of Ripley sitting on a bench. At first we think she’s in a park, but as the camera dollies round we realise the background is actually an image on a huge screen. Burke tries to brief her about the inquest she’s about to face, but she just wants to know about her daughter. Burke reports that Amanda Ripley-McLaren died, aged 66, just two years ago – ie, while Ripley was in her 57-year hypersleep. Ripley is given a photograph of Amanda and clutches it as she cries. Sigourney Weaver was reportedly furious that this strand was cut out in 1986 and it’s easy to see why. In a stroke it adds emotional weight to Ripley’s maternal bond with Newt.
* After the inquest scene – which has been slightly extended – there’s a whole new sequence on LV-426. In the original cut, we didn’t see the planet until Ripley and the others arrive. Now we meet the colonists of Hadleys Hope before they were wiped out. First off there are some splendidly atmospheric model shots of vehicles and buildings during a storm. Then we cut inside the main control room. It’s a thriving, busy place with a lot of workers and families. Mac McDonald from Red Dwarf plays the colony’s administrator and gets some exposition as he tells his second-in-command (William Armstrong) that a nearby area is being surveyed by some prospectors. As this is the characters’ only scene, McDonald and Armstrong had been cut out of the 1986 version completely.
* The action then cuts to another scene on LV-426. The prospectors turn out to be a married couple played by Jay Benedict and Holly De Jong. They have their two kids with them – one of whom is Newt, the only member of the family who’s in the original cut. The family are in a futuristic truck, which is battling its way across jagged terrain. They find a derelict space ship – recognisable to us as the craft from the first Alien film. The adults go inside it to investigate, but soon return in a panic. The dad has a facehugger attached to his head. It’s lovely to actually *see* what happened to Newt’s parents (and by extension all of the colonists), rather than just be told about it. It also works well because (on a first viewing) the film tricks us into assuming Newt dies along with everyone else. Oh, *and* the whole sequence looks and sounds sensational.
* The scene between Ripley, Burke and Gorman in Ripley’s cramped quarters has had a few lines added in. The best comes when Burke cites his company’s catchphrase – “Building better worlds” – and Ripley deadpans, “Yeah, I’ve seen the commercials.”
* There are some new shots of the empty space ship before the marines wake up. Very reminiscent of the equivalent scene in Alien, actually.
* A nice moment between Hicks and Ripley: just before she enters the colony for the first time, she pauses and he asks if she’s okay.
* Another entire subplot has been added: we see the marines set up a number of automated sentry guns to cover the approaches to their hiding place. We later see the guns in operation as the aliens attack. They fire and fire, but the creatures keep coming. The characters know the ammo won’t last forever. It’s tense stuff. But just as the last gun nears its end, the aliens stop attacking – Ripley suggests the plan to scare them off has worked. This is a substantial amount of action, which is neatly threaded through pre-existing material.
* Newt asks Ripley if she has any children. Ripley tells her she had a daughter who died.
* Near the end, as Ripley is about to head off to rescue Newt, she and Hicks tell each other their first names. Even the admission that Hicks is called Dwayne can’t spoil the nice character moment.

Review: James Cameron has a mixed record when it comes to these after-the-fact re-edits. Three times now he’s gone back to a successful film and rejigged things. The Abyss (1989) was a good enough sci-fi movie to begin with, but the extra 15 minutes added in a 1993 special edition lift the whole thing to a new level. Conversely, Terminator 2 (1991) was pretty much perfect on release. So the longer home-video version has many superfluous scenes and the pace of the middle third sags. With Aliens, the changes are a total triumph. The rhythm of the story is not damaged at all, we learn more about Ripley, and her connection to Newt has extra meaning. This is James Cameron’s preferred version of the film – and mine.

Ten wildcatters out in the middle of nowhere out of 10

Next time: An Alien movie directed by David Fincher? What could go wrong?

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