Thursday, August 21, 2008

Four Reasons Part One: Aliens

I'm going to try something new which will pop up sporadically in the Blogorium: the "Four Reasons". Each piece will deal with a particular long standing argument I have about a particular movie, one that I don't frequently discuss but would like to put out there for your consideration.

For the inaugural edition, it seems fitting to begin with one of the earliest versions of a "director's cut" available to home video markets: Aliens.

Four Reasons the Theatrical version of Aliens is superior to the Director's Cut.


James Cameron's Aliens, released in 1986, is by now recognized as one of the rare "sequels that equal" the original, in this case Ridley Scott's Alien. When Aliens arrived on laserdisc, film aficionados (and anyone who could afford to rent a laserdisc player) were introduced to Cameron's preferred cut of the film, one that added 17 minutes of footage and reinstated three major subplots into the film.

For some time following the Laserdisc, the Director's Cut was the only version available on VHS and dvd; in fact, until the Alien Quadrilogy, there was no way to see the Theatrical version of Aliens at all. Generally speaking, fans of the series tend to prefer the Director's Cut of Aliens to the Theatrical, citing the depth of reinstated subplots and the restoration of Cameron's original vision.

I, on the other hand, prefer the Theatrical Cut, even if it represents a concession on Cameron's part to Twentieth Century Fox. Sometimes a Director's Cut is an improvement over the conventionally released version, but Aliens is one of the rare examples where I believe the inclusion of seventeen minutes hinder the film rather than improve it.

Allow me to lay out four points where the Theatrical Cut benefits from scenes left out of the Director's Cut:

1. Ripley's Daughter - the revelation that Ripley's daughter is now dead, admitted to be actress Sigourney Weaver's favorite moment in the series, adds a level of depth to her character but is entirely out of place in the pacing of Aliens. Yes, it creates the situation of an echo when she encounters Newt, but in the first half of the film, Ripley's struggle is with adjusting to the events of Alien, not what happened while she was away.

The theatrical version transitions from Ripley's "chest burster" dream to the hearing over her actions in the first film, and the inability to convince beauracracy that her nightmare in space was real. Dramatically speaking, the impetus to put Ripley aboard the Marine ship is linked to her failure to readjust to life on Earth, coupled with her nightmares. If Ripley is to face her fears and return to the planet, the spartan storytelling of the Theatrical Cut is preferrable to the Director's Cut, which adds an emotionally interesting digression that fails to serve the narrative of act one.

2. Newt's Family, The Colony, and the Ship - this addition, above all other changes to the film Aliens, is the most serious misstep on Cameron's part. There is no reason to show us Newt, her family, or more importantly, the colony on Acheron (aka LV-426) before the Marines arrive.

The juxtaposition of Colony before alien infestation and after is not only unnecessary, but it ruins a crucial element of surprise for the audience. Aliens is Ripley's story, and secondarily the Marines; when they arrive on Acheron, they have no idea what to expect. They don't know the layout of the colony or where to begin looking for survivors. By adding this sequence introducing Newt, and more problematically, explaining how the aliens found the colony, the audience is already familiar with the structure of the buildings, where Newt hides, and has an advantage over the protagonists.

What's lost in the Director's Cut is a sense of mystery about the colony, partly because we already know what it looks like, and partly because this cut has explained too much about the aliens. In the Theatrical Version, we experience Acheron with our main characters, and we know as much as they do, which creates a greater sense of unease at each discovery.

The last two points are minor changes in the film, but changes which I feel rob the film of clever moments created by removing the footage:

3. The Sentry Guns - Cut entirely from the Theatrical Cut is any mention of the Smart Guns that Hicks (Michael Biehn) brings into the main building of the colony after the marines barricade themselves in. The inclusion of the Smart Guns is not essential to either cut, but what their removal does is give the Aliens a greater sense of stealth.

It is assumed in the Director's Cut that the aliens will head down the main corridor towards the facility, so two guns which fire automatically at a moving target are placed in front of the welded entrance. The aliens approach, are shot at, and retreat. They later come in through the ceiling, showing adaptability, which is impressive, but consider this possibility:

In the Theatrical Cut, without the Smart Guns, it is implied the aliens always came in through the ceiling, preserving the element of surprise even when the colonists were not expecting them. Instead of taking the direct route and adapting, this suggests the aliens outsmarted their prey from the first moment, sealing the fate of both the colonists and the marines.

The "motion sensor" sequence in the Theatrical Cut is considerably more suspenseful because we don't know where the aliens are coming from or how they could possibly be so close without opening the doors. The addition of Smart Guns adds nothing to the tension of the sequence precisely because it provides a hurdle the aliens could simply avoid in the first place.

4. Hudson's speech in the Drop Ship - One addition I actually like in the Director's Cut is the pep talk that Hudson gives Ripley as the Marines are approaching Acheron, although I admit it is wholly unnecessary.

Hudson's braggadoccio is already well established while the Marines are on the actual space ship, so his speech about how tough Ripley's escorts are is largely redundant, and the "laundry list" of weapons aboard the drop ship is mostly unimportant. By the time Hudson has his collapse in the now famous "Game over" scene, the bravado demonstrated aboard the drop ship has been undercut by Drake, Vasquez, and Hicks.

It's a nice speech, but it doesn't do anything scenes before and after it do with greater skill.

I don't mean to say that James Cameron's preferred cut of Aliens is bad; I simply believe that when choosing between his cut and 20th Century Fox's cut, I am more inclined to take the studio's. I feel it does everything his cut accomplishes in less time and doesn't feel as bloated with extraneous digressions and subplots.

Is this true of all Director's Cuts? No. Are there some Studio mandated versions I prefer? Yes, but it does not mean I defer in one direction or the other.

Watching films is an intensely subjective process, so I expect that some of you might disagree with me, as you have every right to. I welcome a discussion of the relative merits of both cuts of Aliens. You know where I stand, and your insight would be most helpful.

In future installments of Four Reasons, I hope to discuss why I feel Return of the Jedi and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade are the weakest films in the respective series, a frank comparison between the studio cut and Director's "remix" of Donnie Darko, and perhaps even another go at the Steven Soderbergh debate.

Until then, I hope to hear from you.