James Cameron’s Aliens: finding the best cut of the film

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How one man found his favourite cut of James Cameron’s Aliens lying half-way between the theatrical release and the Special Edition.

Notes: this article contains spoilers for Aliens. It also discusses an experimental, private fan edit that is not, nor will be, available for distribution.

It was my 39th birthday recently. Limited by lockdown, my wife, Julia, suggested that we watch the movie of my choice, and having not seen it for a few years, I opted for James Cameron’s magnificent Aliens. As the disc menu appeared, I sneakily selected the 1990 Special Edition version of the film – and a short time later, Jules realised that we were actually watching a 154 minute film rather than the 137 minute theatrical cut she thought she was signing on for. Our evening’s viewing had started late and by the time we got to the famous Power Loader finale, she was flagging badly.

By sneaking in those 17 extra minutes, I had succeeded in taking the fizz out of the evening’s movie-watching. Game over, man!

But a side effect of this marital faux-pas was that it got me thinking about those 17 extra minutes and what they do to Aliens. What they do to its structure, its character arcs and its surprises. And I reached a clear conclusion: I wanted to make my own brand new cut of James Cameron’s Aliens.

Let’s go back a bit. I first encountered Aliens as a 14-year-old (renting the theatrical cut from our local Select Video rental store) and I’ve always admired its pure devotion to thrill and excite – “40 miles of bad road” as its director once aptly described it. I saw the Special Edition a year or so later (as part of my membership of the long-gone Britannia Music Club) and loved that too – albeit in a slightly different way. Much of the footage that the Special Edition re-instated had been trimmed by Cameron ahead of the film’s 1986 release in an effort to bring the film closer to the two hour mark, and in doing so he had given his film a tremendous pace and urgency, but maybe lost a little of its depth and character.

You’re probably already familiar with those 17 minutes – mostly character beats, but some scene-setting and big action too. Famously, the 1990 version gave us a glimpse into life in the Hadley’s Hope colony on LV-426 prior to its xenomorph takeover, including a big scene where Newt’s family discover the derelict ship from the first film and her Dad finds himself on the receiving end of a facehugger.

The other big addition in 1990 was an emotional new subplot about Ripley’s daughter, Amanda. Our hero is told that the ten year old she left behind on Earth has now died of old age – a revelation that reframes Sigourney Weaver’s entire performance, particularly her relationship with Newt.

Other reinstated scenes included a spoken verdict at the end of Ripley’s inquest; more chat with Burke and Gorman in her quarters; tracking shots that introduce the Sulaco sets before its crew come out of cryosleep; some very enjoyable Bill Paxton bravado (“me and my squad of ultimate badasses will protect you!”) during the drop; Vasquez and Drake reading lifeforms that turn out to be colony hamsters; Ripley taking a deep breath before she steps into the colony; a whole new action strand as a set of sentry guns hold off the alien attack in the middle of the film; Hudson wonkily theorising about the existence of an Alien ‘Queen’; an extended Newt and Ripley chat about her daughter and where babies come from; and a touching moment where Ripley and Hicks reveal their first names (“Dwayne” “Ellen”) to each other before she heads off to face the alien hoards alone.

All of those additions are worthwhile, but as I re-watched the extended version, I realised that the Aliens I really wanted to see lay somewhere in-between the theatrical and the Special Edition.

I had general aims: I wanted to retain the mystery of Hadley’s Hope, and I wanted to keep the Special Edition’s emotional character beats, but I also wanted to keep the pace tight – as close to the breakneck speed of the Theatrical Cut as possible. So I enlisted a professional editor – my long-term collaborator Rich Alderson – and we made it happen. We edited our own new cut of Aliens.

The initial step was deciding what I wanted to retain from the Special Edition.

The first choice was obvious – reinstating the Amanda Ripley subplot. It just adds so much motivation and emotion to Weaver’s work in the film, and her performance when she learns of her daughter’s death is one of her finest moments. No wonder Weaver was supposedly furious when she learned of its omission back in 1986. So the two scenes that relate to Ripley’s daughter had to stay.

I’ve also always loved the sentry gun sequences (despite a reuse of a couple of exploding alien shots) which, for me, really help to build tension en route to the marines’ last stand against the xenomorphs – so that was in.

Character beats are often the first casualties of a tightened cut, and I really missed Ripley’s pause outside the colony and her exchange of first names with Hicks – both short moments that really deepen the arcs. I kept Bill Paxton’s “ultimate badass” speech as he’s great in it (RIP) and it helps to show the hubris of the marines going into the fight, contrasting with how “GAME OVER!!!” it all goes for Hudson later on. And finally, I kept the hamsters, just as a little tease of colony life. And because I like hamsters.

So all that material from the Special Edition was staying in, which logically meant that we should use a high resolution Special Edition cut as our master, and remove scenes from it, rather than adding stuff to the theatrical cut. This was particularly important with the sentry gun subplot as it’s actually woven quite delicately into the narrative of the Special Edition – it’d be a bugger trying to reconstruct that, so why bother?

But I was also keen to shed some weight from the Special Edition, so what was on its way out?

The sequences I was most eager to lose were the early ones on LV-426. Undoubtedly it was thrilling to see a happier vision of the colony, but – as well as adding to the runtime- I’ve always felt that it creates a few problems.

Crucially those busy colony scenes ruin the mystery behind the darkened, battle-torn Hadley’s Hope that the marines discover when they arrive. As things play out in the theatrical cut, we can only imagine what the colony might have been like and what horrors must have occurred here. Losing that mystery by spelling things out early on destroys a fair bit of the film’s suspense.

I’ve always found the scene with Newt’s family investigating the derelict site to be the nearest Cameron’s film gets to B-movie sequel, and it just felt too neat to me that not only is Newt the colony’s only survivor, but her Dad was the first victim – so that was out.

The final reason to lose those scenes is that they show the company’s hand too early in the film. We learn that Weyland-Yutani has wilfully sent the colonists in to investigate the derelict colony, which rather ruins Burke’s big reveal later on.

After that big LV-426 cut, it was a case of losing the Special Edition scenes that felt like they extended the runtime but added little extra depth, in my opinion. So out went the unnecessary inquest verdict, the extra dialogue in Ripley’s quarters and the Sulaco tracking shots – which always felt like a half-hearted homage to Ridley Scott’s shots in Alien. Also being flung out of the editing air lock was Hudson’s naff theorising that there must be an alien ‘Queen’ in this colony, an on-the-nose moment that spoils the Queen’s later debut.

The removal of these scenes from our Special Edition master had to be seamless, so I also provided editor Rich with a high-res copy of the theatrical cut, so we could retain the original transitions for the edits where a Special Edition sequence had been removed.

So we’d remove, say, the Hadley’s Hope sequences at the start, and rather than creating our own new (potentially rubbish) transition between the end of Ripley’s inquest and the close-up of her hand that starts the following scene, we simply copied in the beautiful mix cut from the theatrical version. That sounds a really obvious, simple thing to do, but it meant that we were keeping any fiddling on our part to an absolute minimum, so our version hopefully feels as authentic as possible.

And then it existed. Our new cut runs to 146 minutes and 25 seconds, about nine minutes longer than the theatrical cut and eight minutes shorter than the Special Edition. I’m calling it The Hybrid Cut – as, to me, it’s the best of both worlds.

This fan cut (let’s call it what it is) is, of course, entirely unofficial and not intended for any kind of public consumption or money-making. It’s a private, personal version for me and my pals – and it’ll be the cut of the film I show to my daughter when I think she’s old enough. She’s not even two yet, so there might be a wait. Until then, I’ll no doubt return to this extraordinary film once every couple of years – all the nerdish obsession detailed above is testament to just how ruddy brilliant and addictive Aliens is and always has been.

“Game over, man”? Definitely not.

Chris Chapman is a BAFTA-nominated documentary-maker, best known for his documentary ‘Stammer School’ along with dozens of Doctor Who documentaries for the BBC classic range, including the feature length film ‘Showman: The Life Of John Nathan-Turner’. He lives in Bristol with his wife Julia and daughter Edie.



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