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It’s viewer’s choice: “Aliens: Ultimate Collector’s Edition” or earlier editions

Updated: Mar 29


4K ULTRA HD REVIEW / HDR SCREENSHOTS

Sigourney Weaver returns as Ellen Ripley the sole survivor from The Nostromo. During the mission to LV-426, she becomes the surrogate mother to Newt played by Carrie Henn.


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“ALIENS: ULTIMATE COLLECTOR’S EDITION”

 

4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray & Digital copy; 1986; R for violence and profanity; Digital via Amazon Video (4K), Apple TV (4K), Movies Anywhere (4K), Vudu (4K), YouTube (4K)

 

Best extra: James Cameron’s 2003 commentary for the “Director’s Cut”

 








FOURTEEN YEARS AGO, I reviewed the “Alien: Anthology” box set from Twentieth Century Fox for my old East Coast newspaper. 

 

It started like this: “Director James Cameron is a man of his word.”

 

At the time, he bragged that “Aliens: The Director’s Cut” running 17 minutes longer – and considered “more intense and more suspenseful” – received a complete digital redux, and that it looked better than when it premiered in the theaters. “This is the ride that we intended you to take,” he said.

 

Cameron was right; the results were DAZZLING.

 

Using a new 4K scan (that’s what I reported in 2010 along with Digital Bits and DVDcompare) of the original 35mm camera negative (1.85:1 aspect ratio), handled by Lowry Digital who, at the time, was Hollywood’s go-to restoration house. Cameron supervised the work along with his digital colorist expert from “Avatar.” They completely de-noised and color-corrected every frame toward a cooler bluish-green palette, all without losing finer film grain and sharpness. On-screen, the film grain was still more apparent than just about any 35mm film ever released on Blu-ray.

 

The original production was filmed at the famed Pinewood Studios outside of London – where the original “Star Wars” Trilogy was shot. The film stock used by British cinematographer Adrian Biddle (“V for Vendetta,” “Thelma & Louise”) had excessive grain, which Hollywood stopped using the following year. “Kodak was in transition and changing their emulsions,” Cameron says in the commentary. “This was a higher speed negative than had been used previously. They hadn’t worked out their T-grain emulsion. So, it turned out grainer than I wanted.”




57 years later: Ripley is discovered




 

VIDEO

Fast-forward a decade and a half later, Cameron decided to give “Aliens: Ultimate Collector’s Edition” another digital redux for its 4K premiere from Lightstorm Entertainment and 20th Century Studio. Peter Jackson’s Park Road post-production house was his choice, which he used for the recent “Titanic” 4K restoration (it landed at No. 10 in our annual Top 4K mastered discs for 2023). Here, he’s dialed Jackson’s proprietary deep-learning algorithms a couple of clicks higher than “Titanic,” reducing the 1986 film grain even more while producing enhanced fine detail. No details are provided, but it’s assumed Cameron used the same 4K scan master for this restoration.

 

Film restoration archivist Robert Harris considers himself a purist when it comes to traditional 35mm film stock. But, in his Home Theater Forum review of “Aliens,” he said “The image has been de-grained (removed and replaced with grain-like pattern), with zero loss of resolution, which if anything has been slightly heightened. Colors are meticulously reproduced. ‘Aliens’ is an absolutely gorgeous affair that should please every cinephile.” He’s given the new 4K remastering a 10 out of 10 for its image and the same for its Dolby Atmos soundtrack.

 

I saw “Aliens” during the summer of 1986 in a small North Carolina theater along the Virginia border, while on assignment photographing farmers affected by a drought. I don’t remember the amount of grain present on the theatrical print, but traditionally the prints were heightened with larger grain and a softer image compared to the original camera negative. What I do recall is the intensity of the sci-fi experience.

 

After watching the new 4K restoration (the theatrical edit and Cameron’s special edition) in the last three days, Cameron and Biddle put viewers right in the middle of the action, with their tight camera framing showing every bead of sweat as Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), the one survivor from “Alien,” returns to confront the aliens again.


(1) 2024 - 4K disc (2) 2010 - Blu-ray (3) 2024 - Blu-ray




Mission to LV-426


 




HDR10 and Dolby Vision grading on the 4K disc is minimal compared to the new enclosed Blu-ray, also sourced from the same master. Both discs and edits have excellent natural color grading. But when it’s time to compare highlights, the 4K disc provides more detail and the same with the deep and dark shadows. Overall clarity compared to the 2010 Blu-ray is a big difference, from tight facial shots to the deep focus wide shots, and lesser with the new 1080p disc. The new film grain is substantially less, plus flattened by the Park Road software, although “Aliens” still has an organic cinematic presence with the majority of the scenes without any waxy faces.

 

Yes, fans and cinephiles will debate the merits between the 2010 Blu-ray and the 2024 editions, but ultimately it was Cameron’s decision. Meanwhile, “Aliens’” grain removal by Park Road, replaced with a digitally created grain, is not something new. The same basic technique was used on the 4K restoration of Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist.” The original negative had a good dose of grain, so the post-production folks developed “a whole procedure of de-graining and re-graining the material,” says Warsaw-based DI Factory CEO Jedrzej Sablinski.

 

If you watch any of the catalog Paramount and Warner Brothers 4K discs, you can tell some form of film grain reduction has been applied. Those titles are much less than “Aliens,” but I bet it’s more common than we could imagine. On the positive side, Sony Pictures is the king of keeping the grain intact for their 4K titles.

 

Cameron wanted the original film grain on “Aliens” much smaller and finer, but ultimately it took on the look of film captured on 16mm – like Kathryn Bigelows Oscar winner The Hurt Locker.

 

Everything was encoded onto a 100 GB disc, and the video averages over 50 Megabits per second. On the new smaller 1080p disc the video averages in the 30 Mbps range, which causes the film grain to be inconsistent.


For someone who works with film grain every day with archive still photographs, I would’ve approached this restoration completely differently.

 

AUDIO

The 4K disc gets the eight-channel Dolby Atmos upgrade, while the Blu-ray stays with the 5.1 DTS-HD soundtrack. The added height sound effects elevate the listening environment, while the bass response is very good with standard industry volume levels. Dialogue is front and center, while James Horner’s (“Glory,” “Titanic”) Oscar-nominated score performed by the London Symphony Orchestra is nicely balanced across the soundstage.








 

EXTRAS

Still, after all these years, Cameron’s commentary is the best, with inserts from the producers and cast members. It provides a complete rundown of the production including his first treatment. Cameron was meeting with “Alien” producers David Giler and Walter Hill, for another project. His pitch was “not going very well. I could tell by their sagging expressions.”

 

As Cameron left the room Giler suggested the possibility of “Alien 2.” On the outside Cameron showed his poker face, but inside, he says, “all the pinball machine lights and bells went off inside my head.” He raced home and worked up a quick treatment, staying up for three straight days, “drinking about eight pots of coffee and writing 40 to 50 pages.”

 

He considers the “Aliens” treatment an adaptation of a script he had already worked up titled “Mother.” It was a story about an alien on a space station, which included the power loader machine, a key element in “Aliens.” “I just dropped Sigourney’s character and a bunch of Marines into the story.” Once the producers read the treatment, “I think they felt like they’d hit the jackpot.”

 

The bonus third disc in the set includes a new 30-minute featurette “The Inspiration and Design of Aliens.”  Cameron, an accomplished artist, shows his early conceptual drawings, which he created before writing the script. He credits Ridley Scott, the director of “Alien,” for inspiring a “whole generation of filmmakers,” and how the film elevated the whole sci-fi and horror genre. “There was a gritty reality to it.”

 

Cameron was also inspired by the character Ripley. “Because here was a woman who was not behaving like a typical woman in a sci-fi or horror film. She was the one that survived, and she did it by her wits.” In the original “Alien” script Ripley was a guy, with an all-male crew. But the producers arbitrarily went into the script and made two of them women (Ripley & Lambert played by Veronica Cartwright).

 

The additional disc also includes the standard-def original three-plus hour “Superior Firepower: Making ‘Aliens,’” an 11-chapter documentary, plus pre-production storyboards, videomatics, conceptual art, photo galleries, miscellaneous elements from the old laserdisc archive, and trailers.

 

Cameron’s “Aliens” has always been highly praised by critics and fans. It’s No. 34 on Rolling Stone’s top 150 sci-fi films list between Spike Jonze’s postmodern love story “Her” and the 1950s Red Scare thriller “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” was No. 1. Empire Magazine selected “Aliens” as No. 9 in its Top 50, with Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” at No. 1.

 

This 4K release of “Aliens” is a blessing and a curse, but did Cameron satisfy himself?

 

 Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch producer 




  

1 Comment


Terry Mitchell
Terry Mitchell
Mar 24

Good write-up. I'm floored by how good the Aliens 4K looks. I have The Abyss 4K on order, and I've now imported The Pianist 4K. Can't wait!

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