Aliens Review – 4K remaster that mostly doesn’t use AI… mostly…

Aliens 4K Review

Alien (1979) is often regarded as one of the scariest movies of all time, usually lumped in with The Exorcist (1973), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), The Shining (1980), and John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) as some of cinema’s finest examples of the horror genre. Like many great movies, it got a sequel, but nobody could have expected the sequel to eclipse the original.

When James Cameron is at the helm, it is always a safe bet to trust he will surpass expectations. However, he was not yet king of the world in the 80s and had only just come off directing his directorial debut; The Terminator (1984). He was already a fan of Ridley Scott’s Alien and had already written a story he could rework into fitting as a sequel.

Aliens was a huge commercial and critical success, landing Sigourney Weaver a nomination for best actress in a film genre that was never recognized by the academy. It cemented Cameron’s career as a filmmaker and its screenplay has been studied since. Video games endlessly crib aspects from it and it remains rewatchable to this day. How does the latest 4K remaster hold up? Find out in this Aliens (1986) 4k review!

Aliens (1986)
Production Company: Brandywine Productions
Distributor: 20th Century Studios, Buena Vista Home Entertainment, Lightstorm Entertainment

Director: James Cameron
Release Date: July 14, 1986/1990

Aliens picks up where Alien left off, with Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in cryo sleep in the Narcissus. Having drifted in deep space for 50 years, lost and preserved, she is a woman out of time.

When rescued by a salvage team, her night terrors, born of the Nostromo’s horrors, still haunt her. Waking from them, drenched in sweat, she is tormented by the traumatic events of the first film.

Leaving cryo sleep brought on a new nightmare for Ellen Ripley: the cold wrath of her employer, the shady Weyland-Yutani Corp, and their bugmen questioning her actions that saved her own life. Her status revoked, she is forced to work a soul-crushing dead-end job as a loader.

The mysterious planet where the original alien parasite from the first movie was discovered has begun a terraforming process in the time Ripley was adrift in space. With Ripley’s testimony of a dangerous lifeform on the planetoid, the company jeopardizes the lives of everyone on the terraforming colony to secure a specimen.

As expected, the colonists on the planet have a very bad time when exposed to the alien parasites. Weyland sends Carter Burke (Paul Reiser), a sleazy company agent, to recruit Ellen Ripley to participate in an investigation on the colony.

She finds herself shoulder-to-shoulder with a bunch of jarheads whose gung-ho grins haven’t quite melted away from boot camp. The gang straps on their guns and touchdown onto the empty colony where they only find the echoes of screams.

When the Marines meet the menace it’s like Saigon, only with more acid and less napalm. Aliens is steeped in Vietnam War symbolism to emphasize that sometimes the most dangerous threats are not always the most advanced.

The Vietcong allusions are loud and clear – marines blasting away in claustrophobic tunnels, facing an unseen enemy that bleeds acid and hisses like a pissed-off cobra. Yet, beneath the surface, you’ll find a gooey center throbbing with the primal pulse of motherhood.

In the extended ‘Special Edition’ cut, for example, Ripley is haunted by the ghost of her daughter, a life lost while she drifted through the cold void. The loss is a black hole sucking at her soul, a gaping maw that only a little girl named Newt can fill.

The cut scene of Ellen mourning her daughter was a mistake in the theatrical version because it informs Ripley’s motivation for the rest of the film. The film is still perfectly enjoyable without this scene and Ripley becoming attached to Newt still feels natural because who wouldn’t want to protect that adorable raggamuffin moppet?

Most of the other scenes in the Special Edition are not essential, but it is interesting to see the colony operating before the alien infestation so viewers get an idea of what was lost. Newt’s brother is only mentioned in passing in the theatrical cut, but he gets a scene in the extended cut.

After Ripley and the gang become the new caretakers of Newt, the entire platoon gets stranded in the colony. As if the impending doom of becoming impregnated with an alien parasite wasn’t bad enough, the colony’s nuclear reactor is growing more unstable and will soon explode.

James Cameron ramps up the stakes at a brisk clip and injects vital emotional threads to keep viewers deeply invested. His signature action stamp makes the events pulse-pounding, and his keen eye for spectacle makes Aliens as enthralling today as it was in 1986.

The effects have held up very well for such an old film. The sets all feel real and while the aliens are just guys in suits, they are covered with a thoughtful mix of slime, smoke, and shadows.

It’s fascinating to realize the gargantuan alien queen was done with a mix of large-scale puppets with two human operators inside while being suspended by a crane and a smaller rod puppet for some wide shots where she walks.

The movie magic used with the queen animatronics is brought to life with ingenious editing. The puppet itself is very convincing, there are a few shots where the queen looks like she is having trouble standing up and maybe she is a bit unwieldy for her operators. The queen may not have the mobility or grace of a CGI monster, but when Ripley is battling this big puppet, it really looks like she is battling a big puppet instead of nothing.

There is also extensive use of scale models to realize the colony and the scale of outer space. The Sulaco, the dropship, the nuclear reactor, and the cut shots of the operating colony in the Special Edition all look very convincing and have a palpable verisimilitude.

The sound design is also truly iconic. The sound of the way the mechanical doors open, the gunfire of the machine guns, the beeping of the motion tracker, and the low hiss of the queen are very specific. Cameron and his foley artists made some inspiring decisions and crafted some of the most well-known sound effects of all time.

The film’s release was a cultural earthquake, with its meticulously detailed world leaving a lasting impact. Aliens‘ influence extended far beyond the big screen, inspiring countless game developers worldwide.

The original Doom was initially pitched as a tie-in to the film, but ultimately carved its own path. However, the film’s visual elements found their way into the game’s corridors, monstrous creatures, and fast-paced action.

Resident Evil 2 (1998) also lifted some qualities from Aliens, weaving them into its chilling narrative. Both stories center on a fierce female protagonist whose motherly instincts motivate them to protect a little girl. The fear grips both players and characters as they face a monstrous entity capable of impregnating people with parasitic offspring, culminating in heart-pounding finales with nuclear explosions ticking down on the clock.

Even the likes of Halo cribbed from Aliens’ playbook by having very similar aesthetics to the UNSC Marine Corp characters. Sgt. Johnson is effectively borrowed entirely from Sgt. Apone from James Cameron’s script. The influences span from Call of Duty to Duke Nukem and even Metroid.

For such a beloved and important film, it was only right that it would get the best treatment for its 4K remaster. In the years since Cameron directed this classic, his feelings on it seemed to have shifted since he has a distaste for film grain. What we get can be best described as ‘mixed results’.

The film was originally shot on 35mm in 1.85:1, using an Arriflex 35-III. This remaster seemingly uses a 2K scan of the original negatives from the prior Blu-ray release and some AI to fudge a 4K intermediate. Photochemical grain has been dramatically reduced, yet this doesn’t resemble typical DNR (digital noise reduction).

There is still some fine film grain throughout, but it is hard not to notice some egregious smoothing on such a gritty film. The reason why AI was used was probably to enhance the HDR (high dynamic range), to give the picture more depth, to enhance the black levels, and to make the movie appear more radiant and luminous.

This trade-off is understandable because, for the most part, Aliens in 4K looks truly magnificent. This was always a raw, atmospheric film. Seeing it become so polished, with every wrinkle on Ripley’s face and every drool droplet ooze from the maw of an alien rendered in meticulous detail, is undeniably impressive.

However, hold onto your old Blu-ray, because that original texture still adds a unique flavor to the film. Both versions have their merits, and it’s good to have options.

James Cameron’s ears might be more keen than his eyes because the Dolby Atmos mix is bigger and broader. The direction of sonics during the action is very immersive, dialogue is sharper and cleaner, and even subtle audible cues are defined. The image quality might not please everyone in this 4K remaster, but the sound certainly will.

Aliens is still one of the most enjoyable sci-fi action movies that has some horror elements. It’s a perfect date movie and its visual style remains one of the most copied. While it does ignore the psychosexual themes from Ridley Scott’s opus and redesigns the monsters to be bug-like threats as opposed to the Giger nightmares, its hard to not still be enthralled by everything else it does right.

While some viewers might find the Queen’s final entry onto the Sulaco improbable, the film’s masterful editing and sense of escalating tension effectively draw the audience into the moment, leaving them engrossed in the climactic confrontation rather than dwelling on the logistics. Ultimately, the impact and emotional resonance of the scene outweigh any minor quibbles with plausibility.

The power of Aliens‘ story, themes, visuals, and pacing make it endure the test of time. It’s a sequel that can be seen standalone and you might even get inspired to write and design your own ideas after viewing. Regardless of which version you watch, expect to be engrossed in it even if it’s your hundredth time rewatching it.

Aliens (1986) was reviewed with a 4K Bluray purchased by Niche Gamer. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here. Aliens (1986) is now available on 4K Bluray via digital streaming (Vudu).

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The Verdict: 9

The Good

  • Vibrant and razor-sharp image quality so fine, you can count individual strands of hair and slime
  • Hefty and booming Dolby Atmos directional sound mix that makes the action more immersive than ever
  • Pitch-perfect pacing and structure, superb production design, convincing special effects and excellent performances from the entire cast
  • Sigourney Weaver utterly commands every scene she is in
  • Both edits of the film are included, as well as all archival bonus material

The Bad

  • There are some sneaky instances of AI used to scrub SOME of the film grain
  • The story cheats the laws of reality a little bit towards the end in order to surprise the audience
  • Neither the theatrical cut or the special edition are perfect cuts


A youth destined for damnation.

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