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Artwork copyright (c) 2001 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation; review copyright (c) 2001 James Southall
Sometimes exciting "ultimate edition", but it's a long haul
The Alien series of films has produced some very challenging and innovative music - including a classic score by Jerry Goldsmith and a masterpiece of innovation that took Elliot Goldenthal a year to write. James Horner's score for the second movie is by far the most conventional of the lot - but then, James Cameron's movie is also by far the most conventional. Ridley Scott's original movie is his best, almost unbearably tense at times and simply brilliantly directed (and scored); for the first sequel, Cameron made a much more action (as opposed to suspense)-orientated movie, and Horner's score matches this well. Horner lifts liberally from any number of sources, including Goldsmith's original, Aram Khachaturian's adagio from the Gayene Ballet Suite and his own scores for the Star Trek films. While naturally Horner passes it off as his own work rather than giving the due credit, it is all undeniably entirely appropriate. The opening and end titles (the Khachaturian piece), with their sheer, unrelenting bleakness, rival even Jerry Goldsmith's music for the first film.
In later parts of the score, Horner does begin to quote liberally from Goldsmith's work (for once, this is forgivable, since he is scoring a sequel, but again it might have been nice to have given Goldsmith some credit) - most notably, he bases most of his much-lauded action music around one of Goldsmith's motifs, and the ostinato running through "Futile Escape" is lifted from Capricorn One - but I guess we're used to that by now. Despite this, Horner's work is exceptionally exciting - probably moreso than in any of his other scores. "Ripley's Rescue" and "Bishop's Countdown" represent some of the most exhilarating action music composed in the 1980s.
The score was the second in Varèse's "Deluxe Edition" series, and despite its strong points it is easily the weakest so far. In the sections when it is not either quoting Khachaturian or banging you over the head, it's actually rather dull - the suspense music in "Sub-Level 3" is just plain boring, and certainly cannot hold a candle to Goldsmith's superior original. The original Aliens album actually wasn't bad, and the exciting "Combat Drop" and amusingly-named "Queen to Bishop" are arguably the only cues in this new edition that actually add much to the experience - the remainder is mostly suspense music and not especially thrilling. In this case, more is not necessarily better, though the sound quality and detailed liner notes are definitely large bonuses. James Cameron famously threw Horner against the wall on the recording stage after they had a row (though they made up a decade later for Titanic) - but Aliens is a better score than that implies. The good bits are great, the bad bits are bad, and overall it's like Star Trek II, only worse.