The First Time I Saw: ALIEN
Any hardcore cinegeek knows that certain films are more than just things we love, and have set in some nostalgic and romanticized mental time-capsule. No. Sometimes a certain flick will resonate so hard it actually becomes a sense memory, and the mere mention of it takes us back to a specific moment in time, with almost absurd clarity.
Now with the impending
release of Ridley Scott's Prometheus in US theaters in a few days,
there is activity on LV-426 once again, making me feel the undeniably
intense thrum of my past, so I thought it would be a good time to
take a trip down memory lane and revisit the film that started the
rumbling in the first place, Ridley Scott's Alien, the mega-classic,
which attached itself like a Facehugger to my little psyche when I
first saw it 33 years ago.
Woah. 33 years ago.
Now, jump in the Wayback Machine with me and return to May 25th, 1979. It was a few days before my 12th birthday, I lived in Oakland, the only child of a single mom, and we didn't have a lot of money. Luckily, I was a cheap date, it was the release weekend for Alien, and all I wanted to do was get my butt into a seat opening day.
I was already years-deep in serious
movie geekdom, and as versed in old school and (then) new school
horror and sci-fi as anybody, trained by the best, a gang of
Baltimore area film students, who got hold of me and warped my
still-forming mind as a wee lad, when mom and I still lived back
east. My "Uncle Woody" and "Uncle Steve" in particular were
genre hounds, and dragged me (or was that the other way around?) to
literally dozens of Johns Hopkins screenings by the time I was 5.
So, Ray Harryhausen, Universal monsters, Roger Corman (both the
atomic horrors and the Poe stuff), Godzilla, Hammer films, were all
firmly on my list of favorite movies by the time this 12h birthday
I was a Starlog magazine (RIP) reader too, and they had been running teasing little sidebars now and then on Alien, all of course meant to amplify the mystery behind the film, which was being kept way, way under wraps. My anticipation for the ambiguously titled film was at a fever pitch, when mom and I boarded the BART train in downtown Oakland, to make our way into Berkeley. My big Alien birthday started with hitting my favorite stop on telegraph Ave, Comics And Comix, where I picked up the graphic novel style adaption of the Dan O'Bannon screenplay, illustrated by Walt Simonson (who artist Frank Miller owes a huge part of his style too, in this nerd's opinion), as well as The Making Of Alien. The tie in books had just been laid out to coincide with the release in theaters that day, and I had a little scratch from my birthday money, so I immediately snapped them up. Here's where some of the sense memory kicks in: I also remember deliberating between the second Garfield book of collected comic strips, by Jim Davis, or H.P. Lovecraft's The Tomb And Other Tales (a British edition from Penguin). I can't remember what I had for breakfast yesterday but I can remember that. I chose Lovecraft, for the record.
After gearing up on swag, mom and I meandered up the Ave to Blondie's Pizza to eat (Alien birthday memory: two root beers, basic pepperoni slice, and then for my encore slice, I tried jalapeno's on a Hawaiian, copying the UCB student that was ordering ahead of me. Yes, I liked it.). As we sat and ate, I leafed through my new treasures, and immediately knew with excited certainty this was no goofy space opera. I flipped to the half page splash of the xenomorph attacking Dallas, in the comic, and immediately shut the book. OK. The tagline "In space no one can hear you scream" now made absolute sense. I played fair ball with myself (er, that sounds kinda wrong...), and held off spoiling anything further. I had just enough to go on. I would use the graphic adaption, and the Making Of book to re-savor the experience of the film at a later date, but not to spoil the sacred event before it even had a chance to happen. We wrapped up eating and took the leisurely stroll down from Telegraph to the Shattuck area through the UC Berkeley, which deposited us at California Theater, right off the campus border. The air was full of chirping birds, and the sound of the local Hendrix impersonator playing for change, up in the plaza. 100% Berkeley summer. Instead of enjoying it though, I hurried mom along, sure were weren't going to get good seats.
Strangely, when we got to the theater, there was no massive line like I had been expecting. I actually made the same mistake the year before, when we still lived in Chico, with Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. The nerd in me was always sure there was going to be another Star Wars-sized line for these films. I waited, camped out all night by the ticket booth, with an older-brother type, only to be rewarded by us being the first in a line that, well, never really formed. At least I made a new friend that night/next day...Miles Montalbano, another kid who thought the same thing, and later actually went onto to become a filmmaker himself, with the semi-recent indy Revolution Summer.
Sorry, I digress.
So, 45 minutes later, I'm sitting in the auditorium, and there are maybe 30 people in there with us. Granted, it was the first showing that Friday afternoon, and surely these people had not been eating up every little tidbit in Starlog and on morning TV, like Good Morning America. This was also the first time I sat a little away from my mom, loosing myself from her protective emotional tether that had seen me through screenings of movies such as The Exorcist, The Omen, and Jaws already. If I sat away, maybe it would be even scarier!
As the lights went down, and the California Theater's huge velvet curtain rolled back, magic took over for the next couple of hours. The amazing, and sparse, Jerry Goldsmith score rumbled as those amazing and delicate titles slowly spelled out A - L- I - E - N. That glorious pan of the massive space-faring oil rig The Nostromo, which seems to reference a shot of a certain Star Destroyer (cough Star Wars cough), tossing out the niceties of a pristine and clean Empire, instead hitting fans in the face with a big. dirty, lumbering vessel more fitting of a Gothic horror film than a "sci fi flick". The hypnotic opening of the Nostromo's lonely, seemingly deserted interior, and the reveal of the pristine white, almost heavenly chamber, where her crew slowly wake, being born back to consciousness.
I was still expecting laser guns to possibly show up, as the crew of the Nostromo resumed their identities and roles on the ship. Pretty quickly though, it was apparent even to the 12 year old me that the gadgetry in Alien was going to be industrial based, and totally rational. I was all for it. Heck, I was the kid, who at the ripe age of 9 decided to correct Ray Bradbury of all people, at a lecture, when he called himself a science fiction writer. I raised my little hand and asked/stated "I thought you were a fantasy writer, because your rocket engines don't really work.", heh. While Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey was still too intellectual for me. I'd tried twice at that point, when it played on a double bill with Westworld...it would take 4 more years and psychedelics to finally grasp that film for me, but that's another story! Still, I indeed craved a harder edge to the sci-fi stuff. It turned out, to my extreme joy that man oh man, Alien had that in spades. So, I settled into watch the cinematic successor to so much of the pulp sci-fi I'd already consumed (thanks for the tip off's through the years Uncle Forry!) come to life, at 24 frames per up on the massive California Theater 35mm screen, and walked back out into the still bright Berkeley summer day, a couple hours later, changed.
Like The Exorcist.
Like Jason And The Argonauts.
Like The Omega Man.
Alien bore into me, attaching itself to my DNA, making me it's host-body, and me committing to that relationship for the duration of my puny human life.
I don't think I need to go into a blow-by-blow hash of the act of having my mind blown scene after scene, but that's how it went down. A weird aside though, I was strangely not scared of the film, while the adults around me were completely shaken, odder still in that I sat away, as I said, from my mothers protective maternal bubble, trying to increase the deliciousness of the terror I was sure was going to grip me. Nope. The 12 year old Big Boy Pants worked a little too well that day. I was however, moved to my core.
Later, as I got older, I started seeing the relation more clearly to the first Alien film, and things like H.P. Lovecraft's special brand of cosmic horror, and the phallic and vaginal sexual imagery in H.R. Giger's design work, which became more a pronounced, and obvious, the older (and hornier) I got. The one major thing about the film that may have been lost on me though, was how groundbreaking the Ripley role was. Heck, I even call those types of strong-survivor-female characters the "Ripley Role" now, especially if it's in the context of an action/sci-fi film. I was being raised by a woman, who happened to be the strongest person I knew, bar none. A female hero was no revelation to me, I lived with one.
And on my 12th birthday, she
took me to see Alien for my first time.