The First Time I Saw: ALIENS
Well, that surely didn't happen during my first screening of "Aliens", back in 1986. That screening may have been the single most awesome experience I ever had in a theater. Let me elaborate.
Back then in 1986 I was a seventeen-year-old who was very much interested in horror films but was terrified by them as well. I had always been a bit of a scaredy-cat as a smaller kid. Science Fiction, Special Effects and Monsters endlessly fascinated me but I suffered many a sleepless night due to a combination of an imaginative mind and a fear of darkness. Curiosity kept getting the better of my inner judgment so when "Alien" was released in 1979 my interest was piqued. A Spaceship? A Monster? I knew I wouldn't be seeing it because it was horror and I was ten, but I fiercely wanted to know what the monster looked like.
Later that year (when I was still only 10...) I happened to see the "Alien" hardcover graphic novel by Archie Goodwin and Walter Simonson and started leafing through it. I was STUNNED. I saw the facehugger, the chestburster, the first kill...
This was so far beyond what I was expecting or what I was capable of defending myself against, so EVIL, so GORY, that it scarred me. I didn't sleep the first night and had trouble sleeping for several after that, saying my nightly mantras to keep the monsters at bay. And I vowed never to see a film of so malicious a caliber.
Fast forward several years to me being seventeen and noticing the arrival of James Cameron's sequel to "Alien", with the groan-inducing name "Aliens". Gradual exposure to the shocking images in "Alien" had diminished the intense fear I had for the film and its subject, but the fascination and respect for its legend had never left me. And at that time there was a serious dearth in science fiction in Dutch cinemas. It had literally been ages since I had seen a decent spaceship on the big screen, and Star Wars on VHS was cool but only a placeholder for the real thing of course.
Footage of "Aliens" shown on Dutch television showed something that looked exciting rather than scary, and even one brief shot of the alien in that footage made me realize that I had gotten a better view of the beastie than I ever had in the ultra-dark no-contrast VHS of "Alien" which I had ehm... partly seen. And it looked cool with amazing special effects, of which I was definitely a junkie.
So I collected my courage and went to a matinée in one of the best venues in Utrecht, one that doesn't exist anymore these days. I clearly remember the film starting and thinking: "What the fuck am I doing?". In the UK I wouldn't even have been allowed into the cinema as I wasn't eighteen yet. Then I spotted someone waving at me: a guy I knew from school, who was nearly two years younger than me. Whoops! So for me to keep any sort of credibility in the schoolyard I could not even LOOK scared...
More than two hours later I emerged, a cinematic man instead of a boy. I lost two liters of sweat, but my phobia for horror films had been burnt out of me in a single afternoon. Never again have I felt such exhilaration from a screening.
"Aliens" happened to be so up my alley that it wasn't even funny. I loved the action, I loved the use of special effects, I had no clue how they did the scenes with the Hive Queen (no mean feat as I was pretty talented in deconstructing effects shots at the time). But I loved the film as a thriller as well, a terrific carnival ride. The countdown to "That can't be, that's inside the room!" was in my opinion at the time unrivaled. As for the whole "Let's nuke the site from orbit" conversation, FINALLY people in a film were talking sense!
But most of all I liked the kick-ass attitude, that I was seeing people take down specimen after specimen of the monster I had feared most for years, culminating in a mano-a-mano against the great-grandmommy of them all. "This Time It's War" indeed!
For months I tried to convert people into seeing it, and I read all the Dutch newspaper reviews, each of them extremely negative, some only taking personal potshots at James Cameron for being part of the vilified "Rambo" crew. Only one newspaper (NRC Handelsblad) had something nice to say, admonishing the film for being almost totally dependent on special effects and shocks but granting it some praise for creating those effects and shocks to perfection. How smug I was when I heard that Sigourney Weaver had been nominated for best actress.
Over the years I've seen the quality rating of "Aliens" in the Dutch movie encyclopedia rise from a one-star entry (disappointing sequel) to a four-star entry (absolute classic), the commentaries written by the same person. It's nice when people start to agree with you, even if it takes them a few years to get there.
Furthermore, I saw the huge impact the film started to have on action cinema worldwide, and the blossoming industry of videogaming.
As for me personally, after that first screening I saw of "Aliens" I started diving into horror cinema, checking out what I had missed and what I had feared. Many gems were discovered, many legends debunked. But I never again managed to get quite the thrill that I got during that afternoon in 1986.
Fast forward to 2010 and I'm watching my home cinema, somewhat stunned. I still love "Aliens" but there is no denying it's a product of the eighties, and tied to that decade.
Ah well, I will always have my memories of that first screening...