The First Time I Saw: ALIENS

Associate Editor, Features; Rotterdam, The Netherlands (@ardvark23)
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The First Time I Saw: ALIENS
When the four "true" ALIEN films were released on BluRay two years ago I could not wait to revisit them in High Definition as quickly as possible. When I did, I noticed something odd: James Cameron's "Aliens" had aged less gracefully than any of the other three. "Alien" is almost unbelievably timeless and the other two keep being as flawed as they were, but when I switched to a favorite chapter in what used to be one of my favorite films ever, the first thing that got in my mind was: "Damn, that hair...!".

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...

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Sean "The Butcher" SmithsonJune 5, 2012 1:05 PM

Gotta love the rating change in the Dutch Movie Encyclopedia! HA! Great anecdotes Ard.

I saw ALIENS opening weekend. By that time I was in a band (Sacrilege BC...yes you can find stuff on youtube etc), and it came out the day we had a local gig. So we rushed to the place we were playing (The New Method warehouse...pre Gilman St in Oakland/Berkeley) and rushed over to the UA Cinemas on Shattuck Ave.
It was needless to say a completely mind blowing experience. Then we rushed back to the venue and played, all hopped up on cinematic adrenaline.

What a rad day that was.

kidlazarusJune 5, 2012 1:32 PM

small world... Sean, I've been on this site for a few years, and, until now, I never connected you to Sacrilege BC. I used to do a cut/paste fanzine in the 80s and interviewed one of your members via mail around the time of the Alchemy Recs release of the first LP. Probably Strephon, but, I could be mistaken.

How does this connect to Aliens? I remember seeing it on a Summer afternoon with a few friends - one of which helped put together the zine.
Absolute blast at the time. I tend to agree with Ard's conclusion that Aliens is a product of its time and Alien has a timeless quality.

fsvr54June 5, 2012 5:01 PM

I completely disagree. Aliens is ageless to me, and quite a bit better than Alien.

Mr. CavinJune 5, 2012 9:00 PM

Well I do agree. While I like each and every movie in the Aliens tetralogy, I feel very much like ALIENS is the production most yoked to the era in which it was produced. Possibly that's because they all had shaved heads in the Fincher movie, while the fourth one was basically just a lot Frencher. I think there's something recognizable in Cameron's film making--an offhand realism that contrasts with Scott's blue-collar lived-in aesthetic--that really works as shorthand realism. Sort of like product placement, done correctly, makes a set look like a real place. For better or worse, that very realism also dates his projects later. It's a trade-off.

For what it's worth, this really works in THE TERMINATOR's favor. I saw that in a DC-area repertory theater a couple of years ago, which was just about exactly the halfway point between Sarah Connor's eighties present and Kyle Reece's futuristic present. It makes for a pretty fundamental shift in the way I was watching the movie. The more distant I am from THE TERMINATOR's opening weekend, the less I experience the movie from Sara's point-of-view and the more I adopt Kyle's. Knowing the plot ahead of time feeds into this nicely, sure; but nothing looks more like the past than the past does in that movie now.

But that's all off-topic: I remember seeing ALIENS on its second Saturday in the Four Seasons Mall's shoebox theater which was designed in such a way that the setting sun shined right through the cracks in the lobby doors and lit a line up right down the screen like it was the Well of Souls or something. I didn't care. I saw the movie, like, seventeen more times that summer and fall. I was fifteen and dazzled. They'd not committed the cardinal sin of remaking the first movie, and the idea of following a horror movie with a action movie impressed me. The character-driven nature did too--that easy military camaraderie and Cameron's preternatural ability to throw away a line or individualize a design feature to create social texture. I was a little annoyed that they'd dropped the actual Giger stuff for Stan Winston's somewhat less wickedly unearthly designs, and I had trouble squaring the existence of a queen with the biology set out in the first film. I thought it was a little too long, and I didn't like the puffed-up action heroism of the finale since it seemed so very different from the tone preceding it.

And a quarter of a century on, I still like the movie just fine. The modern viewer in me finds a lot more to criticize about it now, sure, but whatever. The kid down in there still loves every minute of it. He has plenty of fond things to say about the eighties, as well.

bewarethemoonJune 6, 2012 8:33 AM

I remember being very excited about seeing this in '87, I was at college, 18 ( it was an 18 cert in UK) it was a friday afternoon and I think I had a free afternoon or " study" ( yeah, right... on a friday pffft!) So I asked a few mates to come along, but they had lectures until the late afternoon, so how could I wait a whole afternoon? so I just went to see it myself, and Fuck me! was I blown away! great characters, great one liners, action, gore, loads of fucking Aliens everywhere! loved it, loved it LOVED iT!!! so much so that I persuaded a whole bunch of my friends to see it in the evening, and loved it even more! I went on to get it on VHS and watch it over and over again ( it is to this day, my most watched film outside animated ones which I have to watch over and over again with my 3 yearold.....!!) i used to be able to quote whole passages verbatim with other Aliens geeks!! fun time indeed, when life was simpler, time was in abundance and free afternoons were uncharted territories for exploring comic shops, record shops or wooing girls,or all 3 at once if you were lucky.
Aliens hasn't aged as well as Alien or Alien 3 for that matter, some of the FX look dodgy, back lit projection screens, models. etc... but the characters and script are what holds it together, it's a total pop corn movie, but one you can't help but get sucked into watching whenever you catch it on TV, if only Prometheus had some of that script gold dust sprinkled on it!
The 80's, a decade now being plundered left right and centre, the clothes, the music, the movies, I even find myself wearing adidas hi-tops and rock/band/movie T-shirts again, just like I did then, I may not have long hair anymore (I've still got a full head and just a few grey ones) but I remember the 80's as a great one for metal, monster movies and plenty of innocent mayhem... I still can't play guitar for shit neither....