Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by Dan O’Bannon
I don’t want to give the impression that everything in my life from 1977 to 1983 revolved around Star Wars, but, well, an awful lot of my life did. Which is why we found ourselves at a drive-in during late summer of 1979 so I could see it yet again. While I sat in rapt attention performing my devotional, my dad decided to turn around and watch what was being shown on the second screen. Even without sound, he seemed to be getting pretty caught up in it, and kept telling me it was pretty good. So, somehow managing to tear my eyes away from the splendor of Star Wars and see what he was talking about. And that was how my first exposure to Alien was seeing the chest-burster scene completely unaware of what I was actually seeing.
Like Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Alien was a film I pretty much knew in its entirety before I ever saw the whole thing. And now that I think about it, it was thanks to the same group of friends. One of them had the Heavy Metal comic book adaptation, while the other had the photonovel. Photonovels were this weird tie-in that came along for a few years in the late 70s and early 80s that were basically just captioned stills from a given film. They were like comic books with real pictures, and the Alien one was a gorgeous affair, nearly four times the size of the normal paperback-sized photonovels and dripping with gory color. We pored over these books to the point where we knew the movie cold without ever having seen it. I was so into this movie I hadn’t seen that I had a Christmas Story moment with the 18″ Alien action figure, where my disappointment at not getting one turned into elation when I walked into my bedroom after the unwrapping and saw the box on my bed. That alien stuck with me all the way into college, where, during my junior year, it took an unfortunate header off the top of my bookshelf and snapped its head clean off. I still think my 12″ Boba Fett figure might have pushed it.
I finally did see Alien thanks to HBO, and even knowing the story beat for beat, the film still scared the crap out of me. Sound and music really amped up the tension, and seeing the alien moving with its eerie, fluid grace was genuinely unsettling. Most of the sexual undertones went right over my head, but the great thing about Alien is that it works as a wonderful haunted house of a movie and as a meditation on gender and procreation. And it’s such a beautiful looking film, even as these horrific things are happening. I recently got the Blu-ray anthology of all the Alien films, and I must have paused Alien a dozen times just to marvel at some of the shots. Ridley Scott has always had an amazing visual sense, and the way he alternates from confined claustrophobia to vast emptiness is a large part of what makes the film so nerve-wracking. What’s worse — being in a tiny room with no way out, or a big dark room with no way of knowing what’s lurking in the shadows?
So, just as it was my dad’s insistence we see it that got me into Star Wars, it was his urging that I turn away from it for a few minutes that got me into Alien. It may not have been as cuddly and toy-friendly as Star Wars, but it served as a bracing counterpoint, a reminder that between all those bright stars out there is an awful lot of dark space where no one can hear you scream. Still, the ending is a hopeful one, with humanity overcoming the darkness. And with Sigourney Weaver in her underwear, but that’s probably a different blog entry.