Alien is one of those films that I feel that 98% of the population has seen, and most of those people have seen it multiple times. There’s not much more that I can write that hasn’t already been written about the film, so I’ll instead take a hike down into Memory Holler and relive the first few times that I saw it.
I first saw Alien in the summer of 1979, on its initial release, in the biggest movie theater that I have ever, to this day, been to. And yes, I ended that sentence with a preposition. So sue me. I was in Montreal, Canada, with a group of All-State band members from Mississippi, and I had been eagerly anticipating the release of the film for months. I had read all about it in various horror movie magazines, and I had bought the paperback novelization to read on the trip. I was only about a third of the way through the paperback when we got a free afternoon in Montreal, so I gathered together a like-minded bunch of teenagers to go see it. I don’t remember the name of the theater in which we saw Alien, but it (the theater, not the name) was BIG. The line stretched around the block, and I just knew that we weren’t going to get in to see it, as the line was so incredibly long. But when we got into the theater, it was only about a third full. That theater had to have held about 2,000 people.
In Canada, the film was restricted to people 14 and over, which, thinking back on it, seems like an appropriate rating. In the States, it was rated “R,” as there was no PG-13 rating yet—just the lowly PG. And, obviously, Alien is certainly not a PG-rated film. I, and the others who had made the journey with me, sat in absolutely rapt sway of the film. It was being presented in 70mm, with the accompanying multi-track sound. I had never before heard a film sound so a) loud and, for lack of a better word, b) immersive. Near the end of the film, when the film’s heroine, Ripley, is running through the ship’s corridors as it begins its self-destruct sequence, it was as if I was running with her, hearing the hiss of escaping steam and the wail of warning sirens go past. It was AWESOME.
When the chestburster sequence came in the film, a younger guy that was sitting next to me who had never seen an R-rated film before leaned over and whispered to me, “Are all R-rated movies this scary?” I whispered back, “No, this one is pretty intense.” At the end of the film, we all walked out in a daze, excited by what we all deemed to be the scariest movie ever.
When I got back home, it was showing in my hometown, so I took my girlfriend to see it. She held my hand for the duration of the entire film, except for the few moments that she squeezed my hand so hard that I thought that she had broken some bones, at which point I politely disengaged my hand to check for injuries and to massage my bruised digits. It’s kind of funny, but her death-grip proved to me that the biggest jump scare in the film involves one of the characters bumping into what looks to be a garbage can, causing a loud banging noise that makes an audience jump in unison. I loved the film all over again, but I did note that seeing it in a smallish theater that held maybe 200 people just didn’t hold a candle to seeing it the way I did in Montreal.
The third time that I saw the film, I was at college, and the student activities board showed it on campus. That was back in the days when colleges showed 16mm prints of films to large, rowdy crowds of students. I went with a few of my fraternity brothers, one of whom was hearing-impaired. He was really good at reading lips, but there are times in Alien where the actors’ lips aren’t visible when they’re talking. So he kept asking me, “What’d she say?” or “What’d he say,” and the trash can scare just didn’t work for him at all. Still, he enjoyed it.
After that came the requisite VHS purchase, and then the special edition Laserdisc purchase, which I still have in a box around here somewhere. For some reason, I held off buying the DVD when it came out, opting instead for a copy of its sequel, Aliens. Then, in 2003, in what can only be seen as a crass attempt to eke more money out of it, a “director’s cut” of Alien was released theatrically, with some extra footage (which had been shot and not used, and had already appeared on the special edition Laserdisc edition) inserted into the film. The reason I use “director’s cut” is that Ridley Scott, the director, had already gone on record as saying that the original theatrical cut was truly his director’s cut, and that the 2003 reissue was really just an alternate cut, done for the fans. However, when that version came out on DVD, I finally snagged it.
Watching the film today, it’s simply not as scary as it once was. Overexposure to the film probably has a lot to do with that evaluation, but the scare factor of films that have come out over the ensuing 30 years has something to do with it as well. Either way, it’s one of those films that, when confronted by someone younger who says that it’s not scary at all, I find myself defending by saying, “Yeah, but if you had seen it when it first came out….”
Here’s the original, highly effective theatrical trailer, courtesy of YouTube: