I saw Alien in the theater with my parents in 1979.

I was nine.  

Yes, I realize there might have been some bad parenting going on.  But then, it was a different era.  As a child of divorce, and one of the original latch-key kids, I had to grow up fast.  With that came freedom.  Too much, I’m sure, by today’s standards.  

Back then, during summer days when school was out, it wasn’t unusual for me to be off on adventures with my friends from morning until well after the sun set.  We would play tag in a nearby cemetery or a labyrinth of corn fields.  We would construct obstacle courses for our bikes.  We would explore what seemed then like Mirkwood-vast forests,  or hike along the nearby train tracks, or build not-very-seaworthy rafts to cross an algae-encrusted pond.  Very Huck Finn.  Very Stand By Me.   

By comparison, parents today are charged with felony neglect for allowing their 11-year-old to play in their front yard unsupervised.  

Like I said, it was a different era.

On the other hand, it was the beginning of one – for me anyway.  

The Experience

The lives and film-going tastes of kids everywhere in the late-seventies were forever changed by Star Wars.  Sci-fi was king.  The new god.  And I, and every kid I knew, eagerly showed up for Hollywood’s every attempt to wrest a few bucks from their worshippers.  If it had a space ship, a laser beam or an alien in it after the summer of 1977, there’s a good bet I saw it.   They even released the pilots for tv shows like Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century on the big screen.  And we loved it.

So when this new sci-fi movie Alien showed up, even though it was rated-R and was essentially a horror film, it needed to be experienced.  I don’t remember the exact mechanics of how I heard about it. If I begged my parents to go see it, and their guilt over their divorce affected their decision. Or maybe they – not knowing much about the movie – just decided we’d see it that weekend.   

That’s another thing you did in those days – the film-going public usually turned out to see whatever big Hollywood release came out on the weekend.  This was the early-cable tv years, where most homes only got the three big networks, PBS, and if you were lucky to live in a big city maybe two or three other networks like WOR-9 out of New York or WTBS, the “Super Station” out of Atlanta.  Aside from watching The Million Dollar Movie on Saturday afternoons, where you might be lucky to catch Forbidden Planet or The Thing From Another World, if you wanted entertainment, you went to the theater.  And it wasn’t unusual to go see one movie on Friday night, and then another one on Saturday or Sunday afternoon.  

I’m guessing my father must have read a review of Alien in the local paper, and I figure it was a positive review.  My dad was a big movie fan – I’m sure I get that from him.  A good review would often mitigate the R-rating and the potential for bad dreams.  

I remember before we went to see it we were at my grandparents’ house, and my grandmother told me the story of how they took my father to see Psycho in 1960 – he was probably almost 14 then (perhaps this bad parenting thing is genetic).  She told me that whenever it seemed like something scary was going to happen on the screen, my dad would duck down beneath the seat and tie his shoe – which had apparently taken that exact, suspenseful moment to come undone.  Must have been something seriously defective with those laces because she said he was tying his shoes a lot during the movie.  

So off to the movies we went to see Alien.  I don’t know if I remember all of it from that first viewing.  It’s hard to say because I’ve seen it so many times since. It’s become a sort of collective memory experience.  I certainly remember the face-hugger scene.  And the chest-burster scene.  I probably remember Jones the cat, and maybe the sounds of chains rattling as Harry Dean Stanton’s “Brett” got killed.  I may remember Sigourney Weaver squeezing into a space suit before blasting the alien out the hatch.  And I must have seen these scenes between the crack of the seats in front of me, because I also remember my shoe-laces had somehow come undone at some of the most gripping and terrifying moments.  Funny how that seems to happen.

The Movie

FIG 1 Alien Script 1But I remember liking it.  It was like a roller-coaster: terrifying at times when you’re in it, but after the ride’s over you remember how exhilarating and fun it was.  Also, not many of my friends were allowed to go see R-rated movies, so I wore it as a badge of honor – something to brag about.

I also remember it was unlike anything I’d ever seen before.  Yes, it was sci-fi, but there was something else about it… something that set it apart from the shiny, gadget-filled futures science-fiction movies seemed to foretell.  It wasn’t the bright, swashbuckling adventure Star Wars, and all its knock-offs were.  The alien wasn’t this benign mystery to solve like in Close Encounters.  Everything seemed dark and terrifyingly mechanical.  It juxtaposed the natural clutter of the crew areas with the warmth of “Mother’s” computer womb.  And then as we get deeper into the story, we go deeper into the ship, finding the industrial gloom of the lower decks, filled with claustrophobic dark corridors where menace potentially lurks behind every turn.  Alien seems like it was designed to be the anti-2001.  The anti-Star Wars.  

There’s also a sparseness to the story-telling in Alien, which probably comes from Walter Hill’s earliest versions of the script, which his collaborators say he wrote in a minimalistic and unique style, likening it to a sort of blank verse.  Less a narrative, it’s almost a documentary, like we are witnesses to the film’s story.  

But I didn’t know any of that then.  I didn’t know about scripts or production design.  And I didn’t really care.  I just knew it was a really cool movie, and it was different than anything I’d seen up to that point.

The Sequel

saturn-3-usuk-release-posterI remember a year or so later, after my dad had read something in the news that there was a sequel to Alien coming.  “Let me guess,” my mom quipped.  “Alien 2?”  “No,” my dad announced.  “It’s called Saturn 3.”  Well, obviously dad got that one wrong.  Just as Hollywood was churning out rip-offs of Star Wars like Battle Beyond the Stars and The Black Hole (both of which I kind of liked), they were setting their sights on ripping off Alien with a movie like Saturn 3 – replacing the alien with a psychotic robot and tossing in Farah Fawcett-Majors to sex it up.

We did get our Alien sequel though, albeit seven years later.  In the years between I must have seen the original a dozen times or more on tv, cable and VHS.  I read the Alan Dean Foster novelization (which revealed that Dallas survived, only to be impregnated with alien spawn, begging Ripley to kill him, a scene I wouldn’t see until laser discs started adding extras you couldn’t find on VHS tapes).  I also had Alien – The Illustrated Story, a fantastic comic that Heavy Metal Magazine produced.

And then the summer of 1986 rolled around.  ’86 was a big and memorable year for me.  Not only do I consider it one of the best years for movies (Highlander, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Top Gun, The Fly, Platoon, Witness, Hannah and Her Sisters, Big Trouble in Little China, among others) it was also the year I got my driver’s license and my first car. Every weekend was spent at the movies, no matter what was playing.

aliensbook starlogAnd on July 20th we finally got our Alien 2 with James Cameron’s Aliens.  I can remember clearly the ramp-up to its release: I read every Starlog article about the movie I could find.  I bought two fan books Starlog released, full of photos and plot details.   Read the Aliens novelization, again by Alan Dean Foster, which came out at least a month before the movie did (obviously an era before spoiler alerts).  I was seriously geeked up for Aliens.

And.  I.  Loved.  It.

I immediately declared it way better than Alien.  Saw it three times the weekend it opened.  Actually brought my microcassette recorder into the theater one time so I could record all my favorite lines and scenes to listen to over and over again: “They can bill me.”  “Let’s rock!”  “Well that’s just fucking great, man…”  

Still have that tape, actually.   

I even remember visiting the local shoe store week after week, desperate to buy the Reeboks Ripley wears in the film after seeing the ad in Rolling Stone.   Sadly, they never made an appearance in my town.  

Now, with thirty years of reflection I have gone back and decided while I still love Aliens, Alien remains the superior film.  Not everyone will agree, but while Aliens is an even bigger and more exciting roller-coaster ride than Alien, I think the original earns the right to be on top simply by virtue of being first.

The Franchise

Alien When I Was Nine Alien 3Alien 3 (or “Alien cubed” as we often joked upon its release) came out six years later.  I know a lot of folks hate that one.  But while I admit it’s not perfect, and nowhere near as good as the first two, I still like it.  Quite a lot, actually.   I had just gotten out of the military after being overseas, and Alien 3 was still playing at the second-run theater in my town.  I remember absolutely loving the opening credits sequence, one of my all-time favorites, which made me an instant Fincher-fan.

I think David Fincher’s movie made the best of what could only be described as a bad situation.  His brilliance is on display in this, his first theatrical film – and it shines through despite his being locked out of the editing room during post.   After seeing the movie, I became obsessed with collecting every draft of Alien 3 I could find – trying to figure out what was used from each draft in the final film and what got cut.  Something like a dozen writers took stabs at it, from noted cyberpunk author William Gibson’s Cold War take (from which one of the movie’s better visual sequences survived) to John Fasano’s wooden planetoid monastery, it’s clear the producers were all over the map in terms of what they wanted.

And just to prove that I’m not some Alien sycophant, I will admit that I hate, hate, hated Alien: Resurrection.   By this time I had moved to Los Angeles, just graduated film school, and was working my first real job in the movie business as a development exec.  So I read Joss Whedon’s script early, and loved it.  When I heard the director of such original sci-fi/fantasy films as Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, was on board to direct, I got really excited.  

But when the film came out, it was a huge disappointment.  Under Jeunet’s whimsical direction, he seemed to treat the movie as comedic, with fine character actors Dan Hedaya and Brad Dourif giving supporting performance better suited for a sit-com.  I will say the underwater sequences stand out as being memorable, but mostly the movie is best forgotten, as far as I’m concerned – doomed to that cinematic Phantom Zone I’ve banished the Star Wars prequels and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull to over the years.     

And then a few years ago when Prometheus was announced, with Ridley Scott’s triumphant return, and I thought “This is it.  This will make up for the mistakes of the past.  They’re going back to the beginning.  Yes.”   Unfortunately, I was disappointed by its unlikeable characters, incredibly murky plotting, huge logic gaps, and its attempts to ret-con the Alien universe.  Banished to the Phantom Zone, I’m afraid.  It also leaves me a bit wary of the upcoming Alien: Covenant.

Looking Back

Alien When I Was Nine FIG 7Preparing to celebrate Alien-day on 4.26, I took stock of the little ways the movie has insinuated itself into my life.  My wi-fi network is named after the Nostromo.  The text tone on my iPhone is the odd computer noises that “Mother” makes.  I collect vintage movie posters, and one of the gems of my collection, this pre-release teaser for Alien hangs prominently in my living room.  As you see it’s a much different (and cooler, I think) image than the alien egg design used in most of the marketing.

The movie seems to be everywhere I look.

So yeah, I was nine-years-old when I saw Alien on the big screen with my parents in 1979.  Today, when I share that fact with some of my friends – especially those with kids – I’m often met with glances or even comments about how wrong that is.  

Like I said, maybe it was bad parenting.   

But just as I did back then, I still wear it as a badge of honor.  Because movies like Alien are the reason I’m in Hollywood today, pursuing my filmmaking dreams.  Instead of fuelling nightmares, it fuelled my imagination.  I’m sure my parents weren’t really thinking when they took me to see it at such a tender and impressionable age.  

Though they also couldn’t have conceived of the lasting and long term positive effects it had on me, either.   And for that, I thank them.

I’ve turned the cooling system back on, Mother.

Kel Symons

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