The First Time I Saw: ALIEN

Sean Smithson, Contributor

Any hardcore cinegeek knows that certain films are more than just things we love, and have set in some nostalgic and romanticized mental time-capsule. No. Sometimes a certain flick will resonate so hard it actually becomes a sense memory, and the mere mention of it takes us back to a specific moment in time, with almost absurd clarity.

 

Now with the impending release of Ridley Scott's Prometheus in US theaters in a few days, there is activity on LV-426 once again, making me feel the undeniably intense thrum of my past, so I thought it would be a good time to take a trip down memory lane and revisit the film that started the rumbling in the first place, Ridley Scott's Alien, the mega-classic, which attached itself like a Facehugger to my little psyche when I first saw it 33 years ago.

Woah. 33 years ago.


Now, jump in the Wayback Machine with me and return to May 25th, 1979. It was a few days before my 12th birthday, I lived in Oakland, the only child of a single mom, and we didn't have a lot of money. Luckily, I was a cheap date, it was the release weekend for Alien, and all I wanted to do was get my butt into a seat opening day.


I was already years-deep in serious movie geekdom, and as versed in old school and (then) new school horror and sci-fi as anybody, trained by the best, a gang of Baltimore area film students, who got hold of me and warped my still-forming mind as a wee lad, when mom and I still lived back east. My "Uncle Woody" and "Uncle Steve" in particular were genre hounds, and dragged me (or was that the other way around?) to literally dozens of Johns Hopkins screenings by the time I was 5. So, Ray Harryhausen, Universal monsters, Roger Corman (both the atomic horrors and the Poe stuff), Godzilla, Hammer films, were all firmly on my list of favorite movies by the time this 12h birthday rolled around.

I was a Starlog magazine (RIP) reader too, and they had been running teasing little sidebars now and then on Alien, all of course meant to amplify the mystery behind the film, which was being kept way, way under wraps. My anticipation for the ambiguously titled film was at a fever pitch, when mom and I boarded the BART train in downtown Oakland, to make our way into Berkeley. My big Alien birthday started with hitting my favorite stop on telegraph Ave, Comics And Comix, where I picked up the graphic novel style adaption of the Dan O'Bannon screenplay, illustrated by Walt Simonson (who artist Frank Miller owes a huge part of his style too, in this nerd's opinion), as well as The Making Of Alien. The tie in books had just been laid out to coincide with the release in theaters that day, and I had a little scratch from my birthday money, so I immediately snapped them up. Here's where some of the sense memory kicks in: I also remember deliberating between the second Garfield book of collected comic strips, by Jim Davis, or H.P. Lovecraft's The Tomb And Other Tales (a British edition from Penguin). I can't remember what I had for breakfast yesterday but I can remember that. I chose Lovecraft, for the record.


After gearing up on swag, mom and I meandered up the Ave to Blondie's Pizza to eat (Alien birthday memory: two root beers, basic pepperoni slice, and then for my encore slice, I tried jalapeno's on a Hawaiian, copying the UCB student that was ordering ahead of me. Yes, I liked it.). As we sat and ate, I leafed through my new treasures, and immediately knew with excited certainty this was no goofy space opera. I flipped to the half page splash of the xenomorph attacking Dallas, in the comic, and immediately shut the book. OK. The tagline "In space no one can hear you scream" now made absolute sense. I played fair ball with myself (er, that sounds kinda wrong...), and held off spoiling anything further. I had just enough to go on. I would use the graphic adaption, and the Making Of book to re-savor the experience of the film at a later date, but not to spoil the sacred event before it even had a chance to happen. We wrapped up eating and took the leisurely stroll down from Telegraph to the Shattuck area through the UC Berkeley, which deposited us at California Theater, right off the campus border. The air was full of chirping birds, and the sound of the local Hendrix impersonator playing for change, up in the plaza. 100% Berkeley summer. Instead of enjoying it though, I hurried mom along, sure were weren't going to get good seats.


Strangely, when we got to the theater, there was no massive line like I had been expecting. I actually made the same mistake the year before, when we still lived in Chico, with Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. The nerd in me was always sure there was going to be another Star Wars-sized line for these films. I waited, camped out all night by the ticket booth, with an older-brother type, only to be rewarded by us being the first in a line that, well, never really formed. At least I made a new friend that night/next day...Miles Montalbano, another kid who thought the same thing, and later actually went onto to become a filmmaker himself, with the semi-recent indy Revolution Summer.

Sorry, I digress.

So, 45 minutes later, I'm sitting in the auditorium, and there are maybe 30 people in there with us. Granted, it was the first showing that Friday afternoon, and surely these people had not been eating up every little tidbit in Starlog and on morning TV, like Good Morning America. This was also the first time I sat a little away from my mom, loosing myself from her protective emotional tether that had seen me through screenings of movies such as The Exorcist, The Omen, and Jaws already. If I sat away, maybe it would be even scarier!

As the lights went down, and the California Theater's huge velvet curtain rolled back, magic took over for the next couple of hours. The amazing, and sparse, Jerry Goldsmith score rumbled as those amazing and delicate titles slowly spelled out A - L- I - E - N. That glorious pan of the massive space-faring oil rig The Nostromo, which seems to reference a shot of a certain Star Destroyer (cough Star Wars cough), tossing out the niceties of a pristine and clean Empire, instead hitting fans in the face with a big. dirty, lumbering vessel more fitting of a Gothic horror film than a "sci fi flick". The hypnotic opening of the Nostromo's lonely, seemingly deserted interior, and the reveal of the pristine white, almost heavenly chamber, where her crew slowly wake, being born back to consciousness. 


I was still expecting laser guns to possibly show up, as the crew of the Nostromo resumed their identities and roles on the ship. Pretty quickly though, it was apparent even to the 12 year old me that the gadgetry in Alien was going to be industrial based, and totally rational. I was all for it. Heck, I was the kid, who at the ripe age of 9 decided to correct Ray Bradbury of all people, at a lecture, when he called himself a science fiction writer. I raised my little hand and asked/stated "I thought you were a fantasy writer, because your rocket engines don't really work.", heh. While Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey was still too intellectual for me. I'd tried twice at that point, when it played on a double bill with Westworld...it would take 4 more years and psychedelics to finally grasp that film for me, but that's another story! Still, I indeed craved a harder edge to the sci-fi stuff. It turned out, to my extreme joy that man oh man, Alien had that in spades. So, I settled into watch the cinematic successor to so much of the pulp sci-fi I'd already consumed (thanks for the tip off's through the years Uncle Forry!) come to life, at 24 frames per up on the massive California Theater 35mm screen, and walked back out into the still bright Berkeley summer day, a couple hours later, changed.

Like The Exorcist.

Like Jaws.

Like Jason And The Argonauts


Like The Omega Man.

Alien bore into me, attaching itself to my DNA, making me it's host-body, and me committing to that relationship for the duration of my puny human life.

I don't think I need to go into a blow-by-blow hash of the act of having my mind blown scene after scene, but that's how it went down. A weird aside though, I was strangely not scared of the film, while the adults around me were completely shaken, odder still in that I sat away, as I said, from my mothers protective maternal bubble, trying to increase the deliciousness of the terror I was sure was going to grip me. Nope. The 12 year old Big Boy Pants worked a little too well that day. I was however, moved to my core.

Later, as I got older, I started seeing the relation more clearly to the first Alien film, and things like H.P. Lovecraft's special brand of cosmic horror, and the phallic and vaginal sexual imagery in H.R. Giger's design work, which became more a pronounced, and obvious, the older (and hornier) I got. The one major thing about the film that may have been lost on me though, was how groundbreaking the Ripley role was. Heck, I even call those types of strong-survivor-female characters the "Ripley Role" now, especially if it's in the context of an action/sci-fi film. I was being raised by a woman, who happened to be the strongest person I knew, bar none. A female hero was no revelation to me, I lived with one.

And on my 12th birthday, she took me to see Alien for my first time.



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  • kidlazarus

    ahahahaha...

    did you happen to check my comment regarding "The First Time I Saw: ALIENS?"

    ...the more I think about it so much of my early childhood was spent in movie theaters and drive-ins. My girlfriend would argue not much has

    changed.

  • Sean "The Butcher" Smithson

    kidlazarus...we sound like long lost brothers.

  • kidlazarus

    I remember seeing all of the Alien movies in their initial theatrical runs. First one probably the most vivid as I was 9 at the time my father took me. Which wasn't anything unusual; this was general practice for weekend visits with my dad. I can recall being in theaters at 5 years old to see Phantom of the Paradise, Man with the Golden Gun, Four Musketeers, etc.

    We caught Alien in a packed Philadelphia theater. I was awfully excited to see the movie after all of the radio promos and the trailer. Which, if memory serves me, we first saw at Phantasm. Alien ratcheted the tension to uncomfortable levels over a prolonged run-time and made me uneasy. Nothing in film has ever evoked such reaction.

    The movie was an immersive experience. What was displayed on screen appeared far too real and tangible. Truly a credit to all the design and craftsmanship. Something even at that age I was able to discern...I remember us seeing Star Wars in 77 and begging my dad to leave mid-screening to see Hills Have Eyes because "it looks fake," and I was a burgeoning horror fiend.



  • bewarethemoon

    Great to have older brothers or even a dad who appreciates the value of horror and sc-fi for young boy! I used to get woken by my dad at midnight/late night movie at the weekend (fri/sat) and saw countless B&W B-movies, they were all B&W back then in the mid 70's for me as we didn't have colour! ( how kids today are spoiled with massive widescreen HD colour surround sound!!)

    Alien, I distinctly remember watching it in '82 on TV after the World Cup final in Spain, it was summer, the nights were balmy and long, the sun's glow still hanging around until after 10pm, I'd been so excited about the football final, that when I realised Alien was on after I didn't have time to come down from the elation of the game, little did I realise that the adrenalin would be pumping with fear soon after those glyphic, opening credits.............

    As a 12 yearold, I hadn't really seen sci-fi on this scale or quality, apart from Star Wars and Empire (both at the cinema) but you knew as soon as the egg did it's thing, curling it's lips back....!!! I was gripped with fear for the remaining run time, coiled up on the sofa clutching a cushion tightly, watching it on my own until my parents came home from the pub, babysitters ( grandparents) having left shortly before..

    Needless to say, I didn't sleep a wink that night, every shadow in my bedroom, an Alien, waiting to pounce....!!! you could say it made quite an impression on me, and for those lucky enough to have seen it, the film was all we could talk about the next day at school, minds forever blown.............

  • Mr. Cavin

    I was eight and a half when ALIEN opened in the US, which was, at least in my case, a little too young to see it in the theater. Like you, I cruised the magazines for photos, etc. I never did see the movie in the theater as a kid--heck, is it possible I still haven't?--and certainly eventually saw it the first time in eighty-one or -two after finally getting my first VCR. At the time I would have still had to smuggle it in past my parents. I saw MAD MAX and PORKY'S and DAWN OF THE DEAD in much the same way. Because of the way this process unfolded, and the virtual day-to-day nature of my many cinematic discoveries in that time period, I have no idea when I first saw ALIEN, though I also count it among the movies that changed me. When you write this article about BLADE RUNNER in a year or two, my answer will be way more on-topic.Even without really having a movie memory to share here, I decided to comment because I have a very strong memory associated with the Walt Simonson comic. As young as I was, I used to spend my summers on the campus where my father worked, semi-supervised in the relative safety/freedom of a university on summer break. During those summers, I would make daily rounds, which included the awesome college bookstore that sold an excellent array of pricey art supplies and also pricey fantasy art examples in the form of Dungeons and Dragons modules. I'd leaf through those for hours every day, wear them out. I'm sure the bookstore people hated my eight-year-old guts. Of course, this is also where I discovered the ALIEN graphic novel (as well as Rick Veitch and Stephen Bissettes excellent adaptation of 1941 and the Gahan Wilson book I PAINT WHAT I SEE), and I can viscerally recall just sitting down right there in the aisle and reading it that day, learning all about this movie I wasn't allowed to see. I read it again each and every day that week, and was still cruising through my favorite pages regularly, the same as I did any other room on that campus, right up until they sold their last copy months later--despite my best efforts to hide it in the back of the shelf behind some knitting magazines. Man I loved that comic. I must have drawn it from memory straight through twice. Plus, the slightly askew knowledge of the film I got from it really gave me the edge on my classmates when the school year started again that fall. Everybody pretended they'd been to the theater to see it a dozen times, of course, but it was easy to separate out the fakers after getting so familiar with the story all summer long.Anyway, I haven't thought about that for years, and then your article made it come back hard. Thanks for the read down memory lane, man.

  • Ard Vijn

    I'm about to publish the follow-up article (fittingly called: "The First Time I Saw: ALIENS" ) and the Walt Simonson comic gets plenty of lipservice there as well. Heck, I'll even include a pic of the cover.



    On a sidenote: I just put that cover up on the Twitch Facebook page saying: "Hands up who owns one of these" and the response is a lot bigger than I expected! I knew it: we're basically one big club.

  • Sean "The Butcher" Smithson

    Mr. Cavin, you just made my day sir!

    I LIVE for these stories man, and would love to hear more from anyone feeling chatty.

    I used to sit in Hallmark and Tower Books as a kid, on the floor, reading their stock too, lol.

  • Mr. Cavin

    Well, that certainly looked a lot slicker back when it had paragraphs. Sigh. Sometimes I can pull it off, and sometimes I can't.

    Sorry

  • gormley303

    Amazing. The GFT in Glasgow put on a showing with an original 35mm copy last year. I nearly died of happiness.

  • Sean "The Butcher" Smithson

    Yup. The Ave and then the movies. It was a great time for Berkeley. Now after the fire on telegraph a bunch of institutions are gone. The Intermezzo, La Fiesta, etc. I actually cried when my daughter called and told me. No going back home to visit and getting a huge salad with poppyseed house dressing at the 'Metzo anymore.

    Then there's the dhe demise of the UC Theater, which is still too much for my heart to take...

  • No Name

    Awesome. Thanks for sharing. I'm a little bit younger than you, but I grew up in Berkeley and have had very much this same day - I used to frequent Blondie's/Comics and Comix (usually in the same afternoon) when I was in my tween years in the early Nineties. I love the California theater, but most of my favorite core-shaking memories are from the old UC theater (RIP).

  • J Hurtado

    I practically lived at the UC Theatre for a few years in the late '90s. I was also extremely sad when I heard it closed after I left the west coast.

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