STILL SCREAMING IN SPACE FOUR DECADES LATER
Upon hearing the news that a former employer had gone out of business just a few months after cutting its losses and laying off most of its staff (myself included), I sent the following epitaph to my fellow expats:
"I guess sometimes closing a door isn't enough. To achieve real closure you need to see that door utterly destroyed, or at least permanently sealed off with a soldering gun like in "Aliens" when Ripley drives the APC down to sub-level three to rescue the surviving marines. As they're fighting off attacking drones and the APC doors are closing behind them, Hicks shoots one at close range with his sawed-off shotgun... I'm just happy we were out of range of the concentrated-acid-for-blood spray."
Strange as that may seem, it's not an unusual response to life events for me. In 2010, when our own little "shake 'n' bake colony" was embroiled in a species-on-species battle of attrition, I found quoting Aliens to be the opportune response more often than you might think.
"I only need to know one thing. Where. They. Are."
"I say we take off, nuke the site from orbit. It's the only way to be sure."
Over the years, I've seen the original franchise dozens of times (and I've owned them in nearly every format, from VHS to DVD to BluRay), but I've seen "Aliens" more than all the others combined... To this day, in the course of normal conversation if someone utters a line from it, accidentally or otherwise, I'm physically incapable of not reciting the next line back at them. An innocent comment on the weather or the time of day will trigger a conditioned response (even if only muttered under my breath):
"Yeah man, but it's a dry heat."
"You want me to fetch your slippers for you?"
Of course, that isn't to say I need a trigger or a logical invitation to start spouting random non sequiturs.
"Yeah, but secreted from what?"
"What do you mean 'they' cut the power? How could they cut the power, man? They're animals."
"Is this going to be a stand-up fight, sir, or another bug hunt?"
Those are just a few examples off the top of my head. I could go on and on (and on).
One time I found out that my closest friend of three years had never seen Aliens and I genuinely found myself wondering, like, "Why is she even friends with me?" Not that my friends have to like all the same things I like, but, honestly, I quote that movie so much, when I think about all the times she must have had no earthly idea what I was talking about, I have to think she was just tuning me out half the time.
In high school my best friend sent me the original script for my birthday. It arrived in a large, nondescript yellow envelope with no card or note. I read it from beginning to end without setting it down. The same friend and I went to see it once at Northgate Mall and, during the scene where Ripley is confronting Burke in the corridor, right before he turns the corner and... The film got stuck in the projector and melted. I had never seen that happen in real life before, only the fake time at the end of Desperately Seeking Susan. It looked exactly as if an alien had gotten into the projection booth and acid-for-bled all over the reel.
I recently discovered an Aliens arcade game at a bowling alley/pool hall in the suburbs. As soon as my friend and I spotted it, we flung ourselves at it and claimed it like a couple of motherfucking 8th graders. A small crowd of children watched us from the sidelines cackling and firing our fake machine guns. They eventually drifted away, probably realizing that we didn't understand the whole "taking turns" thing. We fed all our quarters (and our boyfriends' quarters) into the game, only to discover that the arcade's change machine was broken. The guy at the counter refused to sell us any more change, so we left.
I'm looking forward to playing this flash version of the board game (wait, the what?) if I can ever get through reading the instructions.
Of course I blame my mother for all this. I always knew she collected Silver Age comics throughout the '60s and named her only child after a Tolkien character, but I don't think I ever fully realized what an O.G. sci-fi/ fantasy nerd she was until "Aliens" came out. She was adamant that we watch the original film before seeing the sequel, but in the weeks leading up to its release, it was impossible to find a copy of "Alien" at any video rental store, which was pretty much the only way to see movies back then.
Luckily, the Neptune Theater decided to break from its rotation of cult classics to double feature two of the most perfect movies ever made back to back, as god intended. I had never seen the Neptune as crowded as it was that night. Even the balcony was sold out. Packed in like sardines with 998 other superfans, surrounded by stained glass mermen and the sound system cranked to 11, we sat shoulder-to-shoulder in our low-backed Jazz Age velvet seats as the tension mounted scene by scene.
When all hell broke loose onscreen, we could feel the vibrations from the speakers through the metal tracks and the concrete floor rumbled like we were on some epic space road trip. It was a far more immersive experience than anything you can get with 3D glasses, surround-sound and comfy multiplex armchairs. (Although, I'd make an exception for IMAX—omg, wouldn't that be the ultimate way to commemorate the 40th anniversary?)
Even the ambient soundscape was soon etched in the old school vinyl grooves of my analog brain, grooves that deepened with every re-watching, year after year, decade after decade.
The not-quite-silent vacuum of space; the blue flame of a power torch slowly punches through the hull of the escape pod. The deep, resonating echo as the massive steel barrier gives way and collapses through the newly-hewn doorway. A dancing blue laser beam penetrates the darkness within, finding frost-dusted control panels before alighting on the gentle, egg-like curve of a single—make that double—occupancy cryogenic chamber...
The audience shrieking in our seats at every perfectly-timed jump scare—leaning in close to examine the tank containing an ostensibly dead specimen suspended in cloudy yellow liquid. His face is almost touching the glass when the thing suddenly thrashes, its perversely muscular tail and grotesque appendages whipping against the glass.
"That's a nice pet you got there, Bishop..."
John Horner's irresistible soundtrack thrumming under the drumming boots of the space marines as they move through eerily empty corridors, military precision and "superior firepower" on full display. A discordant orchestra stab pierces our reverie and Horner's marching score, marking the onscreen debut of Newt.
"Nobody calls me Rebecca, except my brother."
For a kid who had never acted before or since (and went on to spend much of her adulthood teaching school in near-anonymity), Carrie Henn delivered some of the most memorable lines of the movie. (And yes, I know they're all memorable for me.)
"Mommy always said there were no monsters. No real ones. But there are... Why do they tell little kids that?"
"Most of the time it's true."
"Ripley... Casey doesn't have scary dreams because she's just a piece of plastic."
"... We'd better get back because it'll be dark soon and they mostly come at night. Mostly."
My most vivid memory of that night is me and my mother clutching hands and holding our breath as Newt and Ripley realize they're locked in and Ripley's rifle is on the other side of the unbreakable, soundproof window. Newt is standing perfectly still, waiting helplessly as Ripley flicks her lighter to trigger the alarm, and then the thing starts creeping up the far side of the wall behind her... We screamed in unison along with the rest of the audience as the thing skittered across the floor towards them.
Newt's piercing, high-pitched scream is the exact same sound I make when I see a spider.
Once in a job interview, I was asked "what's your favorite film?" I said it was Aliens, and instead of trying to distill my answer into some clever prediction of future corporate performance, the interviewer just smiled and said, "Yeah, totally."
The story of how we eventually got Alien3 is one of those classic, convoluted tales of Hollywood fucking things up for fun and profit. The original plot (several versions before David Fincher was attached to the project) was similar to the Dark Horse comic series, but apparently the then-director Renny Harlin (best known for cinematic gems like Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger) didn't like the William Gibson script. Yes, that William "the godfather of cyberpunk" Gibson!! (Grrr, I. Can't. Even.) Silver lining though: Gibson's script has recently been published as a graphic novel and an audio drama starring Lance Henriksen and Michael Biehn, available on Audible.
I actually don't hate Alien3, even if David Fincher has since "disavowed" it. I think it's a beautiful movie in its own right, just not as an end to the original trilogy. The characters are interesting, the setting is ingenious, the action is cleverly shot and the ending is poignant and appropriate to its overall dark bleakness... But I prefer to think of it as Ripley's cryosleep nightmare, meaning none of it actually happened. (I know she tells Newt at the end of Aliens that it's safe to dream, but sometimes you just have to tell little kids that.)
"Alien: Resurrection" (aka The Abortioning) is another matter though. (Although I loved Ripley's manicure in it—very 1997. I'm still waiting for the Urban Decay tie-in.) I had either forgotten or blocked out the knowledge that Joss Whedon wrote that script. To his credit, though, he too has "disavowed" it, saying, "...it wasn't so much that they'd changed the script; it's that they just executed it in such a ghastly fashion as to render it almost unwatchable." Yep, that's one way of putting it.
You can watch Alien Anthology, six 40th Anniversary short films now on YouTube. Some of them are pretty good...
Happy 40 years of Alien movies, everyone, and a very happy Mother's Day!