Everyone remembers their first time. Mine came when I was fourteen years old, in the darkness of a cinema on the south coast of England. The experience was gripping, deeply immersive, and accompanied by the sickly-sweet smell of popcorn and the occasional blood-curdling scream. Yes, I’m talking about that moment familiar to any movie geek: the first time I fell head-over-heels in love with a film.
Why? What did you think I was talking about?
The film that captured my heart all those years ago was Ridley Scott’s seminal deep-space horror Alien, which had its first US theatrical release 35 years ago this month. Twentieth Century Fox are celebrating the anniversary throughout 2014 – here’s what Jeffrey Godsick, president of Fox Consumer Products, has to say about their planned merchandising programme:
As we celebrate the 35th anniversary of one of the most successful film franchises of all time, we are thrilled to introduce an array of commemorative products across different categories in partnership with iconic brands including NECA, SEGA and many more. In addition to the highly anticipated release of Alien: Isolation™, hardcore fans can finally add Lieutenant Ellen Ripley to their Alien collections as we welcome her NECA figures into the family of officially-licensed merchandise. Many other exciting first-time and limited edition products will also be released to celebrate this exciting milestone.
35 years! Jeez, where did the time go?
Alien first hit the screens in 1979, but it must have been early 1980 before I experienced my popcorn-and-screams rite of passage (in those days, we Brits frequently had to wait months for the latest blockbuster to cross the Atlantic). I saw Alien again on its subsequent re-releases – including a memorable double feature that paired it with John Carpenter’s The Fog. I’ve watched it countless times since on both VHS and DVD, and you know what? It’s never failed to work its magic on me.
So why do I love Alien so much?
One reason, I’m sure, is the impressionable age at which I first saw it. Many of my abiding movie memories were made in the 1980s, when I spent endless summers scrunching my gangly teenage body into sticky seats and gawping at the wonders unveiled on the screen. The films of that era were the myths of my youth: The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Blade Runner, Gremlins, Back to the Future … I loved them all then, and I love them all still.
Alien was extra-special because it was the first film I anticipated with the boundless enthusiasm of the true film fan. Before seeing it, I read the novelisation by Alan Dean Foster, and devoured the tantalising text and eye-popping pictures of The Book of Alien by Paul Scanlon and Michael Gross. By the time the big day came, I was stoked.
At fourteen, I was too young to be admitted into an X-Certificate programme. So I got my dad to buy the tickets and sneak me in past the signs suggesting that epileptics and pregnant women might want to give the show a miss (yes, really). Did my big coat and surly attitude convince the cinema staff I was eighteen? Almost certainly not.
Did I care? I’ll give you one guess.
As well as captivating me from atmospheric start to nail-biting finish, Alien also introduced me to the world of visual and special effects. For the first time in my life, I understood there were people who actually did this stuff for a living. After seeing the film, and armed with this knowledge, I loaded up my bookshelves with yet more behind-the-scenes goodies. Pride of place went to Giger’s Alien by HR Giger and issue #1 of a magazine you may have heard of, called Cinefex.
No sooner had I started to appreciate visual effects than I found myself looking at them with a critical eye. Why did the Nostromo seem to judder as it moved across the screen in the two opening shots? Could it be that the shutter speed was set too fast, reducing the motion blur and making the image strobe? Why are there no stars in that section of space the ship is moving through? Oh, I see, it’s so they can do a simple double exposure and not have to bother with traveling mattes.
I also found myself appreciating the way the visual effects integrated with the rest of the movie. Gasping at the gorgeous wide shot of the alien derelict, I judged that some of its power must come from the artful timing of the reveal, following as it does a claustrophobic jumble of hand-held shots as the three astronauts stumble through the bleak, bonelike terrain. And, for all the effort that went into creating the various incarnations of the titular creature, you barely see it on screen … and yet still it leaves a lasting impression.
My wife rolls her eyes when she catches me getting all analytical like this. She wonders how I can enjoy a film when all I want to do is take it apart. I explain that spotting the joins is part of the enjoyment.
We agree to disagree.
And I continue to dissect movies, with an delight that began 35 years ago, when the lights went down, and the camera started that slow pan across the curve of an alien world, and Jerry Goldsmith’s eerie score crawled down the back of my neck and set its claws deep into my spine. A delight which has lasted ever since.
Alien – I thank you.
- For more behind the scenes images, and to read the definitive account of the visual and special effects of Alien, read Cinefex issue #1, available now for iPad
Do you remember the first time you saw Alien? Did it affect you in the same way it affected me? Maybe there’s another film that triggered your strange obsession with visual effects – or with films in general. If so, what is it, and just why did it get under your skin?