1979 was a pretty good year for the Yale University School of Drama. One of their graduates starred opposite Dustin Hoffman in the year’s top-grossing film, a family drama about the breakup of a family. Meryl Streep, class of ’75, would eventually win an Oscar for her performance in Kramer vs Kramer, one of several that now grace her home (although she almost lost that first one, leaving it in the bathroom at the Oscar ceremonies).
The other graduate was in another top-10 box office hit, a science fiction movie not named Star Trek that was still one of the most hotly anticipated movies of the year. The brand new Omni sci-fi magazine, still less than a year old at the time, devoted an entire special issue to the set design. They say no one can hear you scream in space, but they sure can in theaters, and there was a lot of screaming going around the country as Sigourney Weaver, class of ’74, was the last one standing in Alien.
I first saw Alien when several of us went after church the Sunday night of opening weekend. Although we knew of the movie, nothing was really known about the movie. Even that Omni issue didn’t give much insight, just a few pictures of some really creepy-looking sets. The trailer had almost nothing but the film’s title being filled out one straight line stroke at a time, ending with that now famous tagline. As we walked into the Ridglea theater that night, we were totally ignorant about what was going to be on-screen.
I wrote not too long ago about the movie-going experience, and this was one for the ages. The Ridglea was huge, holding almost two thousand people, and none of them knew anything about what they were about to see. There had been no trailers to show all the scary parts, no endless discussion on the movie sites, no pre-release leaks of footage or scripts, no nothing. It was set in space, it was presumably scary because of that tagline, and that was pretty much it.
It wasn’t long before we knew “scary” didn’t quite cover it.
I’m not going to recount all of the scary parts; if you’ve seen it, you know them, and if you haven’t, you owe it to yourself to watch it without knowing them. What I will say is that it’s the only movie I’ve ever had to take several deep breaths and say to myself in my head, “It’s only a movie!”
I think it ranks as one of the scariest movies ever made. It is certainly one of the best scary movies ever made. It made a star of Sigourney Weaver, and unfortunately it launched a franchise.1 I saw it at least five times in the theater during the initial run, and when it was originally aired on TV (cable), I threw a watching party at my house. When the misnamed “director’s cut” was released to theater’s on Halloween, 2003, I was there to see it again. And in nine days, I’ll be in Richardson to watch it on the big screen one more time.
I love Alien because it’s a great movie, but also because every watching carries with it some of that first experience. And the main reason that first experience was so memorable is because of our lack of knowledge about the movie. It’s almost impossible to duplicate that experience these days, although doing so suddenly became a thing a few months ago with a different kind of sci-fi movie (really more of a space fantasy, but I digress).
We live in the Information Age, and everyone loves information. We especially love “inside” information that is allegedly only for the privileged few. For many, the experience of finding out the secrets, of digging through a trailer like it was the latest Zapruder film2, is more important than the experience of actually seeing the movie.
Gene Siskell said on one (probably several) of his shows with Roger Ebert that he despised trailers, refused to watch them. I thought that was curiously weird at the time, but over time I’ve gotten to where I could not agree with him more. Trailers today put me in mind of a line from Mr. Mullins.
I have known so many secrets I wish now I did not know.
So, I’m eschewing all of the hype and discussion about the next Stars Wars movies, and I’m doing the same for the upcoming Independence Day sequel. I’ve seen the first Civil War trailer, but that’s it, and I’ll see the movie with as little foreknowledge as possible as well.
I don’t see many trailers at all these days, and I never have gotten in the habit of the movie sites, except on a few occasions after I’ve seen a movie when the situation warrants it. (Inception, anyone?) I’ll encourage you to join me in improving your movie-waching experience by decreasing your pre-movie information intake.
Let’s “go rogue” together: I’ll be a rogue, and you be one, too.
- The first sequel, Cameron’s Alien’s, is a big-budget, sprawling action movie that, while not awful, bears no resemblance to the original’s cerebral claustophobia. I didn’t see any of the rest, but by all reports they are as terrible and forgettable as most Hollywood sequels made for money instead of a story.↩
- Duck it.↩