Last night, Jacksonville’s independent cinema darling, the Sun-Ray, ran a double feature of Alien (1979) and Aliens (1986). I adore Alien (and enjoy Aliens quite a bit), but I almost didn’t go. Having seen it a number times on DVD (and before that, on cable, which rendered an already dark, at times murky-looking film almost indiscernible), I figured it wouldn’t be worth going out on a school night and shelling out eight bucks. Nevertheless, I found myself standing in line at 6:55, suddenly cursing myself for arriving five minutes before show time. The theater was packed. This annoyed me, because it meant potential difficulty in finding a good seat; but it also delighted me, because it means that my city’s little theater has built up enough of a reputation over the past three-plus years to get us out in droves on a Tuesday night for a 37-year-old movie.
But don’t let those 37 years fool you. (Why should they? American movies were at their peak in the 70s.) Alien is sheer, terrifying cinematic pleasure from start to finish. I found myself recoiling in horror at scenes I fully knew were coming; seeing it in that dark theater packed with fellow movie-loving strangers, Alien was suddenly at its most powerful. I’ve never been particularly scared by movies like this. (It’s the true crime thrillers that give me the shivers.) Seeing Alien on the big screen felt like a happy regression from desensitized horror junkie to unsuspecting scaredy cat, and I relished it. I knew when Cain (John Hurt) bent down to get a closer look into that enormous lumpy grey egg that some other-worldly creature was going to jump out at him. It didn’t matter. I jumped too. When the thing sneaked up behind Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in the spaceship’s infirmary, I jumped again. When the thing burst from the long-suffering Cain’s chest, my jaw dropped in horror, as though I had never witnessed this infamous scene before.
How does seeing a movie on a massive scale have such an effect on someone who’s seen it before, perhaps a dozen or more times?
Now more than ever, we need to see our movies big. There are too many distractions getting between me and movies at home: my phone, social media, work, the fact that any random question I have can and must be immediately answered by an Internet search. I stand here guilty of being utterly distractible, even though I love movies and want to disappear inside them. The darkened theater is the place where we can do just that. All these new ways to watch movies are terrific, and sometimes invaluable. (All of my friends with young children have basically bid farewell to going to the movies for the foreseeable future; I’m happy they can rent movies from Redbox or stream them online.) But the movie theater remains unrivaled in what it has to offer. In the theater, the familiar becomes unfamiliar, the expected suddenly surprising. On a TV, or even via my projector, movies somehow aren’t as commanding. They don’t dominate the entire screen. I’m not bound by social rules to keep quiet and stay seated and keep my phone turned off and tucked away. In the dark theater, Alien becomes truly terrifying. The subtle yet sinister, tense yet gorgeous music by Jerry Goldsmith washes over us, fills us with dread and wonder. It’s not just background music: It’s the audial language of a movie that’s relatively scant on dialogue. The space art, wondrous and magnificent, becomes a valentine to 2001: A Space Odyssey. (And, for cinephiles, a high-grade rip-off of a Mario Bava sci-fi thriller from 1965 called Planet of the Vampires.)
In the crowded theater, the humor pops just as much as the scares. I had forgotten how many funny lines Parker (Yaphet Kotto) has: he and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) are the two repairmen who feel disenfranchised by the others, and their friendship, as well as their adversarial relationship with some of the other crew, breeds amusing tension in the first half of the movie. I had also never quite noticed the tenderness Ripley displays toward other characters in the movie; Not just for the adorable cat Jones, but for Dallas (Tom Skerrit), the captain of the ship, and Cain, the first victim of the alien. In the crowded theater, all that spacecraft lingo feels important and real: when the crew of the Nostromo is disembarking from the main ship in order to explore an ominous planet, we hear the voice of Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) counting down from 20. Somehow, in Cartwright’s delightfully kooky voice, we feel unspeakable tension and dread.
I tried to imagine what it was like to see Alien in theaters back in 1979, when audience members had no idea what they were in for. This made the experience all the more thrilling. It’s like going to the symphony, when you close your eyes and go wherever the music takes you. Seeing Alien at the movies was transportive. I’ve never needed to be convinced that movie theaters are the best way to watch movies, but as a child of the VCR age, I grew up owning movies, collecting them. I grew up in a world where you could watch movies you liked over and over again. This kind of obsessive return to what we’ve already experienced is wonderful in its own way, and yet it also robs us of a fuller experience. Things become too familiar, and we take them for granted; the old scares and jokes and emotions dry out. On the television screen, so many movies really do lose their power. (On the other hand, there are movies that improve on TV, bolstered by the effect of lowered expectations, or perhaps by gratitude, when you’re somewhere you don’t want to be and grateful for any diversion.)
Say what you want about the state of movies today. They’re in an equally weak and strong place, I suppose. So many of them feel utterly, shamefully debauched by mediocrity and the spinelessness of studio executives who just want to make money. Simultaneously, we’ve reached a new age of nostalgia for certain classics, which can be regressive in its own way. But as long as we’re able to see great movies writ large, there is hope for us yet.