Last weekend, I watched Alien for the first time. My reaction? “How quaint.”
I’ll be the first person to admit that it was not an ideal viewing situation. It was immediately after a rough loss by all that is sacred and good to the forces of evil, at three o’clock in the afternoon, and I was one stiff drink short of Christopher Hitchens. Moreover, I am not Alien’s target audience. I prefer my sci-fi on the cerebral or actiony side, or better yet, one of the great sci-fi television franchises that can throw some horror in the mix from time to time but explore other themes and genres at the same time. Long story short, with the exception of fake-blood-by-the-hogshead slasher flicks, horror is not necessarily a turn-off so much as not what I’m there to see. Horror is like Brussels sprouts. I’ll eat them if they’re put in front of me but I’m not going to look for them on a menu.
But that’s not why I was disappointed in Alien. And it’s not Alien’s fault that it comes off quaint to my eyes. Rather, it has been a victim of its own success, both in the expectations it has set and in the entire generation of sci-fi/horror it has inspired.
The first is probably more important. Alien regularly scores near the top of the best sci-fi movies of all time. I had several groups of people, Bizzo included, hounding me to see it with near-religious fervor, and who acted as though because I had not seen it I might defecate on their rug and should be closely monitored until I had rectified this outrageous gap in my cultural experience. All of this combined to set a pretty high bar for the film.
But Alien has been around for over thirty years now. It’s older than I am. And its success has meant that most of its good bits have been reappropriated in hundreds of other movies that have followed it. This justifies its secure place in the canon; but for a viewer like me, who has seen dozens of other movies inspired by it, makes it come off as unoriginal, derivative, even ridiculous. Media satirizing Alien has a twenty-year head start in my subconscious. I have no doubt Ash’s true identity was a shock to audiences in 1979, but I had seen it done. The alien from Alien is iconic, but that only means I had come across its image thousands of times online or in promotional literature for Alien sequels. Seeing shadows in the dark held no suspense for me; I’d seen the thing in all its glory, and elsewhere seen monsters I thought scarier. Again, none of this is the fault of Alien. Even while watching I’m intellectually aware of the debt the last thirty years of sci-fi owes to the film. But intellectual awareness does not build suspense. I can appreciate Alien, but I could not enjoy it.
That last link there – to the generally horrible 1997 box office failure The Relic – is instructive. It was one of the first horror movies I had ever seen, and the monster in it still gives me the willies, while by any objective standard the monster is probably middle-of-the-pack, at best. Hands down my favorite horror movie remains another 1997 box office failure, Event Horizon. I doubt either of these were actually good movies, and both are terribly derivative of Alien. They even had to do a script-rewrite of Event Horizon to keep it from being a shameless Alien rip-off with better CGI. But I saw them first, so in each one the horror tropes were fresh to my eyes, and had a greater impact than those tropes ever would again. Moreover, I was only fifteen when they came out, less jaded and even more of a chickenshit than I am today. That is, it is easier to scare a child.
Nostalgia plays a huge role in this, and I don’t mean that as an insult. When you remember a film, you don’t just remember the film itself. In fact I’d wager you barely remember the film itself – what you vividly remember is the way you felt when you watched that film. Your opinion of that movie, decades later, is indelibly tied up in what and who you were when you watched it. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is no longer as mind-blowing to me at 30 as it was when I first saw it at 18, on my own for the first time and first starting to dabble in mind-altering substances. And if I today made another 30-something sit down and watch it for the first time, he would feel little of the awe I had in 2000. Same goes for Fight Club, which really taps into the young male mind, but staggers a little with another audience – or even the same audience, just old enough to know better than to seek meaning in physical combat.
The feeling does stay with you, which is part of the problem. I still enjoy Fear and Loathing and Fight Club today more than I would have had I never seen them young. For a completely different example, I was a religious fan of Ducktales as a kid, and whilst in college painstakingly collected all 100 episodes via IRC (a process that took months). I enjoyed them nearly as much in college as I had in elementary school, and nearly as much now as I did in college. But a funny thing happened; by chance I had missed a dozen or so episodes when they originally aired, and by and large I thought they were terrible. Probably no worse than the rest, but I only watched them through once. When I was watching the episodes I had loved as a kid, I wasn’t actually watching the episode – or at least, not only that – but reliving the experience I had already had, and for those new episodes that lack of connection with my childhood self made all the difference.
It’s for that reason I’m growing more hesitant to recommend older movies and games I love to others. Not only do they have to stand on their own without the crutch of childhood wonder, but they have to compete not with the rest of their cultural cohort – the other movies and games from the same era – but with movies and games today. I still enjoy Super Mario Bros. 3 from the original NES, but any videogame connoisseur who came of age with the Playstation 2 or later would have trouble getting past the graphics, let alone appreciate the relatively simplistic gameplay. Needless to say, my attempts at introducing DuckTales to people who had missed the series in the 80s have been universally failures.
I’m also hesitant to watch other movies like Alien that have formed cultural milestones for my friends but which I had missed the first time around. The same folks who pressed me to watch Alien were similarly aghast that I had not seen Running Man or Total Recall or 2001; but these too are movies that I worry will be underwhelming to my eyes.
I don’t mean that I am swearing off older movies entirely. Movies that rely on special effects, or “genre” movies that involve a consistent set of tropes, may age less well. I watched Rear Window for the first time not long ago, and enjoyed it greatly, and the humor in the Thin Man movies holds up very well. But horror, sci-fi, and fantasy – especially those so successful that they helped define their genres, or have been satirized so thoroughly that I know their plot despite having never seen the film – make for difficult viewing after one has seen so many of their cinematic progeny.