I hadn't seen Alien for about twenty-five years, and my abiding memory was that I was going to watch it over lunch, and found myself staring, transfixed, at the TV, fork gripped in my hand half-way to my mouth. I eventually gave up on eating at the same time, not because I was put off, but because I couldn't tear my eyes off of the screen.
Speaking of which - we were surprised that the double-bill was a 15. Originally, Alien was rated an X (the equivalent of a modern "18") - but actually, most of the violence is implied or off-screen. There's barely any blood, and most of what there is rains down from above rather than getting all over people.
It turns out that the rating was an X because the ratings board found the sexual undertones of the movie unsettling. Which, frankly, they are - HR Giger really earned his money.
Aliens was also originally an 18 - but was re-rated as a 15 for this release. Sadly, there's no information why, on either count.
What was fascinating to see was how much the plots mirrored each other - first as tragedy, then as war movie. Or possibly, first with cat, then with 11-year-old girl. The signal from The Company, asking people to ignorantly explore, the dissection scenes, the motion detectors, the flame-throwers, the last-minute detour on the verge of escape to pick up the cat/child, the female voice counting down to self-destruction - followed by a momentary sigh of relief, before discovering that the Alien has followed you into safety. James Cameron's sequel may be full of guns and machismo, but it's clearly also a love-letter to its inspiration.
On another level, they were quite different - Alien felt very 1970s, inspired by movies like 2001 (including the murderous AI who won't open the doors, the lighting effects when the Nostromo explodes, and I'm assuming that the fade from Ripley's sleep head into starfield is a star-child reference - as is the one at the beginning of Aliens where her head fades into a view of Earth), with long slow scenes of scenery and spaceships that slowly built atmosphere. It invoked anxiety remarkably well - I felt physically uncomfortable most of the way through, unsure what was going to go wrong next (my 25-year-old memories lacking a lot of detail).
Aliens, on the other hand, was palpably modern - short of a couple of dodgy green-screen moments around the atmospheric flights it could have been made this year (well, that and the computer screens. It's easy to forget how clunky computers were back in the 80s, even when we were looking into the distant future.) And while this sets the mood perfectly, the second half of the movie is basically one long, fantastically written, rollercoaster of death and gunfire. (I noticed some really nice mood-setting work though - the motion-sensors are used repeatedly before we ever see an Alien, setting us to to the point where we don't need to be told anything, their mere sound in the background is enough to trigger a stress response.)
All in all, I was damned impressed by both of them. I wouldn't choose to watch Alien again, particularly. It was well-made, but also very-much an artefact of its time. Aliens stands up marvellously though - and it's left an indelible mark on me. There are so many lines, moments, scenes and even _noises_ that are both memorable and instantly evocative. It's definitely in "masterpiece" territory.
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