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Watching Alien with a 14 year old

This week’s What We’re Watching Wednesday has Simon introducing a modern teenager to a sci-fi horror classic…

I’ve been waiting a long time, fourteen years in fact, to watch the Alien films with my eldest son. I sensed that Aliens might be the main event within the franchise for a teenager (perhaps because it remains my favourite of the films, indeed it’s my favourite SF film fullstop) but you have to do these things in order so, on Saturday night with his younger brother on a sleep-over, Alien it was.

I’ve watched Alien many times. Prior to this time I last watched it at the beginning of this year and remember luxuriating in the familiar tensions. Alien has always been a film clouded by the first time. That first time… the relentless tension, the shock of Kane’s messy dinnertime demise, the hours spent crawling in the air ducts, the endless agony of the long-drawn out battle for survival, the fast-moving nightmare that is the alien, the dawning realization that Ash may not be on the same side as everyone else, the relentless picking off of crew-member after crew-member.

Except, except it’s not quite like that, is it?

There was nothing quite like Alien when it came out (apart from Carpenter and O’Bannon’s Dark Star which played many of the same tropes for laughs). It was claustrophobic, taut, terrifying. Real. And when you get an SF film like that those elements stay with you. But they also colour subsequent viewings.

When I watched it earlier this year (for the first time in maybe a decade) I suddenly realised that there aren’t that many separate lonely crewmember deaths; it’s hardly a ten little Indians succession of hapless victims wondering off repeatedly down dark corridors to get messily slaughtered. Dallas doesn’t spend very long in the ducts. The alien doesn’t move very fast. For quite a lot of the time at the beginning not very much happens.

And as I sat and watch this again with my son I realised what a very different sort of filmmaking Alien represents. Low budget sure but the edit cuts are much slower, the scenes feel almost leisurely. None of that’s bad but it feels different to what we often get now. I could feel and see my son’s attention wandering. Now he’d seen Prometheus and had thought it was loud and dumb and gory. Watching Alien he was bored in the first half hour. I know! But bear with me. And him.

After that first half an hour the film started to grab a hold over him and he ended up ‘quite enjoying it’.

Quite enjoying it… It occurs to me that Alien is much quieter and gentler now than it used to be, and than I remember it. Yes there’s a lot of blood but is it as shocking and in your face as many of the films my son would have seen (and we’ve tried to steer him clear of 18 certificates)? Perhaps not. He was scared by The Woman in Black (which uses a very modern set of ‘tension and shock’ conceits to tell an old fashioned ghost story), he was thrilled and amused by Avengers Assemble: cracking wise and fast-cut editing and the big and the bang. Compared to all those Alien is positively art house. And all the better for it. But sometimes another view on a film can help you see that your view is constructed and tailored by memory and affection.

Still, Aliens next. If he’s not thrilled and terrified by that we’re having him adopted.