The Washington Post
No one can hear you scream in space, but 40 years ago, you could sure hear me at the Uptown.
When “Alien” opened on May 25, 1979, it began its Washington engagement at a single theater: the Uptown on Connecticut Avenue NW, in 70mm and Dolby sound. That’s where I saw it with
Todd Belt, who was a year behind me at Rockville High School.
Well, when I say “I saw it” I mean I saw a lot of it. Half of it, at least. I spent the rest of the film staring at the back of the seat in front of me, abjectly muttering, “How can the federal government allow a movie this scary to be shown in public?” I was 17.
The Washington Post’s Gary Arnold gave “Alien” a rave review when it came out, writing that the film “is certain to take a respected place along the classics of cinematic suspense and horror.”
The Evening Star’s reviewer, Tom Dowling, wrote that “Alien” was “the ultimate slick, expensive and ingenious sci-fi/ horror film.” He didn’t mean that in a good way. Dowling dismissed “Alien” as “a disembodied, coldly inhuman, deeply alien film.”
“Alien,” with a screenplay by Dan O’Bannon, became the biggest movie of the summer of ’79. It was one of the first major studio films to make space look unglamorous and to depict the humans who go there not as strong-chinned, right-stuff heroes, but as working schlubs eager for a paycheck.
“It really is not the traditional kind of space adventure where you have a hero and a sidekick and a damsel in distress,” said Margaret Weitekamp, a curator in the space history department at the National Air and Space Museum. “In this case they’ve transformed that. I think in some ways that comes out of the moment in the 1970s when there is a turn toward the more dystopian.”
Weitekamp is a decade younger than I am and so didn’t get her first exposure to “Alien” in a darkened theater surrounded by strangers. “I suspect I probably rented it at Blockbuster in the late ’80s, probably because I had seen or wanted to see the sequel, ‘Aliens,’ ” she said.
In 2003, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History welcomed into its collection a 3-foot-tall plaster-of-Paris xenomorph egg that was used as a prop in “Aliens.” It may not be a moon rock or a first lady’s dress, but it’s iconic just the same. The National Air and Space Museum has a set of 103 “Alien” trading cards.
Said Weitekamp: “From the earliest years of the museum — which predates the 1976 building on the Mall — there’s been an interest in how spaceflight has been imagined and then how that connects with what becomes possible in terms of actual spaceflight.”
Culture is one of America’s greatest exports, she said, and the entertainments we produce help form our national identity. Among the science-fiction objects in the Air and Space collection is the 11-foot studio model of the Starship Enterprise from “Star Trek,” which came to the Smithsonian in 1974.
Of course, that TV series never got as horrific as “Alien,” notwithstanding the occasional green-skinned alien woman who tried to seduce Captain Kirk.
That was another notable thing about “Alien”: a female protagonist, or as Post critic Arnold wrote of Ripley, “the most courageous and resourceful heroine seen on the screen in years.”
The role that would go to Sigourney Weaver had originally been written for a man. In an interview published in the Evening Star a few days after the movie opened, director Ridley Scott said it was changed to a woman not for any feminist reason, but because the producers felt that with a heroine, audiences wouldn’t be quite so confident the humans would win. Um, thanks?
After a few weeks at the Uptown, “Alien” moved to wider release in the D.C. area. You may have seen it at the Jerry Lewis Theatre in District Heights, the Springfield Mall Cinema 1, Loehmann’s Plaza in Falls Church or the ABC Drive-In in Oxon Hill.
Newsweek’s Jack Kroll said “Alien” would “scare the peanuts right out of your M&M’s.” He was right. Despite that, it has since become one of my favorite films. If I come across “Alien” while channel-grazing, I am drawn to it as inexorably as the Nostromo was drawn to LV-426.
I sometimes wonder if the people who design today’s spacecraft and space stations are fans, too. I hope so. And I hope these NASA rocket scientists see “Alien” as a cautionary tale, a reminder that you shouldn’t have too many nooks and crannies in your spaceship, that even one evil robot is one too many, and that when a contaminated crew member is knocking at the airlock door, don’t let him in.