The Washington Post

No one can hear you scream in space, but 40 years ago, you could sure hear me at the Up­town.

- john.kelly@wash­post.com Twit­ter: @johnkelly For pre­vi­ous col­umns, visit wash­ing­ton­post.com/john-kelly. Entertainment · Movies · Alien · Connecticut · Rockville · Finland · Steve Bannon · Aliens: Colonial Marines · Smithsonian Institution · Paris · United States of America · William Shatner · Ellen Ripley · Sigourney Weaver · Ridley Scott · Washington · Jerry Lewis · Oxford University · Jack Dorsey · NASA · Washington Star · Dan O'Bannon · National Air and Space Museum · National Museum of American History · Starship Enterprise · Star Trek (film series) · Falls Church · Aliens

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.

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 ?? JOHNNY EGGIT/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IM­AGES ?? Sculp­ture artist Emma Pryke gets close to the mon­ster from the “Alien” film fran­chise, which got its start 40 years ago.
JOHNNY EGGIT/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IM­AGES Sculp­ture artist Emma Pryke gets close to the mon­ster from the “Alien” film fran­chise, which got its start 40 years ago.
 ?? John Kelly's Wash­ing­ton ??
John Kelly's Wash­ing­ton

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