We terrify Film Nerd 2.0 with ‘Alien,’ ‘Aliens,’ and the ‘Star Wars Holiday Special’

01.13.16 1 year ago

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Tears running down his face, the seven-year-old said, “Stop, Daddy! Stop! I can't take it anymore!”

Considering the strange holiday line-up that I shared with Toshi and Allen, ages ten and seven, it is little wonder it almost ended in tears. But what kind of tears and why is a little less cut and dry than I might have supposed when this recent run of programming first came together.

I've been seeing someone for a little while now, and it's been nice. She's met the boys and they like her tremendously, and vice-versa. The Monday after the film opened, the four of us went to see The Force Awakens together, the second time for the kids, the first time for her, and it was a great evening. They were excited about the film, about the evening out, about Star Wars in general. She was the one who brought up The Star Wars Holiday Special because she had just encountered it on YouTube, and her horror at its existence was still fresh. The last time I tried to watch the thing was at least ten years ago, and most likely longer than that. I find it almost wholly undigestible, and like many truly terrible media abominations, I have to watch it in small chunks to even begin to make it through.

So before we even began the weekend, the boys were asking me about one of the most painful things I can imagine, and I was trying to steer them away to anything else. I suggested several things that they've been asking about, and they just kept pushing back, not interested in anything I mentioned. Then Allen mentioned Alien, and that was it. That became the fixation, and nothing I brought up seemed even remotely worthwhile compared to it.

I figured they'd lose interest over the course of the weekend. We were busy enjoying Christmas presents and good meals and being in a much better place overall this year than last, which is the only real indicator of whether it's a good year. Allen kept coming back to Alien, though, telling me that he was ready for it and that he felt like we should watch it while he was feeling brave enough.

It was Toshi's fault. Toshi has been circling the first film in the series for the last six months or so, and part of the reason he's been so intent on it is because he has been dying to see Aliens. He's a serious James Cameron fan, having seen The Terminator, The Abyss, Terminator 2, True Lies, Avatar, and Titanic at this point. Aliens has been this great big irritating hole in his filmography for Toshi, and I've told him that he can't see the second film until he sees the first film. While I know people like to say “the first film is a horror movie and the second film is an action movie,” I was worried. There is plenty about Aliens that will scare the living shit out of Toshi. Cameron is far better at assaulting your central nervous system than Ridley Scott, whose film is elegant and weird and more beautiful than upsetting.

Toshi's explained what Alien is to Allen about 300 times over the last six months or so, and every time, it's like it is brand-new information. Allen is what I like to call a “total flibbertigibbet,” a goofy kid whose goofiness is inherent. He has no idea how funny he is, and I often find myself walking into another room to laugh just so he doesn't get cocky about it. In this particular case, Allen asked Toshi to tell him again what Alien was about, and when Toshi told him, Allen announced that he wanted to see it immediately. “Daddy, I'm totally ready.”

“I don't think you are,” I told him. “Remember when we turned off Shaun Of The Dead?”

“Yes.”

“Well, this is scarier. A lot scarier.”

“Is it scary like jumping out at you scary?”

“Not especially. It's more creepy and scary because you don't know where the monster is.”

“THAT SOUNDS FINE! I CAN TOTALLY WATCH THAT! BECAUSE ZOMBIES ARE REAL WHICH IS SCARY BUT THE ALIENS ARE JUST IN THE ALIENS MOVIE!” He's like a used car salesman when he wants to watch something, very different than Toshi. Toshi uses logic and precedent, like a lawyer trying to corner you into something. With Allen, it's purely an emotional pitch, and it's like he's doing you a favor by watching something. “I KNOW TOSHI WANTS TO SEE IT AND I CAN SEE THAT, TOO!”

When I suggested again that he would be unhappy with the film, Allen told me in no uncertain terms that I was wrong. “Dad, I have man-balls. I can totally watch this.” Faced with this unarguable point, I told them that we could give Alien a try, but that Allen would be the one holding the remote control, and if it got too scary, he could turn it off without any problem. Again, when we tried Shaun, things got out of hand, and I told Toshi we couldn't have a repeat of that.

“Do you understand why your little brother has to be the deciding vote on whether we watch the film or not?”

“Yes…”

“I can see you have a but.”

Allen laughs at this, the same way he does every single time I make the joke. Toshi tries not to smile.

“Shut up.”

“No, it's fine. Let's talk about your but.”

“Stop doing that.”

“It's fine, Toshi. Don't be afraid to talk about your but. It's okay that you have a but.”

“You're an idiot.”

I can do that for a half-hour if he'll play along, and the more exasperated he gets, the more it makes me laugh. He's a terrific straight man, and I can make Allen laugh until he can't breathe if I torture Toshi just right. He finally manages to raise his concern. “But what if I'm the one who gets scared?”

It's possible. There have been moments where Allen was more open to something than Toshi was, and I could see why Toshi would be stressed. If Allen recognizes that Toshi's more scared than he is, he'll watch something out of a sense of stubborn obligation.

“If you're scared, we'll turn it off. Same rules apply. If either one of you feels like you can't handle the movie you're watching, you tell me, and we'll turn it off.”

That's the only way we can approach scary movies with the boys. After all, scary movies are designed to be tests to some degree. If you make it through a scary movie, especially one that people have built up to you, then you feel like you survived something. I had a checklist of films I was working my way through when I was young, and a special list of horror titles. As I checked more and more of them off, I felt better and better about them. I started to really enjoy what each of them represented, and they stopped scaring me.

Toshi and Allen haven't really turned that corner, but they're close. The first Alien is a very small film in many ways, and the first chunk, everything before the actual facehugger makes an appearance, is very slow and very detail oriented. Toshi had about two million questions, and it's all the expository stuff that gives him his bearings. “Who's that? Who's he? What does he do? Who's that? Why are they in those? What's that?” With Alien, that early stuff is so loose and casual that the actual work being done by the screenplay is invisible.

Once we got to the derelict spaceship, Allen moved over to my chair and curled up with me. Toshi and I watched the facehugger scene, and while he got visibly tense as Kane (John Hurt) poked around the strange alien eggs, he kept watching, and I noticed something about the way Scott shot the film as a result. While there are some startling moments in Alien, there are almost no jump scares. Instead, Scott and his photographer Derek Vanlint are more interested in hiding things in plain sight in a frame, and then revealing it to you in a way that is creepy rather than just constantly throwing empty shock at you. As a result, while the film is scary and full of some truly indelible images, the boys were able to hang with it.

Or at least Toshi was. When we got to the scene where they tried to cut the facehugger off of Kane and it leaks acid for the first time, Toshi got very vocal about how cool that was, but Allen was silent. That's when I realized he had fallen asleep curled up against me. Toshi immediately said, “We should put this on pause and stop it because Allen wanted to see this, too.”

“Are you okay with that?”

“Yeah. He said he wanted to see it. I want to see it with him.” Right now, Toshi and Allen are going through a tough period as brothers. They bicker a lot, and from my point of view, it's clear that Toshi's reached an age where he's aching to be older. He's ten, and he's watching the older kids start to accelerate into being teenagers, and he wants to get there now. Meanwhile, at seven, Allen's still very much a little kid, and he wants Toshi to keep playing with him the way he's always played with him. He's not ready for Toshi to grow up at all, and most of the time, what frictions exists between them are because of that push and pull that Toshi's going through. Allen ends up in tears because he thinks Toshi's being mean to him, but what's usually happening is just Toshi trying to create a space in his life where he's able to have time to himself. They share a bedroom, they go to the same school, they do homework together, they play together. It's an intense relationship, but I am struck by how often Toshi makes his own desires secondary to try to keep the peace with his brother. There is a protective big brother quality that he has that makes me very proud of him, especially when he does it at times that Allen isn't watching and doesn't know it happened.

Allen's nap only lasted a half-hour or so. When he came back, we rewound the movie to the entrance to the derelict ship, and the second time through, Toshi didn't flinch at all. He watched the entire sequence without having to do so through his fingers like he did it the first time. And when he watched the facehugger scenes, he was leaned in, really looking at the details of the thing this time.

We had an interesting moment during the scene with the chestburster. When the film came out in 1979, that was one of the moments that everyone was talking about, one of those cultural flashpoint moments. It was a surprise, as was the evolution of the creature. Toshi's already seen photos of the iconic alien design, so he wasn't going to be surprised by that evolution, but I thought for sure the chestburster would be a big nasty surprise for both of the boys. Instead, when Kane started thrashing around and then threw himself on the table, there's that first shocking crack and that splash of red, and both of the boys… laughed?

Wait, what? I was honestly surprised by their reaction, until Toshi said, “It's just like Spaceballs!” And I realized this was the first of those moments that I have always been curious about, when the omnipresent parody of something would spoil a movie surprise for the boys. I know when we finally get to Psycho that the shower scene does not stand a chance in hell of working on them the way it should, because they've run into plenty of parodies of it already. But here was a case where a truly iconic moment in a horror film got undercut, and it has nothing to do with the filmmaking. It's simply because Mel Brooks did such a good job of recreating the movie and then defanging it.

But the rest of the movie? Gangbusters. As soon as it became clear that the alien was loose on the ship and that the rest of the movie was going to be about the creature picking off the crew members, Allen turned to me and said, “They should all put on their space suits and then just open all the doors so that the alien would get sucked out into space.”

I tried to keep my poker face in place as I answered, casually, “That's a pretty good idea.” Jones scared the hell out of the boys a few times, and honestly, that's the one cheap trick that Ridley Scott can't help but lean on, the cat-based jump scare. One by one, each of the crew members met their fate, and by the time it's just Parker and Lambert facing the thing down, with Ripley setting the self-destruct, both of the boys were so hooked, so completely absorbed, that they forgot to be afraid. Even when Ripley was onboard the shuttle, they know enough about the way movies work to know that if they were still watching, then Ripley wasn't safe yet.

And when they saw how Ripley did finally beat the alien, Allen lit up. “Daddy! That's what I said to do! I would have lived and beat the alien!”

Perhaps, but when we then decided to follow up Alien with something lighter, Allen finally met his match. For those of you who only know the horror of The Star Wars Holiday Special by reputation, let me tell you that it is far worse than its reputation would suggest. George Lucas underreacted when he said after the fact that he would buy and destroy every copy of it if he could. For someone who was as shrewd about the contracts and the deals he made for Star Wars, he made a spectacularly stupid deal in allowing this special to happen.

You have to understand… when this aired in November of 1978, I was as Star Wars-crazy as a person could be. I was eight years old. I'd seen the film something like 30 times by that point, and it was still in at least one local theater. I needed a new fix. The toys were finally in stores, and every new release was a big deal. The Marvel comic was giving me a steady drip, and I loved that. I had read Alan Dean Foster's Splinter Of The Mind's Eye several times already. It was bad how much I was jonesing for new material. Seeing an actual new story with the real cast sounded like the best thing ever.

When you actually see the special, though, it's like someone made a bet to see how long they could pad the special out to without actually having any events happen. Set on Kashyyyk, Chewbacca's home planet, it's like Waiting For Godot with a primary cast made up of deeply unlikeable Wookiees that speak only in the most annoying sounds possible. We are trapped in this wicker hellscape with Chewbacca's father Itchy, his wife Malla, and his son Lumpy. Taken individually, they are each intolerable, but as a family unity, they are almost impossible to take, even in very small doses. Whoever had the brilliant idea to make Wookiees the main characters and not subtitle anything must have really hated George Lucas on a personal level. It's like they're trying to make Star Wars into something so singularly unpleasant that no one will ever go see one of the films again.

There are indeed cameos by Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and Han Solo, but they all feel like they were shot in one take, on a remote soundstage, and each is bizarre in its own way. Mark Hamill is wearing what appears to be 45 pounds of bright orange make-up, Carrie Fisher has had too much coffee, and Harrison Ford is so mellow it feels like they were lucky he ended up facing the camera. Each time they have one of the stars appear, it's a cutaway to these quick scenes, and then it's right back into the perpetual nightmare of the Wookiees and their disturbing home life.

The boys were quickly overpowered by the stultifying power of the special. “It looks so cheap!” Allen kept saying, and the three of us started making each other laugh by “translating” what the Wookiees were saying. By the time we got to the scene where Lumpy watches the weird boring Cirque Du Soleil holovideo thingy, Allen was laughing so hard he was crying. And when we got to the truly unspeakable evil of the scene where Grampa Itchy sits in the living room watching what is apparently a softcore porn virtual reality tape of Diahann Carroll, that was when Allen finally snapped.

He took the remote from me, gasping. Both cheeks were shiny and wet. “I can't take it anymore!” He turned the special off. “I want to watch anything else. Anything. Please. Please, daddy.”

It's not that he didn't enjoy it. It's that it reached a point where he could not imagine a world where sitting through another minute of that special seemed like an option. I have never seen either of them broken by a film before, but that did it. “That stinks, Dad,” Toshi told me as I turned off YouTube. “I didn't know Star Wars could be terrible.”

It was the following weekend, following up New Year's Eve, when the boys came over again. Toshi had gone with his mom to use one of his Christmas presents, a Toys'R'Us, and he bought a big action-figure two-pack of an Alien and a Predator. He and Allen saw Predator when my parents were in town last time, and it was a huge hit. Toshi was more interested in getting his hands on an Alien, though, and in looking at the details of the thing. I remember that feeling, the maddening way Ridley Scott's film never really lets you get a clear look at it, and I remember how that made it worse in many ways. As soon as the boys got to my house, they wanted to start Aliens. They had talked it over, they presented a unified front, and I told them that I saw no reason they shouldn't be able to see it.

My girlfriend was also coming over for the weekend. She's an adventurous film viewer, but she has been very clear about how she doesn't like horror films. I don't even try to show them to her, because I know she won't enjoy the experience. I can respect that. It's like when you go out to eat with friends. If you know someone hates sushi, why would you make them come with you to a sushi restaurant? Horror movies are the same way. By the time Lisa called to say she was arriving, the boys had already started Aliens. “You're walking into two hours of scary outerspace monsters and mayhem.”

She'd seen it, though, and seemed perfectly happy to jump in. She arrived just as the Colonial Marines started waking up. It was interesting to see how curious Toshi was about continuity before we started the film. He had made special note of how long Ripley thought it would take to get to Earth at the end of Alien, and when Cameron's film reveals that Ripley had been lost for over 50 years, it landed like a gutpunch. We watched the longer James Cameron cut of the film, so he saw the stuff about Ripley's daughter, and he was suitably upset by what Ripley lost. He explained it to his brother, and Allen agreed that Ripley got a very raw deal.

They knew the chestburster dream at the beginning was a dream. They knew there was no way they were going to kill Ripley off in the film's opening moments. As soon as the film cuts away, back to LV-426, Toshi started getting excited. “This looks like a James Cameron film, Dad. Look how much it looks like The Terminator. Like in the future war and stuff.” I reminded him that Aliens was only made two years after The Terminator, and that it was Cameron's first “big” movie.

Seeing this film so soon the first one really helped the boys appreciate the little things. As soon as they learned Bishop was an android, they reacted the same way Ripley did. “Is he gonna try to kill her?” Toshi asked. I told them they'd just have to wait and see. And as soon as Burke started talking Ripley into going back to space, Toshi was suspicious. “They told the robot to keep the Alien the first time. They just want to get the Alien, I bet,” he told Allen. They were also thrilled when they realized that Hicks was played by Michael Biehn. “Dad, I bet he's the hero! Reese is in the film! I bet he's the hero.” Once Toshi explained that Biehn was the “real” Kyle Reese, Allen was equally excited.

I was not expecting the boys to decide that Aliens is much scarier than Alien, but they did. From when Newt sees the facehugger on her father to when the Marines actually find Newt is one long sustained bit of tension that worked on the boys in a major way. That first insane sequence where the Colonial Marines track the settlers to the Alien nest was intense. Toshi was sitting by himself in my big armchair. Allen was on the couch with me, and Lisa was on the other side of him. The further the Marines went into the nest and the worse things got, the closer Allen got to me until he was essentially pushing through me. Toshi uses fingers in his ears to make things less scary, and by the time we got through with the Nest, he pulled his fingers out of his ears like they were cramping.

The film does a pretty great job of quickly and efficiently setting up a worst case scenario with the crashing of the dropship, and by the time Ripley and Newt and the other survivors hole up inside the colony, it feels like Cameron has to shift into a lower gear because it's just too much to take. It's amazing. Cameron has the audience in a state of mania for something like a half-hour, and then takes a step back to catch his breath and set up how insane the ending is going to be. There's not a lot of story in Aliens, which is part of the magic trick that is the movie. There's one raid. It goes badly. Ripley saves them. They try the dropship. It crashes. They learn the planet is going to blow up. They call a second dropship. They get in it. They leave. They have one last fight. Fast. Fast. Fast. What Cameron uses to make Aliens special is his incredible sense of staging and pacing once things go crazy and his knack for supporting characters drawn quickly and played by very capable character actors. I love Bill Paxton in the film, and since the boys are big Weird Science fans, as soon as they saw him, they got excited. “Is he in the movie a bunch, Daddy?” Allen asked me.

“It's Chet in space, and, yeah, there's a lot of him.” They both rejoiced at the idea of that, and sure enough, in scene after scene, he killed. On my phone, I have about 200 movie quotes saved as tiny audio files, and when my film critic buddy Scott Weinberg calls, I've got a Hudson quote that plays as my ring tone. Scott is, to say the least, a big Alien fan. As Doug Benson once said, “You should follow Scott on Twitter if you really want to see the Alien egg go by 200 times a day.” He's got a beloved cat named Jones. He adores the films. And when we got to a certain point in the film, Hudson freaks out and says, “Hey, maybe you haven't been keeping up on current events, but we just got our asses kicked, pal!” and both of my sons wigged out. “That's Scott Weinberg! That's when Scott Weinberg calls!” What a weird thing to have happen, and I'll admit.. it struck me as very strange when I actually saw Bill Paxton saying the words in a scene again. I'm so used to that de-contextualized sound now that it's almost not even a quote for me. It's just a sound my phone makes, like Slim Pickens riding the bomb all the way to the ground in Dr. Strangelove or the They Might Be Giants song “Ana Ng.” If I get texts from certain people, there's a very quiet, “Yippee ki yay, motherfucker” that has earned me a few stern looks when I got the wrong text at the right time. Thankfully, I don't think it ruined it for the boys at all. It was just funny for them to finally have a context to understand what that quote meant.

Once things started to get crazy again, the boys asked me to pause the film and they asked me a very important question: would Hicks, Newt and Ripley make it out of the movie alive? They were very specific about those three characters, and I got the feeling it was a deal-breaker for them. They were willing to accept the rules of the horror movie as long as those rules made it possible for the good guys to be okay. More than anything, it was clear that Newt had become their avatar in the film, and they weren't willing to watch a film where anything bad happened to Newt. I promised them that all three characters were going to make it to the end of the second film. I was very specific and very careful. As a result, though, Allen told Lisa and me that he was going to watch the rest of the movie without covering his eyes or ears at all. He said this looking at his brother, whose fingers were poised to go right back into his ears. We even had to pause at one point during Ripley's trip into the Alien Queen's hive because Toshi told me his fingers hurt too much. There came a point where he just got caught up in it, too, though, and they both got pulled into the building suspense.

When they finally got the dropship up to the Sulaco, Allen and Toshi started talking about how cool it was that Bishop turned out to be a good guy in the film instead of a bad guy like Ash. Just about then, the Queen's tail tore into Bishop, and then for the next five or ten minutes (I'm never clear how long this scene takes, because it's so beautifully built), they were completely in tune with every beat of what Cameron did. They flipped out for it, and between the first and the second films, they are fully onboard now, in love with the iconography and the story and with Ripley herself.

So here's the thing: based on how important it was to both of the boys that Hicks and Newt and Ripley all live, how do you think they'll take the beginning of Alien 3 when we finally decide to watch it?

I'm really not looking forward to that.

In the next Film Nerd 2.0, we're going to look at the way we talk about history with the boys through films like Glory, Dances With Wolves, and, yes, even Schindler's List, as well as Lin Manuel-Miranda's infectious Hamilton soundtrack. See you with that one before we take off for Sundance on the 22nd.

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