ALIEN: My Father, My Xenomorph and Me

How a horror film about an extraterrestrial defined a father/son relationship.

Sometimes, a small, seemingly inconsequential moment becomes ingrained in your very being.  For some, this might be a little league hit or the passing of an exam.  It’s a moment that, for as possibly unimportant as it may seem, it lingers in the fiber of every moment of your life, forming who you are as a person.  For me, that moment was watching Alien for the first time with my father; it sparked a change in not only myself, but in our relationship dynamic that still reverberates to this day.

Kane’s Son

Growing up, I never had a very close relationship with my father.  While not absentee or overly distant, he was a man who was fairly closed off.  My stay-at-home mom was the more warm and personable of my parents, while my father worked his ass off to provide for us.  As much as I appreciate all he’s done for me, it would be a lie if I said I was close with my father in my youth.  It wasn’t until I grew into my adolescence and we began to share an interest in music, woodworking, and film that our bond grew beyond a minimal father/son dynamic.

I can remember vividly to this day:  after spending some time with my cousin playing the classic Alien vs Predator PC games, I had wanted to finally watch the Alien films.  I wouldn’t necessarily call my childhood “sheltered”, but my parents did some reasonable monitoring of my viewing habits to make sure I wasn’t watching David Lynch films at 7-years-old.  I remember my dad waxing poetic about seeing Alien in theater and how incredible an experience it was, and how he saw Aliens at the old Cine Capri theater (one of the biggest theaters in the country during the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s).  Knowing all of this, I longed to experience this film with my dad, but had no clue how to ask.  It took days of working up courage, but I recall, clear as day, walking up to him on a Saturday afternoon and asking if he wanted to watch Alien with me — it was the first time I remember sharing my artistic interests with the man I had known my whole life.

Yes, this was a definitive moment of my life

Structural Perfection. I Admire its Purity.

The sun is easily the worst part of being a film fanatic in Phoenix, AZ; it’s incessant brightness makes it difficult to enjoy a home theater experience short of setting one up in a bomb shelter.  Fortunately, the Kuhlman household had developed a system: we had removable blackout curtains that blocked every entrance to our family room causing it to be nearly as dark as an actual theater.  Only cracks of light could leak their way into the room, making the imagery on the (now laughably outdated) rear projection screen TV look picturesque.  A state of the art sound system boomed and shrieked through the room, often to the annoyance to anyone else in the house.  It was a perfect early 2000’s theater experience.

Our home was also known for one other thing: a relatively massive DVD collection even at the early age of the technology.  My father had any movie you could imagine — a virtual Blockbuster of home video.  I always remembered the Alien Legacy box set sitting at the very top row of the shelving unit the films sat on, it’s chrome, raised box art capturing my imagination before I ever knew what a Xenomorph was.  I still have that dvd set from 1998 sitting in my film collection, and I think the evocative box art is just as much a part of my fandom of this franchise as the films themselves.

Seriously, this is some A+ artwork

I remember some… horrible dream about… smothering?

Like it was yesterday, I can recall almost every emotion and and sense of that day and that first viewing of Alien.  I can still see the slow opening credits as the individual dash-like lines form the film’s title while Jerry Goldsmith’s ominous score fills the room.  I remember the achingly slow buildup to the landing on LV-426, which at the time left me feeling impatient and wanting to the film to kick into full speed.  It’s this deliberate pacing that, while initially annoying to my pre-teen lust for action, lulled me into a sense of security that director Ridley Scott would exploit to his ghoulish advantage.

One of the great touches of the film is how it conveys information visually.  While there is dialogue about the creature, particularly the facehugger attached to Kane’s face in the early portions of the film, almost everything we need to know is shown and learned by the audience at the same time as the crew of the Nostromo.  Most of the technobabble exposition-dumps went over my head, but seeing the molecular acid blood melt the floors of the ship and the beast wrap its tail around Kane’s throat provided enough information for me to know all I needed to about the monster.  As Ash says, “it’s an interesting combination of elements making him a tough little son-of-a-bitch.” And the horror only begins there.

While the iconic chest-burster scene, which I had unfortunately been spoiled on earlier, was a marvel to witness, it wasn’t until the fully grown Xenomorph appeared that I truly began to appreciate the terror this film had to offer.  One of the few times I ever saw my dad freaking out in a film, and I can replay it in my mind’s eye with perfect clarity, is Captain Dallas’s demise in the ventilation shaft.  The instant Dallas turns and is faced with the horror of his death, the cacophony of shrieks, screams and eventual feedback provide a perfect cap to the suspense of the entire sequence.  It’s an impeccably crafted sequence, but that moment caused both my father and I to jump back, causing the couch we were seated on to shift backward nearly hitting the wall.  It was a sort of raw and unadulterated experience that I can’t recall ever sharing with him prior to this moment.

“It’s okay, I have daddy issues too. Want a hug?”

Well, how about a little something to lower your spirits?

As the dread continued to rise and the body count added up, the film began to connect with me on a personal level.  The ever-present suspense of the Xenomorph combined with the terror of being left to die subconsciously clicked into place in my head.  I didn’t understand at the time and wouldn’t put a finger on it until much later, but I suffered and continue to suffer from an anxiety disorder.  I don’t broadcast it, and I usually avoid bringing it up, but it’s important to mention in the sense of this film and it’s impact on my life.

My biggest trigger growing up was social interaction.  I had very few friends I was open with, and in reality my only real confidant was my mother.  Communicating with my father almost always provoke a fight-or-flight reaction, and I struggled mightily with coming to him with any sort of wants, needs, or desires.  As I mentioned before, it took days to work up the courage to watch this film with him, and the only comparative moment between us I can remember being more unnecessarily nerve wracking was when I told him I was going to propose to my girlfriend (now wife).

Shout out to Ripley who helped inspire my love for confident, strong women like my wife

Final Report

A few days ago, I watched Alien again in preparation for Alien: Covenant and for Lewton Bus’s Alien Week.  While I’ve seen Alien probably close to ten times between now and then, I watched it this time with this first experience specifically in mind. I really focused in on trying to think back to my perception and mindset watching it the first time.  It was striking how sudden and forceful the memories raced at me, making it nearly overwhelming to experience again.  It was a true moment of clarity that helped me realize that this moment wasn’t just important, but possibly the most important moment in the relationship between myself and my father.

Slowly, but eventually, after we watched Alien together, we began to spend more one-on-one time together.  We expanded each other’s musical tastes, attending concerts ranging from Bruce Springsteen to Mastodon, first attending a The Who show during my sophomore year of high school.  Sharing sci-fi movies and TV shows became a regular thing, watching Firefly, The X-Files, and Star Trek entering and expanding in my life. It wasn’t a big thing, and I’ll be shocked if my dad even remembers that day, but watching Alien with him helped define who I am, as a student of film, as a son, and most importantly, as a man.

So this weekend, the Saturday of which marks my 26th birthday, I plan on taking my father to see Alien: Covenant.  Mostly for the pleasure of watching another entry in this film series, but partially as a microscopic thank you to both Alien and my father for, ever so subtly, helping me discover myself.