Destination Film: LV-426 - Alien Day - The Music Box Theater - Chicago, Illinois

Andrew ventured to Chicago's Music Box Theater for Alien Day.

We all know the terrain set forth by Ridley Scott's 1979 science fiction horror masterpiece Alien and the action packed trajectory James Cameron took the series down with 1986's Aliens.  We all recognize Lieutenant Ellen Ripley as one of the greatest action heriones to grace the silver screen with Sigourney Weaver being among the very first and only women to open an action picture, paving the way for the likes of Linda Hamilton's Sarah Connor and Charlize Theron's Imperator Furiosa.  Despite however far downhill the film series went with Alien 3 and Alien Resurrection, there's no denying the first two films are among the greatest and most beloved genre offerings in cinema history.  After the unprecedented commercial success of last year's Back to the Future Day on October 21, 2015, with nearly all three films playing in movie theaters nationwide, 20th Century Fox took notice of the intense following with the realization that their still successful and continuing Alien franchise has had yet to declare any kind of formal celebratory day...until now.  

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Dubbed LV-426: Alien Day, a number of theaters nationwide announced they would be screening the first two films in the series on April 26th, 2016 in conjunction with the name of the infamous planetoid where facehuggers, xenomorphs and ferocious alien queens reign supreme.  A number of the venues would also be including sales of limited edition T-shirts, Nostromo patches, pins, and in further areas, posters and limited edition vinyl records with acid blood on the platters themselves.  Which brings us to one of my favorite movie theaters in the country, Chicago's prestigious Music Box Theater, who not only announced LV-426: Alien Day as part of their programming, they dropped news which would cause fans from across the nation to flock to this particular theater in droves: they were going to play Aliens in 70mm!

After a long day of driving I made it to the theater and quickly snatched up the Mondo T-Shirt of Ellen Ripley from the 1979 film, a packet of pins and patches and one of their custom alcoholic beverages aptly named Xenomorph Blood which more than looks like the acid blood the universe's deadliest species is known for.  Starting around 7pm, the first film opened to a sold out crowd of fans donning their own series of unique Alien and Aliens shirts and screened on a DCP digital master provided by 20th Century Fox.  Having seen the theatrical cut of Alien once on a 1979 theatrical print with an enormous amount of damage followed by three further screenings of the 2003 director's cut on film years later, digital isn't my first weapon of choice but The Music Box did the film justice by playing the original 1979 theatrical version.  

It was by and large the best I've ever heard the film sound despite years and years of various editions on home video and theatrical viewing that have come and gone, with heavy bass levels, sharp surrounds and zero distortion during louder scenes which were almost always present on video editions.  The image was a little bit darker than I remembered, conforming with the Alien Anthology home video master but no matter.  The colors were vibrant, the image was sharp and it played smoothly without a hitch.  After a break in between screenings, one of the theater owners announced before the second film began that what we were about to see was an archival 70mm print of Aliens dating back to 1986 replete with theater logos and a commercial back from the era it was released in warning viewers not to smoke in the theater.  Before the film began, the theater owner warned the audience this was going to be an exceptionally loud presentation thanks to the 1986 6-track Dolby Stereo Magnetic sound mix.  Having seen several Magnetic prints at the Music Box's 70mm Film Festival as well as two films in New York's Museum of the Moving Image, I had a rough idea of the louder than rock concert sound design ahead of me....roughly...

I can say without hesitation I am a changed man after seeing Aliens in 70mm.  Being my first time seeing the film theatrically despite having owned the Dolby Digital laserdisc and eventual Alien Anthology blu-ray set for years, I was and still am shocked at how unbelievably deafeningly loud the film was that night.  Everytime a xenomorph shrieked, it was like having a glistening sharp razor blade violently slashing across my eardrums.  Further still, all the pulse rifle sounds, explosions, power loader thuds and most of all James Cameron's feverishly pulsating score gave the impression I was in the midst of a very real warzone with sounds so incredibly loud that I ran the risk of shell shock when I wasn't fearing hearing loss.  Take for instance a brief moment in which Hicks (Michael Biehn) tries to close the door on the tank and a xenomorph tries to force its way in.  All 6 channels of sound screamed bloody murder with James Horner's sharp strings, making it one of the loudest sounds I've ever heard in a movie theater in my life.  People cheered during Hudson's now famous quip 'Game over, man!  Game over!' but quickly returned to covering their ears in between deafening xenomorph screams.  

After as many threats to my hearing as I've endured in my lifetime, whether its a Nine Inch Nails concert, the Blue Angels airplanes flying several hundred feet over my head or most fireworks displays I've witnessed, I can say without hesitation my ears officially lost their virginity to Aliens in 70mm, which as of current might be the loudest thing my hearing has ever been subjected to.  After the film ended, the long sojourn home began and for days after the screening, my ears slowly regained consciousness from the heavy ringing and blurriness they felt the night of that film.  In hindsight, was it worth the risk of hearing loss?  Given how powerful it sounded and how great the print looked with only a couple blemishes in between reel changes, I can say without hesitation it was worth every minute however little hearing I have left after it was over.  I'm convinced James Cameron's goal with sound mixing is to sandpaper human eardrums and that he did it only a couple years after his mono film The Terminator (re-released in 6 track many years later) is nothing short of miraculous.  Like early TV-spots said in 1986, Aliens quite literally blew me out of the back of the theater and I am proud to say I'm a changed filmgoer after that fateful night.

- Andrew Kotwicki