Monster Kid Theater continues with a father/son triple bill of The Thing, Aliens and War of the Worlds
Monster Kid Theater is an ongoing column in which my three sons and I (just call me Fred MacMurray) get together to watch classic and contemporary monster movies. My trio of tots are young. Jack is 10. Elliot is 8. Ben is 6. I have not really pushed a cinematic agenda on them. They have just liked hanging out with me. And I watch plenty of movies. And many of them are… odd. I have ensured that when we do sit down to watch movies and when we go to the cinema, that I try to spin everything into education. I break down shots, discuss film history, talk about special effects, acting, metaphor and allegory. Some of it they get, some they will eventually get.
But they are my joy. We are a team.
However, in this edition of Monster Kid Theater, I’m going to focus on my 10-year old, a lad who is now maturing enough that he can handle harder stuff. I’m not talking about showing him Showgirls; I mean harder in the sense that emotional stakes are higher, action is more intense and maybe the odd bit of phony blood is splashed around. So with that, recently, I found myself with Jack alone for a weekend, the other two children away with their mother and, at his request, I programmed a triple bill that was designed to rock his world.
Now all three lads had seen Ridley Scott’s Alien. We watched it together one night and they were mesmerized. They are also schooled in the music of John Carpenter and though they know all the key themes (and Jack can play most of them on keyboard and guitar) and can identify his sound, they have yet to watch all the films, with the exception of Escape from New York and carefully curated scenes from Christine. They are also familiar with H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, having been subjected to my favorite album of all time, Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of the War of the Worlds, since birth. So taking these influences into account, I selected the following movies for our weekend hangout: The Thing (1982). Aliens (1986) and War of the Worlds (2005). These three sci-fi shockers were intense enough that I knew he’d get a jolt, while also emotional enough and laced with enough subtext that we would have talking points to discuss during and after the screenings. All three are excellent and two of them are essential fantasy film classics (the third well on the way to being so), so I felt justified in my educational pretense.
And so, on the rainy Saturday afternoon we started with:
The Thing (1982)
Jack was initially alarmed by the sweet husky being shot at, but after assuaged his anxiety by reminding him all films were a staged illusion and that in the context of the movie, said dog was in fact a monster, he eased up. He also instantly recognized the “Carpenter sound” of the bass throb and synth washes, though I explained that this was actually the work of the great composer Ennio Morricone (who he was aware of from my saturating him in Spaghetti Western scores) who was asked by Carpenter to mimic that signature JC sound. What a joy to have these discussions of musical aesthetics with your own flesh and blood! Nothing like it…
As the movie progressed and the tension mounted, Jack was hooked. He gravitated instantly to Kurt Russell’s MacReady, though he kept referring to him as Snake Plisskin, which was also kind of cool. I explained the relationship between Russell and Carpenter and reminded him that we had also seen the pair work together in the Carpenter TV movie Elvis and that it was Carpenter that kind of dragged Russell out of the Disney swamp and put him on course for a career as an adult actor. When it came to Rob Bottin’s startling FX work, Jack was shocked and delighted. He was not scared. He was amazed. Again, he has been on film sets and understands the art of practical FX. To him, this was a spectacular illusion, a master class of imagined revulsion. When the movie ended and the screen went black on its open-ended narrative note, Jack said “That’s my favorite John Carpenter movie.” I told him that he was not alone.
Then, after a break and a nice dinner out for two, we returned to watch:
I explained to Jack that if Alien was a haunted house movie, Aliens was a war film that focused on action. He was okay with this. Confused by Ripley waking up 50 years later, I explained cryogenics and what had happened and the tragedy of Ripley’s daughter which he could understand and which made him feel empathy towards the character. Aliens takes its time getting to the planet, but Jack was totally absorbed by the characters so he was anything but bored. He loved Bill Paxton’s Hudson and was devastated when I mentioned that the beloved actor had recently passed away. He was really into Lance Henriksen‘s Bishop and adored the hand/knife scenes between the pair, though I had to stress that under NO circumstances was he to ever try this himself.
As the action ramped up and the xenomorphic sh*t hit the fan, Jack was on the edge of his seat and we kept taking moments to admire the design of the aliens and kept asking each other what we would do if pushed into similar predicaments. Jack is savvy to movie manipulation so even when young Newt is put in mortal danger, he was not stressed as he knew that the child would not be harmed. “Wait until Alien 3” I almost told him, but didn’t want to bum him out so I left that alone.
By the time the movie ended, and Ripley snarls the “B” word at the monstrous Alien queen, Jack was pumping his fists. “I LOVE this movie!” he said. And I told him that I have seen Aliens about 50 times and oddly, feel the same enthusiastic way every single time.
Bedtime followed, but on Sunday we woke up early, ate pancakes and watched:
War of the Worlds (2005)
Jack’s confusion about the time and place was justified as to him, based on his love of the pretty faithful musical adaptation, WOTW takes place in Victorian England and is ripe with steampunk imagery. But this film was set in contemporary times. I explained that this was simply an updated version of the basic story and themes of the book and was not meant to have any real association with the album. He got it and we spent the duration of the movie tying in certain scenes and characters to the original tale.
Director Steven Spielberg’s ability to cast young people to draw in younger viewers is on point in War of the Worlds and Jack instantly locked on Tom Cruise’s children (especially the big brother) as his point of entry into the story and we both bonded about the idea of a parent doing anything and everything to protect their children from an external threat. WOTW doesn’t get half the respect it deserves with many criticizing that very angle, the parental/family focus. Shame. It’s a powerful and enduring dramatic motif and its especially potent here, with Tom Cruise delivering a solid turn as a father who finally “comes of age” under great stress. And man, WOTW is horrifying. Scenes of nightmarish alien destruction are brilliantly rendered and because Jack was so deeply invested in the plight of the characters, he was extra horrified.
At the end of the film, we sat back and I asked him which of the three was his favorite. He loved them all. They were all different experiences. But it was War of the Worlds hands down that spoke to him the loudest. It was a film he could identify with, fully completely on every level.
It was indeed a fantastic triple bill and an unforgettable bonding experience for both of us to experience these three marvelous movies together. I know I won’t forget it.
Now I just have to wait ’till he’s at LEAST 12 because I’m bursting to show him George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead for the first time…
Monster Kid Theater will return…