In the last paragraph of the previous edition of this feature, I said that the more “artificial” a film’s universe is, the more important it is to consider the medium it’s being viewed in. James Cameron’s 1986 film Aliens is a perfect example of this. Here we have a massive SFX-driven extravaganza that depends on cinematic trickery to build an impossible diegesis of spaceships, colonies, and various off-Earth bric-à-brac. Now, I didn’t see the film in 35mm, Blu-ray, or even DVD, so I can’t totally vouch for the immersiveness of the set design and special effects. But watching Aliens on tape did confirm a suspicion I had about media fidelity and verisimilitude, and not the one you might think.
But first, let me get this out of the way: yes, I’m fully aware that I’m in my late twenties, am a film-school graduate and a certified genre movies fan, and have only recently seen Aliens for the first time. I talked about this in an essay on this very website a few months ago, but here’s the short version of it: as strange as it sounds, not everybody sees all of the same movies at the same time. There are hundreds of factors that determine what we watch and when we watch it. After a while, movies like Aliens or Casablanca or whatever other canonical staple you can name get lost by the wayside if they remain unseen for a while because of a silly kind of cinephilic embarrassment. Now, I look at it this way: I’m 26 and I get to see Aliens for the first time. Few people will know such joy, because go figure, Aliens is an amazing film; a superlative action movie in the same way Alien was a superlative horror/thriller. And like Alien, it’s easy to take Cameron’s film for granted because so much of it informed so much of what would become contemporary sci-fi/action cinema. It’s all right there, and it’s damn near perfect.
What wasn’t perfect, though, was the quality of the VHS tape I had bought from work. As the film started, the soundtrack was deformed by a consistent warping, as if someone held down a pitch-bend knob connected to my TV for about half a second every ten seconds. For a few minutes, it was distracting, but as the credits kept on rolling, the warping lent James Horner’s eerie score an extra layer of spookiness, The tape stopped warping after a while, but what had happened was a serendipitous extratextual link between Jerry Goldsmith’s tense, atonal score for Alien and Horner’s work here. Thus, a physical deformity in the playback resulted in a cool bit of texture, the same effect a scratched-up grindhouse print would have. This is obviously less likely to happen with a disc-based format (unless a choppy stutter or unexpected flash-forward can somehow enhance the viewing experience), so this particular kind of intangible quality is unique to analog.
VHS also has a way of blurring the edges between what’s “real” and what isn’t. Watching a science fiction film in the sharpest possible format makes the edges of the world that much more visible. This is especially true of older movies, where practical effects and puppetry often coexist with early CGI, with one being more “real” than the other. The medium fidelity of magnetic tape has the advantage of buffing away the seams, giving a film with disparate-looking constituent parts a cohesive look. The prime example of this in Aliens is when the ship first lands on the colonized planet. On Blu-ray, the mix of miniature work and rear projection might have looked iffy, but on tape, it worked like gangbusters. The illusion of a constructed world is successfully maintained.
So did Aliens benefit from being viewed on VHS? Yes and no. Movies from the VHS Era (i.e. most of the 1980s and 1990s) benefit from a kind of collective nostalgia for the particularities of the format. The dulled colors, the cropped frame, the physical warping of the tape. But this specific kind of texture helps SFX-heavy films retain a cohesive look and feel about them. At the same time, Aliens‘ world deserves to be seen in widescreen; it truly is a marvel of production design, sound editing, and visual effects. For that same reason, it deserves to be seen in the biggest, sharpest way possible.
So two entries in, I have yet to adequately confirm this column’s main thesis: that some movies play better on VHS. A Fish Called Wanda didn’t gain or lose anything by being on VHS (most comedies don’t), and Aliens, while having some advantages on tape, is definitely an HD film. Though James Cameron’s films don’t always have an explicit Aliens/Terminator level of tech fetishism in the text, their production consistently involves cutting-edge machinery. My gut tells me that the third film in the series is going to be the one to prove me right. I’m hoping that the confluence of medium, availability, genre, and status that the film represents will prove my thesis right. Stay tuned.
Directed by James Cameron; written by James Cameron; starring Sigourney Weaver, Paul Reiser, Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton, Carrie Henn, Michael Biehn, Jeanette Goldstein, and William Hope; 137 minutes.