How many times have those of us who love this franchise - more the potential of this franchise - been burned by it? Alas, there have been just two great, profoundly influential, Alien movies, one interesting-but-disappointing one, one thoroughly bizarre instalment, and two movies which mixed the mythology with Predator and were straight-to-video wretched.
Oh, and - of course - Prometheus; a curious and well-meaning attempt at asking the big questions about our place in the universe, but which merely came across as a bit stupid. You know: like a boozed-up pub bore lecturing you on his theories about Darwinism, while you're distracted by the pork scratching crumbs in his beard wisps, and waiting for him to fall off his chair.
There have been numerous comics and video games which have done a better job of fulfilling the potential of Alien than the way it has been treated cinematically; the movie equivalent of winning the lottery, and then spending every last penny building the world's biggest bouncy castle in your back garden, inviting your family over to have a go on it, and then, while they're taking off their shoes, you start hacking at the castle with a garden fork.
"Ha ha! I burst you!"
However, there's one mostly forgotten expansion of Alien which remains as beloved by me as those first two movies; Alien War, a "total reality" experience that ran in the basement of London's Trocadero Centre for almost three intense years.
These days, you can't throw a shoe without hitting another immersive theatre production, or so-called "secret" cinema.
Back in 1992, when Alien War was first conceived by John Gorman and Gary Gillies, immersive theatre wasn't even a thing. The closest the world got to something like it were murder mystery dinner parties, or the haunted house attractions that pop-up in America every Halloween. Until recently - when the likes of Alton Towers and Thorpe Park started copying American theme parks - they've never really been part of the British cultural landscape.
Spinning out of Gorman and Gillies' own collection of Alien memorabilia, Alien War opened in April 1992 in Glasgow. It cost £30,000 to stage, funded thanks to the investment of a local businessman, and lasted almost a year before going on a short tour around the country. In early 1993 it was announced that Alien War would moving to a permanent £1 million home in London's Piccadilly Circus.
Gorman and Gillies (a former swimming instructor, no less) had meetings with Japanese investors, 20th Century Fox, and Sigourney Weaver herself to get the funding and rights they needed. Weaver reportedly signed a deal that gave her a share of royalties in return for her attendance at the opening of any future Alien War site (she attended the London launch along with other Aliens cast members, shooting at the site's branding with a CO2-belching version of her iconic flamethrower).
Without the short-hand of "immersive theatre", the press struggled to describe it, referring to "ghost rides" or "a live-action video game". It was neither of those things, but at the time there was absolutely nothing else like it - particularly in the UK.
Taking aim at the Virtuality machines filling the arcade upstairs from Alien War, Gorman insisted that his attraction was far superior: "What is the point of virtual reality? It's not really happening. People will prefer this to passive entertainment. Once you're inside you completely believe the scenario. After all, no one knows whether or not aliens exist. We're letting the public use their own imagination."
Gillies added: "Basically the alien is just a reproductive organ, intent only on breeding - like a walking penis..."
I don't remember where I first heard about Alien War... but I was working at Digitiser at the time. It's possible a press release landed on our desk; for some reason we got all sorts of random releases sent to us (including one for a proposed - and swiftly aborted - Doctor Who 30th anniversary special, The Dark Dimension, which was so professionally put together that it described Patrick Troughton's 2nd Doctor as a "cosmic homo").
Such is the confidence of youth, that I had no qualms about contacting Alien War, and requesting - nay, demanding - a visit. I did that a lot back then. I dunno where all that bullishness has gone, but I never had any hesitation in requesting stuff, however tangential it was to Digitiser's intended output.
To be honest, the visit was disappointing. We were shown around the Alien War site by - I think - John Gorman, who seemed stressed and distracted, and for good reason. With less than a week until it the launch date, it was still a work-in-progress. The set was in the process of being being built, scarcely little more than a steel frame, and with no ceiling to the attraction's corridors, with the lights on, there was no atmosphere. Also, I was taken aback by how small the place was; how could such a tiny area represent what was meant to be a huge space station?
We waited to be invited to the launch... but the invite never came. Gorman wandered off back to overseeing the build. Instead, we were forced to book our own trip, hoping for much, but expecting little...
Fortunately, I had my mind blown. I'd never experienced anything like it. So much so that I went back at least three more times - possibly more - taking other people with me, because I needed to show it off. I wanted them to enjoy it as much as I did, to feel the genuine terror, and subsequent elation of having survived.
Every time, the experience was slightly different, depending on the actors you got, and - most likely - which bits of the attraction were working that day.
In general, the experience was this: after walking through a mock-up of the prison base from Alien 3, you'd arrive at the Alien War ticket office, adjacent to which was a museum of props, containing a full-size replica of the Queen from Aliens. At your appointed time you'd be ushered into a waiting room, where a Colonial Marine would welcome you to a tour of this Weyland Yutani facility. He'd go out to check some things... and then the lights would go out.
Moments later, the Marine would burst back in, panicked, saying there was an emergency - several specimens had escaped containment, and we had to evacuate the base. Those brightly-lit corridors we'd seen before were transformed; smoke, darkness, flashing warning lights, sound - the steady throb and pulse of a motion tracker - and the performance from the actor playing the Marine (or Marines - some days, I had two) kept up suspense.
Because they varied the scares, you never quite knew when the Alien was going to explode from the shadows. Sometimes there'd be false alarms - a wounded Marine bursting out from behind some barrels - but eventually, sooner or later, an Alien would appear. Admittedly, doing little more than hissing and waving a load of imaginary flies away from its face, but the moment was one of sheer panic.
In the early days, the Marine was equipped with a blank firing pistol. Eventually, however, Gorman and Gillies got their special effects system working, and armed their cast with pulse rifles that were equipped with a strobe light and an infra-red sensor; as the strobe flashed - illuminating the Alien in staccato bursts - so the synchronised noise of a gun firing would erupt from nearby speakers.
This first encounter with the Alien was usually followed by a flat-out run to an elevator, up a short - and health-and-safety-challenging - flight of stairs.
At this point a member of our group - part of the cast, who had tagged along dressed in civvies - would be snatched by an Alien just as the doors were closing, and dragged away screaming. Then the lift would ascend a few inches, before stopping (this feature stopped working after my first couple of visits). A hatch in the ceiling would open, and an Alien would stick its head inside, hissing and bearing its teeth.
The first time this happened, I lost my mind. I cowered on the floor, and pointed at it, shrieking. Later, I felt like an idiot, but on subsequent visits I felt better about my cowardice; across my various visits, I watched many people freak out in a similar fashion.
Following the lift there was a short run to an escape craft. On one occasion I saw a fight almost break out between a member of the public and the Marine, who wanted his help in getting the door closed. In genuine panic, the well-built guy pushed and shoved and shouted at the Marine, refusing point-blank to assist him.
And then it was over. We were disgorged out into the Trocadero, laughing and trembling, before baffled members of the public; that alone was a great PR tool.
Though it was over in less than 20 minutes, through the use of darkness, sustained suspense, and clever utilisation of a tiny space, Alien War was one of the most effective immersive experiences I've ever had, worth every penny of the £6.95 ticket price.
Though brief, Alien War worked better than a lot of the more recent, more theatrical, immersive productions, because it placed the audience in a moment. Punchdrunk Theatre's Drowned Man and Sleep No More, or Les Enfants Terrible's Alice's Adventures Underground (on now at The Vaults in Waterloo) are lavish in their production design and world-building, but you feel more like a bystander than a participant, a ghost moving through someone else's story.
Sadly, Alien War closed after less than three years. The site was sold to new owners, and following a flood resulting from a burst pipe, it was closed. According to Gillies, the new owner chose to collect the insurance money rather than reopen the site, though other reports state that the insurer went bankrupt.
Gorman and Gillies never got to expand the site as planned. On our visit for Digitiser, we saw impressive designs for laboratories full of Facehuggers in jars, and an Alien Queen egg chamber. Gilles and Gorman talked big about franchising the brand globally. They'd even, apparently, been approached by James Cameron with a view to launching a sister attraction based on Terminator - Future Wars.
None of this happened.
Alien War returned in 2008, back in its original home in Glasgow, before moving for a short time to Liverpool. Now without the backing of 20th Century Fox, the new Alien War replaced the Colonial Marines with black-suited special operatives. According to Gillies, this Weaver and Fox-less incarnation was out of choice.
"They didn't want us to include anything too scary in case someone had a heart attack and we really wanted to give audiences a more terrifying show," he said at the time. "So we decided this time to do it ourselves."
The Liverpool attraction closed doors in March 2010, and - to date - hasn't reopened. With the rise of immersive theatre, and companies such as Secret Cinema staging stunning recreation of movie worlds such as Star Wars and 28 Days Later, it feels like its time has come. Unfortunately, outside of occasional rumours about a possible London reopening, and a sporadic official Twitter account, nothing has materialised.
Certainly, Alien War had a huge impact on me. Not just in terms of how much fun it was, but in how they successfully terrified an audience with limited resources.
It took close to 25 years, but that itch is finally getting scratched with Found Footage. I very much had Alien War in mind when I created the set dressing and look of the teaser trailer below. Consider it my own tribute to Alien War; my favourite immersive experience ever.