June 23, 2008 — I crossed the fuzzy gray thing that passes for a border between the U.S. and Canada for one reason only, to see Her Majesty the Queen...Alien. I wish I had a more dramatic punctuation mark than a mere ellipses for that. But you read right, Canadians might have Queen Elizabeth II on their coins, but they are currently playing host to a much more notable (and I assume fanged) queen, who is holding court at the Montreal Science Center in Montreal, Quebec.
Now, individually, the words alien and queen are generic enough to not really stick out either on a page or in a conversation. However, 22 years ago director James Cameron put them together to dub one of the most impressive and terrifying creature creations in science fiction cinema history and the centerpiece of his film Aliens...speaking of generic names.
So what’s a girl like that doing in a place like that? Well, this R-rated creature that our parents wouldn’t let us see in theaters because it would corrupt our innocence and give us nightmares is now part of a child-friendly educational science exhibit. It’s called “The Science of Aliens,” and it’s touring the world for the purpose of exploring the theoretical science behind the possibility of extraterrestrial life. Or because it’s just a cool thing to do and could probably bring in solid cash. They had me at the concept on that one, but add some science fiction pop culture to the idea, and the bait is set. And I, of course, took it. But then, I’d fall for beef jerky placed under a cardboard box propped up by a stick tied to a string. Overall, though, I just wanted an audience with the Queen...Alien. I’ll stop doing that.
The Montreal Science Centre is located on King Edward Pier, in the Old Port area of the city. I have to say, I’ve only been to better science centers. The exhibits are sparse and overwhelmingly directed at children. Still, it had what I wanted to see, so that temporarily made it the coolest place in the world to me. When you purchase your ticket, you’re given a paper wrist band with a bar code that you have to scan each time you want to get into an individual exhibit. I have no clue why the security measure. On top of that, staff members guard the entrance of each exhibit, mostly I think to help you figure out how to scan a bar code that’s wrapped around your wrist. After finding the Science of Aliens exhibit and spinning my wrist to the point of sprain while a sympathetic staff member Frenched [instructions at] me, I was finally allowed to pass through the turnstile and then one of those car-wash-type curtains into the exhibit.
And there she was. Moet et Chandon in a pretty cabinet and perfume naturally from Paris.
In a move that saved me from running frantically through the exhibit and thereby missing most of it, the exhibit creators displayed the Alien Queen right at the entrance so that it’s the first thing you pass. Except that you’re not going to want to pass it; you’re going to want to set up camp right there on the floor and offer pagan sacrifices to it.
Cold-blooded, deep-space black, and acid-bleeding, the Stan Winston (R.I.P.*) and James Cameron adaptation of the H.R. Giger design has always ranked among the top creature creations in all cinema, and, in my opinion, it beats most of the fauna of the natural world, as well. For the exhibit, she’s portrayed in an aggressive stance (although, admittedly, you could dress her up like Whistler’s Mother’s and stick her in a go-go dancer cage and she’d still look aggressive...if a little silly), her mouth baring multiple jaws of metallic fangs as she looms protectively over a trio of her eggs. In addition, she’s lit surreally in colored lights, while a possibly motion-activated and I’m-not-sure-whether-or-not-accurate-to-the-movie roar is occasionally played over the loudspeakers. I was awed. I didn’t want to move on to the rest of the exhibit...or the rest of my life, honestly. The only real problem I had with the Queen’s display was that it was tucked unemphatically into a corner. As a result, its impressiveness suffered due to well, being crammed in a corner, and you couldn’t walk around it for a more full perspective. But then again, I really didn’t go to see her skeletal alien arse anyway.
But don’t let me kill the drama (until the next paragraph, at least). Standing there in front of that monster made me feel a lot like I imagine Ripley must have in the scene where she first sees Madame Xenomorph, minus the giant, transparent ovipositor, which is a word I’d never thought I’d ever have to type, and the impending sense of danger of being ripped apart like stale taffy (or a milk-filled Lance Henriksen).
Unfortunately, the Alien Queen on display here is only a life-sized replica, and not the original hydraulic puppet, but they lighted it well so that the lack of fine detail is easy to forgive and not really noticeable. I’ve included a shot with the camera flash canceling out the lighting effect. As you can see, still cool enough. Because it’s only a replica, though, the remainder of this article will deal with the rest of the Science of Aliens exhibit. If this had been the actual Alien Queen, I would have devoted this entire article plus three more, two volumes of my personal diary, the lion share of my cocktail party conversation for the rest of my life, and a few square inches of my gravestone for the rest of my death to it. Stick around, though, because the exhibit still has cool stuff, even if it has to inevitably go downhill after the 15-foot-tall matriarch of a race of eyeless reptilian nightmares.
The next exhibit in the Science of Aliens show is another replica movie alien, albeit one a bit more tame...unless you stumble into one of its poetry readings or happen to live on a planet on its demolition schedule. It’s a Vogon guard from the 2005 film The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, based on the Douglas Adams’ book of the same name, which, along with Ray Bradbury stories and the backs of Cap’n Crunch boxes, I count as one of the formative texts of my existence. Still, it’s a puzzling choice to follow up an Alien Queen, but I guess I’d rather have a life-sized unnamed Vogon than, well, a lot of things.
Then the exhibit gets weird.
Across from a giant screen showcasing clips from various extraterrestrial-featuring science fiction moves such as the Day the Earth Stood Still and The Man Who Fell to Earth and an interactive feature where you’re encouraged to try on the goatee of Ming the Merciless from Flash Gordon, the cranium of one of the Metaluna Mutants from This Island Earth, and slanted sun glasses to make you look like a classic gray alien, are a couple of display cases the contents of which completely perplex me in regards to the subject matter of the Science of Aliens exhibit. They actually feature horror cinema icons. I rarely spend my time in museums reading the exhibits, so I just have to assume that they had a good reason to include pieces on Dracula, Frankenstein, and Curse of the Beast, in addition to a book featuring examples of spirit photography and a copy of Fuseli’s painting The Nightmare. Actually, I’m not assuming. There is no good reason. Now, admittedly, it still does the plaque-ridden pump in my chest good to see these items, as I do dig my horror, but I’m also a big fan of relevance. Except when I’m a big fan of irrelevance. I’m the most fair-weather. In addition, the displays even feature very terrestrial characters such as Maria from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Robocop from, well, Robocop. They seemed to have gotten way off message by temporarily confusing aliens and monsters and never caught the mistake. I guess it’s one we’ve all made in life, though.
On top of all that strangeness, many of the exhibits in these display cases were toys. Yup, toys. And not rare vintage toys, but toys like I’ve seen recently in Toys “R” Us...um, buying my nephew a birthday present. These toys included action figures, stuffed animals, and a Halloween mask. At least the mask was of the Predator, though, an actual fictional alien. And the fact that I had to stoop to an oxymoron like “actual fictional” should show you the lengths I have to go to in order to articulate my level of bewilderment. Then again, maybe I’m being too hard on this facet of the exhibit. Maybe our licensed merchandise has gotten to the level of museum quality. Good for us.
But that ends the popular culture bait, um, bit. Next is the interactive science part that Science Centers love and that is still worth going through because you paid a lot of money to get in.
After passing an artwork consisting of a fiberglass glob of flesh (not as cool as it sounds, unfortunately) that’s supposed to illustrate how easily normal things can feel alien to us, you arrive at a couple of interactive exhibits detailing possible alien environments and the ways we might come in contact with them. I remember giant planets hanging from the ceiling, some satellite probe replicas, and other space-type items, but all of my attention was drawn to a series of transparent jars displayed on this way cool exhibit case made of branching tubular columns.
Inside each liquid-filled jar were creatures like the gulper eel, ogrefish, octopus, and other terrestrial ocean denizens that looked highly alien…which was the purpose of that exhibit. I think. I was too busy imaging how that thing would look in my living room. I have no idea if the creatures in the jars were actually preserved specimens or more replicas. The exhibit didn’t say either way, and I kept going back and forth on it. Some of them looked like well-made replicas and others looked real. If somebody else knows the answer, let me know so that I can delete half of this paragraph.
Finally, the last area of the Science of Aliens exhibit features a pair of sloping eighteen-foot-long touch screens that depict alien landscapes. You select one of the items on the planet’s surface, and interactive boxes appear at your fingertips with information and images about the creature or plant that you’ve selected. When I went, a section of one of the screens was down, showing just a blank blue DOS screen, while a man on a step ladder did tool stuff above it, hurting the illusion and the chance for a cool shot of the entire room. The interactivity itself was cool, but way cooler was how you looked interacting with it.
The Science of Aliens is only open in Montreal through September 1st. After that, it’ll probably be in other places, but I have no clue where. And the exhibit varies. I know when it was in Tokyo, it featured Logray the Ewok from Return of the Jedi and an alien autopsy-like exhibit that I wish I could’ve seen. To my knowledge, though, they all have the all-important Alien Queen. Every once in a while, the world makes sense.
My overall impression of the exhibit is that it’s a little bit schizoid. It’s like two groups worked on it…one that totally got it and had tons of cool ideas like commissioning a replica Alien Queen and the design of giant, sloping touch-screen computers and one that was a bit hazy on the concept and found themselves rummaging through the clearance bin at their local toy store and throwing random things into display cases. Still, it’s a great idea for an exhibit, even if I skipped most of the interactive part (which I always do...I like my exhibits to just exhibit). The whole thing made me wish, though, that the entire showcase was just life-sized replica movie alien after life-sized replica movie alien and that the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame wasn’t on the opposite coast from me. Stupid Seattle.
*The recent loss of Stan Winston is a void I can only understate, so I won't. I’m just going to pop Pumpkinhead into my DVD player and be sad.