When I was a kid, my parents used to take me to Disney on Ice. If you aren’t familiar with this strange phenomenon, the gist is this: basically, Disney would take whatever film they were currently pimping, be it something from theaters or something on the precipice of being sequestered in their dubious vault, force it onto skates and shove it onto rinks in arenas across the country. These shows were nothing more than ornate marketing ploys, providing spectacle as manufactured as the absurdly overpriced toys peddled at the event. We would listen to largely prerecorded dialogue and songs as former Olympic figure skaters dressed up as copyrighted characters and lifelessly reenacted Disney’s films.
But thankfully, though it took years, this medium has finally realized its potential thanks to a team of local comedians.
The Old Murder House Theater, as they are enigmatically dubbed, has been concocting live stage renditions of beloved genre movies for quite some time. These events, usually produced for the cost of a normal stage show’s three-day bagel allowance, are part recreation and part good old-fashioned lampoon. They walked on broken glass, but not eggshells, when they sent up Die Hard, and not even Robocop was protected when they served up jokes about his whiny emotional fits (the lyrics, “I am a robot, a crying robot” were added to the film’s theme music).
This is a creative team perpetually challenging themselves and striving for new heights of comedic achievement. So it was no surprise when we heard they were preparing their next show, an event even bigger than their last. But none of us could have adequately prepared ourselves for Aliens on Ice. That’s right, Aliens on Ice. Despite the fact that The Old Murder House Theater is based out of Austin, a place that rarely experiences temperatures low enough to create ice, they were gearing up to create a cinematically-themed extravaganza that promised to put the Ice Capades to shame.
As we gathered in the lobby of an ice skating rink—on a brisk, 80° November evening—excitement was met with uncertainty. How in the hell were these guys, none of whom could skate (to our knowledge), going to be able to pull this off?
Filing in we saw the rink itself, bordered on only one side by hard, plastic seats. We made our way across until we were facing a three-sided set bearing a striking resemblance to the interiors of James Cameron’s sci-fi actioner. A heavy-duty soundboard sat just on the other side of the Plexiglas barrier, a few industrial shop lights casting luminance and eerie shadow in the appropriate places. The drastic temperature drop inside the rink poignantly echoed the coldness of deep space as the lights went out.
A cardboard Twentieth Century Fox logo lit up via a single flashlight. The crowd was already cheering. The members of The Old Murder House Theater came awkwardly skating out, inhabiting the various beloved characters from Aliens—often, playing multiple characters and switching back and forth within one scene.
The very robust, bearded Sam Eidson, who also directed the show, was particularly hilarious as the pint-sized hero Newt. One by one, they ferried us through the film’s seminal scenes, adding no small measure of their signature parody along the way. Cardboard ships, facehugger puppets and leaf blowers adorned with streamers (to simulate flamethrowers) created an interpretation that was just as dazzling at a fraction of the price. They also used a precarious abundance of pyrotechnics, repeatedly putting their safety in jeopardy for the sake of theatricality.
I’m not sure if it was the all-cast chorus of “Be Our Guest” from Beauty and the Beast or the climactic battle between the queen alien and the robot load lifter, but at some point I realized that what I was seeing was far and away the greatest manifestation of film geek passion I had ever witnessed.
That theatricality was incalculably intensified when we were introduced to the xenomorphs themselves. Professional skaters, in shockingly accurate—for being homemade—costumes, moved swiftly through the shadowy portions of the ice just behind the set until they swarmed our heroes. They committed wholeheartedly to their wild, alien personas and, with their graceful movements, provided hilarious juxtaposition to our bumbling protagonists. It was magnificent. Clearly, the movie-centric ice show is no longer a dead art form, its second life bursting forth from this cast like an alien embryo from a host chest.
I’m not sure if it was the all-cast chorus of “Be Our Guest” from Beauty and the Beast or the climactic battle between the queen alien and the robot load lifter, but at some point I realized that what I was seeing was far and away the greatest manifestation of film geek passion I had ever witnessed. One of the major reasons I moved to Austin was its community of rabid film fans. Suddenly my obsession with cinema was not something that got me ostracized, but instead something shared by a multitude of amazing people, many of whom were also talented artists.
Not only is Austin becoming a haven for filmmakers, but also for imaginative cinephiles capable of orchestrating the most extraordinary tangible representations of their geek love. Aliens on Ice rises above its budgetary restrictions and perfectly encapsulates the lingering wonderment instilled in us by movies like Aliens no matter how old we get.
There is an added aptness to seeing Aliens recreated in so humble a fashion. James Cameron, though presently revered as one of the chief architects of cutting edge special effects, started out in films with arguably fewer means than Aliens on Ice. He had to rely on imagination and ingenuity in lieu of extravagant finances when he was working under the likes of Roger Corman. Aliens on Ice is therefore a suitable tribute to the man behind Aliens and to cinematic zeal undeterred by limitations.