Another part of the occasional series. So far we've had the intro, the sandworm of Dune and 'the enabling force'. All three can all be found with the series label.
Do not click on anything below this point unless you are an adult who is willing to be discomforted, possibly offended, and scared. There will be spoilers too.
It's the alien - or xenomorph if you prefer - the one from Alien. This must be one of the most coherent and discussed of all alien designs. We've probably all heard of H. R. Giger. In fact, more or less all we might expect to need for an understanding of the design can be found in this potentially offensive overview. This should be a very short post then - what can I say you don't already know?
Here's the trailer, which is not so tame itself. This is also adults only. In fact, it might be better not to watch even if you are an adult. If you do click, brace yourself. Note also the possible allusions to parched earth, the globe and viscera, as well as events viewed on screen or grasped piecemeal, momentum, desperation and building terror.
This is body horror as much as SF and I think that's the entry point so to speak. So I send you to Horror Film History. The sensitive be warned again - there's horror there too.
Good read, wasn't it? By the time I found that page, I'd also mentally grouped Alien and The Thing. Why? I can agree with the article, that audiences wanted more and the effects of the time could deliver. But I think there's more at work. The question this series is trying to answer is how the zeitgeist influences the form an alien lifeform is given. We've read of Dan O'Bannon's great idea, but what put the thought in his head?
To jump ahead, it seems clear that the sequel - Aliens - was influenced by the Vietnam War. The film has a largely unseen, organised enemy fought on the enemy's home territory, and in parts it truly is as much a home as the aliens might have. Most blatant is the desperate rearguard action and escape, and conflict brought back to the 'home' of the retreating side. But would the war not influence more a film made in 1979?
The war itself wasn't the only trauma, as we well know. Home might not have been home anymore. Not least because of events like the Kent State shootings. And the war certainly wasn't the only trauma of the 1970s. Think oil crisis and recession, President Nixon's resignation, the events at Jonestown and Love Canal. Could it be that the fears of the 1970s are at the heart of the film?
Look again at what we are shown. Deep space. Cramped conditions. Fractious relations. Binding contracts with unpalatable clauses. Unbreathable atmosphere and low visibility. The unfamiliar within the unfamiliar. Violation. Endoparasitoidal infection. Sudden, painful death. Malfunctioning technology. An invisible predator slowly closing in. What could it all mean? It's nothing if not a slow isolation, an alienation from what it means to be a healthy and strong human, standing on two feet, eyes open to meet a threat and with the tools to do so. Relate the elements back to the events of the decade.
We're not talking splendid isolation here. A sense that sources of energy are beyond easy control, that authority is at worst a danger, and at best not to be trusted, that we are vulnerable to deadly suggestion, that we poison the land on which our neighbours live. It's certainly visceral. It's a fear for warmth and the rule of law, clean water and untainted food - a liveable future. It's the lower tiers of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. It's the mental environment in which the alien came into being and seems to exist on film.
Dan O'Bannon surely felt the zeitgeist. As a writer he may have been more aware than most. Director Ridley Scott's work on The Duellists must have honed a sense of how events can spiral out of control. The entire team responsible for conception, production and marketing lived through the time. The alien is the violation - O'Bannon tells us so - but it's also the infection. Taken as presented within the film as a whole, it is a wolf at the door, an agent of the consequences of overreaching and of systems and imagination failing, of the return of horrors supposedly eliminated by our latest civilisation.
It's hard to see the trilogy of Alien, Aliens and Alien 3 as anything but a prolonged defeat. Two terrestrial lifeforms survive the first movie, only one of them human, the Nostromo is destroyed and aliens survive down on the planet. Three humans survive the second movie, only for two of them killed at the beginning of the third, and the third at the end. Defeat is present in other forms too and the resurrection is no revival. In The Thing we also find no likelihood of survival in the final frames, and if all the humans are in fact already dead by that point, it's all the more chilling - our bodies are not our own.
This is Tolkien's long defeat, but shorter and with less poetry, and for mistakes made in the lifetimes of the audience not a distant mythology. Just the fear and pain. Scream, but there is only space. No safe havens for even the few.