Saturday, 11 December 2010

They live among us (4) - The alien from Alien

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.


The Angry Lurker said...

I agree the alien from aliens is the best and well represented by GW with the genestealer but how about the predator who merged with an alien, he is the coolest idea and the best received but over the years his persona has become tainted to me. The reason being he has too much going for him not just the weapons but the sneaking and the cloaking ability, I say to you he's become a coward or it just could be the mere.

The Angry Lurker said...


Unknown said...

I like Alien precisely because the vision of the future presented here is so grim and much less idealistic than that of earlier SciFi movies. The product of a time of disillusion indeed.

For all its funniness, the world of Dark Star is just as bleak. Humanity might colonise other planets, but the crew of the Dark Star is left very much alone. I wouldn't want to live in either of those worlds. Nor in the future of Silent Running, come to think of it.

The Duellists is such an awesome movie. I watched it first after hearing the Iron Maiden song inspired by it. Come to think of it, Iron Maiden are responsible for introducing me to The Prisoner, Coleridge and other stuff as well.

Porky said...

@ The Angry Lurker - Very good thinking. It can't be too easy; there are the issues of interest in the fiction of course, but also wider ones of basic nature. Re the meds, being tired or ill can at least help bring out less usual or even deeper thoughts, and that at least should be a good thing.

@ Jedediah - It's certainly grim, and you're right that even Silent Running is little different. Romantic it may be, but romance is strong when the world around is harsh. I'd forgotten I referenced The Duellists - I thought for a while there you'd brought that up. With your knowledge it wouldn't be a surprise! I didn't realise there was a link to Iron Maiden though.

Unknown said...

No YouTube video this time (my flash's not working right now), but here are the lyrics. Powerslave is a great album.

Satiran said...

Greetings, Sieur Porky. I apologize that it has taken me so long to return to The Expanse. I never forgot about your new year’s request to posit a reply to this installment of the “They Live Among Us” series. Like the other 3 posts, this is rich material, and there is much excellent grist for the mill of the intellect. If you’ll allow me to turn your comment on BoLS on its head, it is I who am learning at the feet of Porky Poster, not vice versa.

Random aside: Partly out of curiosity, and perhaps (at the time) in preparation for returning to respond, I rented and watched The Duelists. I enjoyed it very much, so for that nugget too I offer my thanks.

I think rather than try to contribute directly to the ongoing discussion of Zeitgeist, I will give my poor sleep-deprived, BoLS-shrunken brain a bit of a rest, and instead merely relate a personal anecdote.

I was in elementary school when Alien hit the big screen. I recall that many of my classmates appeared one day toting the collector’s cards, much like the ones popularized by the movie Star Wars. Having been repeatedly traumatized by nothing more than the TV commercials for various horror films of the day, I was very much afraid of the whole notion of going to see horror flicks in the theater. As a result, I never watched Alien, and further, I didn’t build up any emotional “resistance,” as it were, to the horror genre.

Fast forward to young adulthood, and the advent of the VCR, and of the video rental store. My family wasn’t wealthy, we were very behind the times. When at last we did own a VCR, I was instantly hooked. The little video shop down the street was well established, well stocked with titles (in both Beta and VHS), and that is where most of my part-time disposable income went. I avoided renting Alien on principle, but Aliens…now that had more of an action-looking flare to it. Having missed that one in the theater as well, I picked it up, and that is where I entered the story of the Alien franchise.

The experience of watching Aliens for the first time is one of my most treasured memories. I was alone in the house, lights out, curtains drawn. I was instantly captured by the film’s gritty, biomechanical vision of the future. Additionally, given my lack of experience with the horror/suspense movie genres, I was literally paralyzed with terror. I loved it, don’t get me wrong, but it was more than I could manage for my first go. Even though I was a “grown” young man, well aware that it was just a fantasy, I stopped the tape at about the half-way mark, staggered out into the front yard and doubled over, gasping for air. It was the only movie, before or after, to have that profound an effect on me. Let me tell you, it was embarrassing, and I was *so* grateful that no one was around to witness it at the time. After taking several minutes to regain my composure, I returned to the tape, and finished it out to the end, filled with a kind of awed rapture.

It wasn’t long before I eagerly sought out the first movie, but it had nothing like the impact that Aliens did. I appreciated it artistically, and had to recognize that Alien was where it all began – but by comparison the plot moved very slowly, and too many of the unknowns had already been spoiled for me. It all happens the way it’s supposed to for each of us, I suppose. With regard to the remaining films in the franchise, well, I gave them their chances, but I generally just pretend they were never made.

Porky said...

Welcome back! It's always a pleasure to have you here, and to read those good thoughts. As for who exactly it is learning at the feet of the other, we'll just have to take turns..!

Great story, though I'm sorry to hear it had such uncomfortable effects. It's a clear picture of the potential dangers of horror. I'm pretty sure I saw Alien first, and though I don't remember when that was, I have a feeling it was early enough to give me the heebie-jeebies too.

I think the fear in a film like Alien or Aliens, dealing in so many challenging concepts - and some of them possibly unfamiliar or unknown to a first-viewing audience - comes also from lack of understanding, lack of context, from really being at the mercy of the production team. If I watched it for the first time today, the reaction would probably be subtly different; I'd likely approach it with more confidence and ability to tease out the strands, better understand the concept, processes and resulting unease, quite possibly suffering less in the short term. I can even imagine myself nodding or chuckling at a scene well done or a sharp idea.

In this sense, I do feel a classification system has value, although age is only a loose guide to readiness. It's also less about being tough in the moment and getting through it than about having the tools to assimilate the experience and learn from it.

That awed rapture is something I feel too. Together the first two films build enough of world, and a believable and rich enough world, to immerse us totally, and leave that space behind. For me the later expansions were, as an absolute minimum, increasingly unnecessary. It's not so much that there was little more to say as that saying this would harm the whole by reducing its weight, or rather its density, sucking the power out. They simply give us much more than we and the wider work need. Better put all that energy into a fully new thing.

For this reason I admire the preference for keeping the first movie more or less as it is, the recognition that the artist, in discussion with others or not, must have the power to set the boundaries of the creation. To say 'less is more' is right, in that less of a thing can make it far more precious, and I think this is true here. As the audience for a work of art, I may want more, but on balance I could well lose if given it.

Thanks for writing. I'm sure I'm not the only one who'll gain from it.