Otherness is the inevitable theme of films dealing with extraterrestrials. They are the ultimate foreigners, organisms who inhabit planets unlike our own. The problem for artists who tackle such stories is how to portray this Otherness. A common recourse is to humanize it, as in everything from The Day the Earth Stood Still to Star Wars. Another solution, however, is to accept what Fredric Jameson terms the “unknowability thesis,” which he ascribes to Stanislaw Lem (1). As the latter wrote in his novel Solaris: “Where there are no men, there cannot be motives accessible to men.” The truly alien, then, recedes into the shadows or the margins. It can hardly be portrayed if it cannot be grasped by the imagination, so it becomes a vague intangible presence, as in Tarkovsky’s Stalker, or a sheer force of malignancy and death, as in the two examples we will be covering, 1979’s Alien and the little-known 1958 B-movie that likely served as inspiration for Ridley Scott’s classic, It! The Terror from Beyond Space, by Edward L. Cahn. The unknowable, which is impossible to penetrate, becomes a mirror. The animal threats in Alien and Beyond Space, one a so-called Xenomorph and the other a Martian, reflect how humans react when faced with the inexplicable. Failing to find anything human in the monster, some humans might discover a monster in themselves.
The protagonists of Beyond Space, like those in Alien, are trapped inside a spaceship with an extraterrestrial killer. When the story begins, a rescue operation has just taken off from Mars and turned back to Earth after extracting the only survivor of an earlier mission, whom the rescuers believe is guilty of murdering his colleagues in a battle for dwindling rations and oxygen. The survivor, Edward Carruthers, blames a horrifying creature, but Col. Van Heusen, the lead rescuer, will admit to the existence of only one creature – and its very human selfishness and depravity.
Of course, Carruthers is right. When the voracious Martian sneaks into the rescue ship, the once-maligned survivor heads the charge against the intruder. Having initially embodied the figure of the monster, Carruthers manages to free himself of such associations. Indeed, the monstrous becomes an external threat, somewhere and something else. But viewers never shake off that initial impression: that the real monster might be only too human. In Alien, the monster within the human becomes a literal image: the Xenomorph begins its life as an embryo inside a human host, eventually bursting out and growing into a full-fledged assassin.
If Carruthers can temporarily be considered monstrous, what makes the Martian so inhuman? And if the Xenomorph is anything but human, how can it spring out of a man? These extraterrestrials call into question the meaning of being human – as well as the function of environments made for and by humans. While the Xenomorph slinks around a maze-like cargo ship named the Nostromo, the Martian in Beyond Space finds its movements more limited in the narrow, vertical interiors of a rocket, whose crew ascends from one level to the next, closing airlocks behind it. The Martian breaks through each airlock, as the humans retreat to the ship’s nose, the final level, from which there is no escape. In Alien’s gargantuan Nostromo, the protagonists do not know where the Xenomorph is hiding, and the movie’s horror arises from their ignorance. In Beyond Space, meanwhile, the astronauts are perfectly aware of the Martian’s whereabouts, yet cannot do anything against its inexorable advance.
In both cases, the Other reconfigures the spaceship’s role. The winding passages and dank storerooms of the Nostromo become, through the Xenomorph, the underworld caves of a demon. The alien uncovers the inhumanity at the heart of the vessel: built to haul mineral ore, it is not principally meant for human comfort and habitation, and this fact turns against the crew. By contrast, the rocket in Beyond Space operates on a far more human scale, since its purpose is mainly to carry astronauts. Its interiors are optimized for daily life and what cargo it carries serves to protect the characters: an unlikely arsenal of handguns and grenades. Compared to the sublime labyrinthine rat race of Alien, Beyond Space presents a neater situation, easy to diagram along the y-axis: the extraterrestrial is on one level and the humans are on another. What complicates the protagonists, instead, is a lack of time: the Martian, eventually and inevitably, will reach the rocket’s topmost flight. It’s the inverse of the Nostromo’s predicament: the spaceship is not too unwieldy and massive, but too small, too rational, too efficient, too human. It’s as large as it needs to be for living, so there’s nowhere to hide. The Other redefines manmade structures, reveals their unsuspected essence, so that the rocket becomes an execution chamber and the Nostromo morphs into a coiling catacomb. The ensuing struggle in these reconfigured landscapes, however, is an attempt to define humanity’s destiny.
Fredric Jameson, in an essay on science fiction writer A.E. van Vogt, describes what he defines as the “two alien narrative” (2). Fans of Alien will find it strikingly familiar (indeed, van Vogt sued for plagiarism when the 1979 movie came out): “One living and terrifying monster (is) superimposed upon the traces and archaeological remains of what we can only supposed to have been very different monsters.” That is, an “evil alien form (…) is juxtaposed alongside a good alien form in which the lineaments of an alternate social organization become visible.” In Alien, the “good alien form” is obviously the pilot of the derelict spacecraft, which the crew of the Nostromo finds on planetoid LV-426, while the “evil alien form” is the Xenomorph, likely responsible for the tragedy that befell the dead extraterrestrial pilot, which in turn foreshadows what will later happen to the protagonists, who unwittingly carry the monster back with them to the Nostromo.
Two different Others, then, serve as contrasts to the protagonists’ civilization. The dead pilot in Alien represents technological advancement fallen to another’s wrath, to a horrible fiend, which stands for everything deadly and nightmarish about the universe. They trace different directions for mankind – either progress or primal darkness – and neither are encouraging. One path, for all its development, signals ruin and death, perhaps through hubris or overconfidence. The other, ruthlessly alive, is nevertheless a return to the basest animal mentality. Both are potential destinies. Among the main themes throughout the Alien franchise is how human short-sightedness attempts to use the Xenomorphs as biological weapons, with disastrous results. No military industrial complex can control the monsters incubated within us. The alien emerges from the human to consume everything its parents have built, finally replacing its progenitors.
Beyond Space narrates a similar process, but its “two alien narrative” is odd in that there is only a single alien, the Martian. Yet the astronauts hypothesize about an earlier and prosperous Martian society, which devolved into the individual monster that now hunts them in the rocket. As a Cold War parable, the point is obvious: humanity can follow the same fate if it insists on armed (and nuclear) conflict. Significantly, the astronauts cannot hurt the Martian with weapons. They will have to experiment with more creative – and less explosive – methods. The two extraterrestrials of Alien, then, are in Beyond Space combined into one Martian, a vicious representative of an advanced society undone by the awakening of its latent savagery. The result of this historical drama, in both films, endangers the protagonists in two ways: as a physical threat, in the shape of a monster, and as a harbinger of forces out to crush humanity.
In its efforts to explain the Martian downfall, Beyond Space reminds us of Carruthers and his earlier, presumed guilt. Or more specifically, it reminds us of the human capacity for monstrosity, still a relevant theme despite Carruthers’s innocence. His eventual heroism cannot promise that human civilization will not someday be destroyed by the animal within – as the Martians were.
It is worth remembering, though, that we never see the remnants of that earlier and prosperous Martian society. We only hear human speculation about it. The unknowable Other is given meaning by humans, who use it to debate their own future. The extraterrestrial might be incomprehensible and unknowable, yet its impenetrable surface can adopt an oracular role. As French philosopher Clément Rosset puts it, “In the face of this Other (…) it will not be difficult to recognize the always strange and familiar traits of the Double” (3). This can occur because the Other reveals itself as surprisingly human, or because humans suspect that they themselves might be harrowingly Other. The fear, at the heart of Alien and Beyond Space, is that humans could one day be unrecognizable, that what we interpret as human could be erased even as we reproduce and evolve. Instead of cataclysmic extinction, we could endure a transformation so complete that it amounts to the same fate.
(1) Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (New York: Verso, 2005), 107-118.
(2) Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future, 314-327.
(3) Clément Rosset, Propos sur le cinéma, trans. Ariel Dilon (Buenos Aires: El cuenco de plata, 2010), 67-73.