The inner monster: Alien and It! The Terror from Beyond Space

6 01 2017

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Originally published on PopOptiq.

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.

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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.

Alien (1979)  Sigourney Weaver Credit: 20th Century Fox/Courtesy Neal Peters Collection

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.

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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.





Corrierino Consensus Project: Stalker

7 01 2013
The users of The Corrierino forums have recently compiled a consensus list of the best films ever made. Once the votes were tallied, calls for write-ups began and I signed up to pen a few. I will post my entries here as they’re revealed in the relevant thread
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Stalker is a film of silence. And, yet, it’s full of dialogue. Indeed, a common criticism of it targets the far-too-frequent conversations maintained by the three protagonists: Writer, Scientist, and the eponymous Stalker, guide and self-defined believer who leads curious souls into a mysterious Room – where wishes are fulfilled – stranded in the middle of an off-limits Zone, created by an undefined series of events, perhaps a radioactive disaster or an alien visitation. Chitchat notwithstanding, the movie that exists in the memory of the viewer is silent, a film of soothing, enigmatic, oneiric contemplation. Even the dialogue seems to rumble like a private thought, like a Malickian internal monologue. The Zone constantly hints at some deadly supernatural force, and this is conveyed by the images it has inspired in moviegoers and advertisement agencies alike. A well-known promotional poster for Stalker, quite hilariously, suggests that the heroes are chased around by gigantic cats. Another promotional image, used for the DVD cover, shows Stalker’s head blowing into a thousand pieces as he screams in Edvard Munch-like horror. But, for all the physical danger promised by the Zone, its only visible effect on those who enter is to force a confrontation with their souls. Like the island in L’avventura, the material Zone doubles as a metaphysical alternate reality, a virtual landscape which, though apparently composed of grass and abandoned instruments of warfare, is really built by ideas and fears, a cloud of introspection. Which is why the talk in Stalker is recalled by the viewer – or, at least, this viewer – as silence. We can almost picture these dialogues happening in a dream, murmured echoes of telepathic transmission. Writer, Scientist, and Stalker travel the empty nature of the Zone, but their real journey is inwards.




Glimpses of the Future

19 07 2012

I

Rumors of science fiction can surface anywhere, even in films from other genres. In Jia Zhangke’s Still Life, hundreds of people are relocated during the planned flooding for the Three Gorges Dam project. Buildings are sledge-hammered to dust, families withdraw from the rising waters, history is buried underneath the ruinous layers of an artificial lake, and the ghosts of China’s past contemplate their own oblivion. An outsider travels to this underworld of felled architecture and anarchic upheaval, presumably in search of his wife, and disappears into the fissures of a cracked social order. He recedes from our view, as the film forgets him for a third of its running time. Life becomes unmoored. Every week implies more destruction and a higher water level. Nobody can settle into a daily habit since constant upheaval is the only norm. Amidst this desolate and confused panorama, a few skyscrapers take to the skies, escaping the dystopia around them, like concealed spaceships propelling themselves away from the end of the world.

These fleeing buildings serve a metaphoric rather than a literal purpose, yet they clash with our expectations. Still Life plays out like a semi-fictional document, where the real and even journalistic content of the images – shot on location at Fengjie – are estranged by sublime, otherworldly moments. This aesthetic shock-tactic disassembles our assumptions, forces us to investigate anew. Our preconceptions are eclipsed under the exhaust fumes of unlikely, bulky rockets. None of the characters even react at the sight of the soaring buildings. They look on with weary acceptance, as if watching just another example of everyday decadence, booming notes in the dirge of a drowning civilization. The science fiction drama of mass terrestrial emigration, which serves as back-story for Titan A.E. and Cowboy Bebop, among others, here finds a surprising echo. We can imagine the flying architecture, amidst the onslaught of demolition, striving to find a dark Eden in outer space. It is certainly a stretch of the imagination, but the profound rupture produced by the rocketing buildings, the utter jolt they administer to the urban landscape of Still Life, welcomes such free-associative links.

We hear the whispers of the future. Trapped in a context deprived of security and certainty, where history and the livelihoods of thousands can be stamped upon in the rush of progress, it often feels like the only escape is towards the skies. This same theme appears in the Los Angeles of Blade Runner, where the promise of paradisaical off-world colonies is publicized through the mocking neon of ubiquitous blimps, which remind the low-class city dwellers of the deliverance only money can buy, and which, for them, will forever rest beyond their reach. Struggling through the congested, anarchic streets of Earth, the sick and disenfranchised can only dream of departing to a lunar or martian alternative. In the ephemeral alleys of Still Life, more than one Chinese citizen might feel likewise. The city of Blade Runner is a city forgotten. Financial and political processes so exceed the influence of most people, that these have become abstractions. Society continues to function, builds its own mechanisms, but it is mostly unchecked and ungoverned. Those who exert authority – mostly private companies, from the looks of it – find no threat in the blur of pedestrians. People exist as anonymously and freely as they wish, so long as the aforementioned processes continue unaffected. We might think of Still Life as an embryonic Blade Runner. The city of chaos and flying cars, realized in the sinking Atlantis of the Chinese mainland.

II

The oneiric cesspits in Sharunas Bartas’ Three Days and David Lynch’s Eraserhead are detached from time. We cannot place them geographically or chronologically, though we might infer a few explanations. The wasted Lithuania of Three Days is a ruin from the post-Soviet early 90s, and its portrait of a land without history or future might reflect the political state of the country following the dissolution of the USSR. Eraserhead, on the other hand, seems like a disturbed relic of the cynical American 70s, and its American cast and crew suggests the story happens in the United States, or at least, in a nightmarish, nocturnal version of it. But locating these movies on a map or a timeline is counterproductive. Both are snapshots of displacement, and their dearth of narrative context contributes to their aesthetic discoveries. Both, too, are set in decaying environments without exits. There is no outside, no better place to emigrate to, only rotting buildings and dank hallways.

Eraserhead seems set in a post-industrial hallucination, where bacteriological horrors and mutant babies are within the realm of possibility. Three Days is submerged in a slum, except without nearby evidence of any wealthier antithesis. Based on what can be seen, there is nothing anywhere but slum, nothing but dregs and filth stretching infinitely in all directions. We recognize the materials in the frame as contemporary or, at least, non-futuristic. Everywhere in the frame, there are objects and buildings that cannot be precisely dated, and even if we can mark an approximate decade based on the clothing or furniture, it is not clear that this would correspond with the decade the characters are actually living in. Such an exercise would even be superfluous. Both films are about worlds frozen in temporal ambiguity, and while the cities or towns they describe could exist in our present, they reek of an apocalyptic loneliness. There is no national or global backdrop from which to interpret the purgatories of Bartas and Lynch. They could be utterly alone, broken forts before the darkness. They could be all that is left.

Connections like these energize film-watching. Movies talk to each other, genre tropes break into unsuspecting canvases. Nightmares and science fiction find themselves on common ground, as they probe today’s anxieties to project our fears up to their eventual conclusions. Eraserhead and Three Days exaggerate and poeticize our suspicions about where the world is heading, but unlike the over-populated scrapyards of Battle Angel Alita and Soylent Green, they present us with dystopias of solitude, where silence and stillness predominate, even when, in Three Days, there is no under-population either. Instead, what we have is extreme alienation, where not only people are alienated from each other, but whole urban spaces are alienated from their countries, from their continents, from social memory. Even those living inside do not remember where they are. They roam through irradiated cities, where interacting with other human beings is impossible. Which does not make either the Bartas nor the Lynch science fiction. But, from their disparate starting points, they lead us into a shadow realm where we recognize – in expressionistic, dreamlike, intense, and even melodramatic shape – our times to come.

III

Morning Patrol by Nikos Nikolaidis and Stalker by Andrei Tarkovksy are more explicitly science fiction and few would deny their claim to the genre. Nevertheless, and although both are set in undefined tomorrows, there are no futuristic objects or machines, only collapsing industrial scenery, wasted vehicles, and tattered clothes, all of them eroded versions of their current counterparts. Like Eraserhead or Three Days, they uncover the dystopia hiding underneath recognizable present-day surfaces. We come to suspect the very architecture that houses us in real life, since we have almost glimpsed its decaying future on film.

Forgotten neighborhoods in modern cities evoke similar feelings. Closed merchant stores with dropped letters on still extant signs, shut-down factories with monolithic chimneys tracing patterns in the sky, dissolved athletic or ethnic clubs with their dashed promise of social reunion, hollowed-out brick homes with mossy living rooms, defunct shops with darkened interiors choked by improbable mountains of boxes and furniture, the planked-windowed mysteries of abandoned tenements, and the unknown heavens of buildings boarded up at street level. These are images of our nightmare future, in our present. Whoever built these edifices or lived in them, has died or moved elsewhere. Around or beyond them, the city counts its days undisturbed, so that, when we visit these forgotten neighborhoods, we get the sense of having entered a bubble of time. These buildings, it seems, have not been noticed by the present. They exist besides it, as an anomaly. They have not been demolished either, much less renovated. And, crucially, we cannot isolate and sterilize them as curious remnants of the past, because they’re not necessarily old. In fact, they might be like the buildings in other parts of town, except spoiled and corrupted. They comprise an alternate double of the city, a dreamed distortion of it, a vision of what awaits it.

The bleak settings of Eraserhead, Three Days, Stalker, and Morning Patrol operate in similar ways. Whether science fiction or not, they inject their environments with a narrative of gradual deterioration, where objects and places we acknowledge as roughly contemporary to ourselves are tainted with a degrading past which, we fear, includes us. The post-industrial hells of Lynch and Tarkovksy, with their claustrophobic black-and-white or sepia wastelands; the desperate, anarchic apartment complex of Bartas; or the vacant playground of Nikolaidis, where the few survivors of an unspecified disaster cavort in deserted structures; all of these filter the modern world through a distorting mirror, where it finds itself naked and vulnerable, without the institutions that sustained its growth and maintenance, without people or government interested in its progress. Except in the cases of Morning Patrol and Still Life, which is like an origin story for these annihilated urban spaces, these cities or towns have not been abandoned by their populations so much as they have simply disappeared from everyone’s gaze. Even their residents fail to notice them, as they wander blind through the twisted passages of ghost towns where the pedestrians do not know they’re dead.








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