22 March 2012

The Alien is back

Science fiction is my favorite literary genre. No other has such potential to explore ideas and stimulate new thinking. The first science-fiction novel ever written, Frankenstein, dealt with possible ethical problems arising from the creation of an artificial sentient being -- an issue we may soon actually find ourselves dealing with, two hundred years later. On film, however, science fiction too often means big, flashy pictures full of noise, explosions, overblown special effects, trite messages, and implausibly human-looking (and sexy) aliens -- and devoid of ideas. Science, too, is generally given short shrift, with scripts showing a distracting ignorance of basic concepts.

So the rare exceptions are all the more to be treasured.

Alien (1979) superficially looks like just another movie about a monster running amok and killing off a trapped group of people one by one; hundreds of those have been made, released, and forgotten over the decades. There's obviously more to it, though, otherwise the titular beast would not have achieved its iconic status in popular culture.

Most obviously, there's the monster's method of reproduction -- inspired by certain wasps which actually lay their eggs inside live caterpillars, with the larvae later eating their way out. Who's to say that such a parasite, large enough to use humans in the same manner, might not have evolved elsewhere in the universe? There's the arresting form of the monster itself, designed by the great HR Giger. There's the disturbing sexual undertones saturating the film, many of them too subtle to register on a conscious level. There's the whole distinctive look of the film, never quite matched before or since -- even by its own sequels, impressive though they were in their own right (I'm of course excepting the Alien vs. Predator atrocity, which I couldn't even bring myself to watch).

Which brings me to my point in writing here, the upcoming "prequel" Prometheus, to be released in June. Original director Ridley Scott is back, and -- well, see for yourself:

This looks like it could go either way. The Alien sequels were good precisely in that they took the risk of going beyond the first film into original territory of their own, and this one certainly looks as if it's going to do that. On the other hand, I'm disturbed by the nods to von Däniken (past alien intervention in human evolution is a perfectly valid SF topic, but it simply isn't true that "a little help along the way" is needed to explain that evolution, and von Däniken is a flagrant fraud). There's a hint of visual spectacle capable of overwhelming the story, the curse of so many modern SF films. And I have to wonder, in an age of hundred-million-dollar production budgets and nervous Hollywood executives who necessarily view such a huge investment as much more business than art, whether even Scott would be allowed to develop the kind of quirks and texture and depth that he worked into that much smaller and more under-the-radar film a third of a century ago.

But it looks great. And Scott is the man who, Alien aside, created the greatest science-fiction movie ever made. And in an age of movies adapted from ever-more-obscure comic books and kids' cartoons (I'm waiting for the first $200 million film adaptation of a bumper sticker), I can't help but feel encouraged at the arrival of such a work. I don't know whether Prometheus will be great -- but it could be, and I'll be there to find out.


Blogger Robert the Skeptic said...

I admit that I am a wuss with regard to scary Sci-Fi films. When I was a kid I saw "War of the Worlds" (the 1953 Gene Barry version) and had nightmares for weeks afterward. Fast-forward to the original "Alien"; I start;ed so hard during one scene at the theater that I kicked the back of the seat of the guy in front of me.

Still trailers can be deceiving; I saw the trailers for Steven Spielberg's "AI" and was enthused to see it. It was such a letdown that I sat through it just to see how much worse it could be, my buddy walked out.

Being much older now my startle response has ebbed somewhat; that and I have become accustomed to the fact that computer animation can do pretty much anything imaginable today. I'll probably give "Prometheus" a try... but will make a preemptive stop off at the mens room just as a precaution before the film.

22 March, 2012 10:46  
Blogger Green Eagle said...

I thought the first science fiction novel was called The Bible.

22 March, 2012 14:18  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

RtS: The original Alien was pretty scary, and yes, AI was a let-down. Even idea movies can misfire. At least he tried.

GE: That book was actually horror-fantasy:-)

22 March, 2012 15:04  
Blogger Magpie said...

I have always loved Science Fiction.

I used to ponder as a kid, when I saw the first film, about the (other type of) alien whose remains are in the ‘pilot’s chair’ in the derelict ship.

Now over three decades later, I might find out what happened.
Or I might just end up with more questions.

23 March, 2012 05:15  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

I might find out what happened. Or I might just end up with more questions.

My guess is, it'll be both.

24 March, 2012 06:03  
Blogger Tommykey said...

I can't wait to see this one.

I have to confess, I saw Alien in the theater when I was 10, and I think I saw the only person in the theater who laughed during the chest burster scene. I also recall laughing when the face hugger jumped out of the egg.

From what I can glean from the trailer, the alien threat in Prometheus bears some similarities with the threat in Alien, but there are differences too. Instead of a face hugger, it looks like it attacks its host in a different way and appears as some kind of infection. There is also a momentary glimpse of a creature that resembles the alien.

Funny thing, the start of the trailer almost seemed like something out of The Lord of the Rings. The line "A king reigns and then he dies..." sounded like it was spoken by Cate Blanchett and you briefly see some humanoid creature closing his hand on something that reminded me of Gollum.

28 March, 2012 09:18  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Considering how much the trailer seems to give away, it's surprisingly hard to figure out what's going on. The theories I've seen about the plot are all over the map.

The "king" might be a reference to the human race and its reign over the Earth, but I doubt it's that simple.

I must say I myself didn't laugh during the first film, and I doubt I will during this one.

28 March, 2012 12:17  
Blogger Tommykey said...

Oops! Of course, I meant "I think I WAS the only person in the theater who laughed during the chest burster scene."

28 March, 2012 16:00  
Blogger Tommykey said...

Hope this isn't too spoilerish, but looking at the trailer almost scene by scene (clicking pause then play repeatedly), it looks like the Prometheus rams the Space Jockey craft in mid-air, presumably to keep it from leaving for Earth. If it's the same planet as in Alien, I guess that explains why the Space Jockey ship was a derelict.

I also glimpsed what looks like an egg chamber, but the eggs had a different shape to them.

30 March, 2012 19:19  
Blogger Tommykey said...

Also, it looks like someone in the form of a human goes bad (another standard element in the Alien movies) and is standing over Noomi Rapace's character when she is sitting on the floor screaming. The same vaguely human looking person can also be seen walking towards the Space Jockey. Don't know if it's the same person shown jumping down towards another crew member armed with a flame thrower.

Also noticed that Rapace has something splattered over her body when she is shown staggering in the hallway in her underwear.

30 March, 2012 19:32  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

TK: It does look like it's ramming the SJ ship, but I don't believe this is the same SJ ship as is seen in Alien -- the design is slightly different and the configuration of the circular platform around the pilot chair is completely different. I don't think the planet is LV-426 either -- the landscape and environment don't look like what was shown in Alien. The mystery deepens!

On the scene with Rapace, I think that's blood. Some of the colors in the American trailer are modified to make it look less gory.

01 April, 2012 22:02  
Anonymous Heather said...

Nice post which still trailers can be deceiving; I saw the trailers for Steven Spielberg's "AI" and was enthused to see it. It was such a letdown that I sat through it just to see how much worse it could be, my buddy walked out. Thanks a lot for posting this article.

03 July, 2012 07:57  

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