Friday, August 27, 2010

Alien - Science Fiction meets Horror

What is the difference between a monster film and horror film? For both, the aim is to scare the audience, and yet in different ways. I submit to you that a monster film's primary emotional tool is terror, the fear of that which you can see looming right before your eyes. Monster films are filled with young women screaming as they behold some horrifying creature, or crowds running through the streets. But a horror film's primary tool is what I will call dread, the fear of that which might happen to you. Heck, you don't even need a monster for that, just someone or something capable of hurting or killing you. That could be a robot, a serial killer, or a virus. The horrifying state of each unfortunate victim is usually displayed for the purpose of increasing your sense of dread the next time around.

There are hundreds of monster movies that try to stake a claim to the science fiction genre. Most of them don't really make it. If the only science pertains the origin of the monster (e.g. Frankenstein (1931)), then it is just a sidebar, a necessary artifact of the situation. But there are relatively few horror films that care to cross over into science fiction.
Vampires, for instance, are good candidates for dread because they can sneak up on you, and you fear the prospect of being bitten. But the vampire's origin is squarely a supernatural one. Because of this, the few films that attempt to marry sci-fi with horror are particularly interesting, at least to me. The best early example that comes to mind is The Fly (1958), which involves a scientific experiment that goes wrong. The resulting "monster" is really just a man fighting against the effects of his own experiment. But it's only real connection to horror are the horrifying images it presents. That is far cry from the kind of suspenseful dread that is generated in most horror films. There were a few original Outer Limits episodes that you might classify as sci-fi horror, like Wolf 359 and The Zanti Misfits. And that old sci-fi classic, Quatermass and the Pit, certainly had elements of horror in it. But these are really sci-fi stories with creepy images and some peril added in. To this day, I can't think of any film that has ever come closer to melding the worlds of science fiction and horror more perfectly than Ridley Scott's Alien. It's the only film I know that has one foot planted firmly in each camp, making it impossible to peg it one way or the other. That's just one of the reasons Alien remains a classic of both genre's.

Alien came out a few weeks before my 8th grade graduation. I had always made it a point to avoid horror films because I have quite an imagination and have never liked giving it material I don't want to keep around. It wasn't very hard to avoid such films either because there was no PG-13 rating at that time, so pretty much all horror material was rated R, and I was just 13. But my best friend's family, a more liberal minded bunch, thought it was a good film and offered to take us to see it. After getting fully hooked on Star Wars a few years back, I figured I might actually like it due to its being set in space. So I apprehensively went along to my first R-rated horror film. Well, I was on the edge of my seat for most of the film and, believe it or not, actually enjoyed every minute of it. This was not your typical horror flick trash, designed merely to make you jump or gross you out. Ridley Scott turned out to be a master of suspense, while putting it into the context of a truly interesting story.

In Alien we have a monster with just as much potential for dread, and just as much class, as any vampire. It is a stalking monster that waits in the shadows and strikes when you don't expect it to. That is a tried and true horror film motif used by everything from snakes to serial killers. End of story, right? Wrong. This is also a new species, an animal worthy of scientific study.
Every aspect of it's existence, from egg to parasitic first stage, to juvenile, to adult, from it's blood chemistry to it's killing mechanisms, are all revealed slowly and purposefully like a scientific study. What is ingenious about this scientific approach to the creature is that, where normally such understanding mitigates the audience's fear of the monster, in this case it is designed to increase it. Each new revelation makes the creature more dangerous and menacing, and never once does the crew gain the upper hand from the knowledge of it. Even the architecture of the space ship the creature is found in, which was inspired by the strange artwork of H.R. Giger, was intriguing enough, being perhaps the first successful exposition of an alien technology that was organic rather than just an advanced version of our own. That served to emphasize the animal nature of the alien rather than its intelligence. Add to that the usual sci-fi peripherals like it all taking place in the future and in deep space, and you have bona-fide science fiction film as well.

Another quite ingenious director's choice was the depiction of daily life on the space ship. This was not the pristine military operation you might find on a Star Wars battle cruiser. No, this ship was just an unimportant mining frigate (or so we are made to think for at least the first half of the film). The few advanced technologies that we find in the protagonists' camp are downplayed, and the more human aspects of daily life like eating, drinking, and sweating, are displayed without apology, much like you'd see on a reality TV show. In the first scene the crew wakes up from cryogenics looking totally wasted and go grab some grub and a smoke. They are shown bickering and arguing about various issues of ship management. This has the effect of making the characters much more relatable, despite the "alien" setting, and that's exactly the type of comfort you want the audience to slip into before all hell breaks loose. My hat goes off to director Scott for this one.

I can only think of two flaws that crossed my mind even at the time. The first was how the alien could grow from the size of a cat to a huge monster in a matter of days, and that without any apparent food source. The second was the cheap shock value of making the audience believe Ripley has escaped and the film is over, only to find the alien on board again. However, I can forgive the director for that one only because he planted the alien's head in full view of the camera without me noticing it was there until it moved. It's as if he was saying - "Don't blame me, you could have seen it coming!".

The success of the film spawned (=b) a bunch of sequels, which all ranged from just ok to horribly awful. I give some credit to the immediate sequel by James Cameron, entitled simply Aliens in plural. It was made 7 years later and had more of a Starship Troopers approach, with the military coming in to blow away the colony of creatures that have wiped out the humans. It is well directed, has good continuity with the first film, a few original ideas, and sadly, a lot of ideas borrowed quite clumsily from Scott's film, including the campy "double-ending" device. Of course, Cameron tailored the ending to his liking, making it look suspiciously similar to the ending of his recent film Avatar. The type of craftsmanship introduced by his predecessor is now absent, replaced by something more akin to that which brought Cameron success in The Terminator. As for the rest of the sequels, Sigourney Weaver was a saint to have stuck around for them all.

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