Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Some comments on the themes of "Alien" and the new leaked "Prometheus" trailer

The name of this blog and the pic of the Space Jockey are all drawn from the movie Alien (which as a kid gave me my first sense of the connections between biology and technology), so I might be expected to comment on the leaked trailer for the prequel which has been doing the rounds in the last 24 hours, and disappearing at an equally rapid rate thanks to threats from 20th Century Fox . There was still a poor quality version left on YouTube when I last checked, but I urge anyone who might be interested to instead wait for the official release (which is why I am not posting that trailer here).

The original film was very important for my personal development and I would like to be able to say more about this once Prometheus is released. All I will say for now is that my expectations are not that high for this prequel because the key to the original's success was that it was largely based on H.P. Lovecraft's maxim, "atmosphere, not action."  So no need for exhaustive explanation either, which forces us to use our own imaginations instead. But how can the prequel respect this when everything so far suggests it will be attempting to explain everything. Drawing on the term used by sci fi critic Peter Nicholls, I can also say that what really fired my imagination as a youngster was the Nostromo crew encountering "a big dumb object" i.e. the Space Jockey on Acheron LV-426. This incredible sequence, the greatest I have ever seen, sticking with the terminology favored by Nicholls, Clute et al, instilled in me a "sense of wonder". This was  tempered by the knowledge that the warning signal meant there was no possibility of being enchanted by the kind of "cargo cult" qualities associated with the properties of other mysterious xenoarchaeological artifacts, not least the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Unlike Dave Bowman then, there is no lebensphilosophie style personal transfiguration from crossing a threshold, given how everyone who walks around the derelict is eventually killed by the alien; starting with the necrogenesis scene (better known as the "chestburster scene"), when male crewmember Kane gives "birth" to the alien that implants itself in his body in the derelict's egg chamber (although it could be argued on the basis of the deleted scene featured on the DVD that Captain Dallas [and Brett] is forced to undergo a metamorphosis by being incorporated into the creature's life cycle; however, this is so horrible that it is probably as far from the "exalted" sense implied by transfiguration as one can imagine). 

Mentioning Clute et al shows that over the years I've realized that Alien draws on certain conventions of science fiction, but this has only enhanced my appreciation of its qualities. In addition to being so prescient, as all good science fiction should be, with its theme of bio-weapons meets corporate malfeasance, I credit the film a lot for violating the formerly pristine, white environments usually favored in depictions of space travel, through its spectacular focus on body horror. And this raises another intriguing question: whose sense of horror is it really? Perceptive critics have responded by examining the racial coding of the xenomorph as black, whereas feminists are fascinated and appalled in equal measure by the film's equating of technology and reproduction. I'd recommend reading this comparable essay on John Carpenter's The Thing for more of a sense of the "body horror" that might be at stake in Alien as well (The Thing, incidentally, shares with Alien a linkage back to the xenoarchaeological themes of Lovecraft's "At the Mountains of Madness"). Eric White ties together the issues of racial/species/gender identity in relation to evolutionary theory:

Evolutionary theory has often figured in science fiction as a powerfully resonant topic, a privileged point of departure for the staging of a variety of highly charged concerns and conflicts. In some narratives, the positing of a shared kinship between humans and other animals provokes revulsion at the implied refusal of any claim to human preeminence in the greater scheme of things. But the erosion of "Man" as a putatively ontological category and the prospect, moreover, of reality as a Joycean "chaosmos" of perpetual change or metamorphosis can also be depicted affirmatively. The theoretical elaboration of an evolutionary universe need not exclusively elicit horror and anguish. It may also prompt the speculative imagination to extrapolate a future for what might be dubbed "the post-human body becoming." In this essay I’m going to examine a number of exemplary responses in science fiction to the advent of modern evolutionary thought. Discussion will focus in particular on John Carpenter’s 1982 version of The Thing and Octavia Butler’s more recent XENOGENESIS trilogy as evolutionist narratives offering respectively traumatized and affirmative perspectives on a world in which, as Heraclitus long ago put it, "everything flows and nothing abides, everything gives way and nothing stays fixed."

It isn't clear to me though whether the author's enthusiasms are really stopping short of the kind of Deleuzian excesses that we saw Steve Fuller recently criticizing in the interview I posted on this blog. Sci fi then can clearly be mobilized either  in support of, or to express horror at, the kind of projects we humans strive for in the future. It can be worthwhile taking the time to seriously consider its implications.

 Well, I guess until the new film comes out, I'll continue when I have moments to myself to take a relaxing  walk, plotting my own little psychogeographies as I go by listening to and dreaming about certain music that for me evoke the scene of the crew approaching the derelict (such as the opening track of The Tower by Mordant Music). And speaking of artifacts, don't masks have a slightly xenoarchaeological quality about them as well, in that they too can function as gateways/portals in rituals and fantasy literature that can open the wearer up to forces with the power to transform personal identity? But as I've already hinted in my reference to Kane, to describe the "facehugger" in this way would be a bit of a stretch; although it was probably inevitable that someone would make this anyway (which is clever and humorous in its own way, to be sure).

These have just been a few fairly spontaneous musings inspired by my viewing of the new Prometheus trailer and then looking for a further excuse to avoid going back to work. Not long ago, for the very same reasons, I threw together the following little piece, which combines a couple of motifs from Alien and Lovecraft. It doesn't really look too bad on a big monitor. I thought the storyline could be something like this:

"After surveying the outer systems for many long years, a team finally made it back to Earth to find out why they had lost all contact. This pic was taken in China, but the team discovered identical statues in every major city around the world. The cities had all been reduced to smoking ruins and the atmosphere was no longer breathable. It seems Earth's fate had something to do with the mysterious Cthulhu cult which had spread during the team's absence...."


HellCombatant said...

This exaltation - anxiety mixture of yours to me seems to say that we all in depth know that "We Are The Masks"! Prove first that we are not...

Anselmo Quemot said...

I feel this is a contextual issue. The distinctive thing about "Alien" is how it frames the sense of horror that arises when the sanctity of our inner being is violated through acts of sexual violence. Such experiences are so extreme that the individual is unable to reconstitute themselves (the sense of trauma), at which point the reflexive issues you raise appear to simply go out the window: the self can no longer reflect upon itself anymore so is in no state to reflect upon whether or not it knows it is a mask or not. Indeed, it is no longer even an individual.

If all we were were a series of interchangeable masks, then isn't there a danger that we'd lose any sense of what constitutes the harm of (sexual) violence? Afterall, what would be left? A rapist might even argue that they have "liberated" a victim from the shackles of a socially imposed subjecthood by dissolving it into pure immanence.

Isn't it interesting then how Dan O'Bannon, who wrote the screenplay for this film, said he wanted to "go after the men, make them cross their legs", by giving them a sense of what constitutes the harm of sexual violence. The male character Kane, for example, is basically orally raped; the facehugger has a penis shaped object which it jams down his throat, and the creature has objects resembling testicles hanging down on either side of its body. Once fully grown, the xenomorph has a distinctly "phallic" appearance (hence feminist science theorist Zoe Sofia referred to it as "the dickhead monster").

So my response is basically that answering your question depends on whether you believe it is a normative issue or not. Exaltation can mean solidarity with something outside the boundaries of the self, or one can speak instead of the cruelty of sovereignty that does not respect the distinction upon which a sense of personal identity is predicated--but wait, it could no longer even have grounds to understand it was being cruel because all it was in effect doing is demonstrating we are not masks, right?

In short, we need a balance between the convenient fiction of our social identities and our inner, more reflexive desires to dispense with conventions, in the interest of maintaining civility and creating something new. The tension between them can create anxiety in novel situations, but also be a source of joy. But clearly HORROR is to be avoided at all costs...