Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Putting The Chill Into Space

In Space ...

In the fifties and sixties, there was this place called Space, and by and large it was a pretty cool place to go. Sure, you may be under threat from some exotic alien race (read: man in a latex suit), but it would all amount to a rollicking good yarn, full of the stuff of boyhood memories - heroes and villains, right and wrong, damsils in distress, all that sort of stuff.

Reflected in these movies - 'B' movies, as they are known - was a certain degree of optimism about the future, a future that lay in Space. Even 2001: a Space Odyssey, while certainly a step above the rest, was ultimately hopeful about mankind's progress through the stars. At the end of the film, an astronaut dies in an eery, inexplicable hotelroom. A giant black monolith stands at the end of his bed, and he points towards it. At the moment of his death, he is replaced by a floating sphere, inside which is a developing foetus, which then becomes a kind of literal spaceman as it floats in space above the earth, with that epic music playing in the background, as the film draws to a close. This star child has no need for a spaceship, or any such mechanical contraption necessary for our passage through Space.

Then there was Star Wars, which did not offer a future as such, but a fairytale of the future. Even though it begins with the text emblazed upon open space, "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away," this universe is still populated by humans, along with all other manner of creatures. This universe has a layer of grime on it, a used feeling; from Luke's childhood home of a desert farm which is basically a hole in the ground, to the swamp planet which contains the most powerful jedi knight in the universe (who is also a playful green midget), to the millenium falcon that could, in Han Solo's own words, "make the kessel run in 12 parsecs", but which Luke proclaims to be a "piece of junk" when he first sees it.

This is a universe where things were recycled, where there is little rule on the distant planets our heroes visit within a vast galactic empire. It is also a place where epic battles of good versus evil are waged. Perhaps it is Lucas' vision of an intensely practical lived-in universe that sustains the larger morality tale of the epic battle between those who dedicate their lives to peace (the jedi) in their using of a mystical energy field known simply as "the force", and those who choose, succumb or are seduced by "the darkside of the force". Perhaps without a universe populated with chancers and scoundrels, such a morality tale would seem almost puritanical and immensely reductive. As such, it does not seem that way. Star Wars works, just for the simple viceral joy of sitting in a cinema and beholding a giant star destroyer fly into shoot, over your head, as you float with it in open Space.

Here we have an ultimately optimistic view of the space and its possibilities. Beneath the grime (perhaps in some ways because of it) we find an enticing universe fundamentally invested with the moral absolutes of right and wrong. We find adventure, romance, and the ultimate victory of good over evil. We find adversity certainly but, like the astronaut who evolves beyond death in 2001, we find the triumph over adversity. In both of these films the adversity is spelled out for us. In Star Wars it is adversity as defined within a rigid moral code, and in 2001 it is the adversity experienced in the struggle for survival, for the continuation of life and that struggle forward through discoveries unknown, exemplified at the end of the film by the hope of human immortality, of life after death, and also life after our machines, an ultimate synthesis of mechanical capability and human experience.

That is what is being intimated on a personal level, on the level of individual experience, the possibilities for you and your survival in Space. But in a broader framework, this is also linked to the idea of the group to which you belong, to the country you hail from, to the race of which you are a member, and to its survival. Your society, your culture, your species; that thing that you find yourself in, upon whose soil you grew, and yet which you also feel has to be entered into. You are apart from it / never without it, inexplicably. The star child in 2001 represents the idea that Space is the way forward for the species, past certain death. This is a hope present within many science fiction stories. It is accompanied by awe and wonder, the emotions to drive us forward, into the exciting adventure of outer Space.

... No One Can Hear You Scream

But in such awe and wonder there is always a dark side, a hidden fear. As the old dictum goes, if you want to write a good horror story, or direct a good horror film, then it isn't what you show on page or screen that matters. It's what you don't show. Or, rather, its what you implicate. The horror that the mind creates for itself always trumps reality. It is the horror of the gap, of the space between things. How apt that "Space" is named as such, an almost literal metaphor. And it seems that awe (in the face of something strange, new and amazing) comes from a similar space as horror, right out on the edge of human perception, right into the uncertainty of the future. This is the stuff which science fiction is primarily concerned with. It would only be a matter of time before a film would capture this possibility of an infinite dread, to counter that boundless awe, of outer Space.

"In space no one can hear you scream." Perhaps we might not be able to survive the cold expanses of space. Perhaps it is a frontier which would only break us, thoroughly and completely. Perhaps the optimism that we sometimes imbue space with is a mask for a hidden fear; that if we stay on earth we risk eventually bringing about environmental degradation and a final end to our species. Perhaps there is no surviving this final death, of ourselves and of the species. Perhaps all things end in silence, just like in the vacuum of space.

"In space no one can hear you scream," the tagline went. The uncertainty and horror that hides beneath the wondrous idea of Space as the new frontier had been realised in Ridley Scott's Alien. Packed to the brim with subtext and metaphor, the film can also be read on the surface as a simple monster movie set in Space. Indeed, some early renderings of the monster weren't so promising, resembling something akin to a killer sausage rather than the horrific yet eerily beautiful alien that would eventually leap forth from the mind of the Swedish artist H. R. Giger.

His paintings and drawings fuse together the biological and the mechanical with horrific results. Can they be viewed as a metaphor not exclusively for our increased consumption of technology, but also for ourselves being consumed by our own technology?

Marx talked about freeing the proletariat from its parasitic relationship with industry. Though the factory owners were reaping the benefits of industry, there was still some form of independence to the machine of industry, through market forces, so that industry seemed to take on a life of its own. There was a system that was in some way consuming all involved. There was simply no alternative, within its own strict rules.

This fear of technology, of industry consuming the human, the body, can be seen in Giger's work. Human bodies contort out of walls that seem to be made of metal bones. The bodies themselves are human enough, but share with the wall that frightening bio-mechanical architecture. This is typical of a Giger painting, though it gets weirder than that. There are provocative sexual elements also; weird, biomechanical, contorted bodies (if one could call them that) implying an eery sensuality.

This was carried through into the final design of the creature in Alien, which is a six foot tarred monster with bones protruding from its back, something like ribs on the front of its stomach, an elongated skull, notable for the absence of eyes (instead we're left with a black, almost reflective domelike surface), a stiff tongue that has its own little mouth on the end (which hints at something phallic almost) and a boney black tale that culminates in a letal sharp point.

"I admire its purity," Ash points out, gurgling his own white synthetic blood. Not just a spy for the greedy corporation Weylan-Yutani, the science officer on the Nostromo is also an android. He marvels at the creature, perhaps because he sees a little of himself in it. There is a hint throughout the film that the alien is some sort of biological weapon, a created being, just like Ash.

When Kane and the others descend into the bone ship (biomechanoid in style, straight from Giger's nightmares, complete with a pilot that seems to be infused into the ship) we see that above the eggs, where the face huggers lay dormant, there is this strange layer of mist that ends abruptly and uniformly. It is only when Kane breaks the mist that the eggs begin to react to his presence. Even though there is a hole in the space jockey's chest from which one of the creatures presumably burst forth (as is their perogative), there is a calculation to this scene which is hard to explain other than to say that the eggs were meant to be there, kept beneath the mist for some alien purpose. This then brings about the obvious question of why.

Though we cannot be completely sure from the film that the alien is some sort of weapon, we are left with this distinct possibility. Certainly, the company thinks it could be utilised as such. Which brings me back to Ash, who is almost in love with the creature. If it is a weapon, something created by, say, the race the space jockey belonged to, then the alien occupies a similar position as Ash does to humans. Perhaps Ash sees the alien as a logical evolution of himself and his kind. That an alien obviously got the better of the pilot of the bone ship, and that the ship shares that weird eery biomechanoid feel as the monster itself, may also signify a hope of Ash's, of a sort: that his kind may one day over take its masters - us.

The ambiguity between machine and person, mechanical and biological, industy and human, is the primary tension underlaying everything that happens in the film. That this is a very deep concern for us today is something of an oxymoran, considering the speed with which we have all migrated onto the digital open freeways of the internet, and how we all use such devices with alarming frequency, such as this Apple laptop in front of me. Upon the keyboard I type, upon the screen I look upon every now and again, just to see if I made a mistake. I will then post this essay onto my blog, in the hope that it will be picked up somewhere, by someone, just as Ripley hopes her shuttle will be picked up at the end of the film. I use facebook regularly, and see how attention spans seem to be dwindling, or how new patterns of being seem to be emerging in the face of this new form of exchange. There are positives and negatives, there are ambiguities, and there is certainly tension, alive and well, exciting both dread and awe in people. Are we slaves to the technology? Can we properly comprehend our relationship to it, within it?

In Alien the ship also plays a role that incites such anxieties. It signifies a tomb, full of brooding corridors, clanking chains, and water dripping. There is a sense that the humans are not in control. All the characters that die do so on the ship. Though it is slightly different in 2001, the ship also signifies death. In that film, technology overtly turns against humans, a creation turning against its masters. The problem of technology reaching out beyond human control so that it can turn on us is also present in that film. 2001 offers transcendence of the human beyond the need for the mechanical, beyond the need for mediation, as the star child can traverse space presumably by sheer will, beyond the need for tools, which we fear will take on a life of their own. In contrast to the transcendental conclusion of 2001, Alien offers only survival, as Ripley narrowly survives an almost certain fate because she, in her own words, "Blew the thing out of the goddamned airlock."

Jacques Derrida has pointed out that there was this sense of tension among philosophers throughout the ages with regard to speech and writing. Writing was viewed as some sort of pale version of speech, even its subversion. Speech was supposed to have a more primary significance because it was seen to be more present, an expression of the soul or the truth of the self. Writing was seen as tainted, an impure afterbirth. What Derrida showed was that it was all tainted. If you wanted to find the presence of a soul or a true self, neither speech, nor writing, nor any kind of expression or language, were the spaces to look in. He called this Differance, the immediate deferral of any kind of signification, so that meaning is produced through context, away from a notion of a core truth at the centre of a word or thing. The tension comes into play when one form of mediation, speech, is presumed to have presence, while the other, writing, is doomed to play out a role of being tainted and impure. It is here, in this lower term, however, that Derrida finds a truth, which impacts greatly on his view of language in the general sense. This tension between speech and writing consists of defining one as pure, and the other as impure, but then delving further and seeing that each definition is unstable, and overlap or infect one another.

Perhaps this tension has morphed. Perhaps the tension that can be seen in Alien, between man and machine, has a geneology back to the beginnings of writing, maybe even language itself, and beyond - back to an experience of the self as distinct, unique and present, as opposed to language as a system which in some ways has a working of its own, away from our intentions for it. This is similar to what Ash represents - the creation which has broke free from its master's will - and similar to the possibility of the creature's biomechanical origins.

Who knows? In Alien, we are left only with ambiguity and a lack of closure. Are we truly seperate from our machines, as we would like to be? Or are we consumed by them, cogs in some unwieldy monster, bones upon the alien's shimmering exoskeleton? This is the anxiety that Alien plays upon, the anxiety between the flux of language and the self. That the mechanical will rise up and turn upon us; that industry has a life of its own, and we are cogs in the wheels of industry; that my intention will never truly be conveyed through what I say or write; that language has a life of its own.

All of these things make Alien a great horror film, and also a film that spelled out some horrific implications laid out in the premise of space as our "final frontier", to paraphrase captain Kirk. It's also simply one of the scariest, best designed, eerily beautiful films that you're likely to see. Fancy a scare? Alien's the one.

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