They say that in space, no one can hear you scream. That’s chilling. But let’s take it a step farther, and extend it to another sense — sight. In space, no one seems to be able to see. It’s so damn dark.
What an unfortunate situation for the crew of the Nostromo, and their legion imitators, all getting eaten by the unseen alien in their poser varieties.
The Alien. A creature whose very developmental cycle is homicidal — its rite of passage in life is a passage through living flesh. The Alien horrified a post-Star Wars world, and gave rise to six sequels, and another cult horror film, The Thing, which owes a life debt to the Ridley Scott classic. Part of the success came from the young director’s decision to not show the monster, and this channeled what Spielberg had so famously done, out of necessity, for Jaws.
What the writing team behind Alien, Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusset, had done so deftly, others scrambled to replicate, cementing the film’s approach as tradition, or perhaps technique. Filmmakers had for years tapped into the audience’s imagination to ‘fill in the blanks,’ but Alien wasn’t just implying hideous violence behind that door — there hid an enigmatic creature, and with it, an entire universe. The film gave horror directors license to shroud their monsters in shadows of their own, and sometimes it worked. But thirty years later, more than anything else, the end result seems more born of shame in their flailing, slimy animatronic contraptions.
Whatever happened to the movie monster? It seems like today they’ve all gone invisible — with paranormal activities scaring us and Death itself delivering our final destinations. Movies like Slither and The Host make a big splash in their tiny circles because they’re so rare; the market may or may not exist for the creature feature, but this probably trivial issue is symptomatic of a greater concern: film as a visual medium.
David Cronenberg, the 70s and 80s horror-meister who hasn’t lost his touch for the grotesque, wholly evident in 2008’s Eastern Promises, asserts that “I have to show things because I’m showing things that people could not imagine.” It does worry the mind how a filmmaker might imply James Woods sliding a gun into the slit that just opened on his stomach.
Shouldn’t that be what horror and science-fiction filmmakers aspire to? Horror tactics like the ones Ridley Scott tapped into so long ago are fundamental to the effectiveness of atmosphere and tension, but when Alien clones and sequels repeat the formula without his touch, what are we left with? Half monsters and strobe lights. Twenty minutes of a ninety-minute SyFy original movie where the eponymous monster is actually menacing its buff hero or fighting the other eponymous monster.
The Alien series, now grown far past its “quadrilogy” state, offers a workable analogue to this greater matter, to how filmmakers have since approached the monster movie subgenre. Aliens worked within a similar rubric to its predecessor — the chest-burster doesn’t make its appearance until deep into the story. It’s hard to complain though because there is indeed a story, and stories need time to develop. James Cameron sweetened the precious aliens-getting-blown-up scenes because you cared about the characters, established early on and then applied later. Dread and characterization build simultaneously, and the release in marines and aliens going at it is cathartic, as well as earned.
Alien 3 went back to the drawing board, and its greatest sin wasn’t the controversial erasure of characters from the previous movie, but its make-pretend that audiences don’t know the alien is coming. Though both are probably on equal footing in quality terms (for radically different reasons) Alien Resurrection succeeds where Alien 3 does not — Resurrection opts for a faster introduction to, among many things, the monster. Unless the monster you speak of is the yellow “newborn” creature at the end. In that case, the monster should have stayed in the shadows.
By 2004, we’ve had four Alien movies, and we know now that this is what the Alien looks like and this is what he does. So why then, does AVP: Alien vs. Predator feature so few creatures in its already short runtime? We need to introduce a new measurement here, something like ‘monster per minute,’ which I’m sure AVP scored obnoxiously low on. Its MPM rounded out to something like 50%. Why bother? What’s all this secrecy? It’s been twenty-five years! If the monster isn’t on-screen, there’d better be something else worth watching. Critics and fans back then argued there wasn’t in that particular film.
Its sequel, AVPR: Aliens versus Predator: Requiem, scores points not only for its grossly overlong and nonsensical title, but for the pride in the monsters its title advertises. The movie liked the Alien and liked the Predator so much, it combined the two at the end and made a supermonster that impregnated a bunch of already pregnant women. Disgusting, and pretty cruel, but inventive. Invention is the last thing we’re expecting from this series, which, by most accounts, peaked in 1986. Certainly we wouldn’t expect it from this film, just as much as we were expecting it from the next installment, directed again by the man who started it all.
Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, in fact, was so ashamed of its monster that it hid the creature even in its marketing. When asked, Scott gave some vague answer about ‘sharing the DNA of the Alien films.’ So Prometheus might not even be an Alien movie, never mind have Aliens! That’s how deep in the closet it is — it doubts its own identity. We’ve seen it, and we know, Prometheus is an Alien movie. Yet, it isn’t a monster movie.
It is, in retrospect, the exact type of Alien movie that would be made today. Its reluctance to dive into creature-feature-mode until it’s too late and its ruthless, anticlimactic demythologization of the Alien universe (the Space Jockey is actually… a featureless humanoid wearing a neat helmet!) is evidence of a strained imagination, an empty gas tank gone bold miles, but with nothing ahead save maybe a scrapyard.
Prometheus then becomes a film nearly devoid of content — a monster movie with five minutes of monsters, a science movie that’s actually about God, an Arthur C. Clarke recycle with a slightly less chilling artificial intelligence — but this is nothing new. It’s a rule that you don’t show the monster, but if everybody’s doing it (or, not doing it, as it were), what are we being shown?
This is a call to audiences and fans. Let’s take a vacation. We’ve been straining our own imaginations and then suffering the let-down when the creature does finally rear its head for close-up. It’s time again for filmmakers to take that role, to dream up all manner of whacky H.R. Giger nightmares and all the ways they gorily interact with the human physiology. Not to say that the makers of our beloved horror and SF flicks are creatively bankrupt, but when it comes down to it, whether for financial or artistic reasons, they’ll choose horror intensity over visual aesthetic, and sometimes, that’s not always the right choice.
We shouldn’t have to be ashamed of the unknown, though we do fear it. Let’s get back to creature designs and the things that can’t be imagined. Film is a visual medium. Let there be light.