Thursday, 12 March 2015

Circles And Streams

This obvious nod to Firefly is probably the most original
part of this whole damn film
What came first, the xenomorph or the facehugger?

Veterans of long-term blog perusal here will probably already know my feelings on 2001: A Space Odyssey. To sum up: the stuff with the apes takes far too long, the middle section is thoroughly devoid of recognisable emotion (HAL's death scene excepted), and the final section is such dreadful incomprehensible bobbins that it makes me nostalgic for the monkeys that kicked everything off.

I will bow to no-one regarding this admittedly tremendously unpopular critical position. But I will accept the argument, as was once made by a friend of mine, that the narrative of the film doesn't really give it any option but to end in nonsense. When David Bowman's journey concludes with him meeting an alien life-form utterly beyond his ability to process, it precludes our ability to process it either. We are no smarter or more evolved than Bowman, We can't grasp what he's seeing on any more useful a level than he can.

There is a similar idea which surfaces throughout Prometheus.  Indeed, with the film's set-up involving an inscrutable alien presence which may have guided our evolution for purposes unknown, the idea is perhaps all too familiar. But if Prometheus cribs liberally from Kubrik's iconic film (as well as Alien, obviously), it does at least expand on the theme.

(Spoilers follow)

Commonly, this theme of the failure to understand is one-directional. How can the creator ever be understood by the created? There's that old saw that if our brains were simple enough for us to understand them, we wouldn't be able to understand them, and an obvious corollary of this is that if anyone actually designed our brains for us, we must by definition not be able to comprehend them.

Really, though, this is just one more facet of our species' boundless solipsism. We consider ourselves so special that anything that created us must have designed us, from lobes to little fingers, because how else could we end up as awesome as we clearly are?  Likewise, anything we ourselves create we must fully understand, since it was our mighty brains that conceived of the necessary act of creation in the first place.

Neither of these ideas are necessarily true. Even if we bypass the atheist position, there's plenty of stops on the tube line between "utterly uninvolved" and "designed in every particular". This is one of the reasons Lovecraft's cosmic horror - another clear influence here, at least at a remove - is so effective, because it's entirely upfront about the idea that if we were brought into being by some unimaginably powerful outside force, it probably didn't even do it deliberately and would not only not care about us but might actively consider us something better off eradicated. And like those five-sided Shoggoth-botherers, the Engineers of Prometheus may bear the ultimate blame for our race of commuting monkeys, but they clearly didn't sweat the small stuff. We were created not as Michaelangelo - or Peter Wayland - created his David, but as a butterfly in Peking causes rainfall in Central Park.  Only here, the rain clouds have ended up blown through Hebei Province, and the butterfly is none to pleased with what's come drifting into its eye-line.

So far, so Von Daniken. What's more interesting is what Michael Fassbender's synthetic human suggests, which is that we're no better at understanding what we create than we are what created us. This is perhaps the least well-worn idea in the mix - it's by no means original, but similar narratives are more often about whether we can control our creations, rather than understand them. The two are far from unconnected, of course, but no-one spent any time trying to puzzle out why Skynet reached for the nukes, why Dren was all about doing the nasty in Splice,  or for that matter why Ash tried to choke Ellen Ripley with a skin mag.

In comparison, David's most basic motivations are almost completely unclear. It's possible to get somewhere by characterising his actions as omnidirectional curiosity utterly untethered from empathy or morality, but even that feels like scratching the surface. The lesson here is obvious: even when we believe we completely grasp every single part of what we've made, we might find the sum of those parts completely baffling. We may not be able to imagine where our creation will take itself any more than could the Engineer who aeons ago dissolved himself to season our primordial soup.

This then washes up against the common isomorphisms between creator and parents, and created and children. There's a reason western civilisation spends so much time talking about the Father and the Son, after all. Noomi Rapace's Elizabeth Shaw (great name) rather gives away the game here by linking her devotion to God with both the death of her mother and her inability to bear children. Her drive to find the Engineers and extract answers regarding their design for humanity stems at least in part from the knowledge that backwards is now the only direction she can look, and even that is an act tainted by tragedy. And the inescapable linear nature of humanity underlines this all. Despite Elton John's crooning to the contrary, we're really not all about the circle of life. We're all about where we stand in the chain.

Playing all this up in a by-any-other-name Alien film is a savvy move, since it allows comparison with the alien life-cycle, which really is cyclic, in that each interdependent species cannot progress without generating the other, and allowing it to take centre-stage in their shared struggle for survival. Indeed, considering the facehugger cannot survive embryo implantation, and - so far as we can tell - the vast majority of xenomorphs exist as nothing more than first gophers and then ablative armour for the eggs from which those facehuggers spring, it is not too great a stretch to argue that each stage in the cycle is more or less impossible without the sacrifice of the former. We sacrifice ourselves for our children too, of course, or at least we're supposed to when necessary, but it's always in the name of moving things one step forward. With O'Bannon and Shusett's creations the step might be forwards or it might be backwards. They're both the same thing. All that matters is that the wheels keep turning.

The resulting process is still a stream - time remains stubbornly monotonic, after all  - but it's a stream which bends back on itself, creating an impossible loop, as much Escher as it is Geiger. Whilst our fear of being abducted and implanted with a monster that tears us apart with its birth pangs is rather too strong to make the xenomorph's life cycle the most disturbing aspect of its existence, it certainly doesn't help. Everything it suggests is just so... well, let's use the obvious word. So alien.

It's this clash between circles and streams which helps the film rise a little way above the problems caused by the script's insistence on not only answering questions better left alone, but answering them in the most obvious way possible.  The space-jockey was just a suit for aliens who look much like us (and how wretched a betrayal of the original film's conception of the galaxy that is)? It figures/ The aliens are genegineered bio-weapons? Well, sure. These are solutions to mysteries only inasmuch as the mysteries are now gone. Or really, they were never mysteries at all, just applications of Occam's Razor awaiting confirmation.

But at least this narrative simplicity/laziness contributes to the underlying theme. Of course the Engineers developed a cyclic bio-weapon to exterminate their experiments and begin their creative cycle anew. The xenomorph -  Ash's "pure" creature, the ultimate in id-driven survival instinct - turns out to be as much a child of philosophy as it is pragmatism.  There is a particularly perverse joke in that, if you care to look. Whilst the film might be awash in uninspired, unlooked-for reveals, it does at least nod at the fact that the actual hows here aren't really what's important. Indeed, there's a strong case to be made that actually writing new xenomorph films is essentially pointless. They're too simplistic in drive to feature prominently without diminishing returns kicking in, and they're too iconic to be used as zombie-esque metaphors in films that are actually about something very different.  They dominate the narrative without anchoring it, perhaps the first and only example of the typecast movie monster. Which is a problem. As unsatisfying as digging into their back-story ultimately proved, it might have been the only card left to play.

Or maybe not. Perhaps the utterly bonkers new paradigm given us by Prometheus might breath new life into the old dog-impregnator. I certainly admire how the film can simultaneously disappoint by suggesting the alien creators look like us but also dreamed up the idea of infectious black goo that turns men into super-strong zombie killers and forces women to become pregnant with space squids (hooray!) who then grow to enormous size and implant Brandywine's pointiest xenomorphs yet. Unless the proto-facehuggers get you first; who know what happens with those things?

And if the idea is to sweep away the tired remnants of the Alien mythos (or was, until Blomkamp piped up) and replace it with a new cycle of insane alien monstrosities hungering to check out the insides of our chest cavities, well, destroy to create, right? We can't say we weren't warned. It may be a step forward, it may be a step back. I know which way a lot of people would bet. But either way, the wheel continues to turn.

No comments: