Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Alien films

Two of my favorite movies are the beginning pair of Alien films, in my opinion the best of the series and among the greatest films of all time, even though the second has a number of flaws and carried the Lovecraftian/isolationist horror of the unmatched primary Ridley Scott piece into a different genre all together, the action or "modern" science fiction movie. They are two completely different films, but they are both centered on the loneliness, courage, despair, and self-reliance of Sigourney Weaver's character, Ripley, and she - both the actress and her character - is the main reason I still watch these movies and pay so much attention to the details, nuances, language, atmosphere, and emotion in the films. Ripley is a constant inspiration to me: the Camus role of the noble life as a suicide, the willingness to fight forever, the peace inside of constant inner struggle, the awareness of the transparent and transient nature of human contacts and relationships. Ripley is a martyr, a Christ-figure, an icon of loss. Her love is a constant curse to herself...her desire to be human a thorn in her side, the calls of her flesh and heart too painful to bear. In the third film, of course, her despair is made inhuman in the symbolic transference of alien qualities into her body - she leaves the agonizing world of emotion behind for the machine-precision of alien amorality and insect survivalism. In the fourth film this symbolic transference or transformation is completed as Ripley truly becomes alien - it is interesting, of course, that in this case she is a hybrid, effectively a new species...which is the same as saying that she is finally, completely, utterly alone. Having given meaning to her existence as a human archetype of the martyr, she transcends all human qualities in dying the martyr's ascending death: she completes the role of the self-sacrifice (the living suicide) by leaving her humanity behind. Is she an alien or an angel?

The first film is of course my favorite, for a number of reasons, but the second also has its moments - mostly in the scenes between Ripley and Newt, her adopted pseudo-daughter, another survivalist like herself, and in the utter chaos and nightmarish confusion of the alien attacks on the barricaded center of operations the marines set up for themselves inside the reactor bunker. The quick shots, the scans of exploding bodies and jetting, bursting streams of blood and acid, the screams of the dying, the feeling - so central to horror films - that the characters are completely surrounded and can not rely on the solidity of surface appearances - all of these lead to the understanding (which is undoubtedly a main theme of these films) of the fragility and impermanence of human life and hope. In the final attack the aliens descend from the ceiling and ascend from the floor, they literally walk right out of the walls, and appear in almost every "secret" space inside the bunker, completely eradicating any semblance of security or safety, any emotion of human dominance. Much like in the final scenes of Night of the Living Dead (the analogues of which appear in my dreams, the fears of infiltration and contamination, of being surrounded and cut off), the overwhelming tone is one of complete human surrender to forces that one can never understand or placate. In the death scenes there is an embracing of submission, the last gasp of the selfish life inside all human beings that tries to survive no matter the cost...the victims of the dead cry out in horror but they die with the tremendous release of the ego and warring spirit. After the "self" has died, their bodies return as a black curse to all sentient, intelligent, emotional life. The walking corpses in NOTLD are a force of nature, but something so abominable and terrifying (the dead come back to life - the essence of the "unnatural") that they in fact appear to be outside Nature all together, outside all existence, outside men's abilities to ever comprehend them. They must simply be destroyed or fled from in paralyzing, absolute horror. The truth is that our shallow conceptions of "Nature" can serve in these moments only as panoramas of ignorant self-centeredness, and we die in our inability to leave our own judgments and subjectivity behind. "Nature" laughs last, of course, in removing our subjectivity and personality, our Wills, our personal experiences, and using our bodies as methods of further contaminating reality through the Impossible, through Unlife.

It is the same with the aliens in these films, although this emotion of nameless dread is tempered in the final scenes of the second film by the mother/daughter contrast and "protection" empathy between Ripley and the alien queen. Ripley descends to Freudian depths in order to save her adopted daughter, Newt, and there encounter the queen laying eggs and watching over her next generation of young in the midst of fire and darkness. This primeval scene compares human and alien mother instincts, of course, and seems to want to draw parallel lines of emotion between the queen and Ripley, as if in making the aliens more "human" adds depth to their characterization and changes the theme of the movie from one of contamination and eradication by a superior animal (the aliens) to that of a competition between two murderous species. This of course reduces the isolationist absolute fear of the unnameable to something a little closer to action movie stereotypes: war, battle, competition, ascendency. It is perhaps telling that this competition is amoral - instead of moral judgments of right or wrong, good or evil, we only have a survivalist struggle for dominance. It is an archetypal scene, then, in the ending of the movie when Ripley has to barricade herself inside of an automaton, a prosthetic vehicle of strength and weight. Mankind wins through its ingenuity and mastering of resources, its ability to create machinery that expands its limited strength, its remarkable...fragility. As always, mankind dominates by denying its own utter helplessness. Although the alien queen, in this famous last scene, is shown to be intelligent, clever, and resourceful, her weakness (in human eyes) is that she relies too much on her own native, natural strength, her own biological virulency, her body and its given weapons. She is outmatched by an animal one sixth her size, soft, pink, flimsy, frail, without any natural defenses whatsoever other than its own willingness to express its pathetic aggression through self-created machinery. Ripley dominates by taking her place in the long line of human beings who can not see their own futility - this is to say that Ripley triumphs through humanity's long tradition of denial. The fact that her courage and determination even allows her to think that she can fight against the alien queen, even in despair, as a suicide in the pursuit of vengeance and her role as a mother-protector, is a measure not only of humanity's incredible ignorance of its own limitations, but an illustration of how that ignorance is transformed into bravery and victory. Perhaps Ripley recognizes her own drives and desires in the alien queen, her own fears, and this makes the alien mortal enough to destroy...which is to say that Ripley kills, in the end, through empathy - although not through sympathy or pity. Ripley uses her automaton to alter reality, to deny the truth in front of her, to fight (in what surely must be a lost cause) overwhelming forces of despair, and in that space where reality is abrogated and denied, humanity conquers through its utter unwillingness to deny itself hope, even if this hope can only lead to death. It is not that one dies in despair and isolation, but that one dies as a victim of one's own inhumanity - becoming inhuman in the act of finally releasing hope and accepting reality as it appears. In the space where reality is broken and denied, possibility is also opened to the point where the possible and impossible no longer meet - they mirror each other in their ability to soundlessly, immediately transform themselves into their opposites. Mankind, isolated in a cold, meaningless, barren, indifferent (not hostile - because hostility would imply meaning) universe, accepts the role of the Godhead in determining its own possibility. Men and women, in scanning and judging the universe, seize upon the impossible, and through despair, do it anyway.

U. Amtey
11 December 2004
20:45 CST