Saturday, June 09, 2012

Saturday Morning Flashback: Mystery Island (1977)

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Ark II: "The Balloon" (December 4, 1976)

In this episode of the Filmation Saturday morning series Ark II, the crew runs smack into a society that, as a whole, suffers from xenophobia, a fear of outsiders or “foreigners.”  Captain Jonah’s (Terry Lester) initial log entry describes people who “refuse to have contact with the outside world.”

But from somewhere deep inside the isolationist village, someone is sending out distress messages tied to floating balloons…written in Greek.  After deciphering one message, the Ark II crew comes to understand that the very people who have so calculatingly cut themselves off from the rest of humanity are suffering from a terrible plague, one they can’t cure on their own.

The Ark II team finds the messenger -- an old man working a printing press near “the place of the Iron Birds,” a destroyed air-field -- and learns that this is indeed the case.  The messenger says: “We have a new enemy now…disease.”

While Ruth returns to the Ark II via hot air balloon to work on a cure for the new disease, Jonah attempts to convince the village’s leaders to “open” their hearts and minds to others.  Unfortunately, he and a young boy fall prey to the disease, and only reinforce the fear of strangers.  Now outsiders are disease carriers.

Meanwhile, Ruth and Samuel must clear a path to get the Ark II inside the village, and deliver inoculations to all the sick people.

Like its predecessors, “The Balloon” is a message-heavy installment of this Saturday morning series.  In “The Tank,” we met people who shunned machines because they believe machines caused war.  Here, we meet characters who refuse to deal with outsiders, because they fear attack from them.   In both cases, people have responded to a terrifying situation irrationally, by a blanket rule about the things they perceive caused them harm.

In real life, of course, America has witnessed periods of intense xenophobia over the last two centuries, not the least of which has been in the decade following the 9/11 terror attacks.  Yet the rampant fear associated with xenophobia is ultimately counter-productive, as this episode of a 70s kid show rightly points out.  If you close yourself off, you also close yourself down to certain options, to new solutions, and to improvements your life.  When you come from a closed place, everything – even learning – comes to a stop.  It’s not a healthy response to fear, even if it is, on some level, understandable. 

It’s very interesting that Ark II chooses to tell this particular story, about a place that has sealed itself off from the world and in its insularity faces extinction.  “By talking instead of fighting,” says Jonah “we can move forward.”

In terms of Ark II continuity and lore, this episode reveals that the Ark II can fire a focused beam from its fore section, but the beam is still defined as “a force field,” keeping in tune with the idea of self-defense and no aggressive weaponry.  Intriguingly, the force field is also quite a limited device.  In trying to move heavy stones from the vehicle’s path, the force field’s power grid short circuits…

Although “The Balloon” carries a laudable message, it plays, at this point, as fairly routine.  The series is in something of a rut, with tiny villages constantly being shown the error of their primitive ways by the Ark II team.  The civilizations of the week – battling superstition (“The Slaves”), xenophobia (“The Balloon”), cruelty to the weak (“The Rule”) and technophobia (“The Tank”) – are a bit too predictable and one-note at this point.  But the series is about to mix it up with some infusions of more science-fictional elements, from robots and suspended animation to telepathy, and that’s a good thing.

Next Week: “The Mind Group”

Friday, June 08, 2012

From the Archive: Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

"Why is any object we don't understand always called a thing?"

- Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) in Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Directed by Robert Wise (The Day The Earth Stood Still [1951]), Run Silent, Run Deep [1958], The Haunting [1963], Audrey Rose [1977]) and produced by TV series creator and "Great Bird of the Galaxy" Gene Roddenberry, this forty-five million dollar voyage of the starship Enterprise launched a film series that has endured a whopping three decades plus.
Despite proving a box-office bonanza and the father to ten cinematic successors of varying quality, Star Trek: The Motion Picture remains today one of the most polarizing of the film series entries.
The received wisdom on the Robert Wise film is that it is dull, over-long, and entirely lacking in the sparkling character relationships and dimensions that made the 1960s series such a beloved success with fans worldwide.
It is likely you've heard all the derogatory titles for the film too, from The Motionless Picture, to Spockalypse Now, to Where Nomad Has Gone Before (a reference to the episode "The Changeling.")  Recently, even Leonard Nimoy derided the film as not being "real" Star Trek.
Conventional wisdom, however, isn't always right. Among its many fine and enduring qualities, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is undeniably the most cinematic of the Trek movie series in scope and visualization.

And, on closer examination, the films features two very important elements that many critics insist it lacks: a deliberate, symbolic character arc (particularly in the case of Mr. Spock) and a valuable commentary on the co-existence/symbiosis of man with his technology.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture also re-invents the visual texture of the franchise, fully and authoritatively, transforming what Roddenberry himself once derided as "the Des Moines Holiday Inn" look of the sixties TV series for a post-Space:1999, post-Star Wars world.

The central narrative of Star Trek: The Motion Picture is clever and fascinating (and, as some may rightly insist, highly reminiscent of various episodes of the TV series). Sometime in the 23rd century, a massive, mysterious space cloud passes through the boundaries of Klingon territory and destroys three battle cruisers while assuming a direct heading to Earth.
The only starship within interception range is the U.S.S. Enterprise, a Constitution class starship just completing an eighteen month re-fit and re-design. Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner), Chief of Starfleet Operations, pulls strings and calls in favors to be re-assigned as captain of the Enterprise, arrogantly displacing the young, "untried" Captain, Will Decker (Stephen Collins).

After departure from dry dock, the Enterprise faces severe engine design difficulties of near-catastrophic proportion, but the timely arrival of the half-Vulcan/half-human science officer, Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) resolves the problem. In the intervening years since the series, however, the inscrutable Spock has become even more stoic and unemotional, having attempted to purge all his remaining emotions in the Vulcan ritual called Kolinahr.
Upon intercepting the vast space cloud, known also as "the intruder," the Enterprise crew learns, following a series of clues, that the colossal space vessel sheathed within the cloud/power-field is actually an artificial intelligence, a living machine called V'ger. And at the "heart" of V'Ger is a NASA Voyager probe from the 20th century -- re-purposed by an advanced society of living machines on the other side of the galaxy -- sent back to Earth to find God, it's "Creator." In V'ger's quest to touch the Divine, Kirk, Spock and Decker each find personal enlightenment, resolving their personal dilemmas and also saving Earth from destruction.

"All Our Scans Are Being Reflected Back..."

The creative team of producer Gene Roddenberry (1921 - 1991) and director Robert Wise (1914 - 2005) consisted of two individuals who had very distinct philosophical views about technology, and the destination where technology was driving mankind.
In Roddenberry's case, we must countenance his progressive concept of "Technology Unchained," the notion of technology becoming both beautiful (rather than clunky and mechanical...) and benign.

Man's machines, Roddenberry believed, would come to serve all the needs of the species, thus freeing humanity from the age-old dilemmas of poverty, dwindling resources, racial prejudice, hunger, territorial gain and war. This was an optimistic vision of man and machine in harmony, one given even fuller voice almost a decade later in Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987 - 1994).
By contrast, Robert Wise directed the technological thriller, The Andromeda Strain (1971), based on the best-selling Michael Crichton (1942-2008) novel about an alien organism (or germ...) threatening all human life on Earth. Wise once stated that The Andromeda Strain concerned "the first crisis of the space age," a descriptor which permits us to see Star Trek: The Motion Picture as a further meditation on a similar theme, only representing a (much) later planetary crisis, one in the 23rd century.

Wise also stated that technology -- particularly that on hand in the subterranean Wildfire Laboratory -- was the "star" of The Andromeda Strain.
In keeping with that motif, The Andromeda Strain's opening credits consisted of a space-age montage of technological symbols, from blueprints to graphs, to top secret communiques. Think of it as a dot-matrix age Jackson Pollock.
In the same vein, the characters in the film spoke in protean techno-babble on arcane subjects such as "Nutrient 24-5," "Red Kappa Phoenix Status," the "Odd Man Hypothesis," "Sterile Conveyor Systems" and the like. In all, Wise's 1970s sci-fi film represented a dedicated documentary-style approach, one that never easily accommodated a "lay" audience. Instead, you felt you were actually inside that underground complex alongside the Wildfire team.
Most uniquely, however, the The Andromeda Strain's climax concerned the pitfalls of technology: a teletype/printer experienced an unnoticed paper jam at a very inopportune moment. Some critics and film scholars have interpreted this malfunction as Wise's explicit warning about relying too heavily on technology, but the opposite was true. Had the printer worked as planned, one of the scientists would have transmitted orders for a nuclear bomb detonation at an infected site, a course of action that would have catalyzed and spread the Andromeda germ.
The machine's paper jam gave the flawed human being time to learn more, and re-consider the course of action. Given this analysis, one can detect that Wise was, perhaps, agnostic on the subject of man and technology, seeing both how it could prove a great tool, but also a great danger.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture serves, in several ways, as an unofficial "sequel" or heir to Wise's Andromeda Strain in terms of both approach and philosophy. Of all the Star Trek films, The Motion Picture is the only series installment to feature so many lingering insert shots of technological read-outs and schematics. For example we see a medical visualization of the Ilia Probe's physiology, a representation of "a simple binary code" (radio waves), "photic-sonar readings"(!) and several tacticals revealing Enterprise's approach and entrance into the cloud. 
These multitudinous close-ups of computer graphics and read-outs not only enhance the notion of Enterprise as working starship -- with several interfaces directly at our disposal (fostering the documentary feel), -- but go a long way towards establishing the vital link between technology and crew, a symbiosis, if you will.

A great deal of time is spent in the Motion Picture on views of the crew gazing through the Enterprise's "technological" eye or window on the universe, the view screen. In a film about the combining of man and machine into a "new life-form," these moments carry resonance and significance: they reveal man already traveling down that road to symbiosis, relying on technology as his eyes, ears and (in the case of the ship's computer...) key interpreter of data or external stimuli.

In Star Trek, the TV series, Spock often gazed into a hooded library computer and we were denied access to what data he saw recorded inside (save for the reflected blue illumination on his face). In later Treks, stellar cartography played a role, but the high-tech, colorful displays it produced for crew members were not filmed as inserts. In other words, we saw Picard and Data interpreting the data, and the data itself. It's important, I believe, in Star Trek: The Motion Picture that the data read-outs and view screen images are primarily brought directly to our eyes without dramatis personae coming between projector and percipient. For one thing, we feel as though we're actually aboard a ship in space. For another, we're taking part in that symbiosis of man and machine; we're interpreting the runes ourselves.

The underlying philosophy in Star Trek: The Motion Picture seems to consist of an admonition that man and machine work best together integrated, not when separated. V'Ger is a living machine who has "amassed" all the knowledge of the universe, but is without the human capacity of "faith," to "leap beyond logic," The machine (without human input or touch...) is cold, and barren, and incapable of believing in other realities (like the after-life) or other dimensions. Thus it is incomplete. Only by joining with a human (Commander Decker), does V'Ger find a sense of wholeness, of completion.

Kirk's journey is not entirely different. He views the Enterprise -- a machine itself -- as almost a physical lover in this film. When Scotty takes Admiral Kirk via a shuttle pod to inspect the Enterprise's re-designed exterior, Kirk has the unmistakable look of a man sizing up a sexual conquest, not a starship captain merely reporting to his new assignment. He avariciously sizes up the "woman" in his life (and ships are always "she" aren't they?). Like V'Ger after the union with Decker, Kirk ultimately finds a sense of completion once he has "joined" with the starship Enterprise, both metaphorically and literally. Once he is her captain again, Kirk is complete.

Consider for a moment just how many times Star Trek: The Motion Picture lingers upon the important act of a man entering -- or connecting to -- a machine. We watch Kirk's shuttle pod "dock" with Enterprise after a long, lingering examination of the ship. We see Spock, in a thruster suit, "penetrate" -- in his words, "the orifice" leading to the next interior "chamber" of V'Ger. This terminology sounds very biological, doesn't it? Consider that Spock next mentally-joins with V'Ger, utilizing a Vulcan mind-meld, yet another form of symbiosis.

And finally, we see Decker and Ilia physically join with the V'ger Entity during the film's climax. And make no mistake, that final act is equated with physical reproduction explicitly in the film's text. "Well, it's been a long time since I delivered a baby," McCoy notes happily in the film's epilogue, and Kirk remarks on "the birth" of a new life-form. They're talking about sex, about the union of two-life forms creating a third, unique one.

Similarly, the journey of the Enterprise inside the giant V'Ger cloud replicates the details of the human reproductive process, with the final result proving identical: the birth of new life. In Star Trek: The Motion Picture, man and machine mate. They join in symbiosis to create something new, perhaps even as Spock notes, "the next step in our own evolution."

While Star Trek films have traded explicitly in both allegory (particularly The Undiscovered Country and the Cold War "bringing down the Berlin Wall in Space" idea) and social commentary (consider the environmental message of The Voyage Home), Star Trek: The Motion Picture is decidedly symbolic. That's an important distinction.

The central images in the film all symbolize the reproductive, joining process. Spock penetrates the V'Ger "orifice," to mentally join with a living machine. Decker and Ilia (V'ger's surrogate) are mated in a light show that some Paramount studio executives allegedly termed a "40 million dollar fuck." And even the journey of the Enterprise (essentially the male "sperm") through the fallopian tube-type interior of V'Ger -- carrying its creative material (the human spirit in this case) to the V'ger complex (ovum) -- reflects the overriding theme of mating/joining/symbiosis.

So is technology a help or a hindrance? For the Klingons, destroyed in the film's first act, technology doesn't seem to help much. All their elaborate technical read-outs and tracking sensors (again, shown in dramatic insert shots) only permit them to watch the progress of their annihilation down to the last detail; down to the last second.

On the Enterprise, technological attempts to understand V'ger are constantly stymied by the living machine. "All scans are being reflected back," Uhura notes in the film on more than one occasion, meaning that V'Ger is re-directing the Enterprise's investigative entreaties back at itself. This is a subtle indicator that the answers Kirk and the others seek are held within themselves; in the gifts, contradictions and essential nature of "carbon based life forms." They begin to key in on this fact when Kirk and Spock assign Decker to awaken the human (er, Deltan...) memory patterns of the Ilia Probe (a mechanism). The answer, they come to understand, rests in the human equation, not in a technological assessment of V'ger.

It's interesting to tally the scoreboard here. V'Ger (a machine) finds "God" and evolves with the help of a human (Decker). Kirk finds his peace with a machine (The Enterprise). Spock finds his answer about the meaning of life from a machine, and that answer is an acceptance of humanity. Even Decker finds his "peace" with a machine that replicates (down to the last detail) the memory patterns of his lost beloved. Each of these main characters (Kirk, Spock, V'Ger and Decker) are intricately involved with the story's main conceit: the mating of man and machine; of "cold" knowledge and "warm" human emotions.

"Our Own Human Weaknesses...and the Drive That Compels Us to Overcome Them..."

Despite protestations to the contrary, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is a movie intrinsically, nay organically, about character, and character development. In simple terms, the film's main characters (Kirk, Spock and Decker) serve as the deliverer of human ideals to the cold, empty V'Ger child so that it may "evolve." But in doing so, they also bring along a lot of "foolish human emotions," as Dr. McCoy asserts at the film's conclusion.

Captain Kirk begins the film, for instance, as a ruthless, single-minded "my way or the highway" obsessive. We see his determination to reclaim the "center seat" when he tells Commander Sonak at a space port that he intends to be aboard the Enterprise following a meeting with Admiral Nogura, Starfleet's top brass. We see it again when he rationalizes displacing Decker, off-handedly noting that his "experience...five years out there, facing unknowns like this one," make him the superior commanding officer. The contradiction in that argument should be obvious. Are different "unknowns" actually capable of being categorized? How does Kirk know that Decker's history and experience won't prove superior in dealing with this threat, the alien cloud? He doesn't: he just wants what he wants.

And to some extent, the Enterprise (Kirk's other half, or perhaps a representation of his id...) rebels against this egomaniacal version of Kirk. Consider how much goes wrong on Enterprise when Kirk is acting in this selfish mode. The transporters break down, killing two new crewmembers. Kirk gets lost on his own ship and is discovered (in an embarrassing moment) by Decker, the very man he replaced. Kirk "pushes" his people too hard, forcing the Enterprise into warp speed before it is ready, and in the process nearly destroys the ship in a wormhole. He does so over the objections of Mr. Scott, Captain Decker and even Dr. McCoy. This Kirk is all ego and selfishness, until he remembers the key to commanding the Enterprise: listening to all viewpoints and making informed decisions. This also happens to be the key in any male/female relationship. Just treat her like a lady, Jim, and she'll always bring you home. This first Kirk is too hungry, too grasping, too desperate to "re-connect" with the Enterprise in anything but a physical way. Bones puts Kirk in his place, but all the malfunctions of the Enterprise subtly (and symbolically) perform the same function.

About half-way through the film, Kirk is still learning this lesson in humility, as Decker notes that as the vessel's executive officer, it's his responsibility to "provide alternative" viewpoints. Kirk accepts that argument, but hasn't internalized it. By the end of the film, he is actively listening to others again, heeding Decker's request to join a landing party, and allowing Spock to proceed when the curious half-Vulcan overrides his orders and steals a thruster suit.

The familiar Kirk of Star Trek lore, the one who develops a strategy based on hearing all viewpoints, slowly re-asserts itself over the selfish one who wanted command and conquest of the Enterprise, and nothing else. A journey that began in selfishness, ends in his "unity" with the crew and ship, his acceptance and sense of joining with those around him, a reflection of V'Ger's joining with the human race. Kirk has, as he states, overcome human weakness.

Although Spock is only half-human, he undertakes much the same journey as Kirk in the film. He returns to Starfleet because he has failed to purge himself of human emotion and believes that an understanding of V'Ger will lead him to that destination. McCoy fears that Spock -- like Kirk -- will put his own personal interests ahead of the ship's. What Spock ultimately learns from his encounter (mind-meld) with V'Ger is life changing for him. He discovers that V'Ger has achieved what he seeks, "total logic." But damningly, "total logic" doesn't make V'Ger happy. Thought patterns of "exactingly perfect order" don't leave room for belief (in the afterlife...), for the "simple feeling" of friendship Spock feels towards Kirk, or much else.

For all V'Ger's knowledge, Spock realizes that the alien is "barren" and "empty." Were Spock to pursue Kolinahr, he would end up the same way. Spock's "human flaw," if we can call it that, is also one of ego, his obsession with becoming the "perfect" Vulcan. In embracing friendship with Kirk, in feeling his emotions (and even weeping, in the film's extended version), Spock begins to embrace the emotions he has long denied...and provides Kirk with the key to understanding V'Ger's psychology. He would never have come to this epiphany had Spock not "joined" with V'Ger in a mind-meld. And that puts us right back at the theme of symbiosis.

Decker (Stephen Collins) undergoes an interesting character arc too. He is a young man who fears commitment and the responsibilities it brings. He left Delta IV, Ilia's home wold without even saying goodbye to the woman he loved, which is a pretty sleazy and avoidant thing to do. It might even be termed "cowardice." In the end, Decker overcomes this "human weakness" and joins with Ilia and V'Ger, saving the Earth, repairing his relationship with Ilia, and adding the human component to V'Ger that the machine life-form requires to "evolve."

When Kirk, Spock and McCoy return to the Enterprise, Kirk explicitly asks if they have just witnessed the "birth of a new life form." As I noted above, Spock's answer is that perhaps they have seen "the next step" in their "own evolution." This is a statement that is linked to the characters themselves. Though Decker has physically evolved to another (higher...) dimension or plane of existence, Kirk and Spock have evolved too. Kirk is suddenly gracious and comfortable in his skin again instead of imperious and dictatorial. And Spock, for the first time in his life, understands that that his human emotions carry value, and augment his "whole" personhood.

To claim that there is little or no character development in Star Trek: the Motion Picture is wrong-headed in the extreme. In some fashion, this is surely the most important story of Mr. Spock's "life," his final recognition of his "human" half and the gifts it offers. When we cavalierly write off Star Trek: The Motion Picture, we are also writing off Spock's new enlightenment.

This is An Almost Totally New Enterprise...

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is often termed the film that saved Star Trek, and there may indeed be truth to that argument. Certainly, I love and admire that Nicholas Meyer film. However, consider just how much material present in later Star Trek originates directly from the re-invention of the franchise in Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Most notably, the Enterprise re-design and update -- featured in the first six feature films -- is introduced in this Robert Wise film (exteriors and interiors). This was also the first Star Trek production to feature a "warp" distortion effect around the ship when it went beyond light speed.

Also, the modern iteration of Klingons -- so beloved by Trek fans today -- is introduced here, in The Motion Picture. Before the Wise film, Klingons were swarthy guys with beards who talked about Klingonese (in "The Trouble with Tribbles") but didn't actually speak it. After Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the Klingons were menacing aliens with ridges on their foreheads (and boy would Next Gen go to town with THAT idea...), wearing convincing armor and speaking their own language.

We can't forget, either that Star Trek: The Next Generation's very theme song, as well as the Klingon theme featured in First Contact and elsewhere -- were re-purposed from Jerry Goldsmith's brilliant soundtrack for Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

There seems to be this weird belief among many fans (and even Leonard Nimoy) that Star Trek: The Motion Picture doesn't represent the best of Star Trek. While it is easy to see that the film doesn't accent the humorous side of the Star Trek equation, The Wise film does get so many things right. Most importantly, it captures the Kirk/Spock friendship in simple, poignant terms (in a scene set in sickbay). Imagine how easy it would have been for Gene Roddenberry -- just two years after Star Wars -- to cow-tow to public opinion and make a huge, empty action film with laser blasts and spaceships performing barrel rolls. No one would have blamed him. I'll bet you a lot of fans would have liked that story better.

Instead, Roddenberry took a much more difficult route. He maintained the integrity of Star Trek and dramatized a story about mankind's future, and the direction we could be heading (with man and machine joined together, balancing weaknesses and sharing strengths). Some might declare that the film actually attempts and fails to reach the profound quality of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Certainly, I would agree The Motion Picture is not an equal to that film. However, here's another point of view: in Roddenberry's vision of man's evolution, it isn't some mysterious, unknown alien who transforms us for the better. No, in the universe of Star Trek, it's mankind playing a critical part in his own evolution, taking the reins of his own destiny himself. We aren't victims of an alien agenda unknown to us. We're standing tall, ready to face what the universe throws at us. Somehow, this is more...noble.

In considering (or perhaps, re-considering....) Star Trek: The Motion Picture, our mission ought to be the same as the Enterprise's: to "intercept" and "investigate" this fascinating movie and judge for ourselves if it is just the cosmic bore critics complained of, or perhaps something a bit deeper. 

Of all the Star Trek movies, this is the one that shows us the most of the universe at large (Klingon territory, Federation spaceships, Vulcan, Earth...), most closely follows the creed of "discovering new life forms" from the series, and most makes us feel like we're actually passengers aboard the Enterprise. Perhaps we wouldn't want Star Trek to exist on this elevated, cerebral plateau for long, since humor and action are indeed shorted. Yet there's something intensely admirable about the fact that this careful, somber, thematically-consistent, intelligent effort was Star Trek's opening salvo in the blockbuster sweepstakes of the post-Star Wars age. While others sought to imitate, Star Trek chose its own path.

And that's how a movie franchise was born.

Movie Trailer: Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Before Prometheus: Five Reasons Alien (1979) Endures

Ridley Scott’s Prometheus opens tomorrow and my review of the new film will appear here on the blog the morning of Tuesday, June 19th (so go see it before then so we can talk about it…). 

But given the arrival of a 2012 movie that connects explicitly to the Alien (1979) mythos, I realized that today represents the proper time to go back and gaze at the reasons why the original film is so terrific and influential.

Here are my five reasons why the original Alien endures more than thirty years after its release.

1. Revolutionary production and art design, translated into revolutionary sets, costumes and miniatures.

Alien truly pushed the science-fiction “space” film forward into a new realm of imagination.  Director Ridley Scott’s movie eschewed the stream-lined modernism and “neat,” minimalist future-look of such films as Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (1969) as well as TV programs like UFO (1970) or Space: 1999 (1975 – 1977).

The film offered instead a world that was grungy, messy and recognizable…both lived-in and dirty.  It’s true that Star Wars (1977) represents a crucial step in this direction, having created a universe that – in terms of visuals – suggests a rich and storied past.  But Alien went whole hog into a world where coffee mugs rested on computer consoles, where pornographic pin-ups were hung up beside work stations, and where characters wore sneakers and ball caps when not asleep in cryo-tubes (or “freezers” in the vernacular of the film).

This visual aesthetic has famously been termed “space truckers,” and it’s indeed a crucial element of Alien’s mystique and appeal.  In director Ridley Scott’s capable hands, outer space was not some glorious final frontier.  Rather, it was just your monotonous, unglamorous day-job.  In this future, the average blue collar space traveler still worked for the Man (Weyland-Yutani), and was still trying to get his fair share of corporate wealth and make a living wage. And he still made it through the day on coffee, cussing and swearing when things break down.

Alien, which features a great and very believable monster, would not have succeeded if the elements of the film that involved “futuristic” mankind – his ships, his clothes, his environs – did not reflect a reality the audience could understand and readily identify with.  The recognizable world of the main characters, in fact, makes the alien world all the more disturbing and frightening.

2. The alien itself.

Perhaps this aspect of the film is the one that is actually most difficult to reckon with today because we’ve seen the Alien xenomorph in so many settings and films since the first film came along.  We’ve had three direct sequels, plus two AVP movies, plus toys and comics involving the alien.

The notion of a monster attacking a spaceship crew was not new, of course when Alien, written by the great Dan O’Bannon, was produced.  By that point -- as history-minded film reviewers are certain to remind us -- we’d seen It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958), Bava’s Planet of the Vampires (1965) plus episodes of The Outer Limits (“The Invisible Enemy”) and Space: 1999 (“Dragon’s Domain”) that explored the trope, in many cases quite brilliantly.

But Alien represented a new horizon for “monsters” because of the bio-organic designs of Swiss sculptor and painter H.R. Giger.  This artist’s style had never been captured in mainstream film before, and his work expressed a total (and perverse) blend of human flesh and hard-edged machinery.  In short, the monster in Alien looked like nothing audiences had ever before reckoned with, a fusion of distinctly unlike elements.

There’s more to it than that too. 

Today we take this for granted, but Alien proved so horrifying a film because the monster’s shape and appearance were different every time we encountered it.  We now know the alien life cycle by rote: egg, face-hugger, chest-burster, and adult.  But when audiences first reckoned with Scott’s movie in the last year of the 1970s, none of this information was known. We had no idea what was coming, or how the alien was taking shape.  It seemed to be in a constant state of flux…of becoming

Again, all the stages of the lifecycle are familiar today, but in 1979, the alien seemed like the cinema’s first legitimate extra-terrestrial: a thing that changed and evolved into something ever-more hideous each time we saw it.  The title “Alien” expresses this idea beautifully.  Watching the film for the first time, we really felt we had encountered something not human, and not of this Earth.  Today, we’ve seen so many aliens and so many shape-shifters that we’re inured to the concept.  But Alien got it right, in revolutionary fashion.

3. Implications unexplored but suggested.  This is the very reason why we are getting Prometheus now.  It’s because Alien dramatized a complete and satisfying story of survival, but more than that, brilliantly implied a larger universe outside the context of the Nostromo’s last days.

Let’s gaze at the derelict ship that the Nostromo finds on LV-426, which has become an important part of Prometheus’s story-line.  When we encounter it in Alien, it is emitting a distress call (or actually, a warning: stay away).  The characters Dallas, Lambert and Kane investigate the ship and they see the dead pilot, the "space jockey" with a torn-open chest. They also find a giant lower chamber, which must be a cargo hold, given its dimensions and relative lack of instrumentation, furniture, etc.   This hold is filled with alien eggs. The eggs are ensconced underneath a level of fog which "reacts" when broken.  What is this level of fog?  Is it some kind of technology keeping the eggs in stasis?  Was it a safeguard to keep the alien eggs dormant and the (odd) equivalent of the freezers we see on the Nostromo? Who was meant to control it?

And then, of course, other questions are raised.  Who were these aliens transporting the eggs? Why were they transporting alien eggs in the first place? What became of the ship’s crew?   Where were they taking the eggs?  And for what purpose were they transporting this odd – and wholly dangerous – cargo?

One big questioned unanswered: if a chest-burster broke out of the space jockey’s chest, where was the adult alien when Dallas and the others arrived to investigate?  A possible answer is that it had died out already, since in Scott’s original conception the alien was to be like something akin to a butterfly, a “perfect” creature that only could live for a few days

See how this film from 1979 is loaded with implications and questions above-and-beyond the "ten little Indians" template of an alien that kills astronauts on a spaceship? The deeper you delve, the more interesting Alien becomes.

And again, this reflects our reality as human beings, an important aspect of horror films.  We are not privy to all the answers in life.  We don’t always know why things happen, or what fate has in store for us.   Some aspects of nature seem a mystery to us, even with advanced science.  The crew of Nostromo likewise encounters a terrible mystery on LV-426, but that mystery is largely left unexplored as the battle of survival begins.   

4.  It’s all about sex.

Alien is cherished and remembered by horror fans for the gory chest-burster sequence featuring John Hurt.  But the film also features one of the creepiest off-screen deaths of all time, and a discarded idea (or hidden implication) in the franchise. When last we see Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), the xenomorph's tail is seen winding its nefarious way…up between her legs. Then, the film cuts suddenly to Ripley running down a dark corridor, but we still hear Lambert panting and suffering and some...inhuman moaning. 

So what the hell is going on here? What is the alien doing to Lambert? Does it -- by its very "perfect" nature -- boast some other form of reproductive ability that it is practicing on her? Is it fulfilling some kind of sexual desire? 

Alien possesses this queasy, uneasy sub-text involving our human sexuality. On the immediately-apparent surface level, the film concerns a creature that can pervert our reproductive cycle for its own ends. But underneath - if we peel back the layers - there are moments in Scott's original that appear to involve homosexuality, sexual repression, sexual stereotypes and more.

Consider that John Hurt's character Kane becomes the first recipient of the alien's reproductive advances. Whisper-thin, British, and sexually ambiguous, Kane is depicted - at one point in the film - wearing an undergarment that appears to be a girdle; something that is distinctly "feminizing" to his appearance.

Also, Kane lives the most dangerous (or is it promiscuous?) life-style of anyone amongst the crew. He is the first to awake from cryo-sleep, the first to suggest a walk to the derelict, and the only man who goes down into the derelict’s egg chamber. He is well-acquainted with danger as (stereotypically...) one might expect of a homosexual man circa 1979. (Note: I said "stereotypically.” The best horror movies are about shattering decorum and transgressing against good taste and Alien fits that bill.)

Soon in the film, it is Kane who is made unwillingly receptive to an oral penetration: the insertion of the face-hugger's "tube" down his throat...where it lays the chest-buster. What emerges from this encounter is "Kane's son" (in Ash’s terminology). But essentially, the alien forces poor Kane – possibly a homosexual male symbol -- to act in the role he may be familiar with; that of being receptive to penetration.

Consider Ash and this character's sexual underpinnings. He is actually a robot - a creature presumably incapable of having sex -- and the film's subtext suggests that this inability, this repression of the sexual urge, has made him a monster too. When Ash attacks Ripley late in the film, he rolls up a pornographic magazine (surrounded by other examples of pornography) and attempts to jam it down the woman’s's his penis surrogate.  The implication of this particular act is that he can't do the same thing with his penis, so Ash must use the magazine in its stead.

Later, Ash admits to the fact that he "envies" the alien (penis envy?) and one has to wonder if it is because the alien can sexually dominate others in a way that the disliked, often dismissed Ash cannot manage.

Also note that when Ash is unable to satisfy his repressed sexual desire for Ripley, the pressure literally causes him to explode.  The android blood is a milky white, semen-like fluid. And it spurts everywhere, a catastrophic ejaculation of monumental proportions. Ash, when confronted with his own sexuality and inability to express it...can't hold his wad.

The most hyper-masculinized (again, stereotypically-so) character in Alien is Parker (Yaphet Kotto), a black man who brazenly discusses “eating pussy” during the scene leading up to the chest-burster moment. He boasts an antagonistic, adversarial relationship with Ripley, and is the character most often-seen carrying a weapon (a flame thrower), a possible phallic symbol.

In another type of film, Parker might be our hero.  But here he dies because of the stereotypical quality of male chivalry or machismo. Specifically, he won't turn the flame thrower on the alien while a woman (Lambert) is in the line of fire. The alien dispatches Parker quickly (mano e mano), perhaps realizing he will never co-opt an alpha male like Parker to be his "bitch;" at least not the way Kane was used.

As for Lambert, the most-traditionally (and – bear with me - stereotypically) female character in the film -- she gets raped by the alien as I noted above, presumably by the xenomorph's phallic tail. Again, the alien has exploited a character's biological/reproductive nature and used it to meets its own destructive, perverse needs.

Which brings me to Ripley. Ripley is a character written for a man but played by a woman (Sigourney Weaver). She is the only survivor (along with Jones the Cat), of the alien's rampage on the Nostromo, and there's a case that can be made that the alien cannot so easily "tag" Ripley as either male or female, and that's why she survives. She is perfect, like the alien is, a blend of all “human” qualities.

Kane is fey (possibly gay), Ash is a robot (and hence not able to express sexuality in a "normal" way), Parker is all macho man, and Lambert is a helpless damsel-in-distres...but Ripley is a tall glass of water (practically an Amazon), and an authority figure (third in command). She is also the only character who successfully balances common sense, heroism, and competence.

Given this uncommon mix of stereotypically male and female qualities, the alien is not quite sure how to either "read" or "use" Ripley. In the final moments of the film, it does make a decision. It recognizes Ripley - the best of humanity whether male or female - as kindred; a survivor. So it rides in secret with her aboard the shuttle Narcissus as they escape the exploding Nostromo.

Note that the alien could likely kill Ripley any time during that escape flight...but does not choose to do so. It knows it is in safe hands with her, at least for the time being. It uses her "competence," her skill (qualities of itself it recognizes in her?) to escape destruction...again establishing its perfection.

Here, perfection might be measured by how well it understands the enemy, the prey.

So, underneath the scares and underneath the great design, what we get in Ridley Scott's Alien is the story of a monster that exploits our 1970s views of biology and psychology; causing us (as viewers) to re-examine -- perhaps even subconsciously -- the sexual stereotypes of the day. The homosexual man is endangered first, the alpha males (Dallas and Parker) are ineffective, the traditional "screaming" female gets exploited (not rescued...), and the most "evolved" human, Ripley (along with another perfect creature - a cat) survives to fight another day.

The strange, spiky and sexual nature of Alien lurks just beneath the surface of the film, and is noticeable even in the set design. Just take a long look at the "opening" of the alien derelict.  Without being too graphic about this, it is pretty clearly a vagina.

And the chest-burster is pretty clearly phallus-shaped. Ask yourself why. Sex, and -- sometimes discomfort with sex --  lurks at the heart of this horror film.  This factor makes the film endlessly interesting and worthy of a re-watch or debate.

5. Sigourney Weaver as Ripley.  Ripley is indisputably one of the cinema’s greatest hero-warriors, but she’s more than that.  She represents a critical change in how women were conceived and written in horror and science fiction films. 

Ripley is simultaneously part of the “Final Girl” tradition and a crucial evolution of the archetype.   Ripley survives in the film because she is smart and because she possesses insights the others do not.  She understands why regulations are important, doesn’t succumb to emotion (regarding Dallas’s order to let Kane back aboard the Nostromo), and she is extremely competent on the job.  She takes command with authority, and is able to understand the ramifications of her actions.  She is tough, but never so much that we lose a sense of her humanity.  Male or female, we all wish we could possess Ripley’s qualities.

Ripley was Sigourney Weaver’s break-out role because the actress brought incredible commitment and intensity to the role.  Ripley herself showed that the Final Girl did not need others (particularly men) to rescue her, and that she could combat and even destroy the villain, not merely survive to another day.

So, Prometheus opens tomorrow…and we already know that it will delve deep into the implications of the Alien world. 

I wonder: will it create a monster as memorable as we first encountered in 1978?  Will it feature a character as forward-thinking as Ripley was? Will it boast visual canvas as revolutionary as that which we saw in Scott’s horror film?  Will it carry a subtext beyond the surface story of “space horror?”

That’s a pretty tall order, but I suspect that Prometheus will rise or fall not on the new ground it breaks, but how well it subverts and plays with the expectations we carry into the theater with us.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait…

Alien (1979) Trailer

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Collectible of the Week: Space Place (Jestoy; 1985)

Okay, so the box is heavy on pink, and this 1985 toy from Jestoy is technically called "Space Place for 11 1/2 Fashion Doll" (meaning Barbie), but this is one outer space play set I am nonetheless happy to keep in my collection.

The "Space Place" is the cockpit or control deck of a spaceship, and comes with "swivel chair," "control panel with moving screen," "jetison [sic] pack," "air lock transfer chamber," "simulated space capsule diarama [sic]," "space communicator," "video camera" and even "space play food."

Although the makers of the toy (in Hong Kong, apparently) couldn't spell worth a damn, they nonetheless created a very cool space deck, and one that actually fits the Mego Star Trek figures of the 1970s, or the Space: 1999 figures from Mattel in the same time period.  

The control panel may be the coolest part of the toy.  It boasts knobs on both sides which can change the space image "so you can follow flight."  I'm not sure exactly what that means, but I suspect it has something to do with plotting a trajectory.  The jettison pack has an elastic belt that can fit around most Meo-like figures, so they can go out on spacewalks.  And the air lock transfer chamber is "necessary" if your action figures must "exit the chamber."  The instructions offer detailed directions for equalizing air pressure for your astronaut (sold separately...).

I've written frequently in the past how I enjoy the generic or knock-off toys of the 1970s and 1980s, because they provide either alien locales for your franchise toys, or can become the hubs of new, imaginative play in a fresh universe.  Despite being pretty in pink, the "Space Place" from Jestoy Ltd. fits the bill.

Cloned from a Mutual Zygote: Carousel Stormtrooper

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

The Star Trek Movie Matrix

WMD deployed
TV series
Enterprise is
Villain recurs from TV
Strange New Worlds explored
New Life-form encountered by Starfleet officers
Motion Picture
Intruder Cloud
Wrath of Khan
Not directly
Genesis Device
Mr. Spock
Ceti Eel
Search for Spock
Genesis Planet
Voyage Home
Whale Probe
Final Frontier
Sha Ka Ree
Undiscovered Country
Trilithium device
Captain Kirk
Lursa and B’etor
First Contact
The Borg
The Borg
Metaphasic radiation
Lt. Cmdr. Data
Star Trek (2009)
Red Matter