Saturday, July 26, 2014

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: BraveStarr: "The Taking of Thistledown 123"

In “The Taking of Thistledown 123,” a visiting galactic ambassador suggests that New Texas needs no marshal, and that no threat exists from the planet’s bandits such as Tex Hex. In fact, the alien ambassador would very much like to end BraveStarr’s tenure on the planet.

But when Tex Hex captures Thistledown 123, the largest Kerium freighter in the galaxy, and kidnaps the ambassador, the diplomat has cause to reconsider his point-of view.  As the alien’s atmosphere supply runs low, BraveStarr and his friends plot a daring rescue.

As is plain from the episode’s title, “The Taking of Thistledown 123” harks back to the 1974 Joseph Sargent film, The Taking of Pelham 123, which concerned criminals taking over a busy New York City subway and demanding ransom for the passengers.

In this case, the story has been translated to the future and another world all together, but some key aspects of the narrative remain.  We have the commandeered vehicle and hostages in danger, specifically.

BraveStarr also seems to have inherited Star Trek’s (1966 – 1969) intense and frequent dislike of diplomats, and in almost knee-jerk fashion. 

In episodes such as “A Taste of Armageddon” and “Mark of Gideon” in original Trek, diplomats proved so irritating that even the calm and cool Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) disliked and verbally upbraided them.  Similarly, the ambassador in “Thistledown” is obviously not thinking straight when he plans to remove BraveStarr from service on this dangerous frontier planet. 

Unfortunately, the ambassador’s plans are not borne out by facts or by reason. A quick review of Fort Kerium’s arrest records would reveal, in detail, just why a lawman is a necessity on this dangerous world.  

But the ambassador is present in this BraveStarr episode to create drama and conflict, and ultimately admit that BraveStarr is “The right man for the job.” It’s all a little facile, even for a kid’s show.  Kids know that the series isn’t going to relocate the Marshall, or get rid of him, since he is the main character.

Perhaps the most unique aspect of this BraveStarr story is the fact that the alien ambassador is endangered by his own life-support requirements.  He breathes an atmosphere different from the humanoid beings on New Texas, and so if BraveStarr can’t rescue him in time, he will run low on atmosphere and die.  This idea adds some nice “countdown”-type tension to the story.

In terms of artist design, "The Taking of Thistledown 123" is a mixed bag, in my estimation.  The Kerium freighter looks great, but the ambassador is a bit too fanciful looking for my taste.

The "lesson" of the week in the episode's post-script is about working together, or "teamwork."

Next week: “No Drums, No Trumpets.”

Saturday Morning Cult-Blogging: Godzilla (1978): The Earth Eater"

In “The Earth Eater,” the second episode of the Hanna-Barbera/Toho Godzilla cartoon collaboration for NBC, San Francisco is falling into the Earth.  Even the Golden Gate Bridge is imperiled.

Before long, the Calico arrives in the city because Dr. Darrien is scheduled to speak at a scientist convention there. 

When the ship arrives, the crew sees that the city is being evacuated, and that people are leaving it en masse. Godzilla arrives to shore up the bridge and save the refugees.

Meanwhile, Quinn and the crew note that some city blocks look normal, while others are now huge sinkholes. Quinn concludes that the city is being devoured one block at a time.

Godzooky and Pete go down into a sink-hole and find out that a light-sensitive goliath -- an “earth eater” -- is the monster responsible for all the destruction.

When the crew loses the Godzilla distress button, it’s up to Godzooky to call to him…and bring the monster to do combat with this new enemy.

“The Earth Eater” is set in San Francisco (not entirely unlike a game-play arena in Godzilla Unleashed, the 2007 video game…) and the most interesting part of the episode, perhaps, is seeing Godzilla stomp around in these particular American environs.  The episode features views not only of the Golden Gate Bridge, but Alcatraz, Fisherman’s Wharf and the Transamerica Pyramid building.  The city's trademark cable cars also make an appearance as a handy escape vehicle.

As seems typical of the series, there’s no explanation offered why the Earth Eater exists, or why he should appear at this juncture of modern history.  A key aspect of Godzilla’ legend, of course, is that he is an avatar for modern atomic warfare or power.

If the monsters in this cartoon series had similar origins, based on modern life, it would have been far more intriguing and worthwhile.  Today, the Earth Eater could be a byproduct of fracking, for instance, though in 1978, perhaps just irresponsible or aggressive mining.  At least such a story would have a point, a context beyond monsters appearing, and Godzilla pinch-hitting for the imperiled human race.

But the cartoon series never strives to offer much contextualization, even though Saturday morning, at that time period in history, often included didactic messages about the environment or appropriate moral/social behavior (see: Land of the Lost).  Here the monsters merely show up, and Godzilla battles them to a stand-still, and then defeat.

The exact nature of the Earth Eater threat is uncertain too.  The creature can shoot beams from his antennae that resemble those telepathic rings that emanate from Aqua Man on The Super Friends.  These beams -- which pulp buildings -- which goes unexplained. 

But weirder still than that touch is the fact that “water” is described as The Earth Eater's “natural enemy.”  When the Earth Eater goes into the bay, it is destroyed…transformed into a big mud-slick.  

So what does the creature drink, if not water? How does it hydrate itself?  The episode doesn’t do that much thinking about its central threat, and that seems a shame since the series heroes are mostly scientists, who show a curiosity for the world around them.

Finally, a weird adult joke, right under the surface: At one point, Godzilla battles the Earth Eater in front of a sign that reads Butz Root Beer.  Butz?


Friday, July 25, 2014

At Flashbak: Road Rage - The 5 Most Evil Vehicles in Horror Movie History

Now posted at Flashbak is my look at cinematic evil vehicles.

Here's a snippet and the url:

"In Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan wrote that the modern automobile has become “the carapace, the protective and aggressive shell of urban and suburban man.” 

In horror movies, cars and trucks have become even more than that. They have become, in fact, a physical manifestation of man’s dark side, and vehicles for the furtherance of Evil.

When broaching horror movies about evil vehicles, the big question is: how could our beloved machines turn on us, their owners and creators?  In some cases vehicles -- having acquired sentience -- simply know better than we do, and they assert their control.

In other cases, our tools -- perhaps sensing some inadequacies -- have switched to a more powerful owner: the Devil himself.

Below are my choices for the five most diabolical vehicles in the horror cinema, listed in chronological order.  You may notice that all of these vehicles appeared on our screens during the 1970s and 1980s, an era defined by affluence and conspicuous consumption."

Cult-Movie Review: The Conspiracy (2014)

[The following review contains spoilers, so proceed accordingly.]

We live in an age of conspiracy theories run amok, and thus the new found footage horror film, The Conspiracy (2014) has arrived at just the right time in terms of the Zeitgeist.

I suppose one could argue that wild conspiracy theories thrive today because of the Internet, and the ease of instantaneously transmitting information, but there’s a psychological reason underlining their existence and popularity too.

I submit that the wildest conspiracy theories are simultaneously ego-boosting and blame-deflecting. 

First: only *you* are smart enough to see how the puzzle pieces fit together and understand the larger picture.

The most powerful people in the world are aligned against you and your continued freedom, but clever you and a few others with the same viewpoint see through these byzantine schemes nonetheless. Thus conspiracy theories are in a way, very flattering, even self-affirming. You’re an important member in an exclusive club!

And secondly, the reason *you* aren’t succeeding (at work, politically, at home, even) is because a sinister cabal is running things, transforming us all into slaves.

In other words, someone is keeping *you* down for some dark purpose. Therefore, you are absolved of all guilt or culpability for your own situation and success, or lack thereof. 

How can you succeed with Big Brother putting his socialist/corporate heel to your throat at every turn?

The Conspiracy deals with such ideas in an exceedingly intelligent fashion.

Actually, in terms of found-footage horror films, The Conspiracy reminded me strongly of The Bay (2012), another horror film of the same genre that had environmental concerns vying for supremacy with the horror scenes. 

That’s also how The Conspiracy plays. The horror aspects only really arrive in force during the tense last act, and it is the observations about the conspiracy mind-set that take center stage instead.  The film is a strong paranoia trip, and a psychological thriller that only descends into effective terror during one harrowing set-piece.

The result of all the pent-up paranoia -- and the catharsis of the final horror sequence -- is a smart, well-made film and one that will make you think seriously about the reasons why so many people cling to wild conspiracy theories even in the face of contradictory information. 

What I really appreciate about the film is that it creates -- during its last moments -- a new conspiracy-theory, and then allows the viewer to make up his or her mind about the “truth” of the particular situation. In short, it’s a perfect microcosm for conspiracy-style thinking, and it crystallizes all of The Conspiracy’s themes in one shining moment.

“If you stare at it long enough, you are going to see what you want to see.”

Two documentary filmmakers, Aaron (Aaron Poole) and Jim (James Gilbert) decide to make a film about Terrance G., a conspiracy theorist who seeks to connect every world event from the sinking of the Lusitania to 9/11 to a sinister cabal.  He believes that we are all being prepared for one world government…and slavery.

After spending several days with Terrance G., Aaron and Jim come to respect him, if not all of his views. 
But then, suddenly…he disappears without a trace. 

Jim and Aaron begin to research Terrance G.s work, and learn that all the terrible events of the world, including the JFK assassination, tie back to a mysterious organization known as The Tarsus Club.

The filmmakers track down a reporter, Mark Tucker, who once wrote an article about The Tarsus Club for Time Magazine, but then went into perpetual hiding, for fear of his life. Tucker reports that The Tarsus Group worships an ancient deity called Mithras, and that he can get the two men into a Tarsus Club initiation, which will involve the hunting of a bull.

Jim is reluctant to go any further because he has a family to protect, but Aaron -- who dreams of living off the grid in a commune -- feels that they must proceed, if only to discover what happened to Terrance G.

The two men make arrangements for a rendezvous if they are separated, and then infiltrate a Tarsus Club meeting…

“I wish we had never listened to a thing he said.”

First things first: I’ve waded into the waters of wild conspiracy theories, myself.

I did so while I was researching Horror Films of the 1990s (2011), because many films of the 1990s (Blade, Eyes Wide Shut, The X-Files: Fight the Future, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation) traded on conspiracies as a key aspect of the genre.

At some point during my brief flirtation with fringe conspiracy theories -- perhaps at the point that I learned George W. Bush and President Obama were actually child-molesting Satanists -- I realized the sad fact that there’s always another theory, another rabbit-hole, and another time-suck conspiracy to delve into…yet mysteriously no evil plans for world domination ever seem to come to fruition. The world just doesn’t change in a meaningful way.

Bill Clinton didn’t stay in office by declaring Martial Law after Y2K, as Pat Robertson warned us he would.

President Bush didn’t incarcerate democrats for exercising free speech during the Iraq War,

And President Obama has not incarcerated or re-educated our precious young in FEMA prison camps, while also handing over U.S. sovereignty to the U.N. and taking all our guns away.  

Frankly, if we are being run by some secret cabal for the purposes of “New World Order” and “One World Government,” it is doing a “heckuva” job, at least by Michael Brown standards. 

My biggest question is: What on Earth is taking the illuminati so damn long? Why such slow and incremental change?

If the cabal is so powerful and so connected, and in such firm control of the population through surveillance and intimidation, why does it suck so hard at getting anything meaningful accomplished?

The conspirators have had a century for their mastermind social engineering and yet we still have nationalistic borders, sovereignty, and elections.  What gives?

And in a way, that’s The Conspiracy’s point.

At various junctures, the film suggests that there really is no need for a dark conspiracy in today’s globalized, over-corporate world. Big Banks, social media gurus, and media conglomerates are pretty open and up front about their intentions for financial domination. They are conspiring to take our money, our votes and our Internet, yes…but they are doing so in plain sight.

It’s only a secret conspiracy if you aren’t paying attention.

At the end of the film, a representative from Tarsus speaks directly to the camera and tells us, in no uncertain terms, that his group has plans. The leaders have an agenda. They meet to discuss strategy. They meet to execute initiatives.

If that is a conspiracy, he says then he pleads guilty.

Secondly, the film makes what in my estimation is a pretty bullet-proof argument about real life. If the cabal is so powerful and has been in power so long -- for over a hundred years -- then we have lived, essentially, under conspiratorial rule for a century, as Jim points out.

And you know what?

We’re just fine. 

*They* have been in power, *they* are in power, and *they* will be in power, and yet we still have our families, our home, and our freedoms. If it has always been this way -- longer than you or I have been breathing air on this Earth -- and we’ve just come through the triumphant American Century too, what’s the problem again?

Jim points this out to Aaron, but by that point, Aaron is too far gone to stop, and is not hearing reason.

The Conspiracy deals with that issue too.

It details quite ably how a conspiracy-minded person becomes trapped in self-fulfilling beliefs, lodged inside a bubble that allows no light, no reason, and no contradictory facts to penetrate it.  As Jim notes: “if you stare at it” (conspiracy theory) “long enough you are going to see what you want to see.”

I believe that The Conspiracy’s greatest moment arises in its very satisfying, if incredibly ambiguous climax. 

We are confronted with a scene of terrible violence against Aaron, and then an interview which denies the violence occurred…even though we “saw it” with our own eyes.  

Aaron is nowhere to be seen now.  But it was all a trick -- a joke -- to keep conspiracy theorists away, a PR man for Tarsus explains. He isn’t really dead.

If that’s the case, where is he?  Why isn’t he seen on-camera again?

Now here is the test for you as a viewer, which The Conspiracy presents well. 

Is Aaron dead and gone, a fact that explains his absence, while the conspiracy continues? 

Earlier in the film, Mark Tucker explained to the filmmakers that it behooves the Tarsus Club to go public occasionally, so it doesn’t look too mysterious. But that it will only put out the information it wants public during these rare PR jaunts.

So is the representative’s appearance at the end, alongside Jim -- and the explanation about Aaron’s fate -- that “harmless” appearance that Tucker predicted the group would make?

Or contrarily, as Jim and the Tarsus Group flak explain, has Aaron simply gone off the grid to his commune, as we saw him planning to do early in the film, perhaps out of embarrassment for the humiliation at the bull hunt?

If you believe in deadly conspiracies, you will no doubt believe that Aaron has been executed by Tarsus, and Jim co-opted (because his family is in danger).

If you don’t believe in conspiracies, you will see the point of all those scenes early in the film with Aaron contemplating a future in the commune, far away from a society he fears.  At least twice, we see him gazing at the commune’s web page, promising freedom from the technological surveillance state. 

What is the truth? 

The fact is, we can only speculate, and not draw any factual conclusions, because we don’t have all the information.

All we can do is speculate, I wrote above and yet here’s the rub. By speculating we insert our own psychologies into a mystery that, frankly, doesn’t involve our psychologies. We therefore shade the answers with our temperament, our predilections, and our deepest fears. 

Do conspiracy theories thrive, therefore, because human beings must -- for peace of mind -- have answers to the big questions, answers that make sense and allow them to continue with their lives? 

Few of us were lucky enough to know JFK, but he was beloved as President, and killed in his prime. 

How do you get past that horror, except to attempt to impose some kind of order on the tragic event? 

Is it worse to believe his death was the result of some random madman, or the result of a plot against him? 

The plot against him suggests a kind of order to the world, at least: Kennedy was killed because of his beliefs, his dislike of the CIA, his pursuit of the mob, or his bungling of Cuba.  Each of those “answers” suggests order in a way that a random killing simply does not.

A conspiracy thus fills in a psychological gap, and makes us feel that we have control in our lives, and that events happen for reasons that we can understand and process. This may be a more sympathetic explanation of conspiracy theories than the one I enumerated at the start of the review, noting the self-affirming and blame-deflecting aspect of them. Perhaps, in some way, we concoct conspiracy theories because they are necessary to our continued peace of mind.

The Conspiracy is a clever and even-handed horror film because it contemplates -- and makes the viewer contemplate -- both sides of the conspiracy equation.

The film blends real-life footage of the Kennedy assassination and 9/11 with its fictional narrative, and is so paranoia-provoking that it makes a mere hand-shake look positively menacing.  There’s also a clip of Ronald Reagan saying “we’re going to turn the bull loose,” to tie the government into the (malevolent) Mithras Cult…and you’ll be convinced the Gipper was in on the conspiracy too.

There’s even some under-cover humor here. All the conspirators are -- naturally -- old white men…the very group in danger of losing generations-long privilege in an ever more diverse America.

I’ve written before that I believe it is the greatest responsibility of the horror film -- as an outsider’s genre -- to tell us something meaningful about the times that we live in. The Conspiracy passes that test, and will unsettle you in the process.

Movie Trailer: The Conspiracy (2014)

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Memory Bank: Alien (1979) vs. Prophecy (1979)

To this day, I boast a very distinct memory of being in a Ben Franklin-type store with my parents and sister in the year 1979, and sneaking over alone to the book rack to steal a look at two "scary" literary titles: Prophecy by David Seltzer and Alien by Alan Dean Foster.  

Of course, both books were based on film screenplays, and I remember thinking --- as a fourth grader -- that both seemed absolutely terrifying.  

I also remember feeling amazed and kind of free, maybe even giddy, that I could turn to any page in either book and read something that would torment my imagination for days and weeks to come.

And then I tried to imagine how scary the movies would actually be.  I had to imagine that factor because my parents are good ones, and they would never have let me see R-rated movies at the tender age of nine.  So if I was going to *know* about these horror stories...I had to read the books.

I didn't see either film until I was older, though I did read and enjoy Foster's Alien first.  Seltzer's Prophecy is also better than the movie, I think.

Today we know, of course, which of the two films has better stood the test of time: Ridley Scott's Alien over John Frankenheimer's Prophecy.

The former is a celebrated classic, and the latter is a kind of...hoot, a camp-classic. 

But interestingly, both films came out in the same year, and in very broad terms boast a few similarities. Both films involve reproduction, and a threat to human reproduction, in the form of something unknown and homicidal

And both films also involve a gigantic nemesis whose form is not immediately known or understood.  Prophecy draws its life force from American history and the American past, while Alien draws its energy from the future, and cosmic unknowns.

The advertising from both films, as you can see from images above and below (in the trailers), highlight images of eggs, and something evil growing inside an egg.  I think that was probably the key scare factor for me at age 9.  Something horrible was going to hatch in both stories. 

In terms of how it succeeds or fails Prophecy -- sometimes grandiosely termed "the monster movie" -- is really about the "past" of horror movie-making in 1979 terms: about a cinematic story scuttled by a ridiculous and unconvincing monster suit.  In contrast, Alien represents the defining line in modern horror  film where monsters became believable, even when shown on-screen for a long duration. 

Similarly, Prophecy is earthbound, while Alien looks to the stars.  

I know it probably seems odd, but today when I think of one film, I inevitably think of the other  one because of that experience in the book store, I suppose.  I'm sure this linkage has to do with where I was in my development at that time, gaining an awareness of books and movies that I wanted to see, but which I also knew would likely scare me.  I remember very vividly seeing commercials for both films on television and feeling truly conflicted.  Like I had to see both movies, and yet was afraid to see both movies.

At the age of nine, I couldn't have predicted that Prophecy would be a bust in terms or scares, or that Alien would generate approximately one million and one imitations.

I just knew that, for some reason, Hollywood was giving us two horror movies at the same time that seemed to have a broadly similar appeal: Evil Eggs.

Cult-Movie Review: Alien (1979)

It is quite difficult to believe, but in 2014, Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) turns thirty-five years old. 

Alas, 2014 has also seen the passing of H.R. Giger, the visionary Swiss artist who designed the film’s titular creature, a “bio-mechanoid” creation of unforgettable shape and proportion.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Alien to consider on this occasion is that the Scott film does not seem to grow old in terms of its impact, even with the passage of time, even with the acute knowledge that some of its scares have become familiar ones in the pop culture firmament.  For Alien has been oft-imitated, and never equaled.

Consider that Alienindicts big business,” (Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy, page 920)) and that viewpoint has never been more popular than it is today.

Also, the 1979 film explodes our understanding of sex roles in the intelligent and unconventional presentation of its iconic survivor, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver). 

Most importantly, perhaps, the film also creates a metaphor for the uncertainty America faced during the “crisis of confidence” 1970s. 

Here, the crew of the Nostromo is always battling the previous enemy, and never the next, dreadful iteration of the shape-shifting beast.

Whether one gazes at Alien as a simple “haunted house in space” movie, a social critique of Big Business’s callous disregard for workers, or as a trend-setter in terms of female roles, however, the film remains a masterpiece in both the horror and science fiction movie constellation.  The world it forges continues to feel real, vital and relevant, and its scares never cease to thrill and unsettle.

 In deep space, the commercial starship Nostromo is diverted from its homeward route when the ship’s computer, Mother, detects a distress call in a nearby solar system.  Mother awakes the crew from suspended animation, and the non-military men and women must investigate the signal on planet LV-426 or forfeit their percentage of the mission’s profit. 

The Nostromo lands on the inhospitable world and an expedition consisting of Captain Dallas (Skerritt), Kane (Hurt) and Lambert (Cartwright) finds a strange alien derelict there. 

Inside the macabre wreckage, a cargo bay is filled with leathery egg-like organisms, and something alive bursts forward from one, and seems to strangle Kane.  Kane survives, but as the crew soon learns on their return journey to Earth, the being has laid some kind of embryo down his throat, in his gut. 

The embryo grows and bursts out of Kane’s stomach, eventually becoming a seven-foot tall alien whose physical strength is matched only by its hostility.  One-by-one, the crew-members are killed or secreted away by the alien, which is hiding in the ship’s vent system. 

Desperate, one of the last survivors, Ripley (Weaver) plots a strategy to self-destruct the ship and return to Earth in a shuttle.

The story of astronauts accidentally picking up a monster in space is an old one, yet just as Star Wars gave the old swashbuckling Flash Gordon template new life in 1977, so does Ridley Scott’s Alien breath much new life into the monster-on-a-spaceship story of It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958), Planet of the Vampires (1965) or The Green Slime (1968).

The director largely does so by pinpointing and focusing on the very quality that those films determinedly lack: a grounded sense of reality in terms of how human characters might behave while traveling on a spaceship in “the future.”  

So if George Lucas imagined a “lived in” universe for Star Wars, one that implied history, use, and even entropy, Ridley Scott carries that ball a yard or two further down the field.  He imagines and presents a blue-collar future, one where work-stations are trashed, where computer consoles make good coffee mug holders, where characters don sneakers and ball caps instead of snappy uniforms, where pornography is pinned-up on the personal cubbies of the personnel, and everyone sleeps in pods they call “freezers” rather than traveling at faster-than-light speed.

This daring visual aesthetic, termed “space truckers” felt new and unique in 1979, though Dark Star (1975), also written by Dan O’Bannon had put “slackers” in space and helped to begin the de-glamorization of life in outer space that Alien assiduously continues.  The effort to de-romanticize space makes life seem more immediate and real, and that’s the important thing here.

In Alien, space travel is not a glorious calling or great mission to explore brave new worlds.  On the contrary, it is a monotonous and dull occupation.  Consider that in this future, corporations like Weyland-Yutani are still in charge, and the average astronaut is not a hero or a pioneer, but rather a guy (or gal) still trying to make a living wage and get his fair piece of the pie.  He makes it through the day on copious amounts of coffee, and swears like a sailor when shit starts falling apart.

In the film, Brett (Stanton) and Parker (Kotto) make this dynamic especially clear.  They are not “miracle workers” like Star Trek’s Mr. Scott, but overworked repairmen, putting out one fire after another and not immune to the idea of a work slow-down if they feel they are being taken for granted or abused.  In fact, Alien features a kind of upstairs/downstairs dynamic regarding the Nostromo’s crew. The bridge crew-members are, at least barely, responsible and dutiful truckers, doing their jobs with a modicum of professionalism.  But Brett and Parker sweat it out in the boiler room, making mischief and slacking off wherever they can.
The terror in Alien emerges partially but not only from the revolutionary design and appearance of the monster (as envisioned by Giger), but in the conjunction of that frightening unknown with the very-well known world of these ruckers.  If the audience had to imagine “futuristic mankind” and his advanced, perfect technology, the very threat of the alien would surely be mitigated.  Instead, Scott depicts a world of ships, wardrobe, people and environs that we all immediately recognize and identify with.  Because Brett and Parker, Dallas, Kane and Ripley are all immediately believable, that factor makes the crew’s encounter with something truly unknown, something truly alien, all the more scintillating.

The contrast between us “now” (but in space) and the alien itself also forges a nice contrast.  One species is single-minded and brutally efficient.  The other is…not.

The other aspect of the film that viewers today may take for granted is the fact that in Alien, the monster is never seen in the same form twice until the last few scenes. 

After three alien sequels, two AVP movies, and a prequel, people the world around can recite the Alien life-cycle from rote memory: egg, face-hugger, chest-burster, and adult or drone.  But in 1979, audiences had no way of knowing any of that, and so were unsettled because they could never be certain what the alien was going to “be” the next time they saw it. 

If the crew in Alien is recognizable as truckers in space or blue collar workers, the alien is utterly unrecognizable, even incomprehensible on first reckoning. 

So much tension arises in the film from the conflict between these two poles, of total recognition, and total lack of recognition. The alien’s constant shifting, its universal state of flux, seems to reflect the anxieties of a decade that witnessed three presidents in ten years, and upheavals in Vietnam, Iran, and on the home-front.  An overwhelming fear in the 1970s was that we didn’t know what, or from where, something else was going to hit the country as it was trying to get on its feet again. 

Would it be another oil crisis? Stagflation? Another political upheaval? A nuclear reactor meltdown? The indeterminate nature of the alien seems to point out, again and again, that the protagonists are falling behind, unable to catch-up with a problem that has spiraled out of control.

Today, we’ve seen so many aliens and so many shape-shifters at the movies that we’re inured to the concept and it no longer frightens us as it did in 1979, but Alien got it right, in revolutionary fashion.

The fear wasn’t that the alien would be familiar the next time we saw it, the fear was that it would be unfamiliar, that all our learning, all our experience with it would ultimately prove useless.

I have written about Alien’s subtext before, notably in my book Horror Films FAQ (2013), and sometimes it is a bit uncomfortable. 

But on a very basic thematic level, Alien also concerns sex, and a “perfect” being  that can use human sexuality and reproductive drives against prey for its own breeding and survival purposes. 

There are moments in Scott's original that appear to involve homosexuality, sexual repression, and sexual stereotypes or roles.  Again, this seems fitting considering the historical context. The end of the 1970s brought the disco era, and a new level of hedonism to the American public.  Americans had become more promiscuous, and the 1970s has become notorious, even, for its sense of sexual experimentation.  This idea has most often conveyed in films that focus on the decade’s “key” parties (The Ice Storm [1997[), wherein which married couples would swap partners for a night by randomly selecting car keys from a dish during a suburban party.  At the end of the 1970s, sex clubs such as Plato’s Retreat in New York had also become part of the new tapestry of the culture.

Given such a cultural background, it’s not entirely surprising that the monster in Alien should be a creature consumed with reproduction, and thus sex. To wit, John Hurt's character Kane becomes the first recipient of the alien's reproductive advances. British, whisper-thin and sexually ambiguous, Kane is depicted at one point in the film donning a white undergarment that appears to be a girdle; something that is distinctly "feminizing" to his appearance.

In addition, Kane lives the most dangerous -- or is it promiscuous? -- lifestyle of anyone in the Nostromo crew. He awakes from the freezer first, he initiates the mission to the derelict, and he is the first to enter the derelict’s egg chamber. Kane is well-acquainted with danger as (stereotypically speaking...) one might expect of a sexually-active homosexual man circa 1979.  Again, we’re talking stereotypes here, not reality as we understand it in 2014. 

But Kane‘s daring is rewarded with alien impregnation. He 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 coded homosexual male symbol -- to act in the role he may already be familiar with; that of being receptive to penetration.

Consider also Ash (Ian Holm) and his sexual underpinnings. Ash is actually a robot, a creature presumably incapable of having sex. 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 and attempts to jam it down the woman’s throat. It's his penis surrogate.  The implication of this particular act is that he can't do the same thing with his physical member, so Ash must use the magazine in its stead.

And when Ash speaks of the alien life-form, he admits envy for it. One must wonder if this “envy” arises because the alien can sexually dominate others in a way that the disliked, often dismissed Ash cannot manage.

It is also significant 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 in Alien. And it spurts. When confronted with his own sexuality and inability to express it...Ash can't hold his wad.

The most hyper-masculinized (again, stereotypically-so) character in Alien is undoubtedly Parker (Yaphet Kotto), an African-American man who brazenly discusses “eating pussy” during the scene leading up to the chest-burster revelation.

Parker boasts an antagonistic, adversarial relationship with Ripley, one in which an interest in sex is clearly the undercurrent. Furthermore, the character is often-seen carrying an over-sized weapon (a flame thrower), another possible phallic symbol.

In another type of film, Parker might be the hero, the guy who saves the day.  But here he dies because of the stereotypical quality of male chivalry or machismo he exhibits. In particular, Parker 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 again -- stereotypically) female character in the film -- she gets raped by the alien, presumably by the xenomorph's phallic tail.

Once more, the alien has exploited a character's biological/reproductive nature and used it to meets its own destructive, perverse needs.   

The monster is able to understand and kill each creature, essentially, according to their assigned, pre-programmed sex role.  Kane’s daring and promiscuous life-style is what exposes him. Ash protects and envies the alien because he can’t perform sexually at all.  Parker dies in an act of (in vain) machismo. And Lambert is the traditional screaming victim, unable to do anything but get raped.

And then, at long last, we get to Alien’s sense of brilliant non-convention, the character that explodes all the pre-existing stereotypes I have diagrammed.  Meet Ripley: a character written in the screenplay 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 itself, an apparent blend of all “human” qualities. 

Ripley makes irrelevant traditional sex roles or sex stereotypes, and please recall that I have discussed all the crew in terms of the culture’s stereotypes.  That’s because they are prey, and the alien hunts them by those qualities.  It can’t get a handle on Ripley because she exists outside familiar sexual dynamics. 

All the other crew members are somehow limited by their sexuality, whereas Ripley is the only character who successfully balances common sense, heroism, and competence. She is both strong and weak, in the appropriate measure, both daring and prudent.  Given this uncommon mix of stereotypically male and female qualities, the alien is not quite sure how to either "read" or "use" Ripley for its own nefarious purposes.  This, perhaps, is one advantage of our species: it can outgrow biology, and not act as mere slave to it.

In the final moments of the film, the alien does make a decision vis-à-vis Ripley. It recognizes and catalogs her as the best of humanity whether male or female.  She is kindred; a survivor. So the alien rides in secret with her aboard the shuttle Narcissus as they escape the Nostromo.

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.
When viewed through the lens of human sexuality then, Alien is a film about the way that the reproductive or sex drive can subvert humanity. 

The film is a masterpiece in terms of visualization, in terms of how it approaches space travel and alien life, but more than it, it is a work of genius in describing what perfection might mean to an alien life-form.  It means not being easily tagged or cataloged as one thing or another.   The depiction of the alien itself recognizes the fact that it can be all things to all people.  The doorway to the alien derelict, for instance, is vaginal in appearance, and the alien skull itself resembles “the head of a penis,” (William Paul, Laughing Screaming, 1994).

So as the doors of sexual experimentation were swinging wide in the 1970s, Alien gave the world a monster to walk through that open portal…