Memory: The Origins of Alien

Weird Science, July 1951, containing “The Seeds of Jupiter”

After his last film, 78/52, a feature-length documentary about the shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho (the title refers to the number of camera set-ups and cuts in the scene), Alexandre O Philippe’s latest is an examination of the imaginative, mythical, and artistic roots of the xenomorph in Alien. So, we get to learn something about writer Dan O’Bannon’s rural upbringing (plenty of bugs about), and his early fascination with sci-fi, including a number of films and comics that have startling similarities to Alien (an EC Comic from 1951, “Seeds of Jupiter”, for instance, where an alien gestates in a man’s stomach), as well as his various attempts at scripting the film that would eventually become Alien. (One of these, which O’Bannon called Memory, was almost identical to the first 30 minutes of Alien. The title came from the fact that, once the spaceship crew were down on the planet they visit, they start losing their memories.) In terms of artistic influence, there’s not just H R Giger’s evident input (fought for, and at times personally paid for, by O’Bannon), but also Ridley Scott’s directing him towards Francis Bacon’s “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion” as a guide to designing the chest-burster.

Francis Bacon, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, from Tate.org

One of the most striking aspects of the documentary, for me, were the parallels it drew between Alien and ancient myth. The film itself opens with the ruins at Delphi, and shows us the three Furies of Greek Myth being woken from sleep by a spaceship-computer-like announcement, then breaking a laser-through-smoke “membrane” as they rise — all very much in the style of Alien. “The reek of human blood smiles out at me,” one says (quoting the Oresteia), displaying a very xenomorphish set of metallic teeth. One of the film’s contributors, Dr William Linn, explicitly draws a parallel between the xenomorph and the Furies. In Alien, he says, “You see a major curse, in the form of the alien, who is very much a Fury responding to an imbalance.” It’s a pity he’s never given the chance to explain this at length — perhaps there’ll be an extended interview with him as a DVD extra sometime — but this, to me, seems to miss a fundamental point that made Alien, and so many of the most characteristic examples of 20th century horror, so different to their forebears. Because, for me, the point about what happens in Alien is that the xenomorph’s killing of the crew is not in response to some cosmic or divine imbalance. It happens not because the crew have done anything wrong; it happens because this is the sort of thing that can happen in the universe, and it just so happens it’s this crew it happens to. It’s not because they did anything wrong, simply because they exist.

The ancient Greeks believed that if something good or bad happened to you, you could attribute it to the good- or ill-will of a supernatural entity, a god or goddess who was pleased with you or angry with you. Even if it seemed to make no obvious sense, you just had to assume you’d angered or pleased one of the many (and not always very reasonable) gods, so better make a sacrifice to appease/thank him or her. 20th century mythologies such as Lovecraft’s did away with divine agency. To them, the universe wasn’t full of intelligent forces that cared enough about mankind to punish it when it did wrong. The universe simply didn’t care. It was a machine, rolling on, doing its thing, and if you got caught up and crushed in the workings, well, that was what happened — the universe was full of danger. Not hostility, which implies feeling. Just danger. To the likes of Lovecraft, not having bad stuff happen to you was a matter of luck — such luck being, to Lovecraft, the “placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity” — and when the bad stuff did happen, it wasn’t because you’d done wrong, it was because it was just bound to happen eventually.

Lovecraft did have divine-seeming entities in his mythology, but they were only “divine” because they were so much more powerful than humans. They weren’t gods in the truly religious sense. They didn’t create the universe nor did they stand outside of it. Even when (as in At the Mountains of Madness) they took part in the creation of humankind, they didn’t do so out of divine benevolence, but because they were toying around with genetics, trying to create something useful to them, and mankind was a by-product. Their attitude to humanity was indifference, as was the universe’s. (And Lovecraft’s most god-like being, the “blind idiot god” Azathoth, is a cosmic force without intelligence, and certainly without any feelings toward, or awareness of, humanity.)

The closest thing Alien (till Ridley Scott came out with Prometheus, anyway) has to a divine force is the Weyland-Yutani corporation, who send the crew to find the xenomorph in the first place. But the corporation does this not out of any desire to punish the crew; it does it out of indifference. The crew just happens to be close, and is expendable. They’re a tool. Ash, the android who’s human in appearance but without human feeling, is the closest we get to an embodiment of the corporation on-screen. He’s detached, scientific, obedient, indifferent: 20th century corporate man.

The Furies are very much not indifferent. They’re roused by the need for vengeance, and their role is to hound someone — into madness if necessary — till they carry out that vengeance. In the Oresteia, they urge Orestes to kill his mother, Clytemnestra, for her murder of Agamemnon — her husband, and Orestes’s father — whom she murdered because Agamemnon killed their daughter. The point of the Oresteia, though, is that the Furies represent a primal, irrational, uncivil force, and obeying them only leads to more and more vengeance in a never-ending cycle. That primal force is replaced, at the end of the last play in the trilogy, by the civilising force of justice, where the need for vengeance can be answered, but also ended.

I’d say that the point about the xenomorph in Alien is that it embodies an even more primal force than the Furies: life reduced to its utter biological basics of reproduction and death. The Furies are roused by human emotion, and can be placated by human reason; the xenomorph belongs to the region of the “lizard brain” where reason does not apply, and must be fought entirely on its own terms.

You may think your cat loves you, but this is how he’ll look on while you’re attacked by a xenomorph — with mild, professional interest

Because Memory moves quickly, giving us snippets of its various arguments rather than anything extended, I don’t feel Dr Linn was given the full opportunity to present his xenomorph-as-Furies argument, so I feel bad arguing against it on such scanty evidence. At one point he does say that “Alien is the response to Prometheus trying to steal fire from the heavens”, which I take it isn’t a reference to Scott’s 2012 sequel, but the mythical figure. But is he saying the crew of the Nostromo are “stealing fire from the heavens”? If anyone is, it’s the Weyland-Yutani corporation, but it’s the crew who suffer the punishment.

(That line from the Oresteia, “The reek of human blood smiles out at me,” reminds me of the xenomorph-like demogorgon in the first season of Stranger Things, which is attracted by blood, and does, in many ways, act as a Fury — it’s the abused Eleven’s uncontrollable rage against a world that misused her, and which, at the end, threatens to consume her, too.)

Though I love the way Memory explores links between Alien’s xenomorph and ancient myth, I think Alien, and Lovecraftian horror-mythologies generally, represent something genuinely new that the 20th century brought to the cauldron of myth. Before that, whether the divine forces that governed our lives were vengeful, wrathful, hostile or benign, our mythologies depicted a universe alive with active, intelligent forces interested in human beings. The 20th century, and the strand of Lovecraftian cosmicism that leads up to Alien, introduced a wholly new element in which the universe was utterly indifferent to humankind, and anything good or bad that happened did so by chance. This is what I feel is the real power behind the xenomorph in Alien, and it was something that was only intensified (and further Lovecraftified) when Scott began working on his 21st-century sequels, starting with Prometheus. Although these later films address religious-level questions — who created us and why — they’re met with cosmic-horror answers, not the sort we’d get from the divinities of ancient myth.

Still, I liked Memory, which did a good job of exploring the thematic depths of Alien and the story of how it came to be made, and why it still feels so powerful. After the shower scene in Psycho and the chest-burster scene in Alien, what is the next iconic moment in cinema that Philippe is going to examine?

Tolkien

I was almost put off going to see this biopic because of Mark Kermode’s review, which made it sound like nothing more than a series of crudely-drawn parallels between Tolkien’s life and his work. But I found the film far more subtle than that, perhaps because I already knew those parallels — the way the Fellowship of the Ring could be seen as owing something to Tolkien’s close friendships with his fellows in the “Tea Club and Barrovian Society”, for instance, which only ended with their deaths in the First World War, or the obvious influence of the war itself. The way that dark figures like dragons and Black Riders form from the smoke, fire and devastation of a First World War battlefield — as seen through a trench-fevered Tolkien’s eyes — wasn’t just a nice touch, I thought it was the whole point of the film.

(It even managed to convince me of one more parallel, though I don’t know how factually accurate it might be: as the fevered Tolkien searches the trenches for his friend, Geoffrey Smith, he’s made to seem like a ring-weary Frodo being supported by his Sam Gamgee-like batman, Private Sam Hodges, struggling through Mordor.)

I think part of the trouble any Tolkien biopic will have is that the image we (I, anyway) have of him is as an old, betweeded, pipe-smoking don, mumbling to himself in Elvish and very much not writing about women. It’s a point emphasised by Humphrey Carpenter’s biography, where, once Tolkien is ensconced as a professor at Oxford about a third of the way into that book, Carpenter says: “And after this, you might say, nothing else really happened.” And it’s the “nothing else really happened” Tolkien I tend to think of. The fact that Tolkien was, at one time, passionate about changing the world, and deeply in love with the woman he married — the fact that he was, at one time, a young man — seems difficult to grasp, so any film of his life can’t help but feel an exaggeration or romanticisation. (This film surely owes a lot to John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War, much more so, I’d think, than the Carpenter biography.)

But biopics have to work as stories at the same time as they’re serving as biographies, and Tolkien is an origin story, not a full biography. It’s about the experiences that led up to the writing of The Lord of the Rings — or, rather, The Hobbit, because it ends with him writing the famous opening sentence to that book. I think, overall, the film makes a good artistic point about the formation of Tolkien as a writer, and though by no means a definitive biopic — I really wanted to see Tolkien at the end of his life, bothered by hippies turning up on his lawn, brandishing copies of the Ballantine paperback whose cover he hated — it was certainly more than the TV movie style box-ticking exercise Mark Kermode implied.

Blade Runner 2049

One of the things that really impressed me about Blade Runner 2049 was its soundtrack. I love the score to the 1982 original, and was pleased that, though 2049’s soundtrack quotes it at moments, it doesn’t try to imitate Vangelis’s lush romanticism. It even sometimes seems to be doing the opposite, feeling, at times, like an oppressive aural assault, particularly when it brings in that alarming, motorcycle-like roar. The different ways the soundtracks work says a lot about the two films.

Vangelis’s soundtrack provides a necessary counterpoint of emotional texturing to the 1982 film’s noir-ish future: it conjures the suppressed, battered emotional lives behind the characters’ cynical facades in an otherwise dehumanising world. Although electronic, it isn’t bleakly electronic; it’s awash with melody and (oddly, for something so technological and futuristic) with nostalgia, too. That nostalgia is for a long-gone romanticism, the sort of thing to be found in the likes of Casablanca or The Big Sleep, as if Blade Runner’s world is so dystopian, it looks back on even the dark, psychologically twisted worlds of film noir with longing.

In a way, then, the 1982 film’s use of an electronic score could be seen as highlighting how its future is a debased imitation of a more authentic-feeling past. But at the same time, Vangelis’s score used its electronic instruments to point out how human emotion could still come through an electronic device, be it a Yamaha CS-80 synthesiser or a replicant called Rachael.

Vangelis’s soundtrack being electronic was unusual for the time — particularly after Star Wars set the rule that what science fiction needed was the warmth and familiarity of an orchestra to ground it in a recognisable human reality. But nowadays we’re used to technology; what we need is to be jolted with a reminder of how dehumanising it can be. This seems to be the purpose of Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s score to Blade Runner 2049, which doesn’t attempt to mimic or outdo the Vangelis soundtrack, but quotes it, as though it were “quoting” moments of humanity amidst what is otherwise a wash of very dark and jarring electronic whooshes, roars, jangles, groans, screeches and rattles.

The 2049 soundtrack’s first task, perhaps, is to make sure there’s no chance the viewer is going to watch the film thinking something like, “Oh, how nice, a sequel to that lovely film Blade Runner.” It’s there to remind you of the danger of the future. Just as Vangelis’s score worked to humanise its film’s technology, this score is there to remind you that this is an oppressive, dehumanising world, and that technology is part of that oppression. We’re too used to seeing modishly dystopian futures in movies, and need to be reminded how closely linked this future is to our present, and just how bleak a thing it would be to live in.

There’s still a longing to the score, but its longing is that much more distant. It longs for something human, something real, in a world where it’s difficult to tell what is human, what is real. As Police Lt. Joshi (a human) says to our replicant protagonist K: “We’re all just looking out for something real.”

Voight-Kampff in the 1982 Blade Runner

So how do you tell what’s real? Both films have sequences where non-human characters are put through a procedure to test their humanity. In Blade Runner, it’s the Voight-Kampff test, which measures levels of empathic response to determine whether the subject is a human (empathic) or a replicant (not). In Blade Runner 2049, it’s the far more brutal “baseline” test, a rapid-fire verbal assault designed to ensure a replicant’s emotional responses remain within acceptable (i.e., tightly controlled, and far below human) limits. In 2049, passing the test is not about proving empathy, but lack of it.

The baseline test in Blade Runner 2049

But is this the definition of “humanity”, and therefore “reality”, we should be using? After all, our replicant hero K fails the baseline test, which means he’s starting to become insufficiently inseparable from his human masters. How else, then, do we determine what’s real, in a world of replicants and 3D holographic AIs?

Joi and Joe

At the heart of it is K, a replicant, and Joi, his holographic AI home-companion, and the question of whether what they feel for each other could be described as love. Neither is “real” (i.e., human). The advertising slogan used to market the Joi AI is “Everything you want to hear. Everything you want to see.” So, she’s designed around the idea of self-gratification and imitation. When she decides K is “real” and ought to have a name, she chooses “Joe”, the same name a giant, billboard version of her uses later as part of its advertising spiel, so is “Joe” a term of Joi’s affection, or a result of her programming? And what about when she says “I love you” — programming or genuine? How can we tell?

Perhaps it’s Jared Leto’s Niander Wallace who provides the answer, in amongst all his other tiresome verbiage: “Pain reminds you the joy you felt was real.” So, the thing you don’t want to hear, don’t want to see, and don’t want to have to feel; the opposite of self-gratification.

Prismatic Marilyn Monroes — now, there’s a Ballardian image

Blade Runner 2049 seems to be saying what’s real can still be found even in the midst of the unreal, like genuine human emotion coming through Vangelis’s synth sounds in the 1982 film. After all, Deckard, grizzled and battered by love and loss, is clearly (replicant or not) “real”, but where is he found? In the home of unreality, Las Vegas, whose lack of reality is heightened by the presence of a jittery 3D holographic Elvis. But Deckard likes the song. And he has his own test for what’s real. When asked if his dog is real, he says, “Ask him.” And I feel the same applies to K as he wanders the streets of 2049 LA near the end of the film, bereft. Was the love between him and Joi real? Ask him. That does seem to be real pain he’s feeling.

And I think this reality-unreality comes through in the score, too. It’s in the moments where Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s music quotes the Vangelis original, harking back to that film in the same way that film harked back to the days of black & white Hollywood romance — days of unreality, yes, as they’re films, but within their reality, perhaps, something human, something real, can be found, however artificial it might appear to be.