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Illiberal aliens

September 1st, 2003

alien.jpgBY STEPHEN STARBUCK

Dripping. There was a lot of dripping in Alien. Some oozing, some corrosive bloodletting, too, but mostly it was the drip drip drip — that time-keeping water torture as we waited for our hapless heroes, spelunking down the obscure dank corridors of that interstellar rustbucket, to get it one by one. Classic.

What were they thinking? I normally hate movies that arbitrarily divvy up some juicy but dim gang for their serial disposal — dismemberment, engorgement, disemboweling — as if the scriptwriting crew were just emptying out some dictionary of violent death, Thesaurus Rex on a measured rampage. But Alien had something more compelling than mere fluency with the vocabulary of filmic suspense.

It was so vivid you’d swear you could smell it. It was dripping with a kind of sex, but it was not sexy. You got the visceral horror of sex, the innards, the eversions, the violation. The crotchlike opening into the mysterious alien vessel’s womblike interior turned every rocket-propelled sci-fi flick’s phallocentric obsession on its tumid head. Alien gripped your visage like some sort of vagina dentata. You could not get it off.

And it played so joyfully with our disgust of the natural, the fears of spiders, of snakes, of parasites, of lizards, of reproduction. A whole lot of the movie was devoted to reproduction, in the most disgusting ways imaginable, from egg to larval parasitic excess. Who cared if the invasive, consuming phases of the deadly beast culminated in a guy in a rubber suit with telescopic dentures? (Well, I did, back then. When it first came out, I had my quibbles. All those physically astute, deeply troubling special effects, all those phyla-in-a-blender monstrosities, and the last incarnation is a guy in a rubber suit? Oh well.) Just as the creature shoved its next embryonic self deep into its victim to incubate, the movie deposited in our brains some violent thoughts about our fleshy, reproducing selves. It rubbed our noses in it. And it was deeply rooted, in its late twentieth-century ways, in the decadence of the age of mechanical reproduction.

Art and commerce. There was a parable there. The ship was a mining vessel, an interstellar hauler. The crew: worker bees, mere human drones, all in thrall to some economic imperative. Sacrifice your body and time and perhaps your life to the extraction of wealth for your unseen betters, and we’ll cut you and/or yours a thin slice of prosperity, or at least a shot at continuing your line. The villain: not the voracious, invulnerable eponymous beast, but the cyborg mole among the crew whose sole mission is to guarantee the Corporation’s investment in potential weapons-grade exobiology.

Which brings us, sadly, to Aliens. The movie that changed much about how I viewed the world.

Aliens, if you don’t remember, was the first sequel to Alien. The surprise late-Seventies smash hit that vaulted Sigourney Weaver to stardom made far too much money not to rev up its machinery again and take the movie-going public on another spin through the blackness of space, where no one can hear you scream. (Great tagline.)

Aliens posited a different sort of future, based on a different view of the present. Instead of the atomized social fragmentation that lead the dystopic laborers of Alien to easily disperse their disconnected, disparate selves, submitting fatally and singly to the machinations of the Beast in the Machine, we get a Good War and Aliens Family Values, where mother surrogates go bitch-to-bitch in mortal combat to protect their young.

The personification of evil in the first film, the cyborg, is in the sequel the altruistic savior of orphans who, having already sacrificed corporeal integrity, keeps the blond girlchild from falling into the maws of death. The human villain, an impossibly young Paul Reiser with very bad hair, is the bad apple in the good corporate barrel, out to feather his own by profiteering on the find of a nestful of alien scum. It’s the corrupt yuppie scumbag, avarice personified, who’s at fault here. The system works. We just have to protect ourselves from the occasional human malefactors.

Speaking of malefactors, the deadly lifeforms in the sequel are most decidedly plural. The first film had a mythic, Protean insect-lizard-parasite-god wreaking a very personal and discriminating brand of havoc. In Aliens, it’s simply a swarm. You know, like our borders need defending? Otherwise we’ll be inundated?

Whole bunches of guys in less artfully disguised rubber suits. And supplementing our Heroine, a valiant cadre of professional, butchly unisex soldiers, of comforting multiculti hues — our interstellar Border Patrol. Aliens get slaughtered in droves, and it’s never quite enough.

Damnit, they reproduce like cockroaches. Or something.

In other words, a perfect emblem of the fledgling Reagan era we have yet to wriggle free from, in which the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower warned us so soberly about on his way out of the White House has somehow metamorphosed into a permanent war/infotainment machine that only now is showing its true dimensions and dementia.

And I, as a callow young adult, realized dimly at the time that the moral striving behind the mass entertainment art I had weaned myself on, that high-mindedness of a Star Trek youth, that humanistic ideal that somehow had clung to Hollywood and the popular imagination for the decades of my upbringing, were hearing a death knell in Aliens. All we would be left with was a funhouse-mirrored charnelhouse, a video-game prep to a smart-bomb future, in service to the despoliation of the planet, the inextricably twinned export of violence as entertainment and as policy, and the incessant controversion and corruption of high ideals. The dark side had won, and it might be decades before I ever felt otherwise. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Movie Issue, Starbuck | Link to this Entry

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