May 13, 2012

What can Ridley Scott's Alien creature teach you about writing?

Necronom IV, by H.R. Giger, designer of the original xenomorph

The hardest thing to do is to really, really frighten people.
Ridley Scott

[Giger’s] paintings had a profound effect on me. I had never seen anything that was quite as horrible and at the same time as beautiful as his work. And so I ended up writing a script about a Giger monster.
Dan O’Bannon

[T]he Aliens themselves serve, in their own endless abilities to transform, as a dark, lurid, terrifying allegory of the heroine’s own endless metamorphoses. They represent the terror and fascination of female transformation.
— David Greven

Alternative poster for Ridley Scott's Alien, by 84/5 Studio

Before Alien, there was a script called Star Beast and the titular monster was a bumbling bug-eyed abortion that we’d all be laughing at thirty years later. Maybe not the same way we’d laugh at Dark Star, but then, Carpenter’s sophomore movie was intended as a comedy.    

 To this day, I don’t know what the xenomorph is. And I like that. The element of mystery is what gives the story – and the creature – its fatal enchantment.

It’s the possibilities that make this alien interesting. Last week I confessed that Prometheus got me excited about mass-appeal cinema for the first time in years. Now, if the movie is any good, it will open up even more possibilities, and we’ll be walking out of the theater with more questions than answers. Even weirder questions than the ones raised by Alien, Aliens & Alien 3 -- I hope.

Prometheus seems to hint at the Alien’s nature as an evolving biological weapon and those who keep the rumor mill turning have already suggested that we may soon see a few of the Alien’s predecessors onscreen.

However, I can tell you what I think the Alien stands for...

More than an embodiment of fear, more even than a black icon standing in for all our ancient predators, the Alien is all the things we’d like to avoid or ignore --

Child abuse.
Dissolution of the self.
Unquestioning subordination and subjugation.

The Alien represents all the negative traits of a transnational and interplanetary corporation run by faceless bureaucrats, Weyland Yutani, the company that "builds better worlds."

Weyland-Yutani pursues the Alien relentlessly in order to complete a puzzle; you see, the Alien is Weyland-Yutani’s other half.  When they finally acquire the xenomorph and weaponize it, humans will face compulsive homogenization or die. There doesn’t seem to be a third alternative.

Graphic designer Bolaji Badejo in the original Alien suit.
Badejo stood over seven feet tall.
 Xenomorphs don’t ask questions; they are ‘pure.’ As ultimate tools of nihilism, as machines that devour individuals and turn them into shit – or construction materials – the aliens represent the perfect corporate worker and a nightmare vision of eternal servitude.

As if its total lack of empathy were not enough, the alien’s hostility toward human beings goes beyond the scope of any normal predator/prey dynamic. The aliens are weapons with agency. That makes me wonder; could the alien’s biological nature be completely utilitarian? Is the alien a purely engineered life-form?

The Xenomorph as a Savage Woman

How do we get from this...

Brigitte Bardot in Cannes, 1953.
An idealized depiction of youth and femininity. this?

Simple. Through this.

The Goddess Kali.

 Kali is a personification of all the things that men find inscrutable about women. Etymologically, she is an aspect of time, and you know what time brings: death and decay.

The alien queen can apparently reproduce without a male, and that provides another semiotic link with Kali, the goddess who stands on her lover’s body and eats his entrails. Shaivas, followers of Shiva, believe that the god Shiva came after Kali in the order of creation, and that the god’s masculine epithet, Kala, is derived from the feminine Kali.

“The ultimate technological fantasy is creation without the mother,” writes Andreas Huyssen. The aliens transcend technology and biology: In Giger’s original conceit, they’re biomechanoids, living machines. Among their chief attributes you may count soullessness. We must tell ourselves that our lives have meaning and purpose, whereas the aliens do fine without them. The alien is at the same time metamorphic and incapable of change. Whatever it learns tends to be of a practical nature. It won’t sing songs or write books. The alien is, essentially, an engine of death. Where science fiction proposes the antiseptic ecstasy of motherless creation, the Alien brood mother signifies destruction through asexual reproduction and rape. Glossy dream vs. filthy animal impulse.

With her size and monster strength, the Alien queen reminds us that people are puny and breakable. What’s even more intimidating (to us of the male persuasion) is that, as a female, she’s overcome and eliminated the masculine principle in her existence. When she impales the android, Bishop, she asserts her definite usurpation of phallic power. The alien queen is a shape-shifting castrator. A disturbing notion, to be sure.

Kali all over again – through a Western prism where strong females are often demonized – but Kali nonetheless.

Another semiotic link with notions of godhood:
Compare this picture with the one below.
A depiction of the goddess Nut.


I would say yes, there is. But I would like to hear from you.
What is it about the xenomorph that makes it so effective?
How do you scare people -- what makes a story terrifying?
What is it about monsters and horror that keeps you coming back?

[Above, Ridley Scott discusses Alien: Director's Cut. Originally, there was to be no alien queen; James Cameron introduced her into the Alien mythos.]

What can they teach you about writing? -- is a weekly series of articles drawing on public statements by talented people, and how such statements apply to the act of writing. “Talented people” does not mean they’re entertainers, nor do I expect you to agree with my definition of talent at all times.

In early 2012, I decided to expand the scope of these articles to include remarkable characters in works of fiction. 

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