Alien took commercialism first explored by Metropolis to new levels and it does this with unsurpassed sublimity. The crew is a motley collection of everyday ‘grunts’ instantly recognisable on so many layers, no matter what era you come from, and intrinsically sympathetic to modern audiences. The film takes its time to fully establish the characterisation, it does not rush to ray guns and feral teeth. The crew are presented as truly human, warts and all, squabbling, laughing; back-biting and it is inherently natural to relate to their problems, their squabbles their point of view. In essence they are us. We quickly learn however about an all pervading Company initially represented by the on-board computer, ironically named Mother, who is anything but that. They live in a time when the Company has seemingly privatised everything but what they don’t realise and we eventually do is that it’s a privatisation that includes them – they are living, breathing products, as disposable as used diapers if profit is at stake. It is hardly a coincidence the film was produced during the stellar rise of the neo-con tidal bore of Thatcherism and Reaganism when everything appeared up for sale with the livelihoods of generations of working people sometimes expendable.
The crew of the inter-stellar space tub the Nostromo is called to recover an alien life form. To ensure the covert mission is a success the Company embed a synthetic humanoid, a rubber stooge played by Ian Holm, who is clinically intent on harvesting the anti-social extra-terrestrial for the grand pursuit of emolument. The crew, Tom Skerritt, Sigourney Weaver, Harry Dean Stanton, Yaphet Kotto, Veronica Cartwright and John Hurt, are the victims of consumerism gone AWOL, even being consumed themselves for the bottom line. With the benefit of hindsight we realise the crew are proverbially fucked even before the credits roll, with, ironically, both humans and extra-terrestrial both the victims of an all-powerful corporate monolith unstoppable in both its might and greed. The ship’s interior was painstakingly built to as close to ‘real-size’ as it was possible to be in a vast London set on which the “truckers in space” were closeted for most of the filming to the extent the claustrophobic confinement became genuine. The ship and the alien planet partly imagined by artist HR Giger were so hot under the lights in poorly aired space suits, nurses had to be kept on stage with oxygen tanks if someone came close to passing out. All the male actors were in their forties and fifties, adding an extra element of veteran jadedness that makes it so credible even today. Character, set, subtext and plot were the stars, the impressive effects the back-up guys for once.
The film was directed by Ridley Scott who, apparently inspired by the wondrous Satanic Mills skyline of the Port Talbot steelworks made his other great classic, Blade Runner, another film that questioned what it meant to be human. It is a paradox exposed with pathos at the finale when the artificial life-form displays more humanity in its/his act of dying mercy than practically all the real humans in the film who, other than the outcasts, are cold and soulless. The plight of these burrowers mirrors perfectly the plight of the robotic replicants.
Based loosely on Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? it starred Harrison Ford, who had an extremely fractious relationship on set with Scott as the bounty hunter/killer Deckard, and Sean Young, Daryl Hannah and Rutger Hauer as replicants. Arguably the biggest star of the show is the astonishing futuristic city sets blasted by driving rain and fast-food sushi bars which paradoxically appear less dated the more the movie dates, though less threatening too fortunately. But the purposeless crowds in the tenebrous streets are even more listless than the human characters, with Deckard himself probably an automaton too (according to Scott anyway). The only real love seems to come from his replicant girlfriend played by Young and the apparent bond between Hannah and Hauer. In the extended version Deckard dreams of unicorns similar to a paper gift he receives. Is it a message that his memories are implanted or is it an indication dreams are universal and artificial humans, by the sheer dint of intelligence, are as alive as us, if not more so. “Cogito ergo sum” as our friend René Descartes would say: “I think, therefore I am.”
Dune, 1984, based on the Frank Herbert novel and directed by David Lynch, was both beautifully shot and an artistic behemoth with an existential angst etched across its rich tapestry of political intrigue, betrayals and the human condition in a future as dysfunctional as today. Again, it’s an illustration of how our Weltschmerz is so successfully explored in another reality. Add to this the startling portends of jihad, fanatical desert fighters backed by drugs, and the realisation these ‘terrorists’ are the good guys fighting for the dreams of reinstating human virtue against an industrial/technologically superior superpower and the whole edifice becomes both portentous and oddly disquieting, despite the well-publicised production problems.
Another memorable effort is the dark comedy Brother From Another Planet (1984), directed by John Sayles and starring Joe Morton, Rosanna Carter and Ray Ramirez. The brother is an African American alien and, like the aforementioned Bowie (see part two), he finds himself marooned on Earth but this time in Harlem, New York. He is mute but soon begins to interact with the strange Earthlings who immediately assume who and what he is. This of course changes with his exploration of human culture and the assumptions made within it and the many failings of his urban environment. The film’s observations on colour, history and culture however are delivered in a dry, non-preaching manner. Sayles stated his intention was to explore what it feels like to be a newly arrived migrant in a society that doesn’t care or even goes out of its way to make him feel unwelcome. If such things made the headlines then, they certainly make them now with so many neo-con tabloids running screeching headlines about train loads of ‘foreigners’ on their way to take everyone’s job.
Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop took unfettered commercialism to its logical conclusion. In a futuristic Detroit not only are companies privatised but so is all the apparatus of the state including the police force which is now the legal property of Omni Consumer Products (OCP) and everything is for sale at the right price including votes and political power. As with Alien it is a powerful damnation of a time when it appeared everything was up for sale with even the main protagonist Robocop a corporate by-product, his very DNA bought, sold and remanufactured in the endless pursuit of mammon.
Total Recall, also shot by Verhoeven, is a heady brew of topical themes from terrorism, corporate repression and corruption mixed with outrageous violence. It was both praised and savaged by the reviewers, one of whom, feminist critic Susan Faludi, slammed it for its violence saying “women are reduced to mute and incidental characters or banished altogether.” However the film grossed $261,299.840 globally, impressive for 1990. Enjoyable though it might be, the question has to be asked whether the dark realisation of the 70s and early 80s has been replaced by spectacle, a trend that began in earnest with Star Wars.
And there are many such films now. ET says we don’t have to be insular, Close Encounters thinks they’re really friendly out there, the Black Hole loves robots and lasers, the intriguing Signs questions belief, Star Wars says evil is strong but good is even stronger while Armageddon says all you need in the void is true grit and a lot of testosterone. Tron meanwhile is a holographic Game Boy while Independence Day reminds us aliens might have left their Norton firewalls at home. Pitch Black is over-heavy on the muscle but is a surprisingly effective thriller unlike the first sequel (another is out soon) which perhaps should be Conan in Outer Space. James Cameron’s The Abyss and Avatar, despite their eco-messages (don’t forget Silent Running) and stunning visuals are arguably as much about pageantry and exposition as anything though the heart is in the right place.
Nevertheless, the era since Star Wars continued to pump out notable exceptions. Outland with Sean Connery is a gritty high noon in space, Gattaca is a timely warning over genetic bigotry, Event Horizon is a chilling space horror, Predator is silly fun, Cypher is a brilliant low-key thriller involving corporate brain-washing, The Cube is low on budget with only one room actually built out of a place that has thousands but is nevertheless gripping, Dark City is a gothic’s waking nightmare, District 9 turns bigotry on its head, Duncan (Bowie) Jones’ outing in Moon is a skilful and disturbing foray into both commercial and cloning abuse while the first Matrix is a claustrophobic foray into the consequences of humankind’s technological fall from grace and an examination of the perceptions of reality.
Arguably the Matrix series is somewhat diluted by the CGI follow-ups and perhaps a little too much smugness. In an ideal world it might have stopped at the first when humanity’s existence is but a metaphor for slavery courtesy of a superior machine sentience that probably learned all about serfdom from us just as Skynet in the massively successful Terminator franchise.
There is no attempt here to cover the whole genre; indeed this barely scratches the surface. When you look back over nearly a century of science-fiction movie-making, what strikes one as poignant is that significant hard core of films both remarkable and prescient for what they have to say of our present as much as our imperilled future if we fail to heed their allegorical warnings. Despite a mountain of films that are mostly fun or glitz or sometimes terrible, there are enough noble efforts out there that just can’t be so glibly dismissed. And despite the massive movement into high-tech, big budget bonanzas that once seemed poised to totally usurp golden periods of meaning such as the 70s, there is still a residue today that steadfastly refuses to go away. In their best form, these films represent contemporary thinking and the perils to come while exploring the very zeitgeist of humankind’s relentlessly limited mode of analysis that at times threatens to permeate every level of society today. They can also be fun!