john carpenter, 1974.
"You think we'll ever find any intelligent life out there?"
~ by john cribbs ~
By now, many of you have seen Prometheus. It either blew your mind or, if you're being honest, left you with the underwhelming sensation that it was no G.I. Jane. I'm not referring to the film's "unanswered questions," quite the opposite: if anything, the movie really took a crack at explaining away a lot of what makes Alien so weird and mysterious, even after 33 years. As is the case with most of the recent "prebootquels" from
Star Wars to Star Trek, the filmmakers managed to siphon the innovation of the original films and coast on that gas for two hours with modern special effects floating by lifelessly on the screen since they're not attached to any new or interesting ideas. The movie's tagline - "The search for our beginning could lead to our end" - could be read as a forewarning to prebooters: too much extrapolation and not enough progression belittles a beloved franchise. I never even thought the origin
of the space jockey was something that needed to be explored, and I certainly didn't need it explained to me that he was just some warmongering blue-skinned humanoid and not a giant freaky elephant-like creature (Ohhhh, it was just a helmet...that revelation is truly mind-blowing and certainly hasn't made the jockey 100 times less interesting!)
The fact that the xenomorph was a weapon biologically manufactured by an alien race also couldn't have been a surprise to anyone who saw the first movie, right? Am I alone
on this? That the jockey is sitting in a giant spaceship is treated in Prometheus like a huge twist, as if we wouldn't recognize the interior from the original film. I guess it would still be a surprise to the characters, but was the point of featuring it at all just to give fans a boner when the croissant-shaped ship took flight in the final reel, like audiences at the end of Revenge of the Sith who applauded when the hallway from the beginning of A New Hope came on screen? I dunno...Prometheus
was pleasant to sit through I guess, very pretty to look at with lots of nice effects etc., but personally I couldn't help but feel like Logan Marshall-Green's disappointed archeologist, left with a nagging sensation of "That's it? The origin of everything comes down to some bald blue bodybuilders so incompetent they all got wiped out by the very monsters they created?" To shake this disappointment, I thought I'd venture into the "strands of Alien's DNA" in the real world rather than the kind
of forced expanded universe of Prometheus. Scott's new movie examines the origins of the alien, but what about the origins of Alien?
They can be most solidly traced back to 1974's Dark Star, and to its film student co-writer/co-star/editor/production designer/special effects supervisor Dan O'Bannon. O'Bannon originally conceived the film as a short with USC classmate John Carpenter - after taking it to a few festivals, the duo were offered more money to turn it into a feature film. Although, according to O'Bannon, he and Carpenter made "the world's most impressive student film that became
the world's least impressive professional film," it at least worked as an industry calling card: Carpenter went on to write and direct the distinctive Assault on Precinct 13 while O'Bannon was hired by Alejandro Jodorowsky to work on his ultimately aborted adaptation of Dune, based on the impressive low budget effects he had created for Dark Star. It was, of course, while working for Jodorowsky in Paris that O'Bannon met H.R. Giger, whom O'Bannon would persuade the producers of Alien to hire three years later to design the creature, the facehugger, the space jockey and the jockey's ship. Once Dune fell apart, O'Bannon found himself back in L.A. living on Ronald Shusett's couch with nothing to do but write a screenplay about an alien systematically killing off the members of a spaceship, with Shusett coming up with the idea of the creature boarding the ship by "hatching" from inside one of the crew.*
O'Bannon's screenplay** was essentially a reworking of Dark Star as a horror film, substituting the the earlier film's bothersome extraterrestrial - a beach ball with webbed feet - with the iconic Giger-created monstrosity. But the real carryover was Dark Star's remarkable portrayal of unremarkable characters, its batch of blue collar bozos being the template for the "truckers
in space" concept of the characters in Alien. Having travelled in space for 20 years (but only aging three), the five-member crew of the Dark Star continue their mission of blowing up "unstable planets" to make way for interstellar colonization, although there's no indication that they even have a scanning process to verify that the rocks they're destroying are uninhabited, or capable of sustaining life. While they do receive occasional orders from earth, they have no authority figure since
the ship's commanding officer was killed in a bizarre accident, continuing to exist in a confused state of hyperfreeze, so he's still available for the odd consultation - they still go to him like kids seeking advice from a parent. There are obvious Vietnam parallels*** here: the deputizing of destructive weapons to unsupervised young idiots who have gotten just bored enough to use them for the exact wrong purposes, not only the planet-destroying
bombs but laser rifles they treat like toys and almost shoot each other with more than once. "You told us this story 4 years ago!" one complains to another during a downtime tense with the apprehension of redundancy. Overwhelming tedium has set in: one astronaut fantasizes about surfing, going so far as fashioning himself a makeshift tanning booth from essential spaceship parts, while another has isolated himself in the crow's nest/observation dome to watch for a mythical meteor belt.
Arguably the most far gone is Pinback, the character played by O'Bannon, allowing his resentment to spill out over a series of video confessionals like some attention-starved reality show star. In the series of videos recorded over his years of confinement on the ship, Pinback vents and wallows in self pity. He pouts like a child that nobody remembered his birthday. He claims that he's really "liquid fuel specialist Bill Frugge," who accidentally took the
real Pinback's place after failing to rescue him from committing suicide by wading into a fuel tank - whether this is true or just Pinback falling into some bizarre role playing out of boredom or identity crisis is left ambiguous. And, to cap the already high level of self-indulgence, he sits alone viewing his old videos, fascinated at the various stages of his own unraveling: it's become his personal television program starring himself. Like his fellow crewmembers, he's surrounded by infinite space, going where
no man has gone before, but can only obsess over his own intergalactic ennui. He's brought an alien onboard, not out of scientific curiosity or to establish a transgalactic connection but for use as the crew's "mascot" - now he complains when he has to feed it. Expressing its own restlessness, the bulbous sack of gas (resembling a wobbly beach ball) strikes out against its captor, resulting in a perilous scenario that takes up a large portion of the movie in which Pinback ends up hanging off the top
an elevator shaft. That he fights for his life so vigorously proves that Pinback isn't on the edge of total despair: if anything, coming this far across the expanse of space and being confronted with his own mortality has provided an insight on self-preservation that transcends the tedium: unconditionally handing one's entire existence to the agenda of some hypothetical mission run by some intangible corporation becomes more dubious in light of fighting to survive.
The "beach ball terror" sequence is often considered a low budget rehearsal for Alien - long corridors, the creature hiding in the darkness, the human misjudging how dangerous the beast he's hunting is and then being forced to fight for his life. While it's funny to imagine Ripley having a Three Stooges-esque relationship with the xenomorph, yelling "Idiot!" at it in frustration, the real connective tissue between the Dark Star
scene and the later movie is the treachery of technology. The alien puts Pinback in a dangerous situation, but it's the foreboding, uncooperative elevator, which threatens to crush our hapless hero if he can't get himself unstuck in time to reach the 'off' button, that poses a more realistic and absurd threat. In the film's climax, a technical glitch causes the latest bomb to refuse to drop from the bay or to disarm itself; they try to rationalize it into submission by introducing the rudiments of phenomenology
but it ultimately destroys the ship, killing two of the crew and leaving three floating helplessly in the void of space. Like the weapons onboard the craft, these guys don't really know what to do with all this science stuff, and they approach it with trepidation. Unlike homicidal HAL in Kubrick's 2001, Carpenter and O'Bannon's clearest target of satire ("the spaced-out odyssey" proclaimed the poster), man's tools don't evolve into conscious eradicators: they oppress the meager humans by
simply being there. Animator/artist Ron Cobb designed the Dark Star****, its claustrophobic cockpit and monotonous passageways, and tapped into the same "factory" aesthetic when hired to create the interior of the Nostromo. Cobb's concept of a realistic, functional ship in both films went a long way towards establishing the banality of the characters' daily lives, their inescapable tedium relegating the majesty of space to a mere
backdrop. In Alien, the humans are shaken awake to the kind of mystery and dangers found out in the silence of space by the presence of the creature: suddenly, Yaphet Kotto's Parker has something to worry about besides his equitable bonus. The urgency of survival leads to a rediscovery of conscience, remorse and morality - what the android Ash points out set the human characters apart from the monster - that pulls the crew out of their collective mechanical routine. Their humanity is the ultimate contrast
to the destructive nature of the alien, the soulless Ash (who ironically is the one to act in what appears to be human compassion by breaking quarantine and allowing an infected Kane back onboard despite Ripley's orders to the contrary) and the deceptive and (self)-destructive nature of the Mother computer. Both movies end with the characters literally destroying the steel environment that has surrounded them the entire film, the "dark star" the misplaced soul that has finally been recovered.
It helps that the crew of the Dark Star are so down-to-earth (no pun intended.) It makes them, and the Nostromo crew, more interesting and sympathetic than the lead characters of Prometheus, who've left their humanity behind in pursuit of something beyond themselves in true Kubrickian fashion.*** ** As counter-culture types, stoners and surfers, young guys with long hair and beards, nerds
attuned to MAD Magazine-style smartassery raised with Major Matt Mason figures wistful for days on the beach, Carpenter and O'Bannon's gang are representative of the filmmakers themselves, wet-behind-the-ears college boys, even indulging in basic level psychology that backfires and accidentally teaches the bomb Cartesian doubt. In such a remarkable setting as outer space, it's their ordinariness that becomes really fascinating. Some may argue that 2001 already approached the same angle, but Kubrick
presents his humans with such majesty that even banal tasks such as retrieving a lost pen or jogging around the ship take on an air of extreme importance and lengthy screentime. To Kubrick, space is man's destiny; O'Bannon sees it as something too unfathomable for humans to tool around in and sends his characters back to the rock. Dark Star is like 2001 but with the irreverent mentality of Dr. Strangelove (complete with malfunctioning equipment on the ship that dooms everybody.) The
tiny cockpit not only reflects Dark Star's small budget, it also makes a funny comparison to the seemingly unlimited space of the ship in 2001 and recalls the enclosed space of the bomber piloted by Slim Pickens and company. The grandeur of interstellar travel in 2001 is replaced by the retreat to humanity in Dark Star and Alien - rather than one giant leap forward, O'Bannon suggests his spacemen take one giant leap back.
Dark Star left its impression on the surface of Alien, but also had a number of its own inspirations. In addition to 2001, the movie drew from a number of science fiction sources: O'Bannon had great taste in fantasy and horror literature (the Nostromo was called the Snark in his original script for Alien) and had a knack for borrowing from what came before while making his spin original enough that his retoolings ended up inspiring sci fi
stories of the future. Although Dark Star's smart-aleck, helpful-yet-hindering technology like the talking bomb - "I am always receptive to suggestions!" - is a parody of 2001's HAL, but using it for humor predates the well-intentioned yet troublesome parts of the Heart of Gold in Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker series, which premiered on BBC Radio in 1978. The idea of the boss being frozen but still able to argue with his crew is clearly pinched from Philip K. Dick's Ubik, although
the use of hyperfreeze in this movie could be a forerunner to the stasis hibernation in the Alien movies and, even moreso, Han Solo encased in carbonite in Empire Strikes Back. The film maintains a knowing, irreverent, almost Vonnegutian sense of man's indifference to the majesty of existence and mystery of our origins, which is remarkable when you consider what a difficult time filmmakers have had adapting his work for the screen. Most notably, the last scene is a direct lift from Ray Bradbury's
story "Kaleidoscope" - I almost wrote about the film for the smoke's Bradbury series just because its climax is more faithful to the source material than any of the three segments of Jack Smight's The Illustrated Man (which were taken from the same story collection as "Kaleidoscope"). Like in the story, another one of the author's eloquent examinations of people facing their doom, reflecting on their fate while communicating their
last thoughts to each other as they "fall." One survivor is whisked away by a celestial anomaly (Bradbury's Myrmidone cluster of meteors becomes the "Phoenix asteroid") while another heads into a planet while exalting: "What a beautiful way to die, as a falling star!" The O'Bannon touch is to make the movie's astronaut use a fragment of the ship to surf happily into the stratosphere, in a visual that's come to represent the movie and also clearly inspire the earthbound Corvette's
"soft landing" in the opening credits of 1981's Heavy Metal (which O'Bannon had a hand in writing.) He also has the commander, encased in his giant block of ice, survive the explosion and fly off into the unknown alone. And of course that's how we leave Ripley at the end of Alien, adrift in space in stasis with no promise of rescue, settling in for a 57 year nap.
So where does Carpenter fit into all this? Dark Star kind of gets swept under the rug of his filmography like Memoirs of an Invisible Man or Elvis the Movie, mainly because the director has allowed it to unceremoniously fade away ("Maybe people don't talk about Dark Star because they shouldn't talk about Dark Star," he recently told Dread Central.) Although there are perfunctory parallels to be made between the
movie and the director's later work - a collection of blue collar characters with repetitive jobs who are bored, isolated and trapped in a vast remoteness that come across an alien and end up dooming themselves by destroying their shelter most directly applies to his take on The Thing*** *** - the snarky humor, pseudo-philosophy and yearning for irresponsible fun doesn't fit in with his greater catalog (I guess, to be fair, he did bring
surfing back in Escape from L.A.) Any flippant approach to the fantasy genre was shed by the time he made his sensitive mainstream sci fi romance Starman, and while the beach ball "monster" is prone to stalking like a certain similarly featureless 'Shape' (its wrangler was none other than Nick Castle, future Michael Myers and Mr. Wrong helmer), Dark Star has little to offer Carpenter fanatics who put him on the pedestral as Grandmaster of Horror. Dark Star is more about O'Bannon than Carpenter (the two allegedly had a falling out over the directing credit), who likely became progressively disenchanted with the making of the movie as the process went from "fun student project made with friends" to the more involved "actual film financed by condescending veteran producer," writing it off as a springboard for the first real "John Carpenter movie" Assault on Precinct 13.
Strangely Carpenter has never been afforded the respect lavished upon Ridley Scott. The two directors have nothing in common (apart from similar titles of respective lesser efforts Someone's Watching Me! and Someone to Watch Over Me): Carpenter is American and contemporary whereas Scott is constantly dabbling in historical dramas set in exotic locales around the world. While Scott is the artiest journeyman director of all time,
Carpenter is probably the most workman-like of any auteur. He's always had more of a recognizable style, which is why his trademark title font will always be more welcome than Scott's gratutitous use of Alien's singular slow reveal for the Prometheus credits. Ridley's real talent has always been in utilizing the works of artists such as H.R. Giger, Moebius, Enki Bilal, Erich Von Däniken and Chris Foss which, combined with the visual pioneering of Roger Christian, Carlo Rambaldi, John Mollo and of course
Dan O'Bannon, creates a truly unique world. Carpenter, whose name often appears possessively above the title of his films, likes to take as much control of his projects as possible, including writing several of his own scripts (which Scott has never done) and his own music. Carpenter has allowed many of his classic films to be remade by much less talented directors (thankfully as of this writing Big Trouble and They Live appear to be safe), whereas Scott - with both Alien and Blade Runner
- has called dibs on the reboots. Hopefully he'll get a chance to work on prequels that reveal how the white squall got started, and what store Hannibal Lector bought the melon baller that he used to scrape out Ray Liotta's brains.
JUST A QUICK NOTE... For me the motivation for writing this article was threefold: to briefly complain about Prometheus, get John Carpenter - a director we at the 'smoke love - visible on the site for something other than the appalling The Ward (hopefully we'll get more up on Carpenter sometime soon) and also, somewhat, as a "stealing back" of the story of the Dark Star from theater critic Jason Zinoman, who wrote the largely awful Biskind-biting
book Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood and Invented Modern Horror All While Doing Penis Push-Ups and Using Their Telekinetic Powers to Lift Heather Thomas' Skirt. The one positive about a forced narrative that has next to no insight into Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper or The Exorcist is its casting of Dan O'Bannon as an important figure in the 70's horror scene, but even those passages have a lot of unfounded suggestions and incorrect information Zinoman
uses to fit his forced comparisons. For example: in making a case that Alien was inspired by the excruciating effects of Crohn's disease that ultimately killed him, Zinoman states that O'Bannon having the creature pop out of Kane's stomach was symbolic of his own constant, unbearable abdominal pain. The creature, of course, bursts out of Kane's chest not his stomach; even in the original screenplay, O'Bannon has it popping out of the chest. It isn't enough for Zinoman to concoct a legitimate if somewhat
tasteless claim connecting O'Bannon's real-life horror to the iconic scene, he had to create a blatant inaccuracy to make it appear more relevant to his narrative, one that suggests he's as ignorant of the simple facts of horror cinema as he is the apriorism of their themes and importance.
I wasn't going to bring this stuff up at all until I skimmed this interview where Zinoman flat-out misrepresents the plot of Dark Star, characterizing the alien as an "unmotivated, relentless, alien monster that chases and kills (the characters)" (???) to suit his own agenda of making parallels between the beach ball, the xenomorph and
Michael Myers (the connection being that the two dudes who made Alien and Halloween once worked on a movie together.) That was too much for me, so I felt it was my duty to expose this clown, who cleverly swiped the basic Easy Rider Raging Bull "scraggly misfits take the film scene by storm and make cinematic history!" structure, haplessly fitted it into a connective subculture of filmmakers that simply does not exist and then got quote-whores like Guillermo Del Toro to endorse it.
Since Zinoman clearly did some research and managed to speak with O'Bannon at length before his 2009 death, it's kind of a shame he didn't just do a comprehensive O'Bannon biography, one that dealt with an interesting near-recluse whose reputation for being difficult stemmed as much from being cranky and paranoid as it did from being abused by the Hollywood system, that didn't rely on forced connections and erroneous information. (Incidentally, Zinoman pointed out the same Vietnam parallels in Dark Star,
but tried to make it relevant to the times, man - horror movies were with it, see?)
~ JUNE 10, 2012 ~
* Producers Walter Hill and David Giler contributed the major subplot of Ash the homicidal company android and the inspiration to make Ripley a female rather than male hero.
** O'Bannon's original script had a reputation for being essentially stripped-down storytelling, with interchangable characters and very basic descriptions, but it's defended by fans like Andrew Stanton, who said: "I remember reading the script for Alien — it was written by Dan O'Bannon, and he had this amazing format where he didn't use a regular paragraph of description. He would do little four-to-eight-word descriptions and then sort of left-justify it and make about four lines each, little blocks, so it almost looked like haikus. It would create this rhythm in the readers where you would appreciate these silent visual moments as much as you would the dialogue on the page. It really set you into the rhythm and mindset of what it would be like to watch the finished film. I was really inspired by that, so I used that format for WALL—E."
*** I know, I hate drawing Vietnam parallels, since practically anything post-1967 could be read that way; even Aliens is about a cocky, clearly American military squad going into a hostile foreign environment without any strategy or idea of what they're doing. But I feel like Dark Star taps into an aspect of America's involvement that isn't represented much even in actual Vietnam movies: the crew's complete apathy towards whatever assignment that's been handed down from an intangible HQ. I just find that shit interesting.
**** Cobb: "I resent films that are so shallow they rely entirely on their visual effects, and of course science fiction films are notorious for this. I've always felt that there's another way to do it: a lot of effort should be expended toward rendering the environment of the spaceship, or space travel, whatever the fantastic setting of your story should be–as convincingly as possible, but always in the background. That way the story and the characters emerge and they become more real."
*** ** That they go through the same trial by fire and find their humanity through survival like the Nostromo crew just feels derivative. The fact that Noomi Rapace's character apparently holds no grudge against Charlize Theron for flame-broiling her boyfriend, or Michael Fassbender's robot for infecting him in the first place, suggests she's completely lost sight of her humanity and the will to live is to her as much a defense reaction as the xenomorph's acid blood. The one instance of actual "space malaise" in Prometheus - Idris Alba hooking up with Charlize Theron for a little nookie - is one of the better parts of the movie and gives them both something to do other than to look pensively at moniters and cross hands behind their back while pouting.
*** *** Obviously The Thing's main inspiration is less the Howard Hawks-Christian Nyby original and a lot more Alien.