Teddy Wilson And Chris Alexander Talk Good And Bad Aliens
There seem to be two kinds of movies involving alien contact. There’s the aliens are BAD variety, most famously including Alien, War of the Worlds, Independence Day, where the extra-terrestrial monsters definitely don’t “come in peace.”Actually, they’re trying to kill us, take over our bodies, or conquer humanity. And then there are the films where the aliens are the GOOD guys and they actually “come in peace.” They’re benevolent, and sometimes they even have a thing or two to teach us about how to be better humans. Let’s imagine Yoda or ET.
I thought of this duality recently with the recent batch of alien films including Arrival, Alien: Covenant, and Life, and so I thought I’d ask Teddy Wilson to interview the awesome film critic, director, and writer Chris Alexander (from ComingSoon.net) about our opposing conceptions of extra-terrestrial creatures in film.
Here’s a clip of their interview:
And now for the full interview:
Teddy Wilson: Why is it that there’s always this binary with films about aliens—they’re either here to kill us, invade our bodies and do terrible things to us OR they’re friendly and potentially want to save us, why?
Chris Alexander : What else is there, what else can there be? The whole idea of aliens is it’s the unknown. Aliens, in a way, represent a kind of death—it’s what’s beyond the door. I don’t care who we are—if you’re a ditch digger or a rocket scientist—we’re going to go to our graves not knowing what’s out there (probably—I mean in our life time, anyways). It’s the great mystery, so they can do one of two things—they can come here and high five us and be our friends and join our communities or they can completely eliminate us like we’re a plague. And Hollywood and literature has exploited this since day one.
Teddy: You’re a horror fan so this might be a loaded question, but which eventuality do you prefer in film? Do you like it when they kill us or do you like it when they high five us?
Chris: In practice, the high five would be preferable! But when it comes to escapism and entertainment I’m an Old School guy. I’m War of the Worlds all the way so I love the old school alien apocalypse movies…come down, run for your life, you can run but you cannot hide because those aliens will find you and they will kill you. And what’s great about those movies too—I have three boys and when they’re fighting I say, “Listen—the aliens are coming! What do you do?” And they’re instantly on the same side, right, and universally, with all the division on the planet, that’s the ideal, right? The aliens come down (it kind of sucks because we’re all going to die) but at least we’ll be on the same side of the fence, fighting a common enemy.
Teddy: Going back to the 1950’s, you and I have talked monsters a lot before and what they’re allegories and metaphors for and it strikes me that in the early 50’s you have The Day the Earth Stood Still, It Came From Outer Space, the original Thing. When we started to see the birth of aliens in cinema, what did they represent, what were they allegories for?
Chris: Those films cut the two halves of that binary. The Day the Earth Stood Still is a classic film, a masterpiece, but the alien is not a threat, the alien is coming down to warn us that if we don’t pull up our socks, we will not only destroy our planet but the entire universe at large. And they want to ensure that we don’t do that. So that’s a classic film that defined much of the 1950’s. And if we look outside of the film world, Rod Serling in 1959 launched The Twilight Zone which is probably the most influential science fiction, fantasy, borderline-horror show ever created, and Serling was taking his cues from stories like that as well. The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street—the aliens are coming down and testing our metal…see what we got. Can we fix ourselves, or are we going to destroy ourselves? It’s a little experiment on us in a way. So there’s that kind of benevolent curiosity of alien invasions and The Day the Earth Stood Still and many other films of that ilk. And then we have the full-blown xenophobic takeover movies like Invaders from Mars or my favourite, Invasion of the Body Snatchers—which is more of a Cold War invasion because the aliens completely duplicate our bodies and become us, but replace us with a kind of hive mentality. Our bodies are still here, we’re still walking and talking—but what makes us our core, our humanity, is completely obliterated. So that’s the scariest of them all.
Teddy: Was that communism?
Chris: That was communism—and the whole idea of the slow, quiet takeover—which in many ways is more frightening than the big bomb.
Teddy: So, a couple recent and soon to come out films Arrival, Alien: Covenant, and Life—these subscribe to that good/evil binary as well. Let’s start with Arrival, where the aliens are benevolent, helping us and helping themselves. What do those aliens say about what aliens say about cinema in general?
Chris: I think Arrival is a great movie because it’s a movie first, it’s a character study first of a woman. It’s our point of entry into the film. The aliens are sort of an after-thought, they’re sort of her guide into another world, to a plane of enlightenment that she would otherwise not have. And I love that. That’s what science fiction, real, thinking people’s science fiction used to be. Star Wars came along and screwed everything up in a way. Saved Hollywood, saved the box office but blew out of water any kind of hope for really serious, cerebral science fiction. That’s why I appreciate stuff like Arrival, Solaris (both versions) where the aliens are just something the character needs to put them on their journey. So I thought Arrival was a beautiful piece of art really.
Teddy: Let’s look at Life coming out soon, with Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Reynolds. Unless the trailers have devastatingly lied to us, this is a malevolent alien and we kind of seek it out and awaken it a little bit.
Chris: Well that alien is an interesting one. It ties in to the original Alien a little bit as well, it’s the whole idea of our desire to explore and our desire to look beyond that door and look under that rock, and stick our stick in the hornet’s nest. I think they’re cautionary tales, y’ know? To seek enlightenment is a great thing but you gotta know your boundaries. Don’t go too far in to that good night because you might get bit. And we think, we think, I mean the trailers are somewhat ambiguous, at the end of Life (because neither of us have seen it at this point) that there’s not some sort of like epiphany where the alien was just trying to ‘help ya out man, hey ya really screwed up now’ and they kill it or something. We hope that it’s sort of malevolent evil alien that wants to politely obliterate mankind; we need more of that kind of stuff. But yeah, every time we even talk about Life I just keep going back to that Eddie Murphy movie, it’s such a generic title…but to me Life just looks like another re-hash of the tried and true Alien DNA which in turn was kinda ‘whorey’ by 1979 because it was a rip-off in many respects of the old 1958 It! The Terror from Beyond Space. That whole motif has been cyclical for the last little 75 years.
Teddy: Yeah, well let’s go to the Alien franchise Alien: Covenant. What are your hopes for this? Prometheus was a divisive film, I liked it, my co-host Ajay didn’t, a lot of people, fans of the original didn’t. What are your hopes for this one?
Chris: First of all I’m on your team, I thought Prometheus was magnificent. There were a few special effects quips I had with it but they were marginal. I think that if you’re gonna revisit that universe I think Ridley Scott was really smart by giving us something radically different, a completely fresh look at a tried and true universe that had been exploited and franchised to death. And you can’t please everybody because if he had completely re-hashed the original, then people would have been against him and of course he gives them something new and they don’t like it either. It’s very difficult to find that happy medium. With Alien: Covenant, he’s going back into the world of Prometheus, something that is a little bit more of a side-bar universe but also exploiting the passion for the original Alien franchise. So I think that’s what’s most interesting for me, is can he pull that off? Can he please both camps and still create a solid piece of filmmaking? And I know he’s saying…at least recently I read that Ridley Scott is planning four more Alien films. Uh, he’s a little long in the tooth, y’ know? God bless him, I hope he keeps going, but he better move pretty fast if he’s gonna make four more Alien movies, he better make ’em fast.
Teddy: The real core of the original first four films was Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, but now with these two new sorta side-bar films this core and continuation of the films are the Xenomorphs. So what is it to you about the Xenomorphs in particular that are so scary and keep us coming back for more?
Chris: The Xenomorphs and the android Michael Fassbender also return from Prometheus. I don’t know if he’s the same android or if he’s a different incarnation of that android, but still that idea of carrying over from that universe to this universe—the Xenomorphs are one of the greatest monsters ever created for screen. I mean H.R Giger, obviously the original designer, that biomechanical, kinda looks robotic, kinda looks organic, vaguely sexual—sorta this dripping green genitalia, but it also has this insect quality, it looks kinda like a wasp—it’s a perversion of what we are because it’s obviously humanoid too. Because as we know, the alien ‘facehugger’ hits your face, lays eggs in your guts, comes out of your stomach and is sorta an unholy bastard child of you and whatever poisonous Xenomorph creature has inhabited you. It’s really, again, an uncanny looking creature, and it’s iconic. I mean the alien is iconic, you can go to the mountains of some unknown zone and show somebody a picture of the alien and they’ll go Alien. They just know, there’s McDonalds and there’s Alien, we just know ’em both. So it’s you know, Frankenstein, Dracula, Alien, those are the three big ones, y’ know?
Teddy: What makes aliens as monsters different than say, y’ know, zombies or vampires or anything like that? What makes aliens different as a monster? As a thing that haunts us?
Chris: Well the aliens are, if you look at a film I have trouble with, which is Alien: Resurrection—that’s the fourth one—French director, so it has sorta a weird European vibe to which I kinda like. It goes against the serious vibe of the first few films, but there’s a scene in that movie where the aliens are imprisoned and they’re trying to figure a way out and they actually have a dialogue with each other where they decide that one of the guys has to go. They sacrifice him, they rip him to shreds, so his acid will basically melt the cell and make an escape. So this shows, if we’re gonna look optimistically at this species, that they work together, that they work together for a common goal, and that goal is to completely kill anyone who gets in their way, but they do work together and I think that’s what makes them a little bit different. They have a hive mentality, it’s not personal, they don’t have a vendetta against mankind—they’re just out to destroy. But they don’t really destroy each other unless they decide they really have to—they’re a team. I think the aliens represent teamwork, which is really weird but it’s true.
Teddy: I hate to make you choose because you are such a film fan and such a film scholar—but your favourite alien film where the aliens are bad guys, your favourite where they are good guys?
Chris: [Pause] Like I said, my point of entry was War of the Worlds. It’s not a film, but if you get a chance to get it online, the 1978 War of the Worlds progressive rock opera by British composer Jeff Wayne… it is stunning, but cinematically it has to be 1979’s Alien. It just has to be that movie because being a horror movie fan first and foremost, it’s one of the greatest haunted house movies ever made, the alien itself is aesthetically a marvel, and then the movie that surrounds it is one of the most slowly devastating, creepy, get under your skin, and stay there haunted house movies. Plus it introduced us to one of the screen’s greatest heroes, never mind the gender, I mean Ripley is one of the greatest fantasy film heroes ever.
Teddy: So on the other side of the binary, there have been a lot of great movies about good guy aliens, about benevolent aliens; Close Encounters, E.T.-–I’m gonna guess though that you’re a Howard the Duck guy?
Chris: Is this a set up? Because do you have any idea how much I love Howard the Duck? I never thought about that, I was gonna drop The Day the Earth Stood Still on you, but yeah, it’s Howard the Duck!
Teddy: What do you think of films like Guardians of the Galaxy or Star Wars that kinda take every type of alien under the kitchen sink and then just kinda throw it at us?
Chris: Well I mean Star Trek was there first too, we’re kinda just going off into space and there’s all these different species and they either get along or they fight, and we’re just a microcosmic of society at large. As far as those big, bloated entertainments, Star Wars—I was never a big fan of“Star Wars. In 1981 my Dad bought a ticket and we snuck in to An American Werewolf in London, that’s where my head was at. I liked the toys but never really dug the movies so much. But I loved Guardians of the Galaxy because it was like an extended weirdo middle finger to Star Wars in a way. And James Gunn, he comes from the world of exploitation studio, you know, Lloyd Kaufman, Dawn of the Dead and all that stuff, so his movie is filled with irreverence and weirdness. I’m okay with Guardians of the Galaxy, but my heart doesn’t beat any faster when I see Darth Vader.
Teddy: So summing it all up, what is it about aliens do you think we love as film goers?
Chris: I think we’re talking about an entire generations of looking at our world, and creating monsters and mythologies that are based on terra firma that our planet, and still to this day what’s great about alien invasion movies is we really don’t know what’s going on up there. We have a bit of an idea, we’ve kinda felt around a little bit around the cosmos, but we’ve barely scratched the surface. So the idea of something coming from space, the chance of something coming from Mars, to quote War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells, is still part of that great unknown that we could explore forever.
Teddy: Steven Hawking pretty recently warned us if aliens come, we should probably be wary of them. For you personally, do you think if an alien movie sort of happens in real life, if we get visited, do you think they are gonna be malevolent or…benevolent? Are they gonna be good or bad? What do you think, realistically?
Chris: All I can do is reference Tim Burton’s adaptation of the bubblegum card series Mars Attacks! where the aliens come down and say “Don’t run, we are your friends,” and then pull out their pistols and obliterate everyone. So I say—you know what? I’m eager if an alien comes down, I’d love to sit down with him, but I will be on guard. I will be on guard, and I think that’s the smart thing to do. Just be wary—have trepidations, but also be open to the possibilities that you might get along.
Teddy: Right! But bring a gun! [Laughs]
Chris: Bring a gun or have somebody packing it behind you or something. Be prepared.