The 1970s saw science fiction cinema mature visually, stylistically, and thematically with the release of milestones like THX-1138 (1971), Solaris (1972), The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976), Star Wars (1977), Alien (1979). In 1972, Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky released his response to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey: an adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s novel Solaris. Like 2001, Solaris represents a significant mutation in the alien sub-genre of science fiction because it uses the alien not to interrogate socio-political issues but to delve into the human psyche. In Solaris, a scientist travels to a remote space station orbiting Solaris, a planet that is covered by a bizarre ocean that may or may not be a sentient life-form or something else completely unknown. The space station’s research mission has stalled and the crew have devolved into depression, madness, and even suicide. When the scientiest arrives on the space station, he begins to be visited by his deceased wife. She attempts to live with him like a normal couple, but he repeatedly kills her only to see her return later. Solaris uses the Other of alien life-forms to explore the depths of human guilt, anxiety, and identity. Against the stark white and rational order of the space station, the deepest guilt and desires materialize and roam the white halls painting them with the blood of unconscious irrationality. Tarkovsky continued his arthouse exploration of aliens with Stalker (1979), which was based on Boris and Arkady Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic (1971). In the novel, alien visitations have created strange no-man’s zones around the globe. Tarkovsky takes a much more ambiguous approach because the film never explains how the Zone as it is called was created. It leaves us to wonder whether it resulted from alien visitation, a natural disaster, or a human-included catastrophe like nuclear war. The Zone represents the absolute Other, but it also functions as a descent into the inner regions of the mind—it stages ourselves as being Other, thus recalling Arthur Rimbaud’s classic statement “I is another.”
As Carol Ellis’s essay on the alien as sky god showed last week, the 1970s and 80s saw the release of numerous films featuring gentle, wise, humanoid aliens, but her essay fails to consider the rise of body horror cinema that began in the late 70s and gave birth to such alien classics as Ridley Scott’s Alien and John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) during the same period of time. Body horror is a sub-genre of sci-fi and horror that focuses upon the degeneration, destruction, or metamorphosis of the human body. Common themes include parasites, mutation, disease, mutilation, creatures with bizarre physiologies, etc. Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg’s films remain some of the most classic and influential examples of the body horror genre. Funded by the Canadian government, Cronenberg’s first films were visceral, low-budget sci-fi/horror films that examined the limits of the body, the force of sexual desire, the fear of infection, and the power of emotion. His first film entitled They Came From Within (1975; also known as Shivers, Orgy of the Blood Parasites, and The Parasite Murders) takes place in a state-of-the-art modern high rise that devolves into chaos when a hyper-infectious parasite invades the complex and turns its victims into sex-crazed maniacs. The parasite, of course, further spreads through sexual contact. The perfectly ordered rationality of the high rise—the film actually opens with a commercial touting the complex’s life-changing services—slowly unravels as its interior becomes an orgy of the most primal and irrational human drives. Interestingly, 1975 also saw the release of former sci-fi author J.G. Ballard’s novel High Rise that also concerns a similar apartment complex and the ludicrously violent civil war that erupts between the floors of the building. Cronenberg’s next film, Rabid (1977), continued along similar lines with a tale of sexual vampirism starring Marilyn Chambers, who was famous for appearing in the porn film “classic” Behind the Green Door (1972). After a serious injury during a motorcycle accident, a woman undergoes experimental skin grafts that end up creating a bizarre orifice under her arm that houses a phallic stinger. She drinks blood through this stinger, which consequently turns her victims into bloodthirsty zombies. Cronenberg’s next film, The Brood, concerned a woman who checks into an experimental psychiatric treatment center. The treatment she undergoes causes her intense anger to manifest itself anthropomorphically as a series of bizarre, albino children that murder the objects of her rage. Next, Cronenberg created his first truly famous film: Scanners. Scanners remains (in)famous to this day as the film where the guy’s head blows up. In the film, people with telepathic abilities exist throughout society but most have been driven to crime or insanity by their abilities. One company seeks to harness the ability of these “scanners” for their own purposes. Then, Cronenberg directed what may still remain his masterpiece: Videodrome (1983) starring James Woods and Deborah Harry from famous punk/new wave band Blondie. Videodrome concerns Max Renn, the CEO of CIVIC-TV, a small cable station that specializes in airing provocative, violent, and even pornographic material. Max employs people to monitor pirate television broadcasts for potentially lucrative material. Soon, he discovers transmissions of a show called “Videodrome,” which features nothing more than people being realistically tortured and murdered. Eventually, Renn learns that “Videodrome” actually contains subliminal messages that cause a tumor to grow in the audience’s brain, a tumor that simultaneously gives them hallucinations and allows them to be controlled by a secret corporation. Brutal, erotic, surreal, and philosophical, Videodrome interrogates the power that images wield in postmodern society—it is a film about the society of the spectacle, as Situationist philosopher Guy De Bord terms it. Cronenberg would go on to film many more classics of fantastic cinema: an adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone (1983), a grisly remake of the 50s sci-fi classic The Fly (1986), Dead Ringers (1988), an adaptation of William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch (1991), and an adaption of J.G. Ballard’s novel Crash (1996) that concerns people who are sexually stimulated by car crashes. More recently, Cronenberg has switched to directing realistic—yet no less visceral—films such as A History of Violence (2005) and Eastern Promises (2007). Cronenberg’s body of work remains one of the most original, visceral, and disturbing contributions to science fiction, horror, and body horror cinema that has dared to depict such unfilmmable authors as William S. Burroughs and J.G Ballard.
The novels of American Beat generation author William S. Burroughs had a profound influence upon the films of David Cronenberg and of body horror in general. Drug addict, gun enthusiast, misogynist, homophobic gay man, wife-killer, and cat lover,—the adjectives to describe William S. Burroughs often seem contradictory and off-putting. But he remains one of the most viscerally poetic authors of experimental science fiction ever. He wrote novels he couldn’t remember writing; performed experiments with video and audio recording technology; philosophized about the nature of control and addiction; appeared in a Nike commercial, Gus van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy (1989), and music videos for Ministry and Laurie Anderson; he shot his wife in the head during a drunken game of William Tell; he recorded albums with Tom Waits and Kurt Cobain; and he pioneered the art of painting with guns. Burroughs’s life is almost as wild as his fiction, which deconstructs the world at the level of language itself and features stories of mutation, infection, control, and brainwashing that had a profound influence upon speculative fiction and cinema. Burroughs became famous with his novel Naked Lunch (1959), which Burroughs had to defend in obscenity trials. Naked Lunch does not feature a coherent narrative but instead is a series of episodes dealing with the novel’s theme of control. Burroughs remains famous for developing the concept of control, which is later appropriated and developed by French philosopher Gilles Deleuze. The concept of the control society has been further elaborated by political theorists like Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri whose trilogy of co-authored political treatises further theorize the control society and the potential for global revolution in the era of the postmodern global society. But, for Burroughs, control was already omnipresent in various guises throughout the world. For Burroughs, the great metaphors for control were addiction and infection. From the 1950s until his death in 1990s, Burroughs produced a large body of work that often featured science fiction themes such as mutation, alien infiltration, time travel, psychic abilities, virulent sexual diseases, and body horror in all its manifestations: talking anuses, people transformed into centipedes, etc. Featuring graphic and often disturbing sexual scenes, constant drug use, bizarre plotlines, and experimental prose styles, Burroughs had a profound impact upon literature and science fiction.
Aside from Cronenberg, one of the genre of body horror’s other pioneering works is Ridley Scott’s Alien, which remains a milestone of not just science fiction but cinema in general. Its gritty realism, body horror aesthetic, incredible special effects, and powerful social/psychological commentary ushered in an era of new possibilities for sci-fi/horror cinema. The original Alien featured Ridley Scott as its director, and Scott went on to direct a wide array of critically acclaimed films: Blade Runner (1982), Legend (1985), Thelma and Louise (1991), Gladiator (2000), Black Hawk Down (2001), Hannibal (2001), and American Gangster (2007). Scott’s Alien gave birth to a franchise of films that invited top-notch directors to helm the sequels. James Cameron’s sequel Aliens (1986) remains almost as iconic as the original. More of action film than a horror film, Aliens follows a group of space marines as they battle hordes of the alien creatures. Cameron, of course, remains famous for his massive-budget spectacle films: The Terminator (1984), The Abyss (1989), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), Titanic (1997), and Avatar (2009). David Fincher (Se7en , Fight Club , Zodiac , The Curious Case of Benjamin Button , and The Social Network ) grabbed the reins for Alien3, (1992) which took the film series in an artful and psychological direction but one that lacked the entertainment value of its two predecessors. Still, Alien3 provides an interesting depiction of religious redemption and faith as a means of survival and as a principle of social unification. Alien3 further develops the tragedy of Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) who repeatedly makes friends and loved ones only to have them stripped away once again by the alien species. Particularly in the special edition version of the film on the various DVD boxsets, Alien3 reveals itself to be an artful and original example of sci-fi/horror cinema. The next entry in the franchise also featured a high-profile director: French arthouse director Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Delicatessen , The City of Lost Children , and Amelie ) directed the fourth entry in the series: Alien: Resurrection (1997). Unfortunately, Jeunet’s attempt to merge his bizarre blend of black humor and fantastic cinema together with the Alien franchise was a complete failure. What resulted was garbage pure and simple: Ripley reborn as an alien-human bybrid, Winona Ryder as a cyborg with a secret mission, more alien-human hybrids. Even more unfortunately, Hollywood decided to adapt the Aliens vs. Predator comic series. Dark Horse Comics began publishing a series of Alien spin-off series in the 1990s that developed the universe in imaginative, sophisticated, and original ways. Dark Horse also published a series of comics based on the Predator (1987) film, so it was almost inevitable that the independent comic company decide to bring the two brutal universes together in the classic mini-series Aliens vs. Predator. The Aliens vs. Predator mini-series and its sequel series were so popular that the sequel to Predator, Predator 2 (1990), actually displayed an alien head in the trophy room of the Predator’s spaceship. Director of sci-fi/horror films like Event Horizon (1997) and Resident Evil (2002), Paul W.S. Anderson directed the film adaptation of Aliens vs. Predator (2004), a disappointing adaptation of the comic series that was followed up by an almost equally disappointing sequel: Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem (2007).
The 1980s also saw the release of another body horror classic, John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), which tells the story of a group of scientists in Antarctica who unearth an alien lifeform buried in the ice. The alien ends up being a polymorph, a creature capable of assuming the form of other animals. Soon, the alien begins taking on the appearance of the scientists, and the research station devolves into a hotbed of paranoia. Carpenter had already made a name for himself in the late 70s with the release of Halloween (1978), one of the first and most influential slasher films. In the 80s and 90s, Carpenter would continue to make a name for himself with his stylish sci-fi/horror films, which he often wrote, directed, and even wrote scores for: The Fog (1980), Escape from New York (1981), Christine (1983), Big Trouble in Little China (1986), Prince of Darkness (1987), They Live (1988), and In the Mouth of Madness (1994).
The 1970s and 80s also saw the rise of two giants in science fiction cinema: George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg—both have made films featuring aliens. Lucas’s first science fiction film was the dystopian classic THX-1138, the title of which later became the name of the surround sound technology created by Lucas’s studios. THX-1138 concerns a dystopian future in which sex is prohibited—men and women are paired together as companions in apartments, but their sexual needs are satiated by television channels and electronic stimulation devices. Emotion has essentially been banished from the society as evidenced by the blinding white walls that delineate their world; in this case, they actually de-lineate it—that is, they rob the environment of any lines or distinctive markings. It is like existing in a constant state of whiteout. Of course, the film—like so many dystopian works from Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1921) to Ayn Rand’s Anthem (1937) to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) to Kurt Wimmer’s film Equilibrium (2002)—concern the rebirth of emotion in an emotionless society, or the renaissance of the human in the face of dehumanization. Lucas went on to make his mark on the science fiction genre with Stars Wars (1977), and its sequels and prequels: The Empire Strikes Back (1980), The Return of the Jedi (1983), The Phantom Menace (1999), Attack of the Clones (2002), and Revenge of the Sith (2005). Lucas’s Star Wars films focus predominately on humanoid characters who interact with a variety of alien species, most of which are never fully explained. While Lucas’s films are highly entertaining, they lack the cognitive aspect that Darko Suvin attributes to true science fiction and hence function more like intergalactic fantasy.
The 1970s and 80s also saw the rise of another cinematic force in science film cinema, Steven Spielberg, who created two of the most famous alien films of the decade: Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982). Both films feature peaceful alien visitations. While E.T. remains more of a poignant family film, Close Encounters has become an iconic science fiction film about the desire to communicate with beings with vastly different concepts of language—it is about the quest to converse between different modular systems, as sci-fi novelist Samuel R. Delany would explain it. The aliens in Close Encounters do not communicate via verbal language but instead convey their meanings through musical notes. The term “third kind” in the title refers to the different types of alien encounters in ufology, the study of UFOs. A close encounter of the first kind entails seeing a flying object that cannot be identified, the second kind describes not only witnessing an unidentified object but also witnessing effects associated with UFOs (heat radiation, EMP-style effects, crop circles, paralysis, lost time, etc.), the third kind means not only seeing the UFO but also glimpsing animate beings, and a close encounter of the fourth kind is abduction by a UFO. Since the incident at Roswell, numerous UFO sightings and alien encounters have been reported, and numerous novels, studies, and films have appeared since the 1980s that deal with supposedly real-life events. Whitley Strieber’s Communion (1987) probably remains the most famous of such accounts—the novel represents Strieber’s supposedly true account of alien encounters and abductions.
Whether they are true or not, such tales of alien abduction demonstrate how deeply the alien signifier has embedded itself in our collective unconscious. Recent films like The Fourth Kind (2009), District 9 (2009), Avatar (2009), and Skyline (2010) prove that the concept of aliens remains a powerful kind of social mythology that has yet to be exhausted in popular media.