Sci-Fi Culture

I’ve recently taken up rereading Ray Bradbury stories from my childhood.  Bradbury’s difficult to classify, but he’s often genrefied as science fiction, but many of his stories are horror and fantasy related, or just plain stories.  One aspect upon which future readers, I believe, may pick up—and this isn’t just a Bradbury thing—is how people were projected into the future with the culture of the past remaining intact.  Things like characters smoking in the most unlikely of places.  I picked up on that the first time I watched Alien.  In space, where no-one can hear you scream, air has got to be a precious commodity.  And yet there they are, smoking in space.  Same thing with Bradbury.  The culture of the 1940s and ‘50s when he was writing such stories simply couldn’t see beyond the time when culture was what everyone did.  It seems weird in 2019.  How much weirder it will look in 2050 (presuming we make it that far).

There’s almost a “gee-whiz” quality to such stories of the past.  People in the future, and in space, drink coffee and wear blue jeans.  They may have more technological homes, but their home lives reflect the forties and fifties as well.  The women are housewives and the husbands go to the office, or outer space, to work.  I suppose cultural verisimilitude was a different thing back then.  Did nobody really consider that patriarchy might be a problem?  Did everyone think clothing would never really change?  And not a hint that vegetarianism might catch on.  What makes the future the future in these stories is tech.

These days we’re loaded with tech.  In some ways we have more of it on our person at any given moment than all of Bradbury’s space-workers ever had.  In one of his stories a character was born in the impossibly far year of 1993.  I used to watch a show called Space 1999.  We haven’t colonized the moon yet (we may be working on it, but considering how long things like an obvious impeachment take, I wouldn’t hold my breath).  Speaking of holding breath, I’m pretty sure some of the characters were smoking on Moonbase Alpha.  Or my memory is cloudy.  (The earlier, and more lasting series Star Trek pretty much avoided several earth-bound habits, although Captain Kirk was pretty fearless when it came to the possibilities of space-spread STDs.)  I read Bradbury as a throwback to my childhood.  His stories have both an prescience and naivity that make them compelling period pieces.  From our current standpoint, one wonders if there will be any culture left at all in the future.  Perhaps we should enjoy what we have, while we still can.

Alien Ideas

One of the iconic moments in all of cinema, known well beyond the confines of sci-fi and horror fans, is the alien bursting out of Executive Officer Kane’s chest.  The movie, of course, is Alien.  The screenwriter, Dan O’Bannon, was also known for contributing to Star Wars, Total Recall, and Return of the Living Dead.  Alien is one of those horror films I was too afraid to watch when it came out in 1979.  I was sixteen at the time, and had been primed by commercials that still haunt me.  I would eventually, in seminary, see Aliens and prompted by curiosity, eventually went back to watch the original.  It has since become one of my favorites, and analysts of genre fiction and religion quite often point to the iconic role of Ridley as worthy of theological mention.  Her self-sacrifice in the third installment has been heralded as one of the many cinematic messianic moments.

Science fiction and horror are closely related genres.  They can be teased apart in Alien only with extreme finesse.  Consider the most famous scene again.  Kane, while on the derelict alien vessel on LV-426, has the unfortunate experience of an alien larva sealing itself to his face.  The crew of the Nostromo can’t get the creature off—whenever they provoke it, it wraps its tail more tightly around Kane’s throat or leaks acid.  Then it falls off and dies.  Everyone, not least Kane, is relieved.  He joins the rest of the crew for a meal, but then shows signs of distress.  Something is eating him from inside.  The alien rips out and the line from sci-fi to horror is irrevocably crossed.  That unforgettable scene immediately became a classic of the genre.

Dan O’Bannon, the screenwriter, suffered from Crohn’s Disease.  He attributed the alien-bursting scene to his own experience with the condition, which eventually took his life.  Someone in my family was recently diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis, a disease similar to Crohn’s.  In response I did something I’d never done before; I started a fundraiser on Facebook.  The Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation is a non-profit organization funding research into these debilitating illnesses.  It offers support to those who suffer with the diseases, the incidence of which is on the rise.  I once told my family member about O’Bannon’s use of his own suffering as the inspiration for that cinematic moment.  It brought a rare smile in the midst of a flare, a smile with a little too much understanding for a young person.  If only Ripley were here to take control of a menace far too human.

What Do Sheep Know?

We trust those we see in the media. You see, those who have the longest reach can bring in the most advertising dollars and therefore must have a wisdom the rest of us lack. The cult of celebrity is perhaps the truest cult of all. Don’t get me wrong, I like reading books by bestselling authors once in a while, and I like movies by talented directors and writers. The problem with the cult of celebrity that it often confuses fame with knowledge. If someone knows how to get you to pull your wallet out, they must know about all kinds of things, right? It stands to reason. A recent article in The Guardian features an interview with Ridley Scott. Forever in my mind typecast as the director of Blade Runner and Alien, I think of Scott as one who understands science fiction. He, of course, gave us a version of Exodus that many didn’t buy, and now that The Martian has been gaining attention, people are once again wondering what they might learn from the director.

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Ironically, like the recently late David Bowie, Scott considers himself an agnostic. As the Guardian article says, that doesn’t stop him from having a lot to say about God. Catherine Shoard notes that religious questioning runs throughout Scott’s movies. The big issues, it seems, still matter. People will crowd to his movies and perhaps not even know that they were facing the questions that motivate people like Scott. Taking up such questions in the hopes of making a career out of it all is still not a wise choice, but if you can put it in fiction without people knowing it, you might become famous.

I’ve always been of the opinion that everyone is an expert when it comes to religion. Believer or not, everyone knows what to believe and is pretty certain about it. The people I find most fascinating in this mix are those who dare to question. While many doctrinaire religions call questioners “doubters” and suggest curiosity is some kind of sin, there are both religious and non who face the world with questions rather than answers. To me, this seems a more honest approach to things. The funny thing about this appreciation is that it is seldom reciprocal. Of course, people might be interested if I’d directed a block-buster movie or if I were a star. Until that happens, I’m an expert just like everybody else.

Get Out of Town

If the Bible were to be written today, it would be more graphic. Those who’ve read it know that it is a graphic book already, but with no literal illustrations. Somewhat surprisingly for a post-Christian society where the Bible generally gets bad press, this year has seen the release of at least two major movies based, loosely, on scripture. Noah came with a flood of hype this summer, and even then we were told to keep an eye out for a movie on the exodus later in the year. The New York Times heralds the imminent arrival of Exodus: Gods and Kings with a movie preview. Like Noah the new movie will take liberties with the biblical accounts of the exodus. (The Bible itself is not consistent on the story in any case. The “Song of the Sea” in Exodus 15 differs considerably from the prior prose account.) Ridley Scott, who gave us Alien, has cast the iconic Batman, Christian Bale, as Moses. When I first read about this during the summer, I wondered how Bale would take the meek role of the humblest man on earth. With considerable chutzpah seems to be the answer.

The review by Michael Cieply and Brooks Barnes, however, make the most not of Moses but of his mentor, Yahweh. Using an eleven-year old, Isaac Andrews, as the deity, the movie “preserves the awful severity of the Old Testament God.” In this it touches on one of the sore-spots among biblical scholars and theologians both—the characterization of a bifurcated deity. God in the New Testament is frequently said to be loving and kind (except for the iron-clad rule that makes him (as he is male) sacrifice his own child), while the deity of the Hebrew Bible is said to be angry, mean, and vindictive. Others say he’s simply just just. We like to see a divinity who is swayed by mercy and is deeply aware of the human condition. The Bible presents, it seems, a conflicted God who is sometimes just as confused as we are.

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Casting a deity who is forever young, however, may be a stroke of genius. In the Bible, in as far as there is a coherent storyline, God does seem to evolve. Sure, there are those who claim God always remains the same, but any deity whose first recorded words to Adam and Eve, after laying down the rules, take the form of an interrogative certainly must be able to learn and grow. Of course, it is very much like a human to suppose that the world could not have existed before we got here to see it. We who are so fascinated by the idea that the world could have carried on without us for the generations before we were born. What was God doing in those eons, besides playing with dinosaurs, like a child? I don’t suppose Exodus will delve into those questions, busy as it will be with battle scenes and other adult situations. At least if it’s true to the Bible, which, despite popular opinion is so graphic that would have a hard time retaining an R rating, if taken literally.

Fire Bearer

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Part prequel and part religious odyssey, Prometheus both treads familiar ground and explores new territory. In keeping with my invariable sense of timing (I saw none of the Alien trilogy in theaters), I waited until well after the fact to see the movie. I had heard Prometheus called a prequel, but even if I hadn’t some of the Ridley Scottish touches might’ve given it away: a large ship bound for a distant planet, evidence of unexpected inhabitants—yes, they knew about the “engineers” (we could call them “watchers”) but not the proto-Aliens they were breeding. We even have the android that understands science’s need to be greater than that of human need. Déjà vu. Still, there’s something very different here—direct discussion of religion and how faith plays into the work of scientists. Elizabeth Shaw, the sole survivor, wears a cross as she tries to work out what her father’s teaching about religion might mean. The cross isn’t hidden in the background—it is brought out into the open and discussed.

If you haven’t seen the movie, the premise is that ancient artifacts (including the ubiquitous Sumerian, Egyptian, and Mayan templates) added to a new discovery in Scotland, demonstrate that a race of giants have been inviting us to their planet for thousands of years. In fact, they had engineered us. (Ironically, the biologist who espouses Darwin is among the first to die.) Peter Wayland, industrialist billionaire who doesn’t want to die, funds a trip to meet these engineers. The engineers, save one, died long ago. Apparently of some plague (cue the aliens!) that were created to destroy humans. They were about ready to send the nasty beasties to earth when they were overcome, with only a single survivor. No coincidence that this planet was reached on Christmas day. It becomes clear to Dr. Shaw that these engineers were intent on destroying the human race they created. And still, she slips her cross back on before facing the engineers of life and death. This was Noah without all the water (and much better writers).

Of course we think we know the rest of the story. Sigourney Weaver bravely led us through three alien attacks before sacrificing herself in a New Testament kind of ending. But what about Elizabeth Shaw? She who bore and aborted the mother of aliens in a very maculate conception? She is off to a prequel’s prequel to find out why these engineers wanted to destroy us. Rumor tells of Prometheus 2, and I wonder if we will get to meet our maker’s makers. Although Scott is an atheist, he brings us Moses later this year, and has already given us Mary and Jesus wrapped up into one with Ripley and her spiritual mother, a sci-fi St Anne, in Elizabeth Shaw. After all Elizabeth was cousin to Mary, and now that the question of faith has been openly discussed, it will have to be more fully addressed. Among the unanswered questions is whether I be able to make it to the theater on time to see this one, or will two years vanish before I find the time to address the eternal questions that Ridley Scott always seems to pose.

Alien Religion

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Despite my interest in aliens, my viewing of the Alien movies has been tenuous at best. The image of what looked like an egg hatching a green sun over a particularly badly formed waffle always brought the tagline “In space no one can hear you scream,” to my juvenile mind. When the original movie came out in 1979, it seemed too scary for a kid in high school. I first saw Aliens (part 2) when living with a friend after seminary. He explained to me the missing gaps left from never having seen the original, and I was impressed by how Sigourney Weaver pretty much took on the alien queen single-handedly. I was still too young, however, to realize that there’s always room for an alien or its egg to attach itself inside any spaceship or escape pod. You can never really get rid of the things. I finally saw the first installment some ten years later, and it was clear that, as in nearly all series, the first was the best. Ridley Scott’s films take considerable energy to watch. No one seems capable of matching his dark moods and sense of a hopeless future. I left it at this state for another decade, until recently reading that Alien 3 marked the culmination of the “theology” of the series. Over the holiday break I decided to find out if this was true.

Ripley, who can never get a break, finds herself the sole survivor (again) on a prison-colony at what used to be a lead ore refinery deep in space. While the company had abandoned the facility, a group of inmates who had formed a religious order decided to remain. Having grown up in a refinery town, so far I’m on board with the story. Separated from society, from women, and from temptation, the prisoners are a fundamentalist sect that would seem to fit well into the woods of Wisconsin. Ripley threatens their delicate balance of celibacy, and although not a virgin she ends up conceiving an alien in a Madonna-esque way, not even knowing how she became pregnant. When she decides to incinerate herself rather than allow the alien to be born, she falls into the fire in a cruciform dive just to drive the point home. Before her dive into hell, however, Ripley tries to motivate this band of incarcerated monks to fight the alien. When they say the company will save them, she responds, “What makes you think they’re gonna care about a bunch of lifers who found God at the ass-end of space?” Again, echoes of Wisconsin.

Doubtless, my experience of the movies has been skewed by my own experience. Still, Alien 3 holds to a pattern that emerges fairly often in movies with a strong horror theme—religion is the progenitor of terror. The prisoners’ religion is described as “apocalyptic,” and it frequently appears that in movies where a civilization is on the brink of collapse, religion awaits to greet the survivors with open arms on the other side. In the horror genre, this is often a cold, clammy comfort. Although religious elements were largely lacking in the Ridley Scott and James Cameron episodes, I do hear distant echoes of Moby Dick here from the very beginning. The dark alien, like the white whale, is elusive and destructive and does not relinquish its hunt until Captain Ahab, or Lieutenant Ripley, is dead in its grip. And since Alien Resurrection awaits in yet another sequel, like the white whale, the alien never truly goes away.

Hallowed be thy Kane

Watching the alien burst from Kane’s distended abdomen as he appeared to have eaten too much seemed somehow appropriate on Thanksgiving. I’m well aware that my taste in movies does not always match expectations and few bother to comment on my idiosyncratic observations. Nevertheless, it had been years since I’d watched Alien and on this particular holiday it felt like synchronicity. I’ve seen the film a few times before, but this is the first time since starting this blog. Not surprisingly, some biblical allusions popped out at me as I watched the crew of the Nostromo struggle with alien life. And I’d just read of NASA’s “exciting discovery” on Mars, a discovery whose official announcement for which, like Christmas, we’ll have to wait until December. Learning that the gut-busting alien was modeled on Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion by Francis Bacon (a contemporary one) only sweetened the analogy.

Character names hide aspects of personality and intention. Sometimes the writers may not even be aware of all the shades of gray. The alien’s first victim is Kane. On paper he seems an ordinary citizen, but on the screen the euphony with the first human child, Cain, is obvious. As Parker is lamenting how large the alien has grown in just a short time, science officer Ash whispers, “Kane’s son.” Or is it Cain’s son? Cain, the infamous ancestor of the sinful Grendel and any number of other villains of literature and cinema. Cain is, significantly, the first child born in Genesis, himself the genesis of sin in the world since his murder of his brother is the first act that the Bible declares a “sin.” The alien, born worlds away, conforms to biblical expectations.

Since Ash is actually an android and has no real feelings, he admits the alien to the ship and protects it until he is destroyed by his shipmates. He represents unfeeling science amid the horror of human bodies being invaded and rent apart. When accused of admiring the alien, the resurrected (!) science officer states, “I admire its purity. A survivor… unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.” Is he not really describing science itself? Religion is running rampant on the Nostromo. As Ripley sets the detonation charges and finds her escape blocked, she races back to the console and cancels the self-destruct order which the HAL-like Mother ignores. In a secular prayer Ripley calls out to Mother who, like any deity, does not answer all human pleas. And even as she escapes the detonating ship, Ripley will find that Cain’s son is still lurking in the corner of the emergency shuttle, for the science can never truly escape from Genesis.