Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Alien Versus Predator Versus The Thing

Traditionally, Hollywood hasn’t done a very good job of creating believable aliens. Much as I like the original Star Trek, for example, its aliens were far too human, not only physically but psychologically as well. Of course, budget and special effects limitations created restraints on the physical features of the Vulcans and Klingons, but a better job could have been done on the psychology.

Since the eighties, though, a few better aliens have been created. Off the top of my head, here are my top three, in reverse order from least to most realistic.

3. The Thing. (John Carpenter’s version.) I really like this alien. It’s just downright cool. And physically and psychologically it is about as far from human as you can get. But, unfortunately, I have to think it’s pretty unrealistic. Plenty of one celled organisms grow by absorbing other cells, and the “Thing” is supposed to be like a collection of cells. Mimicry is also very common in nature and the Thing is an extreme example of that. However, knowing how complex the human brain is, and how complex the cell structures are in a human, I can’t imagine an organism that could assimilate so perfectly in such a short period of time and be absolutely believable as the person it assimilated. It’s still cool, though.

2. The Predator works pretty well because of the care taken in developing the creature’s physiology and society. Especially nice is the fact that they see heat signatures. The suggestion is that they evolved under a hotter sun than humans. It also suggests a reptilian background, since a number of reptiles have this capability. The Predator is still incredibly humanoid, however. And though their society is interesting, it is based pretty clearly on some savage human societies, particularly head hunter and warrior societies. When we see a bit of one of their cities in Alien VS Predator it seems clearly to reflect a Grecian architecture. Over the course of the series the Predator has gotten more and more human. And that’s unfortunate.

1. The Alien (Ripley’s alien, that is), is the best alien yet. Clearly, a lot of effort was spent developing its elaborate life cycle, which is not unlike that of some earth insects. Aliens have both insect and reptile characteristics, which makes sense since nature wouldn’t typically build something on another world that was an exact match for, say, a mammal. One interesting thing is that the Alien’s eggs are soft shelled rather than hard. On earth, this is an amphibian or early reptile characteristic. I can’t decide whether the fact that the alien embryos incorporate some of the DNA from the host species is a good characteristic or not. It’s certainly very different from what parasites on earth do, although it is characteristic of some types of viruses. The main problem with this DNA thievery is that the alien species would normally cease to exist as a unique species pretty quickly. To maintain a species one must maintain the genome.

The acidic blood is a problem, however. Although quite a few insects make internal toxins and even release these into the atmosphere, the alien’s blood is just too corrosive. Eating so rapidly through the kind of metal used to make spaceships would be quite a feat for a biologically developed corrosive. There is a possible explanation, however, and it comes from the earth species known as the Bombardier Beetle. This beetle shoots a spray of a noxious chemicals from its abdomen when disturbed. However, it actually stores two non-reactive chemicals separately in its body, which are combined only ‘outside’ the body after being sprayed into the air from abdominal ducts. Only then do they become reactive. Still, I have a hard time buying the alien’s acidic blood because it is not released from any glands but clearly seems to be circulating in the organism’s system. Highly unlikely.

Finally, with the Alien, I always had a hard time with the growth rate of the creature in the first movie. It’s small when we first see it, but within a few days seems to have grown much larger than a human being. Growth rates can be high for some insects, and even for fish and birds, but nutrients are needed. You only get out what you put in. They could have justified this somewhat if they’d given an indication that the Alien was feeding on something within the ship. Still, all in all, the Alien puts most other Hollywood conceived aliens to shame.

What do you think?


Vesper said...

I think that we are so limited by our terrestrial condition that even the most "alien" creature we can imagine will inevitably use familiar features. A "true" extraterrestrial might even be unrecognisable to us, physically and psychologically.

But you're right about "Alien". I can't think of a better one in a movie.

Angie said...

I agree that Hollywood hasn't done a great job with aliens. My favorites are still all literary.

I think Larry Niven and David Brin are duking it out for first place on the Creator of Awesome Aliens list. Just to take one example from each:

Niven's puppeteers are beautifully crafted, completely different morphologically from anything on Earth, and with a well-developed psychology and a history of how that's changed over time. Brin's Jophur are wonderfully creative -- a composite creature composed of stacks of rings, each of which serves a different function but which all merge to form a single being with a single consciousness. And the Brightness Reef trilogy shows how their psychology and character is attached firmly to their physiology.

Great stuff. I'd love to see well done animated movies based on either or both of these universes, if only for the aliens.


Randy Johnson said...

Nice analysis, Charles. I can't really comment on Predator's becoming more human as I haven't seen any film beyond the first two.

BernardL said...

When my kids were younger and we watched John Carpenter's version of the 'Thing' they liked it, but weren't overly stunned. The original 'Thing' from the fifties we watched later on cable freaked them out.

The Alien blood being acid was a tough sell except as a concept to reduce the number of weapons available to kill it on a spaceship.

Paul R. McNamee said...

One note about the Alien and DNA. I do not remember the Alien ever taking other species characteristics. Bodies were just host material, pure and simple. I don't know why they had that 'hybrid' appearing at the end of 'AVP'. As you said, the Alien as a distinct species would disappear.

Off of Hollywood, my favorite aliens are the Daleks of 'Doctor Who'. One reason I have always liked them is because they weren't someone in a rubber humanoid suit or a ball of light super-imposed on the film. They were a unique visual. Mutant aliens forced into mobile casings to survive.

Granted, they are rather human acting in their desire for conquest.

Clare2e said...

What I think is that this is a fascinating discussion, and while I've spent time grousing that some stage paint and ear/nose revision does not a good alien make, I haven't thought much about improving it.

I think Paul McN's suggestion of Daleks is good. So different that they simply have to encase themselves to interact with us. I like the thought of goospot aliens who communicate only by making or receiving smells, but how do you get a cool spaceship chase out of that?

Charles Gramlich said...

Vesper, you're absolutely right, although using more "alien" earth creatures, like insects and sea creatures as models, would help.

Angie, I haven't read the Brin book but will do so. You're right about Niven's though. Good work with those, especially the psychology.

Randy, the Alien versus predator movies are relatively forgettable, although I enjoyed moments of them. You ain't missed much, though.

Bernardl, I had the opposite reaction. I thought the original "Thing" looked like a carrot. But the Carpenter version was pretty creepy.

Paul, I haven't watched Dr. Who but the Daleks sound intersting. They actually did have the aliens taking on the DNA of hosts pretty much throughout the series, especially from number 3 on. The alien in number 3had elements of the dog that birthed it. And in 4 was it, the alien was almost human. I also got a set of alien figures from early on that show different aliens based on the hosts. One is feline looking, another kind of snake-like.

Clare2e, there is the problem that truly alien aliens might not fit with the Hollywood idea of a story for sure. I'm going to have to check out the Daleks.

Heff said...

I think you put too much thought in to movie characters, lol !

Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

The THING was awesome in it day, And also the DALEKS are maybe the best TV aliens ever created. Mork was cool too though.

Charles Gramlich said...

Heff, I actually did a presentation at an SF con on this topic a couple of times. And 'those' folks certainly take 'em seriously.

ARCHAVIST, I've got to see these Daleks.

laughingwolf said...

no argument from me, charles

i like the critters h r giger and brian froud create... giger made that alien, as i recall

howard phillips lovecraft's were cool, too, but hardly 'alien', per se

i also like the symbiant, dax, in the star trek series

Greg said...

wow, you've put quite a lot of thought into this. i never saw john carpenter's "thing," but i agree that predator and the alien are pretty damn cool. another breed of cinematic alien i've always liked is the species of little guys from "spaced invaders," but they weren't terribly believable either. just funny.

jodi said...

Charles, that thing is hideous and I do not want to know ANYTHING about it! I will most def have horrid dreams!

Paul R. McNamee said...

Charles -

Following their history, (within the show though) is near impossible, as the show has been on for so long, and sometimes contradicted its own history - plus various audio and novel non-canon stories.

Then again, the Doctor is a time traveler so timelines/histories could easily get messed up. ;)

I can't find pure YouTube clips that aren't fan "mash ups" though...

the walking man said...

I think Ripley's alien was modeled on my theory of teenagers.

Somewhere way back in time aliens mated with humans and the alien portion of the DNA becomes prevalent at about age 13. Their alien DNA comes out which makes them be almost as cantankerous as the movie creature and forces them to eat everything in sight, especially parents.

I wonder if the aliens in their teenage phase transmogrify and their human DNA takes over for a bit? that would be a shared frustration between both alien and human adults under which they could peacefully bond and figure out who the real enemy is. Of course Hollywood would never be able to make this movie...the teenagers would eat the screen.

Steve Malley said...

I think the Predator isn't all that human-- he's Rick James!

Charles Gramlich said...

laughingwolf, yeah, giger's images were really magnificient and the alien was certainly built from those. The later Star Trek series did some pretty good stuff with aliens, like the Crystal Entity.

Greg Schwartz, dude you should definitely see "the Thing." I thought it was very good and had some of the best dialogue ever in an SF movie.

jodi, Lana and I were talking the other day about how the key to the Thing is the paranoia, not knowing who it's taken over.

Paul R. McNamee, I'll check it out. Thanks for the link.

Mark, it's a good theory. One that begs for further study. I can attest the alieness of my teen at least. Thank goodness his human DNA has reasserted itself.

Steve Malley, true. James may have started as human but had pretty much replaced all those characteristics by adulthood.

Cloudia said...

What a scholarly dissertation on a cool topic, Charles!

Agreed: Alien is the best of the lot. Stealing our senses (covering the face/head)raping the victim and implanting a horror within. And the prey exploding! I've had that fear, haven't you?

Terrifying! Then a killing machine that (again) invades the body's vulnerabilites with inexorable efficiency, speed, apparently invulnerable......*shiver* and to top it off, the greatest defense of all: that acid blood.

Alien II topped it though by introducing a REAL living monster that threatens all humanity: corporations that would introduce and "use" such a creature on our planet for gain! Yikes! THAT call is coming from INSIDE our house!!!!
Aloha, professor-

Comfort Spiral

Erik Donald France said...

Uber comparisons. I guess even "Devil in the Dark" seems too human, the silicone chiles and all.

How about the alien in Liquid Sky? That was a weird one. Maybe even weirder, the music.

Scott said...


Good choices of cinematic aliens. The Thing is one of my faves, as is the original Alien...though the setting is sci-fi, the story is horror.

In a totally different category(being unrealistic and unbeleiveable), one of my favorite aliens is King Ghidorah from the Godzilla films.

Charles Gramlich said...

Cloudia, good point about the corporations in Alien II. The faceless enemy within. I like that point. May have to work it into a future essay.

Erik, I liked the Devil in the Dark. Pretty cool. In a later Star Trek book I read the author had the Horta as members of starsihp crews. I thought that was a bit much. I haven't seen Liquid Sky. Sounds like I need to.

Scott, yeah, both Alien and the Thing were horror films. But with cool SF elements. I haven't seen King Ghidorah. Have never watched many Godzilla films.

ivan said...

It was l951, I had just seen The Thing From Another World and was afraid to walk home through the country lanes. I was scared stiff, immobilized.
No remake, no comic book-cum-movie plot, this was the real deal.
This was an alien out to suck my blood and one in no mood for intergalactic dimplomacy.
A massive, chlorophyll-based humanoid with a demon thirst for blood.
That scared- as -a kid feeling, and scared literally shitless.

Years and years afterward, I was still haunted by The Thing . In college, I finally researched the movie.

With its modest special effects, lean plot, and small cast of lesser stars, this 1951 thriller remains a sturdy blueprint for fusing horror and science fiction. The formula has been employed countless times since, fleshed out with more extensive and elaborate production values, and manned by higher profiled marquee names, but the results have yet to improve on The Thing from Another World, Howard Hawks's lone foray into sci-fi.
The story begins as military airmen are dispatched to a remote Arctic research station where scientists have detected the crash of a spacecraft. An effort to retrieve the saucer-shaped vehicle fails, but the team returns to the station with the frozen body of its sole occupant. When the extraterrestrial pilot is accidentally thawed, the crew, headed by a tough-talking pilot (Kenneth Tobey), grapples with a massive, chlorophyll-based humanoid (James Arness) thirsty for blood and not at all wanting to communicate.

I haven't seen the new Thing and his recentlyh acquired pals, but everobody in Holywood says you can't match Howard Hawk's original, and even then he was only given a production credit for the pristine masterpiece. James Arness wore the Thing outfit.

Gabby said...

RYC: I'm going to RE-read the series, Charles! ^_^ I read really quickly. I knocked out the first four Harry Potter books in a week. I am going to try and read the WoT series a little slower this time -- I always catch things the many times around I've read them. Probably about 1 every 1-2 weeks should be about right, maybe a little longer or shorter, give or take. ^_^

Tyhitia Green said...

I love all three films and own them all. :-)

But I guess that the purpose of the alien is to be just that---something that we don't understand, like the physiology of the creature in the Alien movies. I understand your comparisons, but maybe the writer didn't intend on their creation being compared to creatures on earth, so didn't feel the need to explain. **shrugs** Possbily.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I agree. Alien is the best by a long shot.

Charles Gramlich said...

Ivan, it's hard to compare because I didn't see the original, "The Thing from Another World" until I was an adult and after I'd already seen the remake. The original movie was an awesome movie, until it showed the alien, and then I just laughed. It sucked all the tension out for me. I think the remake is a far, far superior movie, although the story from which they were based, "Who Goes there" by John W. Campbell is a masterpiece.

Gabby, It took me a month to read the Potter series, althought that's not reading straight through without other stuff intervening. I've never tried teh Wheel of time and probably won't.

Demon Hunter, I'm sure they may have intended that but a human writer has to draw their inspiration from something they know on earth pretty much, which is how I was looking at it.

Patty, Alien was really a step up in movie making for me.

j said...

I drank the Hollywood Kool-aid and I love the alien in Independence Day. I know the emphasis is on the craft that they travel in more so than the alien itself, but those are my aliens of choice :)

(Funny, I never realized that I had an alien of choice. Look at you, always broadening horizons).

Rick said...

What was interesting to me about "The Thing" (both versions) was that it generated horror that was essentially gender neutral. In "Predator," we dealt at first with a male hunter, and in "Alien" (and the movie "Species") with a femme fatale alien. But "The Thing" played to neither stereotype.

Do you remember "Kronos, the Magnetic Monster?" Or, "The Crawling Eye?" What did you think of them?

JR's Thumbprints said...

I'm going to keep it simple, I'm going to keep it faith based: E.T. is the best alien ever. Next, is that marshmallow guy at the end of Ghostbusters.

Phone home.

Who you gonna call?

Greg said...

yeah, i'll have to rent "the thing." sounds good.

here's a contest for writers living in the south... don't know if it's something you'd be interested in or not:

Charles Gramlich said...

jennifer, I thought the Independence Day aliens were pretty cool too, although clearly derived from the War of the Worlds Martians. Cool though.

Rick, that's true. I hadn't really thought about that. I don't think the femaleness of the Alien was important at all until the second movie. Then it became a bit stereotypical female. I do not know Kronos or Crawling eye. I've missed a lot of TV and movies in my day.

JR,Gozer the destructor? I do admit to loving ET's spaceship.

Greg Schwartz, thanks for the link. I'll check it out.

Barbara Martin said...

I found the Alien movie to be scarey when it first came out, despite what you say about the corrosive fluid. It was the concept of a parasite inside a human that could grow to that size was creepy.

cs harris said...

I know aliens are supposed to be scary, and since most people find insects and reptiles scary, it makes sense for SF to go in that direction. But I find it all rather derivative. And why do aliens need to be ugly? Is it that humans find it easy to imagine ugly beasts but coming up with a beautiful but nonhuman alien is far more challenging?

Angie said...

CS Harris -- I think a lot of it is that, once you get past surface cosmetics and down to basic forms, what we find "beautiful" or "ugly" is to a great extent programmed in. We respond positively to people who look healthy and give of signals that they'd have or father healthy children, so it's in our DNA to be attracted to youth and strength, and to symmetrical features, clear skin and good looking hair (in distribution and texture, not style), because those are all signs of health.

A really beautiful alien would pretty much have to be strongly humanoid, or perhaps strongly based on one of the handful of iconic companion animals -- dogs or horses or cats, that sort of thing -- that humans have attached themselves to over the millenia. So an ugly alien, or just an "OMG that's weird!" alien, is more likely to be really alien, and therefore to seem more realistic as an alien, than a beautiful one.


Charles Gramlich said...

Barbara Martin, I think that was part of the reason it and Jaws were so successful. The idea of something that feeds on us. The corrosive blood doesn't stop me from enjoying the alien movies a lot.

Candy, In more recent years there have been some more "beautiful" aliens, especialy the Crystalline Entity of Star Trek TNG, which looked almost like a snow flake, and they had another space living alien as well that resembled a jellyfish and ws quite lovely. But I agree, most are certainly ugly.

Angie, you're right that a "true" alien would probably evoke at least and OMG response since it wouldn't be based on any biologically derived attractiveness quotient for us. Good point. ALiens that appeared completely inorganic might manage it, like the Crystalline entity.