Friday, January 18, 2019

Good/Bad/Ugly: Aliens on Screen

 


 

 

Aliens on Screen
 
Little green mania: Are aliens more afraid of us than we are of them? 
Alien Attack! © Mike Conrad

 
It’s hard to keep a good alien down. You can shell it with artillery, zap it with lasers or blast it with a nuke, and it may still manage to clamber over that interstellar wall and have your species for dinner. Not that all aliens are bad; some outsiders seem to have our interests at heart, and if they won’t stoop to getting their tentacles dirty protecting humans from other, more evil, species, they may at least warn us that we are about to become extinct if we don’t come to grips with our most intractable enemy – ourselves. Klaatu barada nicto, y’all.
   The essence of an alien is its strangeness – or, at least, that’s how it should be. Scientists and science fiction authors alike strain their human brains to imagine how life forms might evolve on planets different from our Mother Earth, and they’ve come up with some doozies. This imaginary menagerie has included such wonders as intelligent plants, intelligent crystals, intelligent rocks, intelligent fish, birds, octopi and slugs, and even (gasp!) intelligent machines. The most plausible of these – as far as actually representing something that was not born here goes – are the ones that are not bipedal humanoids.

    Unfortunately, it has been a challenge to feature aliens in film and on television without resorting to human actors wearing masks or prosthetics, so the vast majority of aliens bear a distinct resemblance to good ol’ homo sapiens. This kind of familiarity breeds contentment, though, because it makes the characters more relatable to a human audience, and the sponsors are keenly aware that we are not in the business of entertaining the people of Zeta Reticuli; they would prefer we stick to our target demographic. The use of human actors is especially helpful when we want to present the alien as a sympathetic – or even romantic – character. Even Disney's Lady and the Tramp had to act more like people than dogs in order for their love scene to work.

    With the advent of credible computer-generated animation, outlandish beings are no longer limited to the clumsy aesthetics of awkward prosthetics, be it a man in a rubber suit or a team operating a clunky puppet.  However, the faithful rendering of an imagined character is not enough to carry an otherwise poorly designed creature over the hump of suspended disbelief; even a visitor from another world has to obey the laws of physics (many of which, I admit, might be beyond our ken), and if it is to make a believable contribution to the story, it must be capable of embodying its own unique personality, with motivations that might not align with our own perception of the universe, and an emotional makeup that can perplex us with its defiance of our expectations. An alien whose people prize good grammar above all else may not blink at the idea of genocide, but split an infinitive and your entire family could be hunted down and tortured to death. Even a scenario as ludicrous as that presumes a certain amount of relatability in service of the storyline: the linguistic issues alone are nearly impossible to sort out. But it would be far enough outside of our everyday experience that it qualifies as "alien." 
 
   As is my custom, I have broken down the subject aliens – all of whom are of human-equivalent intelligence or better – into three categories. In my mind, a good alien is a fictional construct that is designed well, which is to say it is fleshed out with a credible back story, motivations that are not just like those of the people around me, and its actions work to advance the plot and/or character arcs of the film or television show it inhabits. Bad aliens, on the other hand, are half-baked, either in design or execution; it has nothing to do with “badness” in the sense of evil or ruthlessness. Ugly aliens, on the gripping hand (to borrow an alien term from SF writers Niven and Pournelle), may be welcome in either of these groups, but their looks are not likely to win them a tiara at a Miss Universe pageant – at least not one that Donald Trump might want to have a hand in.

    Space and time may be infinite, but my portion of each is not. Therefore, to keep this analysis manageable, I am limiting the discussion to aliens of large and small screen, eschewing those that appear only in written works, though it means leaving out some of the most interesting and unique alien species ever devised (the puppeteers, the moties and the Jophur, to name but a few). Fortunately, some of the cinematic aliens are based on – or at least derived from – those in literature, though they did not all make it through the transition unscathed.







    Used to be, when someone spoke of an alien, he said “Martian.” And that usually meant a little green man. That wasn’t impressive enough for Edgar Rice Burroughs, who decided the Green Men of Mars should be about 15 feet tall, with four arms and fierce tusks sweeping upward from their lower jaws. It took almost a century for these towering characters to reach the silver screen in the ineptly titled Disney film John Carter, but their realization benefited greatly from the accumulated advances in special effects, most notably of the computer-generated kind.
 

    Though he lacks the double torso imagined by classic SF illustrator Frank Frazetta, the noble Thark warrior Tars Tarkas still cuts a mean figure, especially when astride his massive, eight-legged thoat (extra sets of limbs is the main distinguishing feature of Burroughs’s Barsoomian life-forms, with only a few exceptions, including the oh-so-human Red Men and Women). Plenty of things went wrong in the making of this movie, but the ruthless warrior culture of the Green Men and their nuanced portrayal by the talented actors (and the CGI artists) are not among them. Still, I would have preferred them with colder, more alien eyes, like the bulbous ones Frazetta drew. 
Forewarned is four-armed: Tars Tarkas, the not-so-little Green Man of Mars, goes out on an extra limb
to help John Carter.                                                                                                                            
© Disney
 


Planet parenthood: Jerry the Drak negotiates an enemy mine field of inter-racial
interaction when marooned on a desolate planetoid with a human fighter pilot.
© 20th Century Fox
   More often than not, at least in the world of cinema, we Earthlings are at war with the alien races. Case in point, the reptilian Drak in the film Enemy Mine. There’s no getting around the fact that Jeriba Shigan is a man wrapped up in several pounds of makeup, but that’s no ordinary man in there. It’s Louis Gossett, Jr., and he’s not the kind of extraterrestrial that phones it in.

   The makeup is actually pretty good, with prosthetics that alter his silhouette, change the line of his lips and hide his ears under tympanic membranes that take up most of sides of his head. But it’s Gossett’s acting that brings the character home, with just the right mix of tenderness, bravado and a strange, sibilant speech pattern to remind us he’s not really like us -- and yet he’s like us enough for us to like him. The manner in which he handles his pregnancy is as heroic as it is tragic.
 
   The grand-daddy of all interplanetary battle stories, of course, is H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds. Once again, the aliens are actually Martians, but this is less of a war than it is giant tripod walkover. And as far as lowly humans are concerned, getting sacked by a three-legged race is no picnic. The classic 1953 film by George Pal “modernizes” the tripods into sleek, almost ethereal, war craft, each gliding along on a trio of force beams, bending its metallic goose-neck lamp to blast every perceived threat with a searing death ray. 



Tri, tri again: H.G. Wells and his pal George created Martians obsessed with
the number three: tripod machines, three-fingered hands, three-lensed eyes.
© Paramount
    The Martians in command of these swan boats from hell are creepy little guys, with skinny arms, bulging linebacker shoulders (complete with pads, apparently), and no heads at all. Between the shoulders, though, is a humongous hubcap of an eye divided into three sectors: one blue, one red and one green.

   Earth scientists use a captured electronic version of this to see how the Martians view the world – evidently, in Technicolor, although it reminds me of those rotating wheels of color that were used back in the day to illuminate aluminum Christmas trees. As a device for depicting the alien-ness of the invaders, it works pretty well. What also works is the fact that the audience only gets a brief glimpse of the alien before it runs off, screaming, with a wooden beam stuck in its eye. Since we don’t get to dwell on the critter long enough to pick out its flaws, the impression is a lasting one.
   The greatest flaw in this story (or its greatest triumph, depending on whom you ask) is that it is not a united humanity that defeats the would-be conquerors, but rather a germ for which we Terrans have long harbored a robust set of antibodies while the Martians, having never been exposed, have no immunity. After enduring the cold of space to fly here, they ultimately succumb to the cold or flu.


   In the years after an alien spaceship allegedly crashed at Roswell, New Mexico in 1947, the classic Little Green Man underwent a bit of a reboot, retaining its bulbous head and undersized body, but trading its green skin for a much more neutral color. We have seen some fifty shades of Gray in film and literature, all sharing the same salient characteristics: black, almond-shaped eyes, long-fingered hands, slits for mouths and huge balloon-shaped craniums. But it took the creators of Stargate SG-1 to give them a personality. In this particular universe, the Grays are not just responsible for the abduction of drunken rednecks and the unconventional butchering of livestock, but also for the instigation and perpetuation of Norse mythology. These little guys call themselves the Asgard, and through their own special effects technology they managed to convince Vikings that they were burly he-men with magical powers.



Clothe the Thtargate!  Although he's comfortable running around naked, 
Thor has to keep his Asgard up.                                                            
© MGM
    The character Thor becomes a friend and ally of the SG-1 team; he doesn’t go around wielding a magic hammer, but he does call down the lightning from time to time in the form of energy weapons fired from his orbiting starship.

    Though they are basically a bunch of puppets, the Asgard are made more real by the way they interact with humans and, more strikingly, the way Thor has to politic his way past his people’s rules and the powers-that-be to even be allowed to help the humans, who find themselves locked in one death struggle after another at the hands of the less savory races of the galaxy and beyond. Fortunately, SG-1 has helped the Asgard out in their own small way and racked up a few favors. Thor acknowledges that they are owed in kind.

    One particularly disturbing class of aliens that comes to mind – literally – is the alien parasite. Stargate SG-1 had the Gou’a’uld, little snake-like critters that could somehow fly through the air and climb into a human’s body, wrap themselves around the brainstem, and take over. Just a tad more plausible (and no doubt a source of inspiration for SG-1’s writers) were the ones create by Robert A. Heinlein in The Puppet Masters. As is usually the case, the book was way better than the film, but the aliens themselves remain definitive in both media.
 


Spinal trap: Another human is taken down by a big slug in the back and falls
prey to the Puppet Masters' Charlie McCarthyism.        
© Buena Vista Pictures
     
The Puppet Masters are big slugs from outer space that latch onto a person’s back, just between the shoulder blades, where they are not likely to be seen under his clothes. They attach themselves to the poor sap’s nervous system and ride him around like a rental car, controlling his every move.

   This makes them even more horrible than the vaunted Body Snatchers, who only replicate their victims while they are sleeping and, one would presume, somehow dispose of the originals’ bodies. In Heinlein’s world, the person is still there, just unable to do anything of his own free will. It’s a point driven home forcefully when one of the slugs takes over the President. Imagine the powerful leader of the Free World, unable to control his own actions, at the mercy of powerful outsiders – talk about your unrealistic scenarios!


The Vorlon wears Orlon: Pay no attention to the
man inside that curtain!                     © Warner Bros.
   Unless they are simply born evil, I would think that a truly advanced race would not want anything to do with us pathetic humans, any more than you or I would give a rat’s behind what is going on inside a given rat’s behind. One of my favorite aliens, then, would have to be Kosh, the Vorlon ambassador on Babylon 5
 

   Although he’s not quite as aloof as members of the so-called Elder Races that haunt that region of space, Kosh's main appeal is his impenetrable mystique. He’s supposed to be an energy being encased in the artificial shell of his encounter suit (ostensibly to facilitate interaction with races comparable to ours) that is as subtly threatening as it is inscrutable. The vaguely serpentine head and hulking shoulder-ring top a framework that is hidden inside a pleated drape of intricately patterned fabric. He can turn his head to peer stonily at you, but with nary a facial feature beyond a single central aperture, it is impossible to get any read on his mood or his thoughts.

    Late in the series it is revealed that the ambassador is actually one of those beings of light we Earthlings refer to as angels – a fact that could tear asunder our civilization’s religious and philosophical foundations. So he hides his brilliance under a bushel and gives us just enough little peeks beyond the veil to keep our interest piqued throughout the series. 

   Another alien that keeps us guessing is the shape-shifting horror in John Carpenter’s The Thing, the archetype for Antarctic anarchy among panicky men trapped in an already sufficiently hostile environment. We deduce that the alien is intelligent because it got here some 100,000 years ago in a flying saucer, but it’s got a pretty weird way of doing business. Somehow, it jumps aboard a living host and transforms itself into either an indistinguishable copy or an ultra-creepy rearrangement of its assorted body parts.

Not a very good likeness: The Thing can either mimic another
life-form perfectly, or screw it up really bad.                  
© Universal
   As a character, this thing is pretty one-dimensional: it never even attempts to communicate anything more sophisticated than “I am trying to assimilate you,” and that’s all conveyed through such universal gestures as biting a guy’s face off and absorbing a kennel full of huskies. 

   But it’s the inescapable uncertainty that makes this unwanted visitor so memorable.  With no way to tell who is a human and who is merely a vile imitation, just staying alive is a mind-bending puzzle full of jagged edges. It makes the blood-sucking plant man of the original film look like an interstellar teddy bear.

   Speaking of plant men, one of the more interesting of these is Groot, the lumbering treelike alien in Guardians of the Galaxy. He’s as strong as an oak, is able to branch out at will, and even tosses out glowing seeds that float on the air to light the way, but to all appearances he’s dumb as a stump. Well, almost. He can talk, in a way: every sentence comes out, “I am Groot.” Other characters somehow manage to interpret these seemingly identical one-liners to mean a variety of things, none of which is likely to be, “Got a match?”

Tall, bark stranger: Heroic Groot isn't afraid of anything, except maybe a termite grenade.                      
© Marvel Studios 
    As a CGI character voiced by Vin Diesel in what has to be the all-time record for getting paid by the word, the acting should be rather wooden. However, the animators did a pretty good job of carving subtle expressions into the bark, to the point where his heroic sacrifice at the end of the first film brings a sympathetic tear to my eye. Fortunately, a single cutting survived, and in Volume 2, Baby Groot proceeds to shoot up like a weed, achieving adolescence in time for the closing credits. Like most teenagers, he’s surly and full of sap, but he’s growing on me.



A chorus vine: For Audrey II and its buds, it's just another musical day at the meat-packing plant.                     
© Warner Bros. 






    Not all sentient plants are so likeable. Take, for instance, Audrey II in the musical Little Shop of Horrors. Appearing mysteriously during an inexplicable total eclipse, this little exotic is just the thing for bringing curious customers to a flower shop that has all but withered on the vine in Skid Row. The sudden prosperity has a heavy price, though: this vegetable turns out to be carnivorous, demanding not just blood but fresh meat – the only source being the humans populating the neighborhood. The Venusian flytrap – a giant puppet manipulated by a team from Jim Henson’s creature shop and voiced magnificently by Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops – defies all attempts to prune back its murderous activities. It ultimately bursts out of its big terra cotta vessel for the blood-pumping climactic number, sprouting a few tendrils full of flower children to sing backup. It’s not what I would call a nuanced performance, but it sure is fun.



Water friends for? Hellboy hath no fury . . . 
© Revolution Studios
   
Although it doesn’t make a lot of sense scientifically, the fictional universe seems is teeming with humanoid aliens. One of the best is an aquatic fellow who goes by the unlikely name of Abe Sapien in the movie Hellboy. He’s not from outer space, but he meets the criterion of an alien as being an outsider from a different world – in this case, the sea (not to mention the occult dimensions that are always trying to infringe upon our own). He’s an ichthyo sapien (Latin for "wise fish," and the source of his proper name), sleek and lean, with big, watery eyes , a set of gills and webs between his fingers to help him swim. Abe can spread those fingers inhumanly far apart, using them as a sort of psychic antenna to reach out and touch someone's mind. He’s a tragic character, being the only one of his kind ever found, but his refined manners prevent him from wallowing in self-pity.

. . . like a woman spawned. By this aquaman.     
© 20th Century Fox
    Voiced in the first Hellboy movie by David Hyde Pierce, Abe credits his fluid movement to the unbelievably graceful Doug Jones, whose body of work includes an other-worldly motion-capture performance as the Silver Surfer (see below).

     You can catch Doug playing yet another, even ichthier, gilled humanoid in the more recent film The Shape of Water. Here the makeup has been cranked up to an eleven on the fish scale, complete with nictitating eyelids and spiky fins along the edges of his spine and limbs. He speaks not a word, which is just fine with the deaf human woman who falls head over flippers for him, fulfilling her romantic fantasy to have a relationship with someone of real depth. 


    Meanwhile, in outer space, another humanoid is catching a tubular gravity wave and cruising Earthward at many times the speed of light. He’s the Silver Surfer, and he wields the Power Cosmic (though it’s never called that in the movie where he first appears, The Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer). Born Norrin Radd, he struck a deal with Galactus, the Devourer of Worlds, offering to become his herald in return for sparing his home planet and the woman he loves. Now protected from the harshness of space by seriously effective chrome plating, he rides a shiny surfboard around the galaxy in search of other planets for his gigantic boss to gobble up. This is what he has in mind when he comes to Earth, but his encounter with the Fantastic Four gives him pause.

Cosmic relief: The Silver Surfer polishes off his boss Galactus and saves the
world, but at what cost?                                                          © 20th Century Fox
    The Surfer is as reflective as his stainless-steel skin, and eventually he gets on board with the realization that his reputation as savior of his world has been tarnished by his blithe condemnation of so many others. Not wanting the book of his life to be made up of guilt-edged pages, he works with the FF to defeat a souped-up Doctor Doom and then risks his life in a quixotic attack on Galactus himself.    

    Once again, we have advancements in CGI techniques to thank for this fairly realistic rendering of a man who can look at himself in the mirror just by looking at himself. Laurence Fishburne's deep voice lends just the right amount of philosophical weight to Norrin’s interstellar musings. There are plenty of cool effects, too, although I would have liked to see more of the power-blasts from his fingertips that he employed in the comic books. And I didn’t care for the implication that all of his power came from his rad surfboard. But as a character, the Silver Surfer stands as a shining example of noble aliens at their best.


The devil is on the detail: Karellan wears a crown of horns. 
© Universal Studios Productions
   Another interesting take on the "noble alien" concept is Karellan, the Supervisor of Earth for the Overlords in the miniseries Childhood’s End, based on the novel by Arthur C. Clarke. The Overlords seem to be working for the betterment of humanity, and doing so without benefit of a cookbook. They do so many good deeds over the years that the Earthlings gradually come to accept these highly advanced beings as a sort of guardian angels. 

    The humans' skepticism is largely due to the fact that no one has ever seen an Overlord in person, even though their gigantic spaceships have been hovering over the planet's major cities for decades. As it turns out, these interstellar meddlers have an even better reason than Ambassador Kosh to hide from curious eyes: their horned heads, cloven hooves, barbed tails and leathery wings make Karellan a dead ringer for the devil himself.

    Naturally, it is a big shock when the truth finally comes out. Yet people are adaptable, and before long the Overlords’ benevolence overrides the Terrans' initial prejudice. However, there is a sadness within Karellan that seems to run counter to his exalted role; he finally reveals that his race is doomed forever to act as midwives to other sentient species, assisting them in achieving transcendence -- a sort of spiritual joining with the galactic Overmind – but due to some unnamed flaw in their makeup, the Overlords will never be allowed into the promised land themselves.


The logical extreme: When it comes to hiding his human side,
Spock is not Vulcan around. 
© Paramount
    A far subtler demonic visage was in the mind of Gene Roddenberry when he created the character of Spock. In early treatments of his ground-breaking series Star Trek, Gene took the unheard-of step of placing an alien on the bridge of the starship. He envisioned a humanoid whose pointed ears, peaked eyebrows and reddish skin would give him a sardonic look running counter to his gentle demeanor.
     One of the best things about Spock is that he is only half-alien: his father is a stoic Vulcan, but his mother is a human. The dual nature of his genetics and his upbringing often pits Spock against himself as he tries to cater to his emotion-eschewing logical side while his gut is screaming for him to crack a smile, exhibit some enthusiasm, get angry – anything to show he’s not just a walking computer.

   Over the years, a lot of back story has emerged about Spock being teased as a child by his Vulcan classmates (who, it would seem, had yet to master their own emotions). He also endured a frosty estrangement from his ambassador father, who would have preferred his son become a scientist, or at least a noted pediatrician, instead of joining Starfleet. Then there’s that whole seven-year-itch thing, requiring male Vulcans to trek back home like salmon to avoid dying in the throes of pon-farr. And, of course, there’s the revelation that the warlike Romulans are actually an off-shoot of the Vulcan race. These are but a few examples of how this character – along with others of his race – has been fleshed out through the many episodes of the classic TV show and the films and cameo appearances that have followed.


    Sure, there are plenty of inconsistencies, and countless overly precise calculations based on whoppers of assumption (the amount of time it would take Cyrano Jones to pick up all the tribbles on station K-7, for instance, even ignoring the question of what he's supposed to do with a tribble once he's picked it up), but those are just the kinds of things that keep the diehard fans talking. And talking. And that, my friends, is a creative achievement that even a Vulcan would smile about. On the inside, at least.







When is a dork not adorable? When it's a Jar Jar.
© 20th Century Fox

We turn now to the Bad side of aliens. It’s one thing to dislike a character because he’s a merciless monster, but to hate him because he’s a doofus is quite extraordinary. Take Jar Jar Binks. Take him far, far away. Clearly, the idea behind this galactic goofball was to inject some comedy into the Star Wars prequels, which they sorely needed. But instead of cleverness, Lucas and company let awkward be their byword, and the result is a dim-witted screw-up that looks like a mash-up between Goofy and Donald Duck. Even among his own kind, Jar Jar is seen as a poster child for not having any more children.
    Jar Jar just can’t help himself from getting into a jam jam, and whenever he tries to make things better, they come out worse.  On the rare occasions his Naboo-boos manage to have a positive effect, it is by sheerest accident.  He has virtually no control over himself or his circumstances. He’s a randomizer, a wild card without a plan. Add to this the vaguely Caribbean accent, and he comes off as a throwback to the old minstrel shows, minus the wit. His one redeeming feature is his optimism, which is perpetuated by his barely passable fortune and a profound lack of self-awareness. He's not a badass; he's bad because he's an ass.


    Equally ridiculous are the Howard-the-Duck-like aliens in the opening sequence of the movie The Fifth Element. When their spaceship touches down outside an Egyptian tomb, we expect to be impressed by either hulking bad guys or fiendishly clever bad guys, or maybe both, but what we get are some waddling wheel covers with mallard decoys for heads. To be fair, all we see are their bronze spacesuits, but if – as in the case with us humans – spacesuit design is a rough approximation of the contours of the wearer’s body, these have to be some of the least impressive invaders we’ve ever seen.  
Duck, duck, goof: In the struggle to create non-humanoid aliens, do these waddlers fit the bill?           
© Columbia Pictures 
   Their silence may have been intended to make them appear enigmatic, but it does nothing to disprove our underwhelmed impression of these daffy demigods. They are so insignificant to the story, in fact, that once they have opened their secret stash and made off with the four elemental icons, they are never seen again in the movie. Hard to believe such throw-away characters could have built the ever-lasting pyramids. They are less than one-dimensional; calculate their worth to the universe – and to the storyline – and the answer is a big, fat goose-egg.



Assault shakers: The Daleks want to exterminate the doctor who made them famous -- if only there was time, lord!   
© BBC
    But still, they are more impressive than the Daleks. Even as a kid, I could not stand to watch the old black and white Doctor Who shows, with their flat, soap-opera lighting and uber-cheesy special effects, but the thing that mystified me most of all was how the characters seemed to be afraid of a bunch of oversized salt shakers. I mean, how terrible could an enemy be if it couldn’t even chase you up a flight of stairs? (Maybe that wasn’t really the case. In the more recent series, the Daleks were shown to have limited hovering abilities that allow them to traverse such obstacles). 

    Even when I learned (again, in the more recent incarnation of the show) that the gliding pepper mills were merely vehicles for a small race of humanoid creatures, it didn’t do much to make them appear more menacing. They were still tiny aliens, looking pretty weak and vulnerable once you cracked open those metal-clawed HoverRounds.  I have now revised my impression of the Daleks to a race of ill-tempered babies hurling threats at the galaxy from their cybernetic prams.


Anatomically incorrect: One small step for an alien. . .  
  The idea of a puny alien riding around in a more ominous artificial body also appears to have quite an appeal in Hollywood, a weird pocket universe where pudgy, middle-aged men wear their Ferraris like Iron Man's power suit. The alien harvesters in the movie Independence Day are a prime example. Their outer shells are artificial, but instead of being mechanical, they are biological, genetically engineered to be full of sinew and slime, and in most shots, kind of gross.

    The design was actually pretty good, with one glaring exception: those feet!
 
    I wholeheartedly endorse the need strive for originality, but feet still have to function as feet, which is to say that they must look like they can (and do) bear the weight of the rest of the body. The knuckle-walking thing is fine for, say, a gorilla’s hands, which are used primarily for balance. But an ape’s feet, hand-like though they are, will only work with their soles (palms?) flat on the ground and the toes splayed out to distribute the force.

    The aliens in ID4 are supposed to walk on their toe-knuckles, which are only in contact with the ground after two right turns following a left at the ankle. That is hardly a system evolution would devise, even if the critters spent a lot of their time perched on tree branches. Take a look at a bird’s foot if you don’t believe me. Imagine those clever geneticists implementing such an impractical design on purpose!


. . . one giant, painful stumble for the designers.        
 © 20th Century Fox
    Now, the special effects guys might have gotten away with this absurdity if they’d shown the foot compressing under the creature’s weight as it took each step, then springing back up as the weight shifted to the alternate leg. But when the alien harvester breaks out of the lab, it tiptoes across the floor like a marionette on strings, its feet barely touching the ground. I never bought for a second that this was a real foot, bearing the mass of a real body.

    It’s interesting, though, that these advanced star-farers traveled all the way here from other parts of the galaxy, only to be defeated War-of-the-Worlds-style by a tiny virus. In this case, it’s a computer virus, but it’s still the kind of deus ex machina that weakened Wells’s Martians (and his story) back in the day. Hard to believe their software, which must have been based on an alien language, would be susceptible to the common code.


    Star Trek had aliens all over the place, but for obvious reasons, most of them were humanoid. It became a bit of a joke, the “ear of the week” and then in later versions, the “nose of the week.” If the back story worked and the performances were good, we could easily overlook the unlikelihood of such similarity among far-flung species. In fact, there was an episode in STNG where it was revealed that most races in the galaxy are indeed descended from a common ancestor. Panspermia lives! But for a truly alien creature, the designers boldly went outside the box of carbon-centric organic chemistry and ordered up a silicon-based life form. Such was the Horta, a sentient chunk of rock that looked like a rather plump hamburger pizza.

 
Doctor, living stone, I presume? McCoy gives horta-culture
his best shot.        
© Paramount

    This was neither a new idea nor an original one; scientists have long proposed that silicon might work as a substitute for carbon in an alien race. The problems lie in the way the idea was handled. First of all, it is a mystery story about a monster that kills human ore-diggers who are just trying to do their job. But it turns out the creature is actually intelligent, at least according to Spock, who must have had rocks in his head for mind-melding with it. On top of that, the monster is a mommy; those fragile metallic nodules that the miners destroy just for the hell of it turn out to be  -- surprise! -- the Horta’s eggs. Now, how could the innocent troglodytes be expected to realize that, considering how they are egg-shaped and found in huge numbers, nestled away in clearly artificial chambers?  

   The tunnels the Horta drill are another problem. This flat-bottomed critter secretes a powerful acid from its underside, dissolving solid rock and ore almost instantaneously. But somehow its tunnels are perfectly cylindrical. Even if it oozed acid from its topside, one would expect the tunnels to be more ovoid, like a paper tube that had been flattened along its length. And where does all that material go? Since when does acid just make stuff disappear from the universe? If that were the case, then the real treasure here would not be the rare minerals the miners are digging up, but the means to dispose of toxic waste forever! 
     Speaking of toxic waste, how about them kaiju? In the movie Pacific Rim, human civilization is set upon by denizens of another dimension who have managed to open a portal into our world at the bottom of the ocean.  They use it to send out skyscraper-sized monsters to attack us on a grand scale. Dubbed kaiju, the Japanese word for whatever Godzilla was supposed to be, these rampaging titans come in a variety of shapes -- whatever horrible designs their masters can come up with using advanced techniques in genetic engineering. The beasts from umpty-thousand fathoms aren’t intelligent in and of themselves, but their other-worldly breeders use them like guided missiles -- big, hungry missiles with gargantuan claws and teeth and other anatomical weapons.  


Too big to fail: The kaiju literally chew up the scenery in what is no longer such a Pacific Rim.          
© Warner Bros.
    The humans try building an impenetrable wall to keep the aliens out, but even in science fiction that's an idea worthy of a Darwin award. Pretty soon, the brobdignagian sushi monsters are ripping their way through, menacing every coastal city they can get their mitts on. Before they can eat their fill of non-GMO humans, though, the kaiju have to get past the jaegers -- massive battle robots we’ve cobbled together to take them on in a colossal sumo wrestling tournament.  
    It’s a pretty stupid way to fight them, if you ask me. I’d think a piece of tasty kaiju bait with a low-yield tactical nuke inside would be more effective. Think of it as a ginormous virus, the kaiju flu (gesundheit!). Hey, at least this virus would stand a chance of actually working.

    What’s bad about the kaiju, though, is that the only thing they have going for them is their size. As far as weaponry goes, they are generally limited to the kinds of things that Earth has bred into animals for millions of years. Knifehead, for instance, isn’t much of a departure from a rhinoceros. If I had the means to engineer a powerful biological engine of destruction – and didn’t want to go the other way, with teeny-tiny microbial soldiers – I’d certainly throw in such things as acid spit, radioactive armor, poisonous flatulence or armor-piercing harpoon quills. Or, better yet, since these humongous pit bulls are so hard to stop, strap a couple of nukes to their collars and send them into the heart of the city where they can do some real damage. 

    Even though they come from another dimension, the kaiju are stubbornly one-dimensional, a force of nature more akin to a tidal wave than an opponent worthy of our giant robotic heroes.



Import auto bought: The Transformers are all spark
and no spice.                                                                         
© Paramount
    Not that all giant robots are heroes. Consider the Decepticons, an evil race of machines who can reconfigure into other machines with a twist here and an extension there. In the Transformers movies, they and their benevolent arch-enemies, the Autobots, like to reshape themselves into cars and trucks and airplanes and mechanical dinosaurs  so they can better fit in on our planet.

    What makes this possible is the All-spark, an alien device that nobody has bothered to explain very well, but has the power to imbue any mechanical device with life – and the ability to change its shape. Okay, that’s fun, if highly unlikely. And considering how these things started out as toys for children, I would expect them to have some entertainment value. But the fun of these clever toys is figuring out how the various car parts can be manipulated to produce a mechanical man. In the movies, the changes are so fast that they might as well be magic.
    There is also the problem of mass. Is there enough material in a sports car to produce a 20-foot tall robot that is more than just a hollow shell? Remember, cars, trucks and even tanks are designed to carry people, cargo and ammo around, so a lot of their volume is just emptiness. Which pretty much sums up the characters themselves. Beyond simple heroics (and, on the other side, outright nastiness), there’s not a whole lot there. Transformers don’t seem to fall in love, or bear children, or even keep pets (unless you count the humans they interact with). Their individual back stories have been left vague, although John Goodman's character comes off like a WWII veteran (And how did that happen? Was he an advanced scout like the SR-71 guy or the dinosaurs?)
    Though they are made of metal and plastic and Corinthian leather, these characters could use a bit of fleshing out. Human emotions are portrayed through an individual's actions and reactions: the Transformers should give the audience some inkling of whatever alien or machine, analog for emotions drives them.    Admittedly, it is hard for humans to devise -- or even relate to -- truly alien emotions, but aliens have long been a tool for authors to dissect the psyches of their fellow men. Case in point: Asimov's robots, for whom the Three Laws of Robotics have supplanted the Freudian id, ego and superego.

   Perhaps that is too much to ask of your typical screenwriter. But even the old familiar human-style emotions can be used in fresh ways. Surely each Autobot would have its own feelings about the struggle to save the homeworld Cybertron, to save Earth, even to keep the All-spark out of the clutches of the Decepticons. And there would be more intimate problems that might affect the pursuit of these planet-sized battles. How about a sudden fuel shortage? Or a plague of rust? More ight an Edsel suffer from an inferiority complex, or a lemon experience frustrating breakdowns just when the team needs him? Would a lonely Autobot fall in love with an alluring, but inanimate, Tesla, and then misappropriate the All-spark to bring her to life?

   Why don't the Decepticons engage in some real deception and disguise themselves as Autobots, doing mean things to people in order to frame their enemies? After all, Optimus Prime didn’t always look like he does now; it was only after he imitated an 18-wheeler that he took on his present visage. What’s stopping Megatron from becoming his evil twin and creating a whole team of Bizarro Autobots?

    Bizarro, of course, is a concept from the adventures of Superman, the most famous humanoid alien of them all. I know, Superman is a beloved character with a long history and the inspiration for the entire superhero genre, but how much longer can we overlook the flaws of this particular prototype? The only reason he has any powers at all is because he was born on another planet, under a red sun. There’s something about our yellow sun (which is never really explained) that gives him power to do things that those of us who evolved here cannot do. Sounds  fishier than Abe Sapien to me. 

Kryptonite, kraptomorrow:  Superman is weakened by his invulnerability.                                     
© Warner Bros.
    His molecules are supposedly more dense, so he’s both incredibly strong and all but indestructible. And although Kryptonians at home don't appear to have been able to adjust their eyeballs to see telescopically or microscopically -- let alone in the X-ray band! -- Earth's magical environment makes this kind of thing possible. Good thing it doesn't apply to every alien who drops in for a visit! 

 
    As for flying, well, that’s just ridiculous. If his particles are that incredibly dense, he’s about as likely to fly as a lead balloon filled with depleted uranium.

   But let’s say we go with the original premise that he can leap very high, due to his incredible strength. That’s what the Hulk does, and he gets around pretty well.

    But Superman can fly at unbelievable (yes, that’s the word for it) speeds, and can hover, and if that’s not silly enough, he can fly around while carrying, say, an ocean liner. What is his form of propulsion, you ask? Why, the power of imagination, coupled with a total disregard for the laws of physics!
    Besides implausibility is not really the main problem with Superman. The character's biggest flaw is that he is just too damn powerful. He’s so invulnerable to weapons fire and every other form of destruction that there is nowhere for the character to go. A well-known rule of heroes is that they are only as great as their most powerful enemies. And who is Superman’s arch enemy? A middle-aged bald guy named Lex Luthor, who is supposed to be some kind of super-genius, and yet dumb ol’ Smallville defeats him every time.

    The creators tried to write themselves out of this corner by saying say that Superman is vulnerable to two things: magic (which is to say, you can only get around physics by ignoring physics), and things from Krypton. Other Kryptonians have shown up on Earth, and as a result they have found themselves with the same set of powers as our hero. He only manages to beat them because he’s been here longer, and adapted without going so far as to acclimatize. In other words, he’s superior to humans because he’s an alien, and he’s superior to aliens because he’s more like a human. Talk about having your cake and eating it, too!
    Kryptonite, the radioactive matter from his exploded home planet, is Superman’s Achilles heel. In its green form, it can weaken or kill him (which can come in handy if he needs to shave or perform emergency surgery). When it’s red, it makes him crazy. Other colors have their own weird -- even magical -- effects, and this is how the writers come up with multiple storylines for a one-dimensional character.

   Now, to their credit, the writers have attempted to make the character more complex, usually by downgrading his invulnerability or shoe-horning in some more extensive backstory, but for decades the problem that nagged him the most was his co-worker and all the hoops he had to fly through to keep her from guessing his secret identity. The fact that he was able to maintain this wan masquerade for more than a Metropolis minute shows Lois Lane to be a pretty unimpressive investigative reporter. It also points back to the problem of invulnerability: if nothing can ever really hurt you, then you are left to battle with trivialities.
 



Phone homely: E.T.'s face is perfect for radio.
© Universal



     At least Superman is good looking. The same can’t be said for a lot of aliens out there. This doesn’t mean the characters are poorly drawn; it's more of an aesthetic judgment. Give a good, long look at E.T., the Extraterrestrial, if you can. The portrayal of this little guy is right out of children’s literature: he’s away from home, at the mercy of strangers, some of whom do not have his best interests at heart, and his only allies are a handful of kids.

    But man is he ugly! With that dumpy physique, that wrinkly, elephantine skin, those ridiculously short legs, one can only speculate that those binocular eyes come with built-in beer goggles. Otherwise, the perpetuation of the race would come to a grinding halt for lack of grinding.  But that is at the heart of the lesson Spielberg is attempting to drive home: don’t judge a book by its cover. Ugliness is no longer a sign of evil or sinfulness like it was back in the days when superstition was the rule.

    Some of the best moments in this film are when E.T. hides from the kids’ mother among a closet full of stuffed animals – where it is by far the ugliest of them all – and when the kids take him outside on Halloween.  They make him wear a costume, as if people wouldn't just assume he was dressed up already. Spielberg never bothers to explain how E.T.’s powers work or why evolution would place a bioluminescent glow inside his chest; he just calls on them when the appropriate situation arises. That’s not very scientific, but it is in keeping with the innocence of youth, where wishing is as good a means as any of overcoming obstacles. Still, if he can levitate a bicycle, why didn't he just float up to his departing spaceship in the first place?

    For more practical -- albeit malevolent -- thinking, we turn to the so-called Brain Bug in Starship Troopers. This enormous, disgusting grub is one of the strategic planners of the Arachnids’ military offensive – and I do mean offensive. It has a sickening way of getting intelligence out of an enemy soldier: extending a jointed proboscis from its rather vaginal mouth, it plunges the pointy end through the skull of its victim and literally sucks his brains out. It’s the ultimate mind-rape, an excruciating process that makes water-boarding look like a refreshing Lipton Plunge.

Antipersonnel mind: the disgusting Brain Bug deals the Starship Troopers a lobe blow.
© TriStar/Touchstone
   This caterpillar’s hookah isn’t the only ugly part we see, though. There are eight bulbous eyes arrayed along the top edge of the face, and a pair of arm-like palpi on either side of the oral slit. Surrounding this is about three tons of fatty tissue. It’s not clear how much of it is brain and how much is just accumulated calories, but Jabba the Hutt would look absolutely svelte next to this conqueror worm.  The best thing that can be said for its blimpish physique is that it makes the thing pretty easy to catch, once the troopers get past that backhoe-style brain drainer.  But consider this: in the world of insects, the fat, soft critters are usually the larvae. Imagine what kind of nasty, multi-legged bugger Junior might grow up to be!

    Bugs are a common go-to for designing alien life-forms, probably because up close, they look so different from any creature that is close to human-size. Their eyes are substantially different (and there may be more of them), they don't have discernable ears or noses, and their toothless, lipless mouths are usually bracketed by finger-like palpi and/or sharp mandibles.  In short, it's hard to anthropomorphize an ant.


Irregular Joes: The Worm Guys have their own idea of Business Casual: men in black, aliens in cream and sugar.
© Columbia Pictures
  Submitted for your approval, the Worm Guys relaxing on their coffee break in Men in Black. They’re small, with teensy arms and hardly any faces, yet they seem to enjoy a good cup of joe and a chance to gossip. The best thing about these fellows is that they are not onscreen for more than a minute or so – just long enough to leave an impression, but not long enough to betray their artificiality or to need individual names and personalities. For the single, limited purpose of shedding a somewhat humorous light on aliens in a human world, these guys do the trick. No muss, no fuss, just business.
 

Cloud storage: Galactus eats planets for breakfast, even without the silver service -- no wonder he's out of shape!                                                                                                                                                                                  
© 20th Century Fox
   Not all aliens are small enough to fit into a cubicle. Case in point: Galactus, creator and direct supervisor of the Silver Surfer. In the comics he is a humanoid about the size of the Baxter Building, with a big tin can for a helmet and a pair of wing-like panels sticking out and up from the sides of his head. In the movie The Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, though, his looks are a lot harder to pin down. He’s an amorphous blob of billowing energy that can cover a planet like the paint in the Sherwin Williams logo, and drain it of all forms of energy. That’s ugly enough, to be sure, but what’s really hideous about this version of Galactus is his lack of form.  We know from what the Surfer said that somewhere in that roiling nebula a powerful mind is at work, bent on wiping humanity from existence in order to stoke his unquenchable hunger. When we look upon this particular cloud of particulates, we don't imagine we see a fluffy bunny or a friendly dragon; what looms above the world is the terrifying face of doom (no, not that Doom!).
Soylent Green Lantern: A true people person, Parallax is the soul owner of the face that launched a thousand
nightmares.
© Warner Bros.
    Parallax, in The Green Lantern, is a similar character, with a couple of refinements. His back story is that he was a rogue member of the Guardians, the founders of the Green Lantern Corps, who committed the blasphemy of aligning himself with the Yellow side (green is all about willpower, yellow draws its power from fear). He’s been oozing around the universe, scaring people out of their souls, which he then absorbs into himself. And now he’s targeted the planet Earth, where there are plenty of folks ready to be frightened to death. This guy, on the other hand, has nothing to fear but the mirror itself.
   Parallax’s face is a huge, fanged skull, and the rest of him looks like a cross between an octopus and the cloud of ink it squirts out when it’s scared (fear, remember?). If you freeze a frame and zoom in really close, you may be able to make out a whole lot of writhing people in Parallax’s matrix, which is supposed to represent all the souls he’s captured and made part of himself. Apparently, that’s why he’s called Parallax – he represents a lot of different points of view. This is a pretty cool idea, but it was not presented clearly at all. I only became aware of it when I watched the Blu-Ray disk’s Special Features section, where the CGI team talked about the countless hours of digital animation and rendering time that went into this particular detail. Watching the film, both on the big screen and on disk, I was only able to make out a lot of smoky tentacles writhing around. Considering what it must have cost to do all that meticulous work, you’d think they’d have shown it to someone and asked what, if anything, they could see in all that mess. And then either made captive souls bigger and more obvious, or abandoned the concept altogether.


If you can't lick 'em: Jabba has pretty good taste in women, but his over-the-top overtures won't get him Leia.                                                                                                                                                                  
© 20th Century Fox
    Jabba the Hutt, on the other hand, doesn’t have a single feature that isn’t obvious. He’s a bloated slug with creepy eyes and a wandering tongue that leaves a disgusting trail of slime wherever it goes. Given his lump-like physique, overly broad mouth and asymmetrical nostrils, this character looks like it started out as a much shapelier clay sculpture that someone accidentally dropped on the floor.  Throw in a criminal lack of manners and a rumbling avalanche of a voice and you have a gastropod godfather that no smuggler in his right mind would ever want to run afoul of. 

    He seems to have an eye for the ladies, something to which most guys can relate (lust look at how many sitcoms have featured a chubby hubby and his sexy wife!), but Princess Leia is not at all interested in becoming related, no matter how badly Jabba wants to achieve an organasm. It's just as well; given the obvious incompatibility of such divergent species, he'd be better off hooking up with some slutty sluggette, or going artificial on a vulnerable death-starlet. 

    Allegedly, the Hutts have set themselves up as crime lords throughout the galaxy, which brings up the question of just how a race of ponderous, non-telepathic worms could overpower anybody nimble enough to dodge a parked car. Sheer physical strength would not be enough, considering the numbers arrayed against them, so I guess I will have to chalk it up to charisma. Though he’s not much to look at, Jabba’s got a great personality.


Killer queen: The queenomorph only has eyes for Ripley, believe it or not, but it's a destructive relationship.
© 20th Century Fox
    Some aliens are all the better for being hideous. The queen in the movie Aliens is one badass bug. She’s got all the regular features of the street-level xenomorphs – the long, eyeless head, sharp teeth, barbed whip of a tail and the second set of metallic jaws that extends out from inside the mouth – but she’s bigger, with an impressive crown of horns. When we first see her, she’s busy laying a couple hundred eggs.  One would assume she’d be indisposed while giving birth. But no, when her caviar is threatened, she’s able to tear herself away (literally) and go on the warpath.
 
   H. R. Giger’s visionary design of the original alien was truly inspired. Nobody had done a creature with a telescoping extra jaw before, and the details of its partly parasitic life cycle were as much a surprise for the audience as they were for the characters in the film. In one early concept for the series, the xenomorph would morph considerably, depending on the DNA of whatever species it had invaded. There was a rumor that Jonesy, the Nostromo’s cat, had been impregnated by the alien in Ripley’s escape pod before the monster was blasted out into space, and in the next movie the resulting catlike alien was going to arrive on Earth where it would go forth and multiply. But the studio decided to go in a different direction, and now all the critters look pretty much the same. Except for the queen, who has a big, triangular shovel for a head and is not amused.




If looks could kill: The Predator has a face only an
ugly mother could love.                  
© 20th Century Fox
    If I were to award an anti-beauty prize for alien faces, the title character from the movie Predator would win it, hands down. For almost all of the film, this big game hunter from the stars is pretty shy about showing his face; heck, he's shy about showing anything, hiding behind a stealth screen while he stalks Arnold Schwarzenegger and his spec ops team. When he finally takes his helmet off, we are treated to a face even a mother would have a hard time loving.

    This was the first time I had ever seen a mouth open in more directions than one. I’m not sure how practical those spiky fangs at the corners would be when attacking a cheeseburger, but they definitely looked other-worldly. And wicked. Even though this was basically another humanoid, the designers had taken great pains to change the shape of its head from the human silhouette; adding long, rubbery dreadlocks took the illusion even farther. Another nice touch was the predator’s infra-red vision, which helped sell the idea that this was not your ordinary woodland creature.

 
Who's your crawdaddy? The Prawns are mere pawns in a game of planetary chess
© Sony Pictures
     And then there are the Prawns. The South African film District 9 is about a downtrodden race of aliens who land here, seeking asylum, only to wind up being treated as second-class citizens and worse. It’s considered a commentary on apartheid, of course, although the film is much more than a simple roman a clef.

    The aliens got their nickname because of their facial resemblance to Terran shrimp, with wiggly bits dangling from around their mouths and antennae sticking up from above a pair of inhuman eyes. The whole character is CGI, based on motion capture of the actor’s movements. This is how the midsection can be so thin, like the waist of an insect.



X-ray specs: Put on special glasses and see how the other half live. 
© Universal
  This idea of the aliens at the bottom of society’s totem pole gets turned on its hideous head in John Carpenter’s They Live, in which a day worker stumbles upon a pair of special sunglasses that allow him to see the world as it really is. No, it’s not the Matrix, but there are hidden messages everywhere that are engineered to keep us humans in line. “Obey,” says one sign, in bold block letters. “Conform,” says another. And who is giving us these subliminal commands? Through the magic lenses, we see that some of the people walking the Earth are alien overlords of a much more oppressive sort than those from Childhood’s End.

    These Creepshow escapees have set themselves up as covert rulers of our world, and are determined to stay at the top of the heap. Under normal circumstances, they look just like us – in many cases, even better than us – but the resistance members, armed with those fancy shades, can see through the façade. The aliens look for all the world like people wearing skeleton masks over their normal faces, with some odd coloring thrown in. It’s hard to imagine how these lipless wonders are able to manifest a full range of expressions in their holographic (?) disguises, but they manage. Maybe there are classes where aliens are taught emoting as a second language.

    The makeup effects are pretty bare-bones, but they have the necessary impact, which is best when it is played for laughs, as in the case of the sexy young blonde who is getting it on with one of the aliens just as the disguising signal shuts off. It's almost like she's just woken up to the fact that she's having sex with Harvey Weinstein. The horror!

Ack ack: Ack ack, ack ack ack! Ack?                                             
© Warner Bros.
    Another breed of skull-faced aliens is featured in the movie Mars Attacks! These comical Martians look like skeletons with oversized brains and billiard-sized eyeballs set into bony sockets. They are awful to behold, and ruthless to boot, but it’s all fun and games until someone gets disintegrated -- and even that is usually funny.

    There is one attempt at conforming to Terran ideas of beauty, when a Martian masquerades as a big-haired woman gliding eerily into the White House to seduce the oversexed Chief of Staff. He looks forward to yet another conquest, but little does he know that his intended is intending to do some conquering of her own.  The way these guys talk, though, is so dumb it's brilliant. Their monosyllabic, monoverbal language makes Groot's limited utterings seem like epic poetry. Or at least rap.

    It’s difficult to imagine a truly alien being that is not based on some kind of Terran counterpart, or an amalgam of them, because as far as we know (officially), we have yet to meet any aliens at all. The best we can do is to start with what we understand about biology, evolution and chemistry, and extrapolate. Fortunately for creators of entertainment, our mandate is merely to make a good story and not seek out the solution to the big xenobiological mystery.  It's great when we make an attempt at applying some scientific thought to the job, but we can't let that ruin the fun. We have to bring the extraterrestrials down to Earth, making them more like us so that we can better relate to their motivations and points of view.
   Sometimes an alien is just a stand-in for an aspect of humanity, be it a tale of an oppressed tribe or an examination of what we might be like if, say, we weren’t ruled by our emotions. And sometimes we just need an identifiable target for our heroes to shoot at, much as the old Westerns used American Indians as the go-to bad guys for our courageous cavalrymen to rally against. But the good ones don’t all wear white hats, and the bad ones don’t just fall down whenever you pull a trigger. The good ones serve the story well, the bad ones not so well, and as for the ones we perceive as ugly, well, for all we know, on their home worlds, they are super-models.

3/4 Scale Model: The diminutive Cadet Alienne Gray, a star player on the United Space Military Academy's
saucer team, is a real dish.                                                                     
© Mike Conrad  www.MikeConradArt.com/comics
 
 
   
             
 
 
 

No comments:

.Take a look at our official (yet still fun) newsletter