Alien in the Family Tree

alien-root-1795qxi2783_1470_1Hallmark likes to market its bizarre Christmas tree ornaments with the phrase “What better way…” Their focus groups must tell them the phrase works magic on customers, triggers them to think, “What better way for me to spend every waking moment, than figuring out reasons to give Hallmark money?”

For example —

What better way to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the science fiction thriller Alien, than to put the film’s frightening “Xenomorph” on your tree. You may even introduce a new generation of fans to this spine-chilling cult classic and its sequels.

This hideous piece of work is 4 inches tall and almost 4 inches wide; it is not going to be overlooked on the family tree. When the relatives stop in to admire the decorations they’re going to think that’s the world’s biggest Jerusalem cricket on the branch and start screaming for a can of Raid.

Yet in spite of my own peevish response this is a people-pleasing item. Among the product reviews on Amazon the only criticism I saw (if you can call it that) was that the ornament doesn’t also make a noise!

I won’t rate it lower stars for this because I knew when I bought the item, but I wish that it had been one that had sound. The hissing noise would have been fantastic but it’s still very neat.

In fact, so many people have already ordered their own Xenomorph ornament. Hallmark says it’s out of stock online and they’re advising people to call local stores to check availability.

Abraham Lincoln’s Suspenders of Disbelief

Two movies I made sure to see this summer were Prometheus and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

Prometheus was an easy sell. The prequel to Alien promised to deliver the origin story of the franchise’s nemesis.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter could have been a hard sell. After all, I quit reading the novel on page 15. The last vampire movie that was “must-see” for me starred Leslie Nielsen. And I’ve been self-conscious about films with splatter scenes since Watchmen (wondering, is this really my idea of entertainment?) Somehow the trailers for Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter hooked me despite these objections.

Prometheus came out first. It was so beautifully made and so stupidly written. The characters behaved so cluelessly it was impossible to understand how they avoided being killed in traffic on the way to the spaceport, never mind on an alien world. Overwrought horror movie fans used to yell warnings to the people on-screen. I wanted to shout, “Yeah, smack that egg! Pound those buttons! Evolution in action, baby!” What a disappointing film.

Then I saw Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. It had its share of absurdities. A svelte Mary Todd and a handsome Abe Lincoln – clearly the originals could never get a job in Hollywood, even playing themselves. However, aided by the audience’s vague recollection of American history, and driven by characters who are consistently faithful to the tenets of this particular mythos, the movie overcomes its ridiculous premise in a very satisfying way. For two hours I was willing to believe what was on the screen.

Did I give Abraham Lincoln the benefit of a certain amount of “chronological snobbery” (as C. S. Lewis would call it)? And did Prometheus suffer in proportion? Chronological snobbery is the implicit (and erroneous) belief that people’s capabilities in earlier times were inherently inferior to ours today. If people today are wiser, as a corollary I am less likely to question bad choices made by 19th century characters – they simply couldn’t be expected to know any better.

Prometheus, on the other hand, is forced to shoulder the burdens that come with being about the future, a place created by people who have wisely used the intervening years to prepare for an alien encounter. I have the same prejudices as Bruce Willis’ character in Armageddon when he shouts in exasperation, “You’re NASA for cryin’ out loud, you put a man on the moon, you’re geniuses! You-you’re the guys that think this shit up! I’m sure you got a team of men sitting around somewhere right now just thinking shit up and somebody backing them up!”

Maybe that’s why I was far more judgmental about future space explorers rushing unzipped into situations I would know better than to touch with a 10-foot pole than I was about seeing our Civil War president chasing danger on a battlefield with a 3-foot axe.

What Will They Eat Next?

“What will they eat next?” — there’s a question guaranteed to keep you reading to the end of “Diving into Squid Territory,” an interview with scientist Bruce Robison in the LA Times.  

He explains that the giant squid invasion off the coast of Southern California is a byproduct of ocean warming and the elimination through fishing of 90% of the big fishes that used to compete with squid for food and eat baby squid. These changes have contributed to the growing population of Humboldt squid and their expanding home range.   

What are the consequences of this movement?

They have a new impact. For example, a type of fish called hake has plummeted in population. Hake are an important commercial species off the West Coast.

From examining stomach contents, we know the squid are eating the hake. The hake population tanked, and it looks like it is going to stay that way. So the question becomes, what will the squid eat next?

Not us, happily (or disappointingly, if you were counting on a gruesome turn to this story.) Robison says there are “no legitimate stories of any humans being damaged.”

Asked how long squid live, Robison gives an answer appropriate to the Southern California lifestyle: “A full-grown Humboldt squid lives two years, max. Lives fast, dies young.”

Even better, he explains the species’ science fictional appeal:

They’re big and they’re fast and they can change color. They can create patterns on their bodies. They can make circles, spots, stripes.

The Humboldt squid are real masters at signaling back and forth this way. They are constantly talking to each other using displays of colors and patterns on their bodies.

We know that’s what they are doing, but what we don’t know is what it means. It is an alien communication that we’d love to understand.

Earth’s homegrown aliens — no wonder fans feel an affinity for this tentacled predator.

Dan O’Bannon (1946-2009)

Famed sf movie maker Dan O’Bannon died December 17. The Los Angeles Times reports his death was caused by complications of Crohn’s Disease, which he had battled for 30 years.

He is best known for writing Alien, winner of the 1980 Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo, and the Guardian’s excellent tribute to O’Bannon insightfully comments:

Over the years, many connected with the film have greedily and not entirely accurately claimed credit for just about everything good about Alien. But if you search out the original script on the internet, you’ll see most of it was already there courtesy of O’Bannon.

Other science fiction films he co-authored include Lifeforce and Total Recall.

He also directed several movies. Bill Warren considers the best of these to be The Return of the Living Dead, a comedy sequel to the original film that opens with a title card revealing that everything you’re about to see is absolutely true and all the real names are used.

O’Bannon’s career began with the low-budget 1974 sf film Dark Star. It originated as a USC student project co-written with director John Carpenter. The movie was not a commercial success, but it developed a cult following among sf fans and inspired the name of the student sf club at UC San Diego.

Aliens: In Memory Yet Green

Stephen Worth has posted a wealth of classic images from the work of Chesley Bonestell and the Disney production of “Man in Space” at the ASIFA-Hollywood Animation Archive.

“Theory: Our Dreams of the Future” samples artists’ playful guesses about humanity’s future discoveries of life on other planets, from Nervy’s Nat’s zeppelin trip to Venus by James Montgomery Flagg, to a Coors’ ad where a bartending E.T. advises drunks to phone home.

[Via James Hay.]