Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Alien, Predator, The Problem of Interesting Monsters

 Note: If you voted to hear the Vampire story, it's still coming in early May, don't worry.

-The Alien and The Predator are both interesting monsters.

-One reason Alien is a better movie than Predator is it found reasons for the cast to talk about the interesting monster and observe its behavior. After Cain dies, like 50% or more of the dialogue is in one way or another, finding out about the monster, explaining it ("using the air ducts", "Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.", "big as a man").

-What dialogue isn't about the monster is about The Company's plot ("crew expendable" etc.).

-Simple formula (Lovecraftian even)--create an interesting monster and then the story is mostly just explaining how it's interesting.

-Predator on the other hand: how do we know its an alien? First scene we see its space ship. How do we know it has only thermal vision? We see through its eyes.

-Showing not telling doesn't work here because it leaves the characters almost nothing else to talk about or do--except the same things they'd do in any other non-monster action movie: I'm worried about murdering! I'm not! How will we accomplish murdering? Yeah, they got betrayed by the CIA, but it's so not important to anything and Carl Weathers (the Ash figure, the betrayer) gets killed by the Predator, so that plot resolves itself without anyone having to confront him or make a decision about it or act or anything.

-A problem with all the later Predator and Alien movies: instead of interesting or difficult characters being dealt with by the other characters (as the crew deals with Ash in Alien) they just get killed by the monster. We realize, at some point in every later movie, that this is a slasher formula and none of the interpersonal plot gymnastics matter. Ripley matters, that's all, because Ripley will, in one way or another, survive.

-So what does matter (besides the quality of the kills)? We want to learn more about the creatures.

-This, I think, is what really disappointed everyone most about Prometheus--the whole beginning was a classic Hard SF set-up: we were going to Learn About The Universe and then as soon as we get to the big mystery (What the fuck was that thing in the...chair? in Alien?) it turns into a slasher movie. No, we are not going to learn anything else, the only question in a slasher movie is: how will they die? Not well, it turns out. Also he looks like the Michelin man but that's a whole other post.

-Anyway to retrieve the thread: Interesting monsters. The genius of the first Alien--and nearly all the best parts of all the later Alien and Predator movies--is it turns learning about the interesting monsters into the plot.

-The technique: rationing out the information on the interesting monster scene by scene, piece by piece, kill by kill.

-Failure means: wasting information, wasting kills, and, by extension, wasting characters. Letting the monster chew through the cast before the cast gets to chew on the monster.

-Again, Lovecraftian: the scenes in The Call of Cthulhu where we learn about Cthulhu are more interesting that what Cthulhu actually does at the end (with the Swede and the boat and all that).

-It's all a slow tease, a show whose content is slow revelation. It's why there's this curious deflating effect when you see a Wiki full of information on the creatures, like everything fun is mashed down into a statblock. The Predator tribe is called the Yautja? Did you know that? I didn't. Somehow I wish I still didn't? I want the mystery.

It's like looking at the lyrics to your favorite song all typed out. "Oooh, ye-ahh, baby" I mean yes that's the words but...it felt different in the song.

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13 comments:

CastlesMadeOfSand said...

That's a really good analysis and codification of something that seems obvious (Alien is a better movie than Predator) but is hard to explain if you try.
The idea of revealing new interesting information about the monster KILL by KILL is a useful thing to think about.

There was also something about the fact that the xenomorph in Alien was borderline unkillable. blowing it up in a massive explosion, in space was the only thing that could potentially take it out. That's almost like saying the only way to beat a monster is with power word kill or the lava of mount doom. What I mean is, the xenomorph didn't have hit points.


Note: The first half of Prometheus I thought was brilliant. Finally a new Alien movie not obsessed with that one alien from the first movie/ basically xenomorph fanfiction.
Then half way through, it became that. and then Covenant was only that. 40 years of people thinking about Alien and no can come up with an alien new and cool? Is it only Giger? or are the new movies fanservice? yeah.

Zak Sabbath said...

@CastlesMadeofSand

Yeah Covenant felt similar...ooh, a new cast, a new mission, a WHOLE PLANET OF DEMIGODS aaaaand they die fast and in no way memorably.

I mean jesus having the sublime cliffhanger of the last movie --we're going to the world that god came from to ask them why they created us, and the android wipes them out in one scene in a flashback. Like fuck, did this movie like anything about itself?

Kyle T said...

It liked its android switcheroo, and did so to its detriment.

Adamantyr said...

I agree, Alien is definitely the better of the two movies. That said, both are good flicks always worth a watch.

Their sequels... well Predator II is more of the same, although well done in that regard. The last third of the movie is just one big surreal chase that feels unreal. Aliens is the action film version of Alien, enjoyable but with less shock and horror. Anything past that, meh... although the director's cut of Alien 3 is way more interesting than the theatrical.

But back to Predator... if Alien was inspired by Lovecraft, Predator feels like it was inspired by Robert E. Howard. It's honestly just the kind of story he'd write, with the bigger-than-life action hero at the forefront against an unknown alien menace. "If it bleeds, we can kill it." could have been written by Howard himself.

That said, if Predator was an adventure written by a GM for a roleplaying game, it feels like a lot of good ideas thrown together but with a lack of polish. The plot infers the Predator creature deliberately targets areas of both high heat and conflict, and that it's been doing so in order to bring the best troops Earth has to offer to the region. And yet... that just seems far-fetched? Like, HOW does it know that? Is it listening in on Earth broadcasts? We don't see evidence of this in the film. It's just THERE. Pretty much what a flustered GM would say if a player remarks how weird or silly it seems.

The movie also suffers from pacing issues. The first half of the movie is a typical military action movie, with a couple of weird hints of other things to come. Then it becomes a slasher movie, with members of Dutch's team getting killed one by one. Then suddenly everyone's dead except Dutch and the 2nd half of the movie is his personal fight against the Predator. It honestly feels like two movies squished together.

I've also found myself considering things about the movie that no one talks about at all. The fact that Dutch's team are actually mercenaries. The movie never states this, but it's heavily inferred. They show up on base in civilian clothing. Dutch has to be convinced to take the mission; if he was an active member of the military he wouldn't have a choice. Dutch is arrogant and casual with a general, which no one under rank would ever do. I wonder if the script was altered because with the Iran-Contra affair coming to light, suits at the studio wanted to avoid suggesting the U.S. military would rely on mercenaries in foreign territories for any reason.

Zak Sabbath said...

@adamantyr

Agree with all that.

Benjamin Cusack said...

So in The Thing, the way the characters second guess/deal with characters they mistrust is similar to how characters interact in Alien, right?
I think in The Thing it might even be more pronounced, because it is very much dominated by group dynamics, and those move the plot just as much as each new incarnation/form of the Thing.
Also both Alien and The Thing are kinda locked to one location, whereas Predator is locked to a biome?
Forcing the characters into a space where they have to interact enables a lot of these conflicts.

This is why investigation as dungeon, and location based investigation is so strong. What movies/shows inspired the Investigation as dungeon in Demon City?

Zak Sabbath said...

The Thing is kind of a classic paranoia movie like invasion of the body snatchers where the monster is kind of a vehicle for it to be all about the characters.

Bibliography on demon city Is pretty well covered in those posts on the demon city “appendix n” if you go back and check them— investigation as dungeon is less a story structure in itself and more a way for Game masters with experience with dungeons to imagine and conceptualize and sketch out how to do an investigation scenario. it applies to all kinds of things.

like I’m watching predator two right now: The problem is some thing killed a bunch of gang members and Danny Glover is now in the police station trying to decide which direction he’s going to come at the problem from: I wasn’t thinking about this movie at all when I thought of investigation-as-dungeon but it Easily slots in to that format

Adamantyr said...

Cool, any other comments on Predator 2? Even though it's more of the same, it's the last movie with Kevin Peter Hall as the Predator (he died not long after) and it still maintains an aura of mystery about the aliens that is lacking in later sequels.

amogus said...

Sunshine had this issue as well: literally pure sci-fi art and then the last 30 minutes is the protagonist getting chased around by a mentally ill burn victim. What the fuck?

Zak Sabbath said...

@adamantyr

I like things about the look of it--I think the dialogue is pretty lazy though. The ending is great.

snakeappletree said...

Alien: monster is unknown, evil, we sympathise with humans.
Predator: we see story from monsters POV: humans are expendable cannon fodder. We get a taste for [i]being[/i] the monster. This is not explored in Aliens until the 4th movie.

The biggest stroke of Awesome (capitol A) was when some genius decided to fund AvP and put both monsters into the same universe.

When will get AvPvBlueMonkeys?

snakeappletree said...

How does the Predator know which areas have a heatwave? They have heat-vision tech.
How do they know where worthy warriors might hang out to go hunt them?

Zak Sabbath said...

@snakeappletree

If only they'd hired better actors for AVP.

In Predator 2 it's implied they look for places where a lot of ordnance is being fired but it's never made clear.