Two news items on the excellent website io9 got me thinking about memes and the failure of the artistic imagination. The first of these concerned itself with aliens, the second with zombies. Only one really pissed me off. Here’s why.
Annoying as it may be, the remarkable popularity of the zombie in popular culture is at least defensible in that the condition of the mythic undead seems to correlate pretty closely with a real-world phenomenon, namely, rabies. As the article points out, many of the symptoms, particularly the ‘silent, semi-lucid, unending aggression’ of the rabies victim, are precisely those that typify the movie zombie. Well, fair enough. I still have sub-zero interest in reading or seeing movies about them, but I buy zombies as somewhat believable, a pop-culture meme with some basis in fact.
The other news item was about a 14-minute short made for literally a zero budget. ‘This no-budget short film captures the creepiness of an alien encounter on a shoestring’, trumpets the io9 headline. Since I generally like io9, I decided to go with it and commit 14 minutes of my time to see why this ‘science fiction film’ (io9’s words, not mine) was in the running for a grant from Ridley Scott’s production company.
I should have known better.
This short, about a young woman whom nobody will believe trying to resist yet another alien visitation, is the worst kind of meme. Oh, the cinematography and production is fine, until the alien comes along. At which point we’re treated to bright white lights, electrical and electronic malfunctions, things rattling and shaking, and a three-fingered alien hand coming around the victim’s bedroom door: in short, the generic alien encounter meme that has been around for something like three decades, at least since the movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
The pop culture meme of the skinny alien, with its childlike, elongated head, slitty eyes, three-fingered hands, blinding light, undampened electrical fields, and fond use of rectal probes, is out of control. But unlike zombies, we have no data point whatever on which to base the alien meme: it’s made up, people! And it wasn’t a very good effort in the first place! The chance of aliens looking like this is no greater than aliens that look like octopi, or ambulatory potatoes, or nothing we can even begin to comprehend.
To my way of thinking, this is the worst kind of laziness. When there is the opportunity to do something entirely fresh and original, why does every filmmaker do exactly the same thing as has been done before? If the answer is, because that’s what audiences expect, all I can do is bury my head in my hands and say they deserve to be fleeced at every opportunity. You can tie a pink ribbon around a turd and put it in a Tiffany box, but it’s still a turd. And yet, we continue to reward these pathetic, uninspired imitators.
Once in a very, very long while, a filmmaker comes along who gets it. Unfortunately, we have to go back even further than Close Encounters for that one, to the 1972 film (based on a 1961 novel), Solaris. Surreal? Hard to understand? That’s exactly the point, though, isn’t it—a real alien encounter is going to be confusing and incomprehensible.
And startlingly, memorably, original.
So the fact that millions (probably hundreds of millions) of people are already convinced that the generic movie alien is representative of the real thing (as though we had even the shadow of a clue) is something I find both maddening and depressing. Haven’t we been here with angels and fairies?
When an artistic form runs out of, or refuses to embrace, fresh ideas, it’s usually considered dead. I think we can safely declare the science fiction film—at least where aliens are concerned—to have entirely flatlined.