Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Growing up with Formic Acid

Some of the points discussed here are (tenuously) linked to my previous essay on Alien. This is a pseudo-sequel insomuch as it attempts to provide potential reasons as to why the themes of the original Alien came to be replaced with what we saw in James Cameron’s take on the franchise.

In 1954, Warner Bros released Them! One of the first of the “giant monster” movies, the most obvious credit of lasting success to the film’s name is its Oscar nomination for the crew’s rendition of the irradiated ants that terrorise New Mexico. Amidst the countless slew of Sci-Fi features released in the 50s, it’s certainly one of the better ones, and its legacy can be traced to Starship Troopers, Eight Legged Freaks  - possibly even having a hand in the US refit of Godzilla. However, there’s another film that follows the mould of Them! on a far more comprehensive level; one that, when revealed, is both striking and potentially illuminating as to why a certain blockbuster franchise followed a specific direction, after its original inception as a rather insidious horror story.

Them! is essentially a story about how ants, if large enough, could destroy humanity due to their strength and caste structure. Police officers Ben Peterson and Ed Blackburn, whilst out on patrol, discover a little girl in shock. A few miles further in the New Mexico desert, they find a decimated caravan that turns out to be her family’s holiday home. Her family are nowhere to be found. As more deaths occur, the evidence points to something sinister and inhuman, with even FBI agent Robert Graham being stumped. When an unidentified footprint allures the father/daughter Doctors Harold and Pat Medford – a team of entomologists – it soon becomes apparent that our killer is in fact a colony of giant ants living underground. The rest of the movie concerns their attempts to destroy the colony as it spreads across the West Coast of America, working alongside the military.

Aliens is essentially a story about how a species of insect-like creatures could destroy humanity due to their strength and caste structure. Having been rescued from cryogenic stasis after the events of the original film, Ellen Ripley finds herself acting as an advisor to the Weyland Yutani Company as they attempt to discover what exactly has happened to their planetary colony. When they land, they discover a little girl in shock. The base around her is deserted and in a bad state, and Ripley, along with a cohort of US Marines working for the Company, attempt to destroy the colony so as to prevent the xenomorphs from spreading across the galaxy – likely as a bio-weapon under the Company’s desired control.

It’s not exactly convincing just yet. We have two sets of insectoid enemies, and we have two scared, lonely girls – so what? Leaving aside the matter of why the aliens are suddenly insect-like for the moment, let’s actually consider Newt and the little Ellinson girl a little more. When Ripley first finds Newt hiding away in the corridors of the colony, the girl’s shock leaves her mute, catatonic. There is a specific shot of Newt staring into the void as the lights of the corridor and the marines’ rifles blast across her face; it pretty effectively conveys, along with the emptiness of the colony, that this girl is the last survivor, having lost everything. In the opening moments of Them!, Sandy Descher walks through the desert landscape with the exact same face. Catatonic and mute, all she is finally able to say is Them! THEM!!’ when a bottle of formic acid is held under her nose, thus giving the film its name. Her parents are dead at the hands of the giant ants, and it is her appearance that first suggests that something is very, very wrong in New Mexico. If nothing else, the use of Newt to highlight an imminent threat in the first third of Aliens is, I believe, a firm homage to the opening of the first real Hollywood “Creature Feature.”

Yet the marks of Them! run far deeper through Aliens. For one, where exactly in the original Alien is it ever really implied that the xenomorphs are analogous to earthen insect life? Eggs are common to every species except mammals, and whilst the facehugger has obvious arachnoid elements, it looks more like a hand, its raping of its victims and subsequent rebirth as a penis-headed alien working far more to suggest a perverse abstraction of human sexual intercourse than anything to do with insects. And yet in Aliens, the creatures suddenly work within a hierarchy of queen and drones, the aliens setting up their own, invasive colony within that of the Weyland Yutani venture. As in Them!, discoveries are first made of the drones seeking out prey, with the queen actively being sought out by the humans to be destroyed in the heart of her colony, along with her eggs. Like an insect, the queen is both larger and more intelligent than her drones. Given that the “son of Kane” in the prequel was clearly not a queen, it’s pretty obvious that this element is a new addition that not only strips away some of the original themes running through the creature, but it also, in light of the plot structure of both movies and their essential enemies, seems to be indebted to a film about giant, puppet-controlled ants. And given that a James Cameron film was going to focus on the surface thrills of the alien antagonist rather than possible subtexts, working the Company into the story of Them! seems to have worked more than well enough.

However, it’s interesting to note that, if we follow this trend, Ripley’s analogue in Them! happens to be both Doctors Medford, and this pairing offers an interesting insight into just how divergent gender attitudes were in the thirty years separating the two films. Enough has been said about Ripley to have established her as the first real action-heroine of a post-feminist world. She’s a competent individual who doesn’t need saving by a masculine hero, and has the maternal instincts that help revive Newt in a way no one else in the film could manage. This isn’t really challenged in the film beyond the likes of Hicks clearly being attracted to her strength, holding her up as a woman to be respected. Hicks’ closest parallel in Them! is probably FBI Agent Robert Graham; a dashing man of action who helps deal the killing blow to the ants, and lives through to the end where our other major male protagonist, Sgt. Peterson, does not. Graham is clearly attracted to Dr. Harold Medford’s younger daughter Patricia, but whenever she takes the initiative to tackle the ants, by, as in one scene, entering their colony with Peterson and Graham, the FBI agent waxes on about how she won’t, as a woman, be able to handle herself down there when something happens. Whilst she eventually wins him over, it’s as the only viable replacement researcher for her old father, not on her own merit – and the fact that she’s a woman is forever her vulnerability to be potentially exploited in the rest of the scene. It’s rather uncomfortable to watch now, and whilst Pat does get to be ‘one of the lads’, it feels a bit knowingly exceptional in the film – something that now, thanks to the likes of Aliens, we’d take for granted.

If Them! is actually the inspiration of much of the script of Aliens, could Pat’s struggling against “good old” American patriarchy actually be the blueprint for the highly competent Ripley of Aliens? She held her own in the first film, but there’s been clear movement up the “bad-ass” scale whilst in cryogenic sleep. Either way, I think it’s very hard to outright deny, given the evidence, the clear evolutionary link between giant, irradiated ants, and penile-headed, acid-bleeding xenomorphs.

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