The Cold Depths of Space, Part 2


In part one, we took a look at the plot elements, design, and cultural effect of 2001: A Space Odyssey. In essence, filmmakers found themselves stymied by Kubrick’s film. Science fiction especially now found itself with a new benchmark and no one was totally sure what they could do to meet it. A stopgap in the form of “sterile” science fiction kept the philosophical underpinnings of 2001, but space exploration only rarely camp up. These films also tended to take themselves very seriously, in similar manner to the sci-fi of the past. This, mixed with the cold, clean aesthetics they took their name from and their pessimism, made them very dour. Audiences were ready for something fresh. Fortunately for them, a number of new films swept into theaters ready to provide.

New Blood

The first of these films was 1974’s Dark Star. Beginning life as director John Carpenter and writer Dan O’Bannon’s student film project, this micro-budget sci-fi parody put a comedic spin on a number of the genre’s tropes. The film concerns the travails of a group of slacker astronauts on the Dark Star as they do the thankless work of destroying “rogue planets”. The Dark Star is an almighty clunker of a ship that barely functions at the best of times. It’s interior is dingy and angular rather than the gleaming curves of most contemporary sci-fi. The crew can’t even access their sleeping quarters due to a malfunction, and now bunk together in a glorified storage closet.

Speaking of the crew, they all hate their job, each other, and spend most of their time screwing around on their own. These are a far cry from the hyper-professional androids of 2001, even if they are fairly exaggerated. Being a comedy, Dark Star helped take the starch out of what was a notoriously self-important genre then, and largely still is now. Plus, by making the ship Dark Star a malfunctioning bucket of bolts, the film attacked the reverence for technology that 2001 had merely questioned.

Down Home on Tatooine

               The second film came in 1977 with George Lucas’s Star Wars. Essentially Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress (Kakushi Toride no San Akunin) shot as an episode of Flash Gordan, Star Wars saw much greater commercial success than Dark Star. Another thing it did more of than Dark Star was emphasize a living and “lived-in” world. Technology in Star Wars showed wear and tear, and was well-integrated into the daily lives of the characters. Han Solo talks about the Millenium Falcon like it’s a souped-up sports car (disguised as a jalopy), Darth Vader and the Imperial high command debate the Death Star’s potential military impact.

Aside from making it distinct, this helped sideline the sci-fi tropes in order to make way for a (supposedly) universal story of high adventure, much like the planetary romances and samurai dramas that had inspired Lucas to begin with. Even aliens are part of the world. All someone in Star Wars need do if they want to encounter another species is go to the neighborhood bar. Aliens only seem exotic to a country bumpkin like Luke Skywalker. In essence, Star Wars was more high fantasy than science fiction.

               Between them, Star Wars and Dark Star opened other avenues of conversation in science fiction. This was especially true of the aesthetics that they helped foster, but also in terms of presentation. Suddenly, it was acceptable for science fiction to have a sense of humor, to depict people that weren’t paragons, and have the technology fade into the background.

In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream

               Then Alien came out. There had never been a film like it, yet there had also been many films like it. Best described as what can happen when a B-picture is given the same time and attention as an A-picture, Alien had theater-goers screaming bloody murder throughout its run. Although a horror film first and foremost, Alien forged the next link in the chain begun by Dark Star and Star Wars.

               This is hardly coincidental. Some of the creatives who worked on Alien had actually worked on both films, such as Dan O’Bannon, who wrote Dark Star and did special effects works for Star Wars. Artist Ron Cobb had previously designed the Dark Star itself. Meanwhile costume designer John Mollo had previously worked on Star Wars. Director Ridley Scott, who had no connection to either Star Wars or Dark Star, actually requested the design team look to Star Wars for inspiration. All that said, even though Alien does take elements from its two predecessors, it is much more than just the sum of its influences.  

Turning Science Fiction into Business as Usual

               Specifically, as noted above, Alien is first and foremost a horror film. While Dan O’Bannon did base his initial script on the one he wrote for Dark Star, the respective tones of the two films are very different. Likewise, Alien takes the “lived-in future” look that Star Wars invented an unprecedented distance. Since it’s a horror film, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the film’s color palate generally emphasizes dull reds and blacks and casts most of its sets in deep shadow. However, it goes well beyond that. The spaceship USCSS Nostromo, where the majority of the film’s action takes place, has a harsh, industrial look to its “lived-in” spaces that make them look inhospitable and impersonal even in areas that are clearly meant for the crew.  


               By contrast, the brightly lit U.S.S. Discovery One of 2001 seems to be largely built around its crew and their needs. Despite Discovery One and the Nostromo being around the same size (in the neighborhood of 800-1000 feet in length, though Nostromo is much bulkier), accommodations for the crew of the Nostromo almost seem to be an afterthought. As though the crew is considered a mere component of the ship. This also extends to the ship’s onboard computers. Before his malfunction, HAL was functionally a member of Discovery One’s crew. He was basically sentient and had sufficient natural language processing to have actual conversations with the rest of the crew. He did everything from consulting the crew on operational issues to displaying genuine interest in their artistic hobbies.

               Not so with the Nostromo’s computer. The ship’s MU/TH/UR 6000 unit barely interacts with the crew at all. The only ones who have any kind of direct contact with her are the ship’s officers. And even then, she can only answer specific queries. She has no capacity for natural language and no real intellect to speak off. In large part, she serves as an autopilot, running the ship’s autonomous systems while the crew is in suspended animation. Said crew only waking when MU/TH/UR encounters something that she can’t manage on her own, like making planetfall.        

Space Truck

               The Nostromo herself is not the pioneering prototype that Discovery One is, but she isn’t the barely functional wreck the Dark Star is either. In fact, she isn’t even the “piece of junk” that the Millenium Falcon is. Instead, she’s more like a tramp steamer or a long-haul big-rig. Though immense, she is dwarfed by the gargantuan automated ore processing facility that she tows through space. In whole aspect, and in direct contrast to Discovery One’s graceful lines, the Nostromo looks like half an air conditioner dragging goth-industrial Notre Dame behind it. Unlike 2001, the space the Nostromo moves though is more of a known quantity, and faster-than-light travel is commonplace. But space is still a dangerous place and the crew of the Nostromo experience similar stresses and boredom to long-haul truckers or merchant sailors.          

               Because Alien, unlike Dark Star, is a horror film it can play all the elements that Dark Star plays for comedy totally straight. Likewise, unlike Star Wars, the crew of the Nostromo has no grand destiny to fulfill or Campbellian archetypes to play out. They just want to get paid and go home.  

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