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Sunday, June 10, 2012

Retro Nostalgia: Alien (1979) and the Uncanny Valley

Having recently viewed and podcasted about Ridley Scott's prequel, Prometheus, I decided it would be a great idea to revisit the Alien franchise by re-watching Ridley Scott's original:  Alien.  Released in 1979, the film remains one of the most terrifying science fiction movies to hit the big screen, despite the obvious dating in its technology (updated considerably in Prometheus -- because computers with green letters and typewriter clicking sounds are so obviously old school).  But what is it that terrifies us about the xenomorph in this film and its immediate sequels (Aliens and Alien 3)?
For me, it has to do with the premise behind the concept of the Uncanny Valley:
At its most basic, Masahiro Mori's concept suggests that the more human an inhuman thing appears, the more uncomfortable human beings become.  Many have applied the concept to robotics and video games, but I think the above image shows how it can also apply more broadly to the fantastic.  While some research suggests that the hypothesis doesn't hold up under scrutiny, I do think it remains an important explanation for why we are terrified of the xenomorph and other science fiction creations (perhaps someone could explore how it relates to Splice, which seems to dig into an even greater human terror:  our creations turning on us).
Where the xenomorph sits on the scale is up to speculation, but re-watching Alien reminded me how human these creatures really are.  It's against those humanoid features that its most terrifying aspects play out on the screen.  It's a bipedal creature with arms and hands not unlike our own, with an identifiable head, pelvis, and similar humanoid features, such as feet.  But its skin is insect-like; it's mouth is full of sharp teeth and hides a second mouth that shoots out to puncture flesh; it's head is elongated to exaggerated levels; its blood is acidic; and it has a long, skeletal and pointed tail, which it uses to coax terrified prey closer to its mouth.

All of these features at once remind us of ourselves, but also remind us of what we are not.  And for me, that's bloody terrifying.  Giant squid other kinds of incredibly inhuman creatures don't terrify me nearly as much as those beings that verge into human territory.*  This is perhaps why the Space Jockey, as re-imagined by Ridley Scott in Prometheus, made me uneasy.  Once you see what they look like underneath all that bizarre armor, they are surprisingly human, more so even than the xenomorph.  And something about that makes their actions in the movie more terrifying, but also strangely more familiar (but that's perhaps something to think about another day...).
What about you?  What terrifies you about the xenomorph or other science fiction monsters?  The comments are yours.


*I'm speaking about terror with regards to the unreal.  If a xenomorph and a giant squid showed up in my living room, both with the intent to kill me, I would be equally terrified of both.  Thankfully, that would never happen.

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  1. Funny, I was trying to explain the Uncanny Valley a few weeks ago in terms of a disquieting book cover.

  2. Great minds think alike :)

    Which book cover?

  3. Greatshadow by James Maxey.