When was the last time you were truly terrified by a big screen monster? That’s the question I’ve been asking myself repeatedly in the days since I watched Ridley Scott’s Prometheus.
Now, admittedly, Prometheus isn’t intended to be a pure work of horror, as Alien inarguably was. Just as the movies that followed Alien skipped genres (Aliens: sci-fi war movie, Alien 3: sci-fi philosophical drama, Alien Resurrection: knock-about sci-fi comedy), so Prometheus forges ahead with its own atmosphere and generic trappings.
While some readers may disagree, I’d argue that Prometheus is an adventure movie, the likes of which hasn’t been made in years. It has far more in common with movies such as This Island Earth or Forbidden Planet than it does with Alien; it’s about explorers heading into the unknown and discovering weird things on the other side of the universe. The closest modern analogue, perhaps, can be found in Brian De Palma’s Mission To Mars or Anthony Hoffman’s rival picture, Red Planet, both released in 2000. They were both about the perils of space exploration, and Red Planet in particular contained extraterrestrial encounters and philosophical beard stroking markedly similar to Prometheus.
What Prometheus does have in common with the Alien franchise, though, is monsters – and lots of them. While I won’t go into detail here, anyone who’s seen the trailers for Ridley Scott’s movie will know there are snake-like monsters, squid-like monsters, humanoid monsters, plus lots of assorted goo, gore and enough tentacles to fill a Greek seafood restaurant.
Again, this could be described as a purely subjective point but, as I sat in the dark watching Prometheus’ events unfold, I was somewhat mystified by how lacking in menace Scott’s menagerie of space creatures were. And looking over countless other reviews and opinion pieces in the days since, it seems that even some of Prometheus’ staunchest champions have found little to fear in the movie’s myriad star beasts.
Now, there are many reasons why this might be. The film’s overall tone, with its Star Trek-like score suggesting brave endeavour rather than fear, perhaps diminishes the blood-curdling effect of the various critters designed by Arthur Max and his team. And then there are the rather distracting reactions and tics displayed by Prometheus’ hapless and slightly neurotic crew – at least one of whom has the annoying habit of providing a running commentary of everything he’s suffering. This makes me wonder whether the creatures’ obsession with oral attack was merely a crude attempt to shut the crew up (“It’s on my arm! It’s in my suit! It’s slowly approaching my mouth! It’s actually in my mouth! Mmmff! Mmmmmfff!” Etc).
There’s also another explanation. Could it be possible that we’re collectively suffering a kind of monster fatigue? Although the designers behind Prometheus have tried hard to come up with something other than the usual roster of facehuggers, chestbursters, soldiers and queens that terrorised the cast of the central Alien franchise, the denizens of Prometheus still comprise the usual boney limbs, aquatic tentacles and gooey orifices.
This isn’t to say that Prometheus’ monsters aren’t well designed. The space jockeys’ bio-suits are particularly cool looking. The creature nicknamed Cuddles by certain impish sections of the Internet is a loathsome little thing, particularly when we’re first introduced to it. They’re handsome looking beasts, for sure. They’re also rather familiar looking.
Prometheus is a reminder, perhaps, of just how tough it is to come up with new and frightening monster designs. Plumbing back into the archives of film, there are very few monsters since the advent of Alien which can be described as truly new and terrifying. Before that 1979 classic, movie monsters had drifted into a rather silly, post-Frankenstein arena where all alien life looked a bit like Boris Karloff, all big of hand and lofty of forehead. For examples, look to The Thing From Another World, Alien inspiration It! The Terror From Beyond Space and the oddly loveable “Mute-Ant” from This Island Earth, mentioned earlier.
The big bad beast in Alien, meanwhile, seemed truly alive. It had a life cycle. It bled. It oozed goo. It had weird, secret hobbies which hinted that it wanted to do far more to your body than merely eat it.
This film, along with The Thing (1982) inarguably represented the high water mark of monster design in science fiction. Since then, few designers have managed to match that level of creativity, or of button-pushing dread. Predator (1987) came close, with its alien big game hunter imparting a sense of menace through his sheer size and apparent indestructibility.
Since the mid-80s, the power of the creature at the heart of Alien gradually diminished. Slaughtered in huge number by a team of grunts in Aliens, mutating into a greyhound-like ceiling sprinter in Alien 3, before teetering on the brink of self-parody in Alien Resurrection, the monster’s ability to provoke fear ebbed away as his (or her) face became increasingly familiar. Just as once terrifying icons as Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster eventually became the stuff of comedies and lunch boxes, so Giger’s Alien gradually made itself at home in the warmth of our general consciousness.
Of course, other movie monsters have tried to make their mark since. The creatures designed by Patrick Tatopolous for David Twohy’s fun B-movie Pitch Black were quite nice, but let’s face it, they were basically just giant bats. The subterranean things in The Descent were good, too, though their effectiveness was more down to Neil Marshall’s shadowy direction than their design; turn the lights on, and they’re just hairless, skinny goblins.
What appears to have happened in recent years is that, as the cost of make-up effects technology has gently fallen, and the production values of television shows has increased, you’re as likely to see a decently designed, gooey alien on the small screen as you are in the cinema. Just look at how intimidating The Silence are in Doctor Who, with their skull-like faces. Or, from the same show, look at the Weeping Angels. Or what about the Vashta Nerada?
Meanwhile, in the land of videogames, monsters lurk around every corner. We’ve slaughtered billions of the things in the Gears Of War franchise. We’ve wandered through their gooey lairs in the Halo series. We’ve battered them to death with blunt instruments in the Half-Life games.
Simply put, monsters are everywhere. They’re now so inescapable, it’s hardly surprising that the sudden appearance of a tentacle or a claw in a movie doesn’t fill us so much with a sense of horror as a sigh of, “Oh. It’s one of those. Again.”
Spotting one in a movie isn’t so much like staring your own mortality in the face – it’s more like looking at the leftovers on a plate in an all-you-can-eat seafood restaurant.
It doesn’t help that the current crop of movie monsters all seem to share the same DNA these days. Some of the alien mutations in last year’s The Thing prequel looked decent enough, but they lacked the impact and hideous conviction of Rob Bottin’s creations for the 1982 original.
There is, however, a glimmer of hope. It only takes one designer with genuinely fresh new ideas to scare the life out of us. We only need one artist with the weird hang-ups and warped imagination of HR Giger to get our pulses waiting again. People with this kind of genius only come along once a generation or so, but rest assured: another will arise.
So while the monsters in Prometheus didn’t make us break into a cold sweat as we’d hoped, we’re happy to wait patiently until the next maniacal monster designer finally brings us the embodiment of fear we’re waiting for.
As Newt famously said in Aliens, “My mommy said there aren’t any monsters. No real ones. But there are…”
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