The James Clayton Column: the alien truth

The arrival of Skyline leaves James pondering the existence of aliens, Lovecraft, and an invasion of cells and smells. Probably best if we let him explain...

Do aliens exist? Of course they do! I’ve seen them in films! Ergo, they are real, no question. You can’t just get the green light and funding for movies that are made of lies and total falsehoods…

The cosmic rule is this: if more than three motion pictures have been based around the doubted concept then it’s genuine and actual. This is why we can be sure that there is a God, that there is a Holy Grail and that there are werewolves.

As for aliens, the amount of movie material devoted to extra-terrestrial life speaks for itself, and disbelievers are deluded and in denial. Pity these poor blinkered individuals and look upon them with sympathy as they roll their eyes and bury fingers in their ears. (That’s neither hygienic nor dignified.)

They won’t be contemptuously laughing and smiling so smugly when Invasion Of The Body Snatchers rolls out and the Pod People assume control – though the absence of laughter will be due to the alien imitators’ inability to feel emotion. Box office revenues for comedy films are going to tank in the post-assimilation period.

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Reels represent reality, and thanks to the movies we are aware that aliens exist, that some of the non-Terra outsiders are benign, curious travellers who come in peace, and that some are evil entities intent on the subjugation of our species and Earth’s annihilation.

We also know, thanks to film, that we don’t encounter them on a regular basis because of the prevalence of human germs and the popularity of country music. These things kill them (see a War Of The Worlds adaptation and Mars Attacks! for reference) and as long as they feel threatened by the common cold and Slim Whitman yodelling, they’re not likely to be presenting themselves in the public eye any time soon.

The key question is not whether aliens exist but what they are like. On this point the films fail to find agreement. District 9 posits that they are “fookin’ prawns” whereas the Alien series imagines them as even less lovable xenomorphic H.R. Giger nightmares.

The Blob gives us a gelatinous mass and, conversely, other old-school B-movies present humanoids with sparkly skin and shiny suits. E.T. on the other hand/claw/tentacle looks like a deformed potato with a glowy finger.

The look of the extra-terrestrial craft that they travel in is also a source of conjecture, though usually the spaceships are levitating globes, flying saucers on puppet strings or dirty hulking techno-cephalopods (in the case of Skyline suped up as blue lightshow space hoovers).

Pinning down an archetypal idea of an alien – because people want a definitive version they can cling on to and think about whenever threatening visions of Predator creatures creep into their conscious – the average Earthling would give you the following picture, crudely drawn with crayons and felt-tip pen. Aliens are little green or grey men with bulbous heads, big eyes and squeaky voices. They are pretty much peculiar humans with some high-tech gadgets, accentuated features, and they whizz around in cigar-shaped UFOs.

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This idea is well and truly ingrained in the popular imagination. As far as I know it’s one of the fundamental notions on which Paul – the upcoming Simon Pegg/Nick Frost road movie – is based.

No one is surprised by the sight of a waddling alienoid on the streets of America. Far weirder stuff can be found shuffling around sci-fi conventions or on reality TV shows. If you’re looking for intergalactic visitors and expecting them to be fleshier versions of the squeezy little fellows from Toy Story (“The Claw! He has been chosen!”) then you’re probably just going to waste a lot of time and experience a huge amount of disappointment.

In terms of representing the alien form, films like John Carpenter’s The Thing and Don Siegel’s Invasion Of The Body Snatchers are possibly the closest to actuality. In those movies the visitors are physically intangible – shapeshifting, mimicking entities that adapt and infiltrate host bodies. They have no firm physicality that human eyes can recognise and comprehend. No fuzzy feelers or webbed fingers – just the unsettling feeling that you’ve been permeated by something you can’t easily draw on a pad of paper with crayons.

These things are not of this Earth and have evolved, been born and been conditioned in an environment totally dissimilar to that of our lump of celestial rock. It’s unlikely, therefore, that they are going to be mirror images of ourselves or the animals we share this planet with.

I’m inclined towards a view that the character of the otherworldly ones is unobtainable and beyond our basic comprehension. Here I follow the thoughts of cosmic horror writer H.P. Lovecraft and the concepts that form the core of his Cthulhu mythos more than the imaginations of 50s B-movie producers.

Lovecraft wasn’t just some eccentric peddler of pulp fiction myths – he was a visionary who realised deeply troubling truths, and it’s more credible, in my humble opinion, to speculate that visitors from outer space will come as vague colours or gases, insubstantial membranes or obscure anatomical forms that our senses have no hope of grasping or understanding.

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We’re imagining E.T. and giant flashing orbs when perhaps we should be pondering invisible rays, inexplicable odours and amorphous molecules outside of the visible spectrum.

Furthermore, the alien visitation trope always involves spacecraft landings, and we’ve repeatedly swallowed scenes of low-flying saucers and annihilated landmarks. But what if these pictures are completely off?

The tagline for Skyline is “Don’t look up” which may, inadvertently, be the smartest thing the movie says. Perhaps the extra-terrestrials aren’t going to emerge from the sky. Perhaps – in line with Lovecraft’s visions of the Great Old Ones and other subterranean eldritch beings – they will come from inside and not outside of our planet. At some point in Skyline someone states – as many others in sci-fi movies have – “We don’t know what’s out there”. Similarly, we don’t know what’s in there, under there, in here or in us.

Chasing around after clichés distracts us from more distressing ideas. Maybe the extra-terrestrials are already here amongst us and are so acclimatised and ubiquitous that we wouldn’t notice them. Who’s to say that we can’t perceive what could be an omniscient, omnipotent entity that’s already arrived? Perhaps they are us and have been us – floating around in the ‘human’ bloodstream – for eons. Do you feel cosmic, man?

Far-fetched? It’s got more credibility than a giant blue-light space hoover. Klaatu barada nikto!

James’ previous column can be found here.

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James sketched a series of movie-spoof comics and they can be found here.

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