A Darker Side of Science
Though differing in mass and size, both Godzilla, Tokyo’s favorite colossal lizard, and the doubly-dentigerous xenomorphs in Alien are monsters cut from the same miscreant mold in many other respects. With that in mind, even though these twain terrorizers of the cinema screen were created from divergent cultures both share the common traits of science gone astray and technology run amok in their inceptions and subsequent storylines . These two ‘horriferous’ abominations also arose as reactionary anamneses in the aftermath of 20th-century wars—in the case of Godzilla, WWII, and that of Alien, the Cold War. As a result, both films share a similar nightmarish vision concerning the meaning of ‘monster’, while the fears behind their inceptions are quite noticeably different. However, neither the otherworldly Alien humanoid/biomechanoid nor the subterranean Godzilla transmogrified by the atom is constrained by the restrained logic and lofty reasoning that the scientific method so heavily relies upon. If anything, both silver-screen classics point a disapproving finger towards science; that is, when science is out of a scientist’s hands.
The term ‘monster’ itself seems like a cinch to ascertain a definition. Who hasn’t been afraid at some point in their lives of what might lurk in the depths of the dark (for myself, it was the Sleestaks from The Land of the Lost and Bigfoot…but that’s the subject matter for an entirely separate paper). A quick Google search for the word ‘monster’ and its definition will result in myriad options. So, let’s take a look at a few. Merriam-webster.com defines the ‘monster’ as “an animal or plant of abnormal form or structure” and as “a threatening force.” Dictionary.com defines ‘monster’ as “a legendary animal combining features of animal and human form or having the forms of various animals in combination” and “any animal or human grotesquely deviating from the normal shape, behavior, or character.” With such descriptions in mind, it’s a no-brainer that Alien and Godzilla are infested with the monster scourge. Both beasts grotesquely deviate from acceptable, contemporary—albeit earth-bound—norms; furthermore, both monsters are a combination of human, animal, and myth.
In the case of Godzilla, the creature is partially-dinosaur and partially-dragon/sea serpent from Japanese myth and legend. In the audio commentary of the film’s DVD, Ed Godziszewski, publisher and editor of Japanese Giants magazine, notes that Godzilla was a combination of “a Tyrannosaurus, an Iguanodon, and…a Stegosaurus.” In the film, the element of sea monster from Japanese legend and lore is addressed when news reporter Hagewara questions the village elder of Odo Island—the location of Godzilla’s initial wrath. He explains to Hagewara that Godzilla is “the name of a monster that lives in the sea. It will come from the ocean to feed on humankind to survive.” Steve Ryfle, author of Japan’s Favorite Mon-Star and commentator on the Godzilla DVD adds, “Many movies featured an island or an isolated place where the monsters began as a legend.” Ed Godziszewski also denotes, “The fact that Godzilla’s first appearance occurs during a fierce…further reinforces the idea that the monster is more than just an animal,”
In keeping with this element of myth, the phantasmagorical association of a fire-breathing dragon is evident in Godzilla even to those unfamiliar with the hirsute Japanese variety. Moreover, although the sub-aquatic monster’s hydrogen-bomb exhalations are scientifically explained in the film as a result from nuclear testing in the Pacific and the ensuing exposure to massive amounts of radiation, Godziszewski argues that the inhabitants of Odo island “are cut off from modern society and their customs and lifestyle are still rooted…when people believed in legends. This gives Godzilla a sense of the supernatural and even though we’ll get a scientific explanation for the creature’s appearance later on, it’s really only a theory.” He also adds that “we never really know if the monster [Godzilla] is a legendary beast or a nuclear mutant or both…the creature has a mythical dimension here.”
And what about the sleek specimen from the xenomorphic species found in Alien? Just because it’s extra-terrestrial in origin doesn’t mean it’s absolved of earthly ‘monster’ myths and meanings. The combination of human being and beast is apparent; however, what isn’t as clear is just which animal or animals comprise the beastly half. The anatomical construction of the extra-terrestrial in Alien leaves little room for refutation that there’s a humanoid element thrown into the mix—one head, two arms, an upright torso, bipedalism, opposable thumbs, and a pectoral girdle will do that—but the beast in ‘Star Beast’ (Alien’s original running title) is much harder to pinpoint. This general obfuscation is touched upon in the book Monster Theory where we find editor and contributing writer, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, verbalizing this confusion by stating that the monster in Alien defies “every natural law of evolution; by turns bivalve, crustacean, reptilian, and humanoid…It sheds its skin like a snake, its carapace like an arthropod. It deposits its young into other species like a wasp” (p.6). Perhaps, director Ridley Scott can shed some light on the subject.
Scott mentions in the audio-commentary accompanying the Alien DVD that he envisioned the downed alien spacecraft as “a biological or biomechanoid carrier of lethal eggs inside of which are the small creatures that, actually, fundamentally integrate—in a very aggressive way—into any society or any person.” The Alien director further elaborates that he was inspired by footage from an Oxford Scientific documentary: “They [Oxford Scientific] watched a slice of bark…and there’s a grub underneath the bark…across the top of the bark is crawling an insect [ichneumon wasp] which…feels the grub is there…It…produces a needle from…between its legs and drills through the bark and bull’s-eyes right into the grub and lays its seed…what comes out of the union between the grub and that particular insect, does that become a version of both? And that’s what we basically went along with.”
Ridley Scott expounds on this concept by explaining, “If you [the Alien] land on a human being, you’ll have a resemblance to a human being. If it's dropped on an ostrich, it would look like an ostrich.” In other words, before the facehugger’s parasitoid impregnation of the host, the victim’s genetic makeup is somehow assimilated into the xenomorph’s composition; thereby, peripherally mimicking the host body. So, what can we gather from these two descriptions? Well, for starters, we can ascertain that the bestial half of the alien species in the film is a cryptic mixture of:
· metamorphotic insectoid: egg→facehugger→chestburster/warrior/queen
· mimetic parasitoid: facehugger→host/chestburster hybrid
· cybernetic organism: biomechanoid
Scott’s use of the word ‘biomechanoid’ rather than ‘xenomorph’—as the species is referred to in sources outside of the film—suggests an even stronger reverence for Alien artist/designer H.R. Giger’s work; namely, his “Biomechanoid” series, which was released prior to his work on the film in the early 1970s. In his book, H.R. Giger ARh+, the artist remarks that his ‘biomechanoids’ works were “a harmonious fusion of technology, mechanics and creature” (p.48) Giger further elaborates that his artwork is laced with a grim message: “gene research will yet teach us fear. Cloning is already…a nightmare” (p.48). The allusions to the extra-terrestrial species in Alien possibly being a cybernetic organism with adaptive, assimilative abilities during its metamorphotic stages coupled with the beast’s unknown planet of origin, generates a level of fringe-scientific mystery comparable to Godzilla’s rather ambiguous origin (ie- Is he the result of nuclear testing, a mutated prehistoric dinosaur or some mythical sea-serpent worshipped by the inhabitants of Odo Island?).
Aside from shared contextual meanings and mysterious origins, the 50m-tall irradiated reptile and the biomechanoid life-form also have similar altercations with the ‘darker’ side of science. These scientific discoveries—and their sinister applications—aren’t in the hands of scientists but warmongers nations and their myopic governments. It’s alluded to in Alien that the biomechanoid species is one that has not evolved on some distant planet over hundreds of millions, but, rather, one specifically created and/or modified as a weapon of war by some other extraterrestrial race. In the commentary, Ridley Scott remarks, “I think the space-jockey [the alien giant found by members of the Nostromo crew] is, actually, somehow the pilot and he’s part of a military operation, if that’s the word you want to apply to his world and, therefore, this is probably some kind of carrier. A weapon carrier.”
Likewise, on the audio commentary of the Godzilla DVD, Ed Godziszewski notes that “Godzilla is a stand-in for the [atomic] bomb,” while Steve Ryfle remarks, “When he [Godzilla director, Ishiro Honda] returned to Japan after the war [WWII], he and his fellow soldiers travelled through the decimated city of Hiroshima and…This experience haunted Honda and he often claimed it had a major influence on the way he directed Godzilla. To Honda, Godzilla was not so much a metaphor for the bomb, but actually a physical manifestation of it.” Thus, Godzilla’s duality as innocent, prehistoric denizen of the deep caught in the crossfire of hairless apes and as harbinger of holocaustic retribution upon the civilization that dared a dalliance with the atom. Thus, Honda has deftly entwined social commentary with cautionary tale.
Honda’s fortified belief that the exploitation of science by personages bent on utilizing its applicative potential not as a tool to build but as a weapon to destroy is echoed in Godzilla’s other empirical tinderbox: that of the Oxygen Destroyer. Dr. Serizawa, the scientist responsible for its invention, describes the Oxygen Destroyer as “a device that splits oxygen atoms into fluids,” and further explains, “I came across an unknown form of energy…I discovered a powerful force that scared me beyond words…Used as a weapon, this would be as powerful as a nuclear bomb. It could totally destroy humankind!” In the commentary, Steve Ryfle notes that “Serizawa has been compared to J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who spearheaded the Manhattan Project…many of the physicists whose research led to the atom bomb actually started out searching for ways to apply Einstein’s theories to develop new sources of energy and eventually it was discovered that this energy could be used as a powerful weapon.” However, Ryfle further states that, while there are many similarities between Serizawa and Oppenheimer, there are also differences. Unlike the physicist behind the Manhattan Project, Serizawa viewed the Oxygen Destroyer as a scientific aberration and, because of this, has elected to keep it a secret from the rest of the world rather than pursuing any further experiments into its destructive capabilities.
Ryfle also indicates that Ishiro Honda, “placed more faith in men of science than the government of the military” and that, via the character of Serizawa, the Godzilla director was urgently “pleading with the scientific community to stop this madness of the Arms Race, and if you [the scientific community] do inadvertently invent another doomsday weapon, it’s your obligation to never reveal it.” Ultimately, Serizawa is persuaded into revealing his mysterious device to the world in order to eradicate the irradiated thunder-lizard, but only after he sets fire to his life’s work—the documents and paperwork containing the Oxygen Destroyer’s cryptic equations and schematic designs: “This will be the first and last time that I will ever allow the Oxygen Destroyer to be used,”
Unfortunately, the scientist in Alien isn’t as honorable or conscientious as Dr. Serizawa is, but he does keep his secrets. As the film progresses, we learn that Ash—resident science-officer of the commercial towing spacecraft the ‘Nostromo’—has a secret: he isn’t human but an android…an android programmed to follow through with the ‘Special Order 937’. The Nostromo’s owners and the crew’s employers, The Weyland-Yutani Corporation, has planted Ash amongst the towing starship’s crew, rerouted the Nostromo to rendezvous with the downed spacecraft housing the alien eggs on planetoid LV-426, and ordered the android to: “Investigate life form. Gather specimen. Priority one. Insure return of organism for analysis. All other considerations secondary. Crew expendable.”
Throughout Ash’s scenes in the film he is performing duties and task befitting a scientist; however, the android has his orders…even if it means lying to the crew members about the results of his empirical experiments, withholding any accurate information that he has gathered, and treating his fellow crewman as test subjects when he deems it necessary. After Ash’s hidden agenda has been exposed and his secret revealed, a confrontational scene between the android and the remaining crew members occurs. Ridley Scott signifies, “This is a great turnabout in the story because really just when you think your main—and only—aggressor is this thing loose on the ship, you now got a much bigger problem. You’ve got two aggressors which raises the paranoia and that of the audience twofold.” With that in mind, unlike Dr. Serizawa in Godzilla who has chosen to suppress his scientific discoveries and volatile device for the betterment of humankind, Ash in Alien is programmed to execute atrocities in the name of science; thus, making Alien have not one but two monsters.
After viewing both Godzilla and Alien, it becomes obvious that both of these science-fiction cinema classics are really nothing more than modern ghost-tales told ‘round the fire. So, what can we ascertain from watching Godzilla and Alien? For starters, both films portray the ‘monstrous’ repercussions of science when it’s used for military gains, to ensure political power, and/or to quench corporate greed. Furthermore, the use of science—or, more often than not, pseudo-science—as an instrument to demystify and rationalize the phantasmagorical element in contemporary cinema isn’t restricted to just Hollywood. It can also be surmised that monsters in science-fiction are re-appropriations of timeless myths and/or religious iconography that are identifiable beyond invisible borders. Perhaps, the language barrier and unfamiliar customs might be perplexing to the viewer at times, but what isn’t is the visual and visceral malevolence these Mephistophelean composites embody as they gnash and snarl and claw across theater screens.
In his book, The Savage Mind, anthropologist and ethnologist, Claude Levi-Strauss wrote that “instead of contrasting magic and science, [it is better] to compare them as two parallel modes of acquiring knowledge…Both science and magic…require the same sort of mental operations and they differ not so much in kind as in the different types of phenomena to which they are applied” (p.13). In relation to Godzilla and Alien, it could easily be argued that both the irradiated dinosaur with atomic halitosis and the xenomorph with an infinite set of fangs and barbed prehensile tail are spoken in scientific terminology, but they could just as easily be referred to as a wingless fire-breathing dragon and a pointy-tailed “black devil”—as Jeffrey Cohen refers to the xenomoprh terrorizing the Nostromo. This might help explain why both of these filmic fiends evoke fear in their viewers; thus making it that much effortless to suspend one’s disbelief. Both monsters symbolize and are synonymous with terror and danger in any language, to any culture, in any time, and in any size.
Alien. Dir. Ridley Scott. Perf. Sigourney Weaver, Ian Holm. 20th Century Fox, 1979. DVD.
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Giger, H. R. HR Giger ARh +. Zurich: Taschen, 1992. Print.
Gojira. Dir. Ishiro Honda. Toho Co. Ltd., 1954. DVD.
Levi-Strauss, Claude. The Savage Mind. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996. Print.