Thursday, October 18, 2012

Bumps in the Night

Last summer, megawatt directing talent Ridley Scott revisited the claustrophobic nightmare that was Alien in a new film called Prometheus. Set before the events that imbedded Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in pop culture's chest cavity, this film might have revealed, in a definitive, intelligent manner, how the murderous black creature came to be. Instead, the ambient, beautifully-shot Prometheus offered a creation-via-chaos plot that wasn't nearly as smart (or succinct) as it should have been.

But what's in an origin story, anyway? The iconic Hollywood monster, with its shiny black carapace, acidic yellow blood and toothed probe (for opening skulls) can support plenty of inventive narratives that needn't fall back on the melodrama of, "In the beginning-" As many directors do today, Scott and company could have found inspiration in comics. Dark Horse has been publishing first-rate Alien tales since the late 80s, and the series Labyrinth in particular gets my love for being impossibly good- better even than the last two films in the franchise.

Written by Jim Woodring, drawn by Kilian Plunkett, Labyrinth delivers on every toothsome requirement for a successful Alien tale: bleak tone, grimly motivated characters, gory comeuppance, and of course, new and well-conceived insights into the creature's biology. It takes place on a space station called the Innominata, where Dr. Paul Church experiments on Aliens and humans alike with chilly remove.

When Church's research partner dies under questionable circumstances, Dr. Anthony Crespi comes aboard to investigate. He finds that Church has set up a system of tunnels in which starved Aliens encounter succulent pigs, flame-throwing soldiers, and unarmed humans who are drugged with "FITR." It's a substance that increases one's sense of invulnerability and mental strength. These men, Church has found, can stand up to a weakened Alien without getting mauled.

But this plot (and its many possibilities) is merely an appetizer for Church's tale of how he first met the Alien. It happened on a terraformed moon, where he and his immediate family stopped to check on a communications device. With an Alien hive nearby (in all its bulbous glory), the skeletal beasties appeared quickly, rounding up the humans and dragging them inside the foul structure. There, Church and his family were poked, prodded and, in the case of a girl named Rebecca, dismembered.

Plunkett draws the Aliens and their bone-laced environment (designed by the surrealist painter H.R. Giger) with riveting exactitude. At his command, the creatures malinger and creep with a presence equal to the big-screen terrors filmed by Ridley Scott and James Cameron. The incredible detail of their biomechanical bodies is never abbreviated.

Woodring writes for Plunkett with visionary daring. We're allowed to see young Paul Church survive among the Aliens for months, becoming more of a scurrying wreck each day. He discovers that the creatures are being poisoned by something. Their spawn, which gestate in and burst from a (barely) living human host, are being born deformed. With bestial cunning, Church traces the problem to a black fungus growing inside the hive.

In the end, however, the Aliens force a crab-like facehugger over Church's mouth. He takes an egg down his throat and becomes host to a tiny monstrosity that'll eventually destroy him in birth. That the Aliens think so little of him to allow his coming and going proves a blessing. The fungus has laid them so low that he walks out of the hive, back to his family's ship. He then uses a robotic operating table to remove the embryo.

Prometheus actually uses that last bit. But I doubt we'll ever see the rest on film. It's far too methodical an abuse of a character, and to do the source justice, an iron-willed director would need to take audiences down past the Ninth Circle. Oh well. Maybe someday movies will be made for a song, and Darren Aronofsky will be taking requests.

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