Isolation, Science Fiction and Ridley Scott

Scott’s sci-fi films explore isolation in people, places and processes.

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If you are a film fan, you are probably a science fiction fan. And if you are a science fiction fan, there is a fair chance you have enjoyed a Ridley Scott movie or two in the past. What makes sci-fi so utterly compelling is its potential; the thematic possibilities are endless and, tonally-speaking, very little is off bounds. The genre fits in any number of settings – dramatic, funny, mysterious, scary – and riding the waves of its theme pool are a host of subjects ranging from encroaching capitalism to religious allegory.

It is a rich genre, one that has provided the basis for a true cinematic icon to develop and deliver. Ridley Scott’s relationship with science fiction is fleeting when you consider his total output (he has made 24 films and only a fifth have sci-fi hallmarks). But when he does shoot for the stars, the outcome tends to strike bullseye.

Two of Scott’s earlier jaunts, Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982), remain seminal touchstones for film lovers and filmmakers, and while Prometheus (2012) has its fair share of detractors, you will only ever find me bowing to its eerie overtures. All three of those movies, alongside both The Martian (2015) and Alien: Covenant (2017), have a central thematic commonality woven throughout their narratives: Isolation. Here, I am going to explore the ways in which Scott intriguingly tackles different forms of isolation in his sci-fi films. Warning: There will be spoilers.

It is one of the most famous taglines in movie history: “In space, no-one can hear you scream.” It is also a logistical reminder that space is a lonely place. The opening shot of Alien reflects exactly that, slowly panning across the atmosphere into darkness with only a dim hum for company. Cinematographer Derek Vanlint then takes us on a trip around the Nostromo, during which silence and emptiness reign supreme. There are no spoken words – certainly nothing distinguishable – for at least six minutes, and when the crew do spark into life there are only seven mouths primed for yapping.

Alien is essentially a parable about the woes and anxieties brought on by inescapable isolation. Scott and screenwriter Dan O’Bannon probe at our innate fears surrounding solitude and the inevitability of it; at some point – be it for an hour, or a day, or a year – we are all alone. When technical problems make it difficult for the crew to maintain a link with ‘the outside world’, that primal fear is set in motion. As the film progresses, members are picked off one-by-one until only Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) remains, left to squirm in a blend of isolation and uncertainty.

But before we get to that point, Scott and co. examine the various factors that cause isolation. It is money that forces the crew to alter their homeward-bound route, subsequently driving them directly into danger and death (as Science Officer Ash (Ian Holm) reminds everyone, investigating potential alien life is a must otherwise they will all forfeit their pay). The planetoid that hosts said lifeform is misty and grainy and dark, with craggy mountains and tough terrain – perfect conditions to get lost in.

The dead creature the crew finds acts almost as a warning. Left to languish for an eternity, the alien body represents the results of inactivity and desolation. Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt), Executive Officer Kane (John Hurt) and navigator Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) also discover large eggs, prompting a symmetry between how the facehuggers inside said eggs and the Nostromo crew members are introduced – both species are fragmented and alone at first, hatching from their personal zones of seclusion (the seven aboard the Nostromo are initially shown waking from a stasis effect while inside separate pods).

Humans and facehuggers are introduced in a similarly isolated fashion, the former inside stasis pods and the latter giant eggs.

As disaster bursts from the chest of Kane in that famous scene, the impending threat ushers in urgent anxiety. “I just wanna get the hell outta here, alright?” Thereafter, individuals succumb to the Alien – which has grown significantly while out of sight aboard the ship, using isolation as a weapon against the humans – in systematic fashion. The longer the crew are locked away from civilisation, the bigger the Xenomorph becomes and the more danger they face.

MOTHER, the ship’s version of Siri, is the only external contact, an artificial form of life and an untrue companionship experience. It transpires that Ash is an android and that he has manipulated his astral acquaintances directly into their volatile situation. Technological marvel Ash could be considered the primary cause of the crew’s isolation, an idea Scott explores with greater vigour in both Prometheus and Alien: Covenant.

Ripley is the last woman standing and her anxiety is palpable, particularly when left on her lonesome to battle the Xenomorph inside an emergency escape shuttle. Even after Ripley defeats her terrifying enemy there remains a wary uncertainty surrounding whether or not she will survive alone in space (thankfully she makes it, and subsequently cements her reputation as a badass action hero in Aliens).

Whereas Alien depicts literal loneliness in the form of people being stuck millions of miles from refuge, Scott’s noir-ish sci-fi entry Blade Runner is set in a land that bustles with bleak vibrancy. The isolation in this instance is born not out of anxiety, but of identity crisis. Is Deckard (Harrison Ford) a human or a replicant? Ford reckons his character is a genuine guy made of flesh and bone, and many agree with that interpretation.

However, Scott has always maintained his belief that Deckard is a none-the-wiser replicant designed to annihilate his own kind. In a 2007 interview with Wired he stated, “[On whether it was ever written down on paper that Deckard is a replicant] It was, actually… Deckard, too, has imagination and even history implanted in his head”. Whichever way you see it, this mystery grants the character special status – in flux between human and machine. He has to be one or the other but since the film does not explicitly state which, we can consider the merits and demerits of both prospective forms.

Deckard is a figure steeped in seclusion: When we meet him he is living by himself in a quiet, lightless apartment that gives off a claustrophobic resonance. Ford’s character is very much a loner, a disagreeable antihero caught up in a busy haze that he clearly has no time for. Light has to fight tooth and nail to get some air time, otherwise darkness and shadow loom large.

Light fights its way into Deckard’s otherwise shadowy, dark room.

Shots guided by Jordan Cronenweth’s deft hands often hone in on Deckard’s morose expression, his singular existence emphasised further by Vangelis’ stunning-yet-melancholic score. There might even be value in comparing Deckard and Blade Runner to Bill Murray’s Bob Harris in Lost in Translation, alongside each film’s respective score.

“How can it not know what it is?” Deckard poses the question in reference to Rachael (Sean Young), a replicant under the impression she is human. But is he actually questioning his own internal complex? The way he treats Rachael – unsympathetically breaking the news to her that she is not a person – is unorthodox and unkind, suggesting an inexperience around others perhaps brought on by his inability to understand himself.

It is a similar story later when the pair get intimate: Deckard is forceful, almost as if he is desperate to escape his personal isolation and can see a way out, can see a similar yearning, in replicant Rachael. When she ‘disappears’ in anguish over her true identity, Rachael actually goes looking for Deckard and saves his life. Perhaps Scott and writers Hampton Fancher and David Peoples are implying these characters have come to the realisation that inter-species comfort is their only way to evade loneliness.

Aside from identity strands, Blade Runner also considers how isolation can cloud morality. The replicants Deckard is tasked with eliminating, led by the creepily mesmerising Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), need to find their corporate creator Dr. Tyrell (Joe Turkel) in order for them to extend their lives. The latter group crave collective survival whereas the former, Deckard, seeks to enforce terminal solitude.

Pris, a female replicant insurgent played by Daryl Hannah, preys on a lonely designer who has close links to Tyrell, taking advantage of his separation from civilisation in an Under the Skin-esque turn of events. The replicants are constantly shown working in tandem (or at least trying to) whereas the human characters all function apart: Deckard as a lone ranger, Sebastian as the aforementioned designer, and even Tyrell, whom we find alone in his room playing chess with a machine.

When Rachael asks Deckard if he has ever taken the empathy test that identifies artifice, he has no answer. By the end of the film we finally see Deckard refute isolation by running away with Rachael, and perhaps accepting his identity as a replicant. Or perhaps not.

Scott’s first return to the Alien universe brought with it many familiarities – the lone female survivor, the impending remoteness – but Prometheus also introduced a more complex agent: David the android (Michael Fassbender). This time when the camera has a peek around the ship at the start of the film, David is the solitary presence filling the steady silence.

Android David examines a mysterious egg, harking back to a similar scene in Alien.

David is in isolation from humanity because he (we’ll go with he) is not human. He is a literal loner in Prometheus. But Scott uses David’s uncanniness, his humanlike appearance and voice, to invert the norm. It also helps that Fassbender is a recognisable Hollywood star. And as it turns out, we, humanity, are actually the ones in isolation – again, the Prometheus crew are separated from home by millions of miles and a handful of years.

But Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof’s script opts to jab at the figurative. At one point, while donning a spacesuit he does not need, David says, “I was designed like this because you people are more comfortable interacting with your own kind. If I didn’t wear a suit it would defeat the purpose”. The Weyland Corporation has created a synthetic non-human solely to have it fit in with its human counterparts, to aid their quest away from isolation.

David is imperative to the crew’s success: He appears to run the ship when they are all in stasis; he identifies dangerous atmospheric changes; he even saves archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw’s (Noomi Rapace) life during a huge storm. The suggestion, quite indiscreetly, seems to be that without artificial intelligence humanity would be isolated from achievement, from discovery, and from the answer to the film’s central question: Who created us?

These grand notions surrounding humankind and seclusion can be localised by examining individual crew members. Charlize Theron’s corporate employee is cold, sort of like Deckard, but wants to be accepted. When Idris Elba’s captain follows up a sex proposal with, “Are you a robot?” a subtly downbeat Vickers obliges not the captain’s identity question, but his sex request. And much like the replicants in Blade Runner, Prometheus CEO Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) wants to be saved from death.

It is Shaw, though, who is the most interesting case. The end of Prometheus yields another sole female survivor. A trembling Shaw exclaims, “I can’t do it anymore”. She is alone, truly separated from aid, until she hears David’s voice and feels a semblance of hope. Shaw is the only believer aboard a ship full of sceptics, scientists, and money-hoarders. Her isolation is also wrapped up in faith, which arguably abandons her as the film develops (she cannot conceive and then conceives a monster; she spends her life working towards meeting her maker and then her maker kills those around her).

Prometheus’ take on isolation is both hopeful and grim, but The Martian wholly falls under the tutelage of the former. Buoyed by a sprightly, energetic, and light-hearted air, Scott shows how isolation can bring out the best in humanity. Matt Damon’s stranded astronaut thrives both mentally and technologically because he has to, but also because solitude affords him time to thoroughly plan and execute tasks (such as growing potatoes). The film is a “feel-good hymn to human ingenuity,” according to Den of Geek’s Ryan Lambie, and was also a welcome shift in tone for Scott at that stage in his sci-fi career.

Mark Watney grows potatoes, showing inventive qualities despite his lonely predicament on Mars.

But all hope dies eventually, especially in the often bleak world(s) of science fiction. And in the form of Alien: Covenant, we see this decimation of hope. Scott both reinforces and slices through notions of isolation early on as he kills the captain of the Covenant, the husband of main character Daniels (Katherine Waterston), before introducing a crew made up of married couples.

Covenant charts humanity’s attempts to overcome isolation, exemplified in the crew’s central mission to lead their colonisation craft – populated by thousands of in-stasis colonists – to a remote planet. Unlike both the original Alien and Prometheus, there is significant personnel volume backing up the cause, a cause built around the desire for human connection between multiple planets.

We also see the crew fight back against isolative tendencies when they decide to uncover the source of a mysterious call. And this is where the crew’s willingness to connect with others backfires. For not only does their collective decision to explore result in the death of various crewmembers, it also reacquaints us with Prometheus’ David. Only, on this occasion, the Covenant unites David with an upgraded twin, Walter (Michael Fassbender).

No longer is David the ‘literal loner’. He now has a partner, or a muse, or a tool to further his own agenda. In Covenant, Scott and screenwriters John Logan and Dante Harper invert the liberal attributes of internationalism (or universalism, if we are talking space) by presenting a story that sees humanity’s attempt to discover new peoples, planets and species result in death – David has essentially been breeding Xenomorphs using human DNA, and unleashes said Xenomorphs on humanity.

Walter: David’s upgraded android sibling.

Covenant, as such, also bears the hallmarks of an anti-colonisation movie. We might read it not as a parable against the virtues of internationalism, but as a warning that isolation is not always a cut-and-dry form of existence. Accordingly – forgetting for a moment the troubling binary symbolism set out by humans vs. monsters – the film echoes anti-imperialist sentiments, perhaps decrying the West’s warring tendencies or the European colonisation of Indigenous places and peoples.

Isolation as a form of anxiety. Isolation as a consequence of identity-crisis. Isolation as a technological problem. Isolation as a beacon of hope. Isolation as a warning against imperialism. One thing is for sure: You won’t feel isolated from thematic meaning while watching a Ridley Scott sci-fi film.

Images (©): 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros.

Chappie (2015)

★★

Chappie PosterDirector: Neill Blomkamp

Release Date: March 6th, 2015 (UK and US)

Genre: Action; Science-fiction; Thriller

Starring: Shartlo Copley, Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman

As Chappie gets under way atop a wave of rolling news clips and documentary-style snippets, there’s a vague familiarity in the air. We soon meet Dean (Dev Patel), a quirky and smart employee, and shortly thereafter encounter the film’s titular robot (Sharlto Copley). The two become entrenched in a rebellion against corporate injustice, where agendas are warped by power and economics. There is a CEO overlord (Sigourney Weaver) with iffy morals and a brash militant understudy (Hugh Jackman) with iffier intentions, and it doesn’t take long for our artificially intelligent robot to intertwine with humanity’s complexities.

If you can hear any bells ringing in your mind at this point, it is because Chappie is another Neill Blomkamp film wrapped up in the woes of society and class and science. It’s District 9. It’s even sort of Elysium. The thematic content isn’t bad at all — the director has proven in the past that exploring societal issues can be a rewarding experience. Rather, Blomkamp’s third film struggles because it doesn’t differentiate itself from his previous two.

Nor does Chappie click tonally. We’re in a constant kinetic flux, the tone jumbled and jumping around too much, a problem embodied by our central machine who manifests as a bubbly toddler one minute and a gun-wielding lunatic the next. The robot doesn’t garner enough empathy to start with because he (it’s male, apparently) has never been a human. But the disconnect is ultimately established due to Chappie’s lack of identity. A human character can get away with this lack of identification because we can relate to a person more than a robot. It is possible for an AI character to do the same — Alicia Vikander manages without personality in Ex Machina — but not in this instance. Chappie, voiced fairly well by Sharlto Copley, is at his most engaging when he’s acting up; a car-jacking scene is one of the film’s few brilliant moments, almost as culturally reflective as it is hilarious.

Generally though, the bits and pieces that make up the film are all a bit weird. As former soldier Vincent, Hugh Jackman (despite being an entertaining watch) looks like he is about to film a Steve Irwin biopic. The South African duo, a musical group known as Die Antwoord, don’t fit into the gritty urbanised world. They belong in a Tim Burton fantasy adventure, though on the basis of their performances here, that won’t be happening any time soon. For some reason, Sigourney Weaver — who will be teaming up with Blomkamp again for his upcoming Alien revival — is underused as a plain company figurehead.

On the more reality-mirroring side of things, we see capitalist manipulation: “It’s expensive, it’s big and it’s ugly,” is the reply Vincent receives as he tries to sell army-ready machines to the army (we’re subsequently left to wonder why money isn’t being thrown at him). A thematic favourite of Blomkamp, machine intelligence versus human ideology, fuels an underbelly that is certainly justified given the postmodern technological surroundings, yet never really amounts to much. Had they not been made in such close proximity to one another, you would be forgiven for thinking the folks behind Chappie were privy to Wally Pfister’s Transcendence in relation to ideas on concluding. Despite that movie’s many shortcomings, it is actually better and more accomplished than Chappie.

On an aesthetic front, the post-industrial setting is a good one, however instead of being a vehicle for entrapment, the relentlessly murky and dank atmosphere quickly becomes a trend-setter for the bland story unfolding (pathetic fallacy gone wrong). There are some impressive slow motion shots employed during the action sequences that reverberate well with the film’s technological arc. In fact, Trent Opaloch’s cinematography is a success — in purely visual terms the film does its job. Opaloch worked on Blomkamp’s previous two outings as well as The Winter Soldier, and his notable efforts have earned him a spot on the next Captain America film too.

Unfortunately, the visual aspect can’t quite rescue Chappie from a messy final third. The film slowly saunters along towards a fairly energetic conclusion but by then we’re sitting wondering why we should care. There are so many different parties involved in the action at the end that it feels like the battle of the five armies all over again. In screenplay terms, this wholly contrived finale is just about the final nail in a coffin of banality and nonsensicalness.

Chappie isn’t a bad film, but at some point Blomkamp needs to change things up or else risk artistic homogenisation. He is obviously a talented filmmaker; the simple fact that his films have something pertinent to say about how we live, have lived and might live is testament to his skill level. But after two solid outings, Chappie feels like a step backwards. It’s almost as if the director who once challenged the norm has conformed to it.

Chappie - Jackman

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Columbia Pictures