The Alien Problem

Aliens are tough.

If you want scary aliens in your movie, you have only two real options: human-scary aliens, and non-human-scary aliens.

Human-scary almost never works.  Human-scary aliens look basically like humans.  They walk like humans.  They have two legs, two arms, two eyes in their one head.

Human-scary aliens are rarely scary.  Or, rather, if they are scary, they are only scary the way that humans can be scary.  Take the aliens in M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs.

Signs Alien

From ‘Signs’.  Just a big-headed guy: not scary.

They weren’t scary, unless they were creeping through cornfields, or leaping out from a dark corner, or grabbing at you suddenly from under a door.  But a housecat can startle you if it sneaks up on you – that doesn’t make it scary.  These aliens aren’t frightening, or even particularly interesting, to look at.  That’s why they are almost never shown straight on, and, when they are, they are in shadow, or blurry.  Even Predator, with his far-out face, basically looks and walks like a muscular guy.


Predator.  Gnarly, but not scary.

The only way to make human-scary aliens actually scary is to bend their human forms in some way, like the broken-human, many-legged Thing (from the the 2011 remake), which scrabbles around like a crab.

The Thing

The 2011 Thing.  This would get your attention.

Contrast the ‘Signs’ aliens with the Alien aliens.  The ‘Alien’ aliens are the best non-human-scary aliens in all cinema.  The Alien is bizarre and creepy, fascinating to look at when it stands still, let alone when it moves (although it does move bipedally and have arms, it isn’t humanoid).



The Alien was designed by H.R. Giger, which gives one a sense of how much work and genius it takes to design a really scary alien.

In the opinion of this author, the Alien has never been matched.  However, CGI has created some interesting runners up.  However, most of them are, like Alien, insectoid.  For example, take a look the skittering parasites from Cloverfield (which owe their form in part to the bugs from Starship Troopers, which, though the movie is funny, are a convincing menace).

Cloverfield Parasite

Cloverfield parasite.

Starship Troopers Bug

‘Starship Trooper’ Bug.

Which is why it made for a nice change to encounter the wing-dinging alien Mimics in the ‘Edge of Tomorrow’.  These fast-moving and tentacled aliens owe more to octopi than to insects, although even they owe something to Giger, with their semi-mechanical steampunkish tentacles.  And while their faces were, of course, disappointingly human, they are the best aliens seen in a long while.


A Mimic.

A still doesn’t really do the Mimic justice; their most affecting quality is their movement.  They are very fast, and move non-linearly, which makes them difficult for a human eye to follow.

And that is exactly the point of aliens: they aren’t like us.  They shouldn’t look like us, think like us, or move like us, and the more unlike us they are, the better they are able to do the job of scaring us.

Anyone who enjoyed the ‘Alien’ movies even a little should take a look at H.R. Giger’s printed work.  The Necromonicon is a good place to start.

‘The Edge of Tomorrow’ is based on the novel All You Need Is Kill, by Hiroshi Sakurazaka.

‘Starship Troopers’ is also based on a novel, Starship Troopers, by Robert Heinlein. 


Why Does ‘House of Cards’ Keep Abusing Small Animals?

Or, Beyond Mr. Bigglesworth

Disgression on ‘House of Cards’

     This post contains mild, and largely irrelevant, spoilers.

     Like many Americans, I have been watching the Netflix series ‘House of Cards’.  When Netflix releases an original series, it makes an entire season available for instant streaming online, and, again, like many Americans, I binge-watch.  Binge-watching television can certainly enhance the viewer’s experience; however, it is unforgiving to the shows themselves.  Bad or repetitive writing, or over-reliance on certain plot devices, becomes apparent when you watch one episode right after another.  Watching a lot of one show in a short amount of time helps the viewer identify patterns that they might otherwise have forgotten from one week to the next.

     For example, ‘House of Cards’ really has it in for small animals.  In the second season alone, Cashew the guinea pig has been tortured, and a small parrot deliberately crushed.

     Now, two incidents does not, strictly speaking, make a pattern; however, the lamentable fates of these two animals is particularly striking because small animals rarely feature in prime time television (or the Netflix equivalent).  Dogs are obviously cinematic darlings, and cats have their place in plot or character development: they can be relied on to knock things over, or signal that an unmarried woman is letting herself go.  Even fish occasionally appear, to be swallowed or flushed, but outside of animated movies, other small pet animals are few and far between. Several minutes of hard thought have produced the names of only two movies in which small animals figure largely: ‘Babe’ and ‘Willard’.

     So why do they keep showing up in ‘House of Cards’, and why do they keep having unfortunate ‘accidents’?  Let’s first take the case of the unnamed and broken parrot. Having a character torture an animal is an easy way to show that he is really evil and deranged.  Raymond Tusk, the man who kills his own parrot, seemed kindly at first; presumably, his avian-murderous streak is meant to show you, the viewer, how wrong you were.  The fact that the killing is sudden and, apparently, out of character may be the point: however unlikely it is that a man who breeds parrots would become so enraged with one chirping that he would break its neck, as simple gestures go, it’s an efficient way to communicate brutality.

     Cashew the guinea pig is harder to explain.  Guinea pigs almost never feature in dramatic plots: they aren’t very active, and they seriously lack charisma.  So, from the beginning, Cashew’s presence was puzzling.  She was featured prominently in several scenes, and attention was drawn to her well in advance of her being squished.

     In fact, that very attention should have made it clear that the future was dark for Cashew.  Given how un-scintillating she was as a character (how unrecognizable, even – if one were not familiar with guinea pigs, one might be forgiven for wondering why Gavin Orsay kept clutching an enormous dust bunny), she was either a very strange character detail, or an intended victim.  As it turns out, she was both.  Orsay himself explains his ownership of Cashew as an existential reminder – she helps the hacker to remember that he might at any moment find himself behind bars.  Why someone would want a pet who served as an aide-memoire of one’s own worst outcome is unexplained.  However, Orsay clearly loves Cashew, which is why things will obviously not go well for her.  He is an angry, anti-government vigilante; she is his weakness.  Like clockwork, when a malevolent FBI agent arrives to strongarm good behavior from Orsay, he illustrates his metaphorical boot on the hacker’s neck by placing his literal boot on Cashew.

     Still, the mean FBI agent might just as easily have leaned on a puppy – why a guinea pig?  Jimmi Simpson, the actor who plays Orsay, has suggested that Cashew is a guinea pig to show how uncomfortable with human companionship his (Simpson’s) character is – basically, the only company he can tolerate is a furry chicken nugget.  Perhaps that’s all there is: Cashew is there precisely because she is so un-dynamic.  However, her oddness steals the show, and it may be that Cashew is the most sympathetic character in the entire second season of ‘House of Cards’.

Brown Marmorated Stink Bugs

     There was a great article in the New York Times Magazine a few weeks ago.  The article, written by Jon Mooallem, is called ‘There’s a Reason They Call Them ‘Crazy Ants’’.  It’s about the Rasberry crazy ant (or ‘Tawny crazy ant’), an invasive species of small ant that is currently wreaking havoc in Texas.  These ants apparently behave erratically (a concept I find I enjoy), hence their name: ‘crazy ant’.  They swarm by the literal million, and seem to particularly enjoy destroying electronics.  No one knows whether they simply find the dark insides of circuit breakers and DVD players cozy and inviting, or whether they are “actually attracted to the electricity itself”.

     One of the pleasures of Jon Mooallem’s article is how well he understands the existential distress that invasive species inflict on their human neighbors.  He writes:

“This is what’s soul-crushing about crazy ants: what wafts off them is the same faintly nihilistic feeling that comes the moment you realize hammering the pound sign won’t connect you with a human being and only funnels you back to the same automated instructions.”

     It’s the realization that no one is in charge.

     This is a feeling I know well, because I have spent some time in rural Pennsylvania, where I have become acquainted with the brown marmorated stink bug, which I would personally nominate for most unnerving invasive species.  The brown marmorated stink bug, Halyomorpha halys, is an asian insect, introduced to the US some time in in the 1990’s (the first specimen was collected in 1998 in Allentown, PA).

Brown Marmorated Stink Bug

     I really, really dislike brown marmorated stink bugs.  In fact, the amount of upset the brown marmorated stink bug causes me is clearly out of proportion to the actual discomfort they cause me.  They don’t sting, they don’t bite, they only stink when you harass them, and I don’t even smell them – I am one of the lucky few who can’t.  I am told they smell like vomit.

     So, truthfully, my intense aversion to brown marmorated stink bugs stems not from their physical effect; rather, it is from their psychological effect.  These stink bugs creep slowly, inexorably, across window screens and ceilings.  Their pace makes them trackable – you watch them progress minutely, inevitably, around your home.  In warm weather, they come out by the thousand.  A change in the wind, and your windows fill with them; they block out the light with their ambling, shield-shaped bodies.  They can fly, and when they do, they are clumsy and loud, and they might land on you.  You sit, and eat dinner, or read, or watch T.V., alert always to the whirring, clicking sound they make in flight.  You’re safe while it’s going on, but beware when it stops, because that might mean one has alighted on you, and has begun a bovine march across your back, or on your head, or once, horribly, along the rim of my glasses.  They crawl on you while you sleep, into your pillow and between the sheets.

     You can’t kill them all.  I have wandered around the house with a fly-swatter, smashing them by the dozen; I have sucked them indiscriminately into vacuum cleaners, and yet they keep coming, wave-like.  They are nightmarish.  They elicit in me a wild desire to extinction, a scorched-earth wish.  I fantasize about a pesticide bomb.  I become a frenzied machine of insect death.  It would be cathartic, but they keep on coming.  They beat me every time.

 Image taken from Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experimentation Station.