Worlds of sci-fi and horror collide in Predators'
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By Lewis Beale
Bacon and eggs. Stripes and solids. Lennon and McCartney. All perfect matches. And at the multiplex, there's at least one combo that can't be beat:
Science fiction and horror.
That's right. If you're looking for a solid case of the creepy-crawlies, nothing tops a flick in which some extraterrestrial slime thing is chasing a humanoid around a space ship, isolated Earth outpost or hostile planet. Like in "Predators," opening Friday, in which killer Earthlings are dropped on a distant orb and find that they're nothing more than chum for some nasty-looking ETs.
The "Predator" movies are "an evolution out of 'Alien'; the difference is that 'Predator' is us," says Scott Allie, editor of the "Predators" comic book series. "'Alien' is just a killing machine, and we don't presume it has any intelligence. The Predator is more physically dangerous than us, and they might be more resourceful. They do what we do, and they might be better than us."
"There are a lot of things (the Predators do) that compare to us," says "Predators" director Nimrod Antal. "They take trophies, which make them materialists. In our film, we explore another facet of the predator universe, and that is predators killing predators. And as human beings, we are really great at killing one another. They also hunt, which taps into our most primordial common denominator."
In other words, they might be a little like us, but the Predator is one scary off-worlder. And the feeling we're up against an implacably hostile alien force we can't communicate with is at the core of sci-fi horror.
Certainly that's been the case since 1898, when H.G. Wells' "The War of the Worlds" jump-started the genre. In that book, Martians arrive on Earth, destroy everything they see and are only defeated when they prove defenseless not against our man-made weapons, but Earthborn viruses.
Science fiction and horror "both deal with the unknown, and science fiction tries to show the unknown within a rational framework," says Rob Latham, editor of the scholarly Journal of Science Fiction Studies. "Horror tends to push it in the direction of the unknown that's menacing or horrible. Some of the most famous science-fiction novels have horror elements to them."
The whole concept of formerly unknown ETs coming out of nowhere and causing harm "has to do with the sense of being afraid of someone with more power than we have," adds Eric Rabkin, a University of Michigan English professor and author of "Mars: A Tour of the Human Imagination."
"And if they can come to us," he adds, "that's different than when we go to them. If they can get to us, they have more power than we do. We've always looked at things this way."
But sci-fi horror is not just about terror. Ever since what is arguably the first science-fiction novel, "Frankenstein," which deals with issues like what it means to be human, the sci-fi-horror combo has also served as a metaphor for our deepest fears and desires. In the 1950s, for example, post-bomb concerns translated into a distrust of science, as seen in movies like "Them!" (giant mutated ants) and "Godzilla" (another atomic mutant).
Fast-forward to the "Alien" series, and you get what Latham refers to as "body horror" concerns, in which "there's a lot of body anxiety - the alien will get inside you, it will invade you."
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These movies also "deal with sexual issues," Rabkin adds. In "Aliens," ''Sigourney Weaver's character is a mother fighting another mother over the future of mankind."
"There's a lot of anxiety in the second alien movie about reproduction," Latham says. "It's the good mother Ripley who will defend the little girl against this evil alien mother. There's a lot of slime, which clearly has to do with body processes. And when Ripley has a nightmare that the alien is bursting out of her, it's almost like birth."
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Like the "Alien" series, the "Predator" films play with metaphor. The first, released 12 years after the end of the Vietnam War, takes place "in the jungle, and we're fighting an enemy we can't see," Rabkin says. "During this time, Americans have started to pay real attention to what was going on in Vietnam. By the time we get to 'Predator,' we have seen footage of troops walking around and not knowing what hit them."
But, Antal says, the appeal of the Predator is more elemental than a military metaphor. "When we sit down and say, 'Let's make a list of monsters,' vampires, zombies and werewolves are forever on that list," he says. But after seeing the first "Predator" film, it was obvious "We were in the midst of a classic. We had seen a monster step in, introduce himself and forever take his place in the monster rogues gallery. We were among greatness, and that's what brings you back."
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Ultimately, these films all come down to that most elemental fear, of things that go bump in the night. Factor in some drooling, scaly creature from another world, and you've got the perfect fright- night entertainment.
"Science fiction explores the unknown," Allie says. "The oldest and strongest emotion is fear, and the strongest fear is the fear of the unknown, and that's at the heart of horror. Life on other worlds is the ultimate question mark for us. With such a giant question, it's natural that our brains go to dark places."
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EXTRAORDINARY EXTRATERRESTRIAL TERROR
Interested in a heavy dose of extraterrestrial terror? Check out these movies:
"The War of the Worlds" (1953) and "War of the Worlds" (2005) - H.G. Wells' 1898 novel is basically the wellspring from which all outer-space terror emerged. This tale of killer Martians who invade Earth has been filmed for both TV and the movies, and was adapted by Orson Welles for a 1938 radio broadcast that created a nationwide panic. Both film versions are solid, but the '50s edition is filled with post-bomb paranoia and won an Oscar for special effects.
"Alien" (1979) - Any film that features a slime thing popping out of a guy's chest ... Hoo ha! If this isn't one of the scariest movies of all time, then what is?
"Aliens" (1986) - Well, maybe this is. Featuring Sigourney Weaver in her Oscar-nominated role as the indomitable Ripley, director James Cameron's truly creepy flick is that rare thing, a sequel better than the original.
"The Thing From Another World" (1951) and "The Thing" (1982) - Scientists on an Arctic outpost discover a spaceship that has crash landed, and have to deal with its occupant, a deadly ET. The original is more thoughtful, pitting macho military types against scientists who want to make contact with the visitor. But director John Carpenter's remake is a glorious bucket of blood, with really gruesome effects.
"Predator" (1987) - A military team sent to rescue some hostages in the Latin American jungle finds itself stalked by a killer off-world life-form. Features the super-macho cast of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers and Jesse ("I ain't got time to bleed") Ventura.
"Pitch Black" (2000) - A cargo ship carrying a dangerous criminal is forced to crash land on a desert planet. When the planet's three suns go into eclipse, the survivors are attacked by predatory, batlike creatures. Talk about things that go bump in the night.
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